A few weeks ago, we watched the movie, The Two Popes. It was a fictional account of the potential interactions of Pope Benedict and Pope Francis – before and after – each man became the Bishop of Rome, i.e., The Pope. Although fictionalized (because dialogue between the two principal individuals was never recorded), many believe the movie is consistent with the positions and philosophies of both individuals. I found it very informative and entertaining and later learned it has been nominated in several categories by The Golden Globe Awards. Seeing this movie reminded me that the Catholic Church has been in the news many times regarding climate change, e.g., recently when Pope Francis addressed the United Nations Climate Action Summit in September, 2019. In his 5-minute video message, Pope Francis emphasized the need for honesty, responsibility and courage.
Pope Francis isn’t the first person of faith to advocate that we need to take care of our planet. An article published last January by Aleteria entitled “5 saints to inspire us to take care of our planet” identifies St. Kateri Tekakwitha (1656-1680), St. Benedict of Nursia (480-543), Blessed Paul VI (1897-1978), Dorothy Day (Servant of God) (1897-1980), and Saint Francis of Assisi (1181-1226) as “saints” worthy of the title of this article. Each of these saints demonstrated care for the earth, whether through an understanding and love of the plants, the animals, or frugality in not taking more than your fair share – lest it be wasted. The most contemporary of these individuals spoke words that unfortunately have turned out to be prophetic. Pope Paul VI said, in 1971, that environmental degradation is one of the most pressing problems facing humanity and that: “Man is suddenly becoming aware that by an ill-considered exploitation of nature he risks destroying it and becoming in his turn the victim of this degradation.”
Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina became Pope Francis in March, 2013, selecting the papal name “Francis” in honor of Saint Francis of Assisi. He has been a consistent advocate for the planet and the poor, speaking often and directly. Coming from Argentina, he understands first hand the situation the poor of the world find themselves. In June, 2018, The Vatican released his most extensive statement regarding our need to take aggressive action to save our planet and its inhabitants. Entitled Laudato si’, (translated: Praise Be to You), subtitled: on care for our common home, this comprehensive statement, and plea, makes a detailed assessment of our current situation, its roots, and changes needed. It is much more than saying we need to reduce fossil fuels (although it does say this). It argues that excessive consumerism, irresponsible development, environmental degradation, and our “throwaway” culture – both for unwanted items, and people – are an affront to our basic values. It further argues it is time for an overhaul and fundamental changes are needed in our society – particularly increased emphasis for the common good instead of individual self-gratification.
This was the second encyclical authored by Pope Francis but the first solely attributed to him. His first encyclical was largely written by his predecessor, Benedict XVI. So in Pope Francis’ first statement, in Laudato si’, he make this appeal, not only to his followers, but to the world:
The urgent challenge to protect our common home includes a concern to bring the whole human family together to seek a sustainable and integral development, for we know that things can change. (13) Regrettably, many efforts to seek concrete solutions to the environmental crisis have proved ineffective, not only because of powerful opposition but also because of a more general lack of interest. (14) He describes our current situation of pollution, waste, our throwaway culture, and warming’s effect on the carbon cycle: Climate change is a global problem with grave implications: environmental, social, economic, political and for the distribution of goods. It represents one of the principal challenges facing humanity in our day. (25) He points out: Many of those who possess more resources and economic or political power seem mostly to be concerned with masking the problems or concealing their symptoms, simply making efforts to reduce some of the negative impacts of climate change. (26) In the meantime, economic powers continue to justify the current global system where priority tends to be given to speculation and the pursuit of financial gain, which fail to take the context into account, let alone the effects on human dignity and the natural environment. (56) Finally, we need to acknowledge that different approaches and lines of thought have emerged regarding this situation and its possible solutions. (60) On many concrete questions, the Church has no reason to offer a definitive opinion; she knows that honest debate must be encouraged among experts, while respecting divergent views. But we need only take a frank look at the facts to see that our common home is falling into serious disrepair. Hope would have us recognize that there is always a way out, that we can always redirect our steps, that we can always do something to solve our problems. Still, we can see signs that things are now reaching a breaking point, due to the rapid pace of change and degradation; these are evident in large-scale natural disasters as well as social and even financial crises, for the world’s problems cannot be analyzed or explained in isolation. (61)
The above excerpts were drawn from the first chapter of the encyclical. The entire 184-page document provides further detail and evidence of the situation, its causes, and the need for urgent action. It is a remarkable document, well worth the read – for all. There are many shorter summaries of the Laudato si’ including Wikipedia and Bill McKibben’s August 13, 2015 review in The New York Review of Books entitled The Pope and the Planet but again, the richness of the writing invites the reading of the actual text of Laudato si’.
Pope Francis continues to advocate for humanity and the planet. In December, 2019, he sent a message to the U.N. Climate Change Conference, being held in Madrid, in which he called on the current generation of international leaders and regular citizens to act, rather than allow the burden to fall on the next generations. Specifically:
- “We are facing a ‘challenge of civilization’ in favor of the common good and of a change of perspective that places this same dignity at the center of our action.”
- “We should give them (the next generation) the opportunity to remember our generation as the one that renewed and acted on — with honest, responsible and courageous awareness — the fundamental need to collaborate in order to preserve and cultivate our common home.”
- “May we offer the next generation concrete reasons to hope and work for a good and dignified future.”
The movie, The Two Popes, provides an illustration of different perspectives within the church. Pope Benedict is seen as the more conservative leader while Pope Francis is viewed as more progressive. As within our society, each perspective is valid, albeit different. Let us hope the head of the world’s largest religious denomination can inspire all of us to engage in an honest debate regarding climate change and take the steps necessary to save our planet.