World leaders and delegates who participated in the recent 2015 United Nations climate change conference welcomed the agreement forged there with cheers and joyful tears. But does the agreement offer Catholics attentive to the moral teachings of their Church reason to cheer?
The U.N. conference, held in Paris from Nov. 30 to Dec. 11, resulted in a consensus agreement by the 196 attending nations on steps to reduce climate change. To become legally binding, at least 55 countries that together represent at least 55 percent of global greenhouse emissions must now agree to it and begin the process of adopting it into their own legal systems. The intended result is to limit global warming to less than 2 degrees Celsius compared to pre-industrial levels, since most scientists agree that passing such a threshold would have disastrous consequences for human civilization and for the planet.
Pope Francis quickly acknowledged the importance of the agreement and called for a “unanimous commitment and generous dedication by everyone” to implement it. But his brief words were barely what could be called a victory lap for a pope who has not only made care for the environment a central theme of his pontificate but who worked in advance to impact the U.N. conference talks. Does he have reason to be satisfied with the outcome? And how does the agreement square with his own approach and teaching?
‘Strong step forward’
“The Holy Father surely sees this as a very strong step forward. He would applaud the agreement,” Bishop Oscar Cantú of Las Cruces, New Mexico, told Our Sunday Visitor. Bishop Cantú has been active in promoting care for the environment in his role as chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on International Justice and Peace.
“The pope has worked hard to teach us that the environment is the common good of all. No one owns it. The Paris agreement certainly shares in this conviction,” he said.
The pope has offered his environmental teaching in a variety of ways over his nearly three-year pontificate, starting from its first moments, when he explained his choice of the name Francis to reporters just days after his election as pope. “For me,” he said, “[Saint Francis] is the man of poverty, the man of peace, the man who loves and protects creation. These days we do not have a very good relationship with creation, do we?”
The pope’s efforts to motivate world leaders to significant action in the months prior to the U.N. conference were clear. He authorized a major Vatican conference on climate change held last July. He directly addressed environmental concerns in a historic September 2015 speech to the U.N. General Assembly, which featured the largest single gathering of world leaders. There, he asserted the existence of a “right of the environment,” resulting from its nature as a “fundamental good” of creation. Most notably, of course, Pope Francis published his historic encyclical, Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home, in June 2015.
Though several of his predecessors, especially Pope St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, had also insisted on care for the environment as a fundamental moral matter, Laudato Si’ was the first papal encyclical dedicated to the topic.
“Laudato Si’ made care for the environment a moral issue in the eyes of the world, not just a technical or a scientific one,” said Austen Ivereigh, author of “The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope” (Henry Holt, $30). “Francis insists it’s a basic moral issue of our time, and so for our leaders to have done nothing [at the Paris conference] would have been perceived as a massive moral failure.”
“History was staring [the world’s leaders] in the face. That had everything to do with Francis and Laudato Si’,” Ivereigh said.
Ignoring the roots
But to say that Pope Francis would approve of the agreement does not mean it’s a mirror image of his own approach to the issue — or even that he thinks it offers the most effective remedy to the problems that face us. For one thing, said theology professor David Cloutier, the Paris agreement ignores what Francis perceives to be a constituting factor to the problem of climate change. Cloutier teaches at Mount St. Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, Maryland, and is the author of “Reading, Praying, Living Pope Francis’s Laudato Si’: A Faith Formation Guide” (Liturgical Press, $12.95).
“Consumerism, not to mention the capitalism that drives it, was not mentioned in Paris. There was no interest in acknowledging a key aspect of Laudato Si’, which is that our own excessive lifestyles drive this problem,” Cloutier told OSV. “Rather, there was just the hope that we can hold the same aspirations to such lifestyles but just power them in a different way.”
“Francis, on the other hand, is interested most in shifting people’s imaginations to consider how we might live differently in the world,” he added.
“Even if Paris succeeds, it’s only a part of what Francis is calling for — a minor part, in fact. It’s really about the way we look at the world: patterns of consumption and of corruption,” he said.
The Paris agreement has not been without criticism from some Catholics. Some have questioned the science that says climate change is a problem in the first place. And at least one pro-life organization has suggested that the pope’s support for the agreement is misplaced.
The traditionalist group Voice of the Family contends that the Paris agreement’s call, in one clause, for each nation to respect and promote “gender equality” and “empowerment of women” is really code for the promotion of abortion. For this reason, the organization insists, Catholics and the pope ought to reject it.
Cloutier cautions against reading these terms through an ideological lens.
“Gender equality and empowerment of women are Catholic values,” he said. “We could support that with copious citations, chapter and verse, from papal encyclicals and the catechism. So we needn’t be overly suspicious of the terms.”
Acknowledging that the governments involved in the Paris agreement bring varying moral convictions, some of which are opposed to Church teaching, Ivereigh warned against an “ideological purity that is so great that it becomes completely impossible to engage with the world at all.”
There is no question, he said, that “Francis presents a very strong challenge to liberal ecologists, not least because he insists you can’t solve climate change with population control.”
Of course, implementation of the agreement is yet to begin and is, in fact, far from guaranteed.
Failure on this step would bring all of Francis’ efforts to naught.
Barry Hudock is the author of “Struggle, Condemnation, Vindication: John Courtney Murray’s Journey toward Vatican II” (Liturgical Press, $19.95).