Tending Creation

05.03.15 4:01 AM ET

Will Climate Change Split the Church?

American conservatives may freak out over Pope Francis’ environmental message, but they’re out of touch with the mood among global Catholics.

Later this summer, Pope Francis will release his encyclical on the environment and human ecology. While Francis’s predecessors Benedict XVI and John Paul II regularly spoke on environmental issues, this will be the first papal document to focus on the relationship between human beings and creation.

A historic meeting at the Vatican this week on climate change and sustainable development suggests climate change—and, more importantly, humanity’s role in the destruction of the planet—are going to be key features of the encyclical’s message.

This comes as unwelcome news to skeptics who deny that global warming is man-made. The encyclical isn’t even out yet and at least one climate-change-denying conservative group has claimed that the Pope has been misled and misinformed.

As a result, media commentators are already speculating about whether or not the issue of climate change will be a schismatic one for the Roman Catholic Church. If Francis pushes too hard on the issue, some claim there could be a new polarization in the church.

To help muddle through the issues, I discussed politics, the environment, and Francis’s forthcoming encyclical with Dr. Christiana Peppard, author of Just Water and a specialist in environmental ethics who teaches in the theology department at Fordham University.

Break out your crystal ball for me, what do you think the encyclical will say?

Many people are focusing on the document as a "climate encyclical." Surely it will address climate change, and that’s crucial. But it will be about morality, not just science—or what I like to say are the values needed in relation to scientific facts and contemporary global political economy.

The term “integral ecology” will probably figure into the encyclical, which I see as Francis’ distinctive way of talking about how economic development must be oriented towards the quality of relationships—among humans, of course, but also between humans and the earth. 

When Benedict talked about ecology he linked the degradation of the environment with—what he saw as disordered—sexual orientation. Can we expect more of the same from Francis?

I doubt it—he’s more likely to take a structural lens, and to condemn greed and throwaway cultures and sexual trafficking.

Those who would like to see a sexual revolution in the Church’s teachings on contraception will most likely be disappointed. The papal legacies leading up to this ecology encyclical suggest a focus on consistent “ethic of life” teachings. We might hear about the human right to a clean, healthy environment; in fact, the Vatican has already referred to fresh water as a “right to life issue” but we probably won’t hear about rights to choose birth control.

Speaking of birth control, or lack of it, is there a tension between Catholic teachings on contraception and the family and Francis’s position on the environment? 

Population debates are where sexual, social, and environmental ethics collide in vexed ways. [But] Pro-life stances are not always pro-natalist. Historical papal statements suggest the virtue of prudence in family planning. [And] from a sociological vantage point, it’s pretty clear that many Catholics choose to use birth control when given the option. 

Some might say that providing iPads and sweet sixteen cars for wealthy consumerist Western babies will unduly burden the planet. Isn’t population control an issue?

Yes, it’s a huge factor. But let’s be clear: not all people around the world are equally resource-consumptive. In fact, viewed from the angle of consumptive impact, it would be super-developed countries like the U.S. that need to slow our reproductive rates in order to be proportionate consumers of the earth’s goods. Blaming “population” in general can be pernicious because it’s a way to make the problem seem “out there” (with rapidly reproducing groups) than to take a self-critical look at our own patterns of consumption. 

Get The Beast In Your Inbox!
By clicking "Subscribe," you agree to have read the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy
Thank You!
You are now subscribed to the Daily Digest and Cheat Sheet. We will not share your email with anyone for any reason

What about issues that irk conservatives? Namely, human responsibility. Can we expect Francis to stress the issue of manmade climate change or will he shy away from the issue?

Up until a few weeks ago, I was skeptical that he’d hit hard on anthropogenic climate change. After several Vatican statements [by Cardinal Peter Turkson and the Pontifical Academy of Sciences], I’m willing to say that I think he will push hard on it! Not only do I now think he’ll affirm scientific consensus: I think he’ll mince no words in stipulating how “super-developed,” industrialized countries like the U.S. bear a lion’s share of the responsibility for anthropogenic climate change and thus—crucially—for its remediation. He’s not going to let anyone off the hook, nor is he going to get sucked in to U.S.-style partisan antics. He’s got bigger scope and is not (a) servant to election cycles, fiscal quarters, or industry lobbies.

Bravo il Papa, but are there any risks for Francis in engaging this particular issue in this way? Many media commentators worry about Francis’s relationship with the political and religious right.

I don’t think Francis cares very much what most American pundits and lobbyists think. You know, all the rhetoric about whether he’ll “break the Church,” or is somehow under the misguided spell of Al Gore … is a form of self-justifying navel gazing. It universalizes a very particular, biased American vantage point; and in so doing, it misses the moral point about planetary interdependence across time and space. Catholic also means “catholic,” as in “everyone,” not just “white American male pundits.”

Have any of those commentators happened to ask people in, say, the Philippines what they think about the Pope’s anticipated teachings on ecology, or whether they feel that he might break the Church by talking about climate change? Because guess what: [people] have been talking about climate change and environmental degradation as moral responsibilities and theological issues for over a decade. As one Filipino colleague said to me in mid-April: “Of course, it makes sense.”

Beyond the politics of this, is there anything important that you think really needs to be on the table here?

I see Francis’ amplification of Catholic environmental ethics as the latest iteration of the Catholic Church’s long history of navigating the relationship between scientific knowledge and theological tradition. That legacy is multifaceted, of course. But when the Pope and Pontifical Academy of Sciences take science and scientists seriously, it’s a legacy that I look forward to watching unfold. Forty years from now I think we will look back on this time as a cognitive-moral revolution of its own kind, one for which denialism and inaction constitute moral failures. 

I assume you mean if we have a planet to look back upon. Otherwise we can all play “I told you so” in heaven.