Climate change has long been the subject of scientific and political debate, but a missive released recently by Pope Francis has added morality to the fray.
The Pope issued what’s known as an encyclical—a papal statement of doctrine—in which he urged wealthy nations to take concrete actions to reverse climate change and begin paying the “grave social debt” incurred by over-consumption.
“The foreign debt of poor countries has become a way of controlling them, yet this is not the case where ecological debt is concerned,” the Pope wrote in Laudato Si’, which was released Thursday. “The developed countries ought to help pay this debt by significantly limiting their consumption of non-renewable energy and by assisting poorer countries to support policies and programmes of sustainable development.”
The Pope didn’t just call out rich and developed countries, but also strongly rebuked anyone who denies the impacts of climate change because it’s financially practical.
“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,” he wrote. “Our lack of response to these tragedies involving our brothers and sisters points to the loss of that sense of responsibility for our fellow men and women upon which all civil society is founded.”
The statement also deflected the idea that population control was one solution to climate woes, saying that “extreme and selective consumerism” was more to blame and focusing on population was “one way of refusing to face the issues.”
While the encyclical emphasizes the moral aspects of what the Pope termed an “ecological crisis,” it’s not without political import. Pundits point to its release ahead of the UN Climate Summit, scheduled to take place in Paris in December, as evidence of an attempt to influence the conversation.
Indeed, Cardinal Peter Turkson said in a news conference that the Pope feels dialogue is necessary to avoid climate decisions being formed in “an ideological, superficial or reductionist way,” according to The Guardian. For their part, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, World Bank President Jim Yong Kim, UN Climate Secretariat Head Christina Figueres and others have all issued statements welcoming the Pope’s opinion.
Not all responses have been positive, though. Perhaps predictably, conservative U.S. politicians have decried what they characterize as the Pope’s meddling in matters of policy and science. Presidential candidates, especially, have weighed in, with Catholic Republican Rick Santorum stating that the Church should “leave science to the scientists.” Jeb Bush, also a Catholic Republican, told Reuters that the Pope’s teachings “ought to be about making us better as people and less about things that end up getting into the political realm.”
Overall, though, political naysayers haven’t found much traction with the argument that the Pope is out of his milieu. Supporters, for instance, point out that the Pope is trained in chemistry and likely capable of scientific thought. As for his authority to speak on matters of economic concern, experts note that the encyclical addresses these issues from a social justice view of poverty and therefore does try to help people be better as people.
“The basic idea is, in order to love God, you have to love your fellow human beings, and you have to love and care for the rest of creation,” Vincent Miller, who holds a chair in Catholic theology and culture at the University of Dayton told the New York Times. “It gives Francis a very traditional basis to argue for the inclusion of environmental concern at the center of Christian faith.”
Regardless of the encyclical’s impact on policy, there is no denying that the writings of the Pope, who has the ear of an estimated 1.2 billion Catholics worldwide, will add a new facet to climate conversations and individual action—which was exactly the point.
“Humanity is faced with a crucial challenge that requires the development of adequate policies, which, moreover, are currently being discussed on the global agenda,” Turkson is quoted as saying by the New York Times. “Certainly, Laudato Si’ can and must have an impact on important and urgent decisions to be made in this area.”