The Pope & The Planet
Pope Francis is on his first United States tour and his message is clear: climate protection is not an issue to be left to future generations; we must act now. But will the Pontiff be able to change the hearts and minds of citizens as well as turn the tides of corporate greed and systemic corruption that continue to fuel climate change?
Currently, nearly 1 in every 5 humans ascribe to the Catholic faith and roughly 1 in 3 people consider themselves Christian. Whether or not you are of Christian faith, if you are alive today (and I assume you are, since you’re reading this), you have been touched by Vatican repercussions.
A Brief History of Papal Influence
Since the fall of the Roman Empire, the Roman Catholic church has endured and wielded tremendous power throughout Europe and the rest of the globe. Thomas Hobbes, a 17th century English philosopher, is famously quoted as saying:
The Papacy is not other than the Ghost of the deceased Roman Empire, sitting crowned upon the grave thereof.
While Hobbes certainly did not mean that as a compliment, his description of papal prowess definitely has validity. During the Middle Ages, popes crowned kings and deposed them, initiated religious wars and commissioned beautiful art and architecture, stamped out pagan religions and established Christianity far and wide. Later on, monarchial conflict with the Vatican lead to formations of new branches of Christianity and eventually westward expansion of Christianity and colonization of the Americas. Without the Roman Catholic church and its prodigious clout, Christianity might not have endured through two millennia, much less become the chosen faith of nearly a third of our species.
In recent history as well, popes have played substantial roles in global politics. During the first World War, Pope Benedict XV called widely for peace and an end to nationalism, racism, and classism. He encouraged Catholics to vote and join trade unions (activities that were discouraged or forbidden under previous papacies), and he worked to help reunite prisoners of war with their families, spending large sums on relief efforts. During WWII, Pope Pius XII condemned fascism as “profoundly anti-Christian.” Although he was criticized for not doing more to stop the Holocaust because he feared German reprisal against Catholics, he did seek visas for European Jews to relocate to South America and Palestine (including more than 6,000 children), and he sheltered many refugees in the Vatican. His successor Pope Saint John XXIII intervened for peace in the Cuban missile crisis, and later, Pope Saint John Paul II was accredited with helping end the Cold War, with the late British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher proclaiming that it could not have been done without him. St. John Paul II also worked tirelessly to end apartheid in South Africa, to stop the Rwandan genocide, and to overthrow dictators in both Chile and Haiti.
To be fair, the influence of the papacy has not always been about peace and social good. The Vatican has been heralded as one of the most secretive and oppressive institutions in the world, especially in terms of colonization, religious intolerance, and sexuality. Many popes have spoken vehemently against abortion rights, women’s rights, contraception, and homosexuality, which has also had lasting influence in Christian societies. In the past two decades, the rise of the internet has challenged the lack of transparency within the Catholic church’s ranks, and they have been rocked by sex abuse scandals, most of which were poorly handled by Pope Benedict XVI. However, the papacy maintains an enormous following and enduring legacy for prompting societal change.
The Influence of Pope Francis
Then, along comes Argentine Jorge Mario Bergoglio, now known as Pope Francis, named after Saint Francis of Assisi, the patron of peace and the poor. Before becoming pope, he joined the Jesuit priesthood and became the “Slum Bishop” of Buenos Aires, ministering to impoverished communities with renowned humility and compassion. As pope he has carried forward his humble demeanor, discarding fancy vestments, the Apostolic Palace and the traditional golden throne, opting instead for plain clothes, a moderate apartment, and a white wooden chair. In one of his first acts, he visited a prison to wash the feet of Muslim and atheist prisoners, instead of choosing to wash the feet of other priests as his predecessors have done.
Additionally, the information age has served this Pope well. Pope Francis is one of the most influential public figures on Twitter, gaining more than 7 million followers since his Twitter debut in 2013. He broadcasts his messages of empathy and service to the world, and he resonates with Catholics and non-Catholics alike, with favorability rates in the US of 85%, according to a Pew Research Center poll.
Messages of The Holy See
Pope Francis has been actively engaged in public dialogue since he was elected. He has called for religious tolerance, inclusivity, and interfaith dialogue as well as communion with the sciences.
“And I believe in God, not in a Catholic God, there is no Catholic God, there is God and I believe in Jesus Christ, his incarnation. Jesus is my teacher and my pastor, but God, the Father, Abba, is the light and the Creator. This is my Being.” -Pope Francis, La Repubblica
“An attitude of openness in truth and in love must characterize the dialogue with the followers of non-Christian religions, in spite of various obstacles and difficulties, especially forms of fundamentalism on both sides. Inter-religious dialogue is a necessary condition for peace in the world, and so it is a duty for Christians as well as other religious communities.” -Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium
“The Church has no wish to hold back the marvelous progress of science. On the contrary, she rejoices and even delights in acknowledging the enormous potential that God has given to the human mind. Whenever the sciences — rigorously focused on their specific field of inquiry — arrive at a conclusion which reason cannot refute, faith does not contradict it.” -Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium
He has championed the poor and vulnerable and has denounced greed and materialism, even within the church.
“If we see someone who needs help, do we stop? There is so much suffering and poverty, and a great need for good Samaritans.” -@Pontifex
“If money and material things become the center of our lives, they seize us and make us slaves.” -@Pontifex
“The “throw-away” culture produces many bitter fruits, from wasting food to isolating many elderly people.” -@Pontifex
“Just as the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say “thou shalt not” to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills. How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points?” -Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium
“It hurts me when I see a priest or nun with the latest-model car. You can’t do this. A car is necessary to do a lot of work, but, please, choose a more humble one. If you like the fancy one, just think about how many children are dying of hunger in the world.” -Pope Francis, The Huffington Post
He has backed women in the church.
“It is necessary to broaden the opportunities for a stronger presence of women in the church.”
“The woman is essential for the church. Mary, a woman, is more important than the bishops. I say this because we must not confuse the function with the dignity. We must therefore investigate further the role of women in the church. We have to work harder to develop a profound theology of the woman. […] The feminine genius is needed wherever we make important decisions.” -Pope Francis, America
And he has taken a supportive, inclusive stance toward the LGBT community.
“A person once asked me, in a provocative manner, if I approved of homosexuality. I replied with another question: ‘Tell me: when God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person?’ We must always consider the person.” -Pope Francis, America
Pope Francis on Climate
Pope Francis has taken a particularly strong stance on caring for the environment and protecting our planet from climate change. He authored a first-ever climate and environment encyclical, Laudato Si, in which he addresses unchecked consumerism, air pollution, water conservation, loss of biodiversity, waste, inequality, the threat of climate change to the future of humanity, and the human roots of the present ecological crisis.
In the encyclical and in messages since, His Holiness has consistently linked issues of environment to economic inequality and consumerism. He has spoken out to create a “culture of care” for the planet and the poor and needy. He has clearly attributed global climate change to human causes, and he has insisted that spirituality can contribute to the healing of ecology alongside, not in opposition to, science.
“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. Its worst impact will probably be felt by developing countries in coming decades. Many of the poor live in areas particularly affected by phenomena related to warming, and their means of subsistence are largely dependent on natural reserves and ecosystemic services such as agriculture, fishing and forestry. They have no other financial activities or resources which can enable them to adapt to climate change or to face natural disasters, and their access to social services and protection is very limited.… If present trends continue, this century may well witness extraordinary climate change and an unprecedented destruction of ecosystems, with serious consequences for all of us.” -Pope Francis, Laudato Si.
“Care of creation is not just something God spoke of at the dawn of history: he entrusts it to each of us as part of his plan.” -@Pontifex
“I am aware that some people strongly refute the idea of a Creator on political or intellectual grounds, or consider it irrelevant. They even consider irrational the richness that religions can offer for a complete ecology and for the full development of humankind. Sometimes they suppose religions constitute a subculture that must simply be tolerated. However, science and religion, which offer different approaches to reality, can enter into an intense and productive dialogue with each other.” -Pope Francis, Laudato Si
On his first trip to the United States, Pope Francis did not delay in bringing up the pressing urgency of acting on climate change. In his first public appearance at the White House, he applauded President Obama’s Clean Power Plan, which seeks to cut carbon emissions in the energy industry and reduce air pollution. He went on to say:
“It seems clear to me also that climate change is a problem which can no longer be left to a future generation. When it comes to the care of our “common home”, we are living at a critical moment of history. We still have time to make the changes needed to bring about ‘a sustainable and integral development, for we know that things can change’ (Laudato Si, 13).”
The following day, the Pope addressed Congress and talked more about caring for our ‘common home’.
“In Laudato Si’, I call for a courageous and responsible effort to “redirect our steps” (ibid., 61), and to avert the most serious effects of the environmental deterioration caused by human activity. I am convinced that we can make a difference and I have no doubt that the United States — and this Congress — have an important role to play. Now is the time for courageous actions and strategies, aimed at implementing a “culture of care” (ibid., 231) and “an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature” (ibid., 139). “We have the freedom needed to limit and direct technology” (ibid., 112); “to devise intelligent ways of… developing and limiting our power” (ibid., 78); and to put technology “at the service of another type of progress, one which is healthier, more human, more social, more integral” (ibid., 112).” -Pope Francis, Address to US Congress
Then the following day in New York, addressing the UN, His Holiness made even stronger remarks on climate, calling for a recognized ‘right of the environment’.
Once again, Pope Francis named inequality, exclusion, materialism, and our ‘culture of waste’ as being connected to environmental destruction.
Hope from the Eco-Pope
Environmentalists have been encouraged by the Pope’s remarks in the US so far as well as his willingness to engage in diplomacy and climate dialogue with leaders and the public. Do we believe the Pope will be able to save the planet? Not by himself, he won’t. But fortunately, His Holiness recognizes this fact, too, and so he goes about his faithful service to the poor and the planet in both word and deed to inspire others to follow his lead, and trusts God to take care of the rest, just as great leaders of the past have done. I pray that his influence will be as mighty as his integrity, and his impact as substantial as his heart.