Should Catholics Follow the Pope on Climate Change?

June 1, 2017

President Trump once tweeted that the “concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.” [1] One year and one month later he tweeted that global “warming is a total, and very expensive, hoax!” [2] It is not surprising, therefore, that he was the lone holdout in the latest G7 summit on the issue of climate change, where he “refused to endorse a global climate change accord, saying he needed more time to decide.” [3]

In this respect, the United States stands alone. The six other G7 “leaders reaffirmed their commitment to the Paris accord, the world’s first comprehensive deal aimed at reducing greenhouse emissions.” [4] The U.S. refused to commit, however, and a final decision is expected sometime this week.

As of this writing, a final decision has not been reached. But the fact that withdrawing from the Paris accord would even be considered is concerning. The climate isn’t ours to do with as we wish. On the contrary, as Pope Francis said in his encyclical, Laudato si’, the “climate is a common good, belonging to all and meant for all.” (Sec. 23) [5] To take a stance that would damage the climate for everyone around the world, and for future generations, is no less an invasion of the rights of other nations and peoples than if we launched an invasion.

There are still some, of course, who persist in their denial of anthropogenic global warming. But, as the Holy Father has explained to us, a “very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climatic system.” (sec. 23) Moreover, a “number of scientific studies indicate that most global warming in recent decades is due to the great concentration of greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrogen oxides and others) released mainly as a result of human activity.” (Sec. 23)

This is no small problem.

“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. For example, changes in climate, to which animals and plants cannot adapt, lead them to migrate; this in turn affects the livelihood of the poor, who are then forced to leave their homes, with great uncertainty for their future and that of their children. There has been a tragic rise in the number of migrants seeking to flee from the growing poverty caused by environmental degradation. They are not recognized by international conventions as refugees; they bear the loss of the lives they have left behind, without enjoying any legal protection whatsoever.” (Sec. 25)

But these developments have not engendered the human concern that might be expected. “Sadly, there is widespread indifference to such suffering, which is even now taking place throughout our world. 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.” (Sec. 25) And it is precisely this level of indifference toward which American policy is headed, unless there is a change of course.

Unfortunately, notwithstanding the clear position taken by the Holy Father in this matter, there are a number of Catholics who feel no obligation to abstain from climate change denialism. Even though Pope Francis has made his position clear in Laudato si’, there are many Catholics who are taking the position that the this is one area in which the Holy Father need not be heeded. Interestingly, many of these are the same people who would call into question the Catholic sincerity of anyone who opposed Pope Paul VI’s teaching on artificial birth control contained in his encyclical, Humanae Vitae.

While it is true that Laudato si’ does not appear to contain any ex cathedra utterance so as to render any part of it infallible as to faith and morals, this does not justify lack of adherence on the part of any Catholic. Our Catholic faith should not be approached with such a minimalist spirit. Lumen Gentium, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, a document of the Second Vatican Council promulgated by Pope Paul VI, and, therefore, itself infallible as to faith and morals, says this on the subject:

“Bishops, teaching in communion with the Roman Pontiff, are to be respected by all as witnesses to divine and Catholic truth. In matters of faith and morals, the bishops speak in the name of Christ and the faithful are to accept their teaching and adhere to it with a religious assent. This religious submission of mind and will must be shown in a special way to the authentic magisterium of the Roman Pontiff, even when he is not speaking ex cathedra; that is, it must be shown in such a way that his supreme magisterium is acknowledged with reverence, the judgments made by him are sincerely adhered to, according to his manifest mind and will. His mind and will in the matter may be known either from the character of the documents, from his frequent repetition of the same doctrine, or from his manner of speaking.” (sec. 25) [6] 

Pope Francis has plainly manifested his acknowledgement of anthropogenic global warming, that it presents a serious problem for the human race, and that efforts should be made to do something about it. It is for Catholics, therefore, to acknowledge his supreme magisterium with reverence, and sincerely adhere to his teaching with religious assent. Attempting to deny that climate change is taking place, or that humans are instrumental in causing it, doesn’t meet that requirement.

It might be objected that the existence of anthropogenic global warming wasn’t an issue at the time of the Apostles, and, therefore, cannot possibly be a part of the Deposit of Faith. But this ignores the fact that papal authority goes not only to matters of fact, but also to morality. The harm that climate change threatens to bring upon the world’s most vulnerable populations, as well as future generations, presents ethical questions. Should we ignore the scientific consensus on this question, and do nothing to prevent the harm that is to be anticipated from such neglect? A simple application of the Golden Rule shows that the question should be answered in the negative.

The position on climate change thus far manifested by the Trump administration cannot be made to square with Catholic teaching. It must be opposed. And the president should be urged not to withdraw from the Paris accord.

Jack Quirk