Climate Change and an Encyclical on the Environment

Fr. Seán McDonagh
At a news conference on board a plane on his way from Sri Lanka to the Philippines on January 15th 2015, Pope Francis said that he was convinced that global warming was “mostly” man-made and that man had “slapped nature in the face”. He expressed the hope that the upcoming Vatican encyclical – the most authoritative documents a pope can issue – on the environment, would encourage negotiators at the United Nations climate change conference in Paris in November to make courageous decisions to protect God’s creation.[1]
Francis is due to meet survivors of typhoon Haiyan, which the Philippine government has said was an example of the extreme weather conditions caused by global warming.
“I don’t know if [human activity] is the only cause, but mostly, in great part, it is man who has slapped nature in the face,” he said. “We have in a sense taken over nature.”[2]
Pope Francis linked his remarks to the failure of the the Lima UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) to address many thorny issues in relation to climate change, He plans to publish an encyclical on the environment in June or July 2015, which he hoped would help negotiators at the next UN Conference on Climate Change in Parish achieve an ambitious, equitable and legally binding treaty on climate change.
The meetings in Peru were nothing much, I was disappointed,” according to the Pope. “There was a lack of courage. They stopped at a certain point. We hope that in Paris the representatives have more courage to go forward.” [3]
I am sure that an encyclical on the environment would help focus attention on the destructive impact of human activity on God’s creation. Howoever, by far the most important part of the encyclical is that it develops a credible and adequate theology of creation. This is not as easy as it might appear because it means taking seriously modern sciences in developing a theology of creation, something which Rome has not done to date. In the past, the Catholic Church and other Christian Churches have often articulated their theologies of creation exclusively in biblical terms. In such a presentation, it appeared that the primary purpose of the natural world was to benefit humankind. This approach is no longer credible, because it ignores the extraordinary achievements of modern science.
One of the most important achievements of the past few centuries is the great flowering of rational enquiry which has given us a much better understanding of ourselves and the world around us. Science has facilitated this new knowledge through its fearless, unrestricted use of our God-given intelligence which enables us to delve deeper into the processes of nature in order to understand what is going on in the world which, of course, is God’s creation.
This new perspective on the universe which has emerged painstakingly from the scientific understanding of the natural world, challenges all human beings, and especially religious people, to move from an anthropocentric (exclusively for humin-centred) vision of creation, to a much broader one. It is worth stating that during the past two hundred years we have come to understand the composition of the world and the wider universe in a way that dwarfs our earlier understanding. Such a theology needs to be grounded in scientific knowledge about the immense and complex journey of the universe during its 13.7 billion-year story. It tells how over five billion years ago the solar system with its various planets came into being and evolved. Planet earth was positioned in such a strategic place in relation to the Sun that it alone of all the planets could become the only living planet in the solar system. The first glimmer of life stirred in the seas 3.8 billion years ago. This magnificent story has been articulated more clearly and comprehensively in its physical manifestation, by scientists, within their diverse disciplines over the past few decades.
To take one example, modern biology and genetics teaches us that we are related to all living creatures and when we call them kin, as St. Francis of Assisi did, we are not speaking metaphorically.
What I am suggesting here involves a Copernican-like revolution, but this is what is being clearly demanded by the new scientific knowledge of the past century and a half. Thus far no document from Rome has embraced this new vision our universe, solar system and earth. The Vatican’s option for the term human ecology which, at best, is a very questionable notion, if one understands the science of ecology, shows how reluctant Rome is to accept this paradigm shift. A possible reason for Rome’s reluctance to embrace a biocentric view of the world is the fear that might legitimize abortion and euthanasia. But one does not have to turn science on its head to defend the Catholic teaching on either of those issues.
We humans are challenged to see ourselves as an integral part of the world, nourished by our environment in body and in spirit. This does not mean denying our special role, but it does place us firmly within the wider natural world which is now under threat because of human activity. Human flourishing always takes place within thriving ecosystems. Hopefully, the encyclical will inspire Christians and all people of goodwill to respond generously to the plight of the poor and care for the earth.
[1] Alexandra Topping and agencies, “ Pope Francis: there are limits to freedom of expression,” January 15th 2015.
[2] ibid
[3] ibid

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  1. Donal Dorr says:

    Thanks, Sean, for this clear and strong articulation of the case for all of us taking the climate issue seriously. Keep up the good work.

  2. Judith Gibbons says:

    Thank you. We are called to be stewards of God’s creation. An encyclical on the subject is long overdue!

  3. Soline Humbert says:

    Thank you Teresa for drawing our attention to the inspiring and courageous witness of Sr Megan Rice.Sr Megan will be 85 on 31st January next,the very day of the 100th anniversary of Thomas Merton’s birth. She is certainly walking in his non-violent footsteps:
    “It is my intention to make my entire life a rejection of, a protest against the crimes and injustices of war and political tyranny which threaten to destroy the whole human race and the whole world. By my monastic life and vows I am saying NO to all the concentration camps, the bombardments, the staged political trials, the murders, the racial injustices, the violence and nuclear weapons. If I say NO to all these forces, I also say YES to all that is good in the world and in humanity.” (T.Merton)
    Thank God for courageous prophets, true disciples of our non-violent Christ.

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