I’m planning to do a series on how different religious organizations are responding to climate change. Because the Pope is about to issue a major statement on the subject, I’m starting with Catholicism.
In the United States, at least, climate sanity has become a solidly liberal issue; Democrats occasionally run on an emissions-reduction platform, but Republicans often run against even acknowledging the existence of climate change, while simultaneously espousing culturally conservative views, such as opposing same-sex marriage and abortion. There is no obvious reason why climate denial should have become allied with traditional gender roles, but that is how the historical chips have fallen. Because the Catholic Church is also culturally conservative on key points, someone who didn’t know better might assume that Church doctrine includes climate denial.
That someone would be wrong.
Catholic teaching on the subject of climate change goes back to January 1st, 1990, when Pope John Paul II delivered an address that framed environmental problems as an important threat to world peace. Although he did not use the words global warming or climate change, he specifically cited fossil fuels and unrestricted deforestation among factors harming the “atmosphere and the environment,” and went on to say “the resulting meteorological and atmospheric changes range from damage to health to the possible future submersion of low-lying lands.”
That’s pretty unambiguous, and the Pope’s address even came out before the First Assessment Report by the IPCCC.
The Pope’s address precipitated other statements by Church officials, including the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, in support of climate sanity and environmental action. Pope Benedict the XVI continued the tradition by speaking and writing on climate change extensively and by urging climate conference delegates to make progress in Rio in 2011.
The Church is not an anti-science body, its famously bad treatment of Galileo notwithstanding (the Church has since apologized for that, and hostilities could never have been as serious as one might suppose–Galileo’s older daughter, a nun, seems to have felt no conflict between her religion and her admiration of her father). The Vatican actually sponsors unfettered scientific inquiry, and the current Pope has made clear that there is no contradiction between Church teachings and foundational scientific theories, such as the big bang theory.
Perhaps more importantly, the Catholic Church has a deep and persistent commitment to the world’s poor. Pope Francis has now explicitly described climate change as a moral issue because of its impact on poor and otherwise disadvantaged humans. And he has given his considerable moral and political weight towards the success of the climate negotiations in Paris later this year.
American Catholics generally agree with the Pope about climate change and appreciate his leadership on the subject, according to polls. Individual churches are already getting involved in a variety of ways. A body called the Catholic Climate Covenant is working to educate Catholics on the subject and to get them involved. The pro-climate stance is not universal among Catholics–Rick Santorum is both a Catholic and a vocal climate denier, for example–but for better or worse, the Church is not a democracy. To a much greater degree than the other religions familiar to Americans, Catholic Christianity is proscriptive rather than descriptive; Catholic beliefs are what the Pope says they are, even if there are individual Catholics who believe something else. From what I have read about the Church and the current Pope, I do not think that belief in climate change itself has become a Catholic precept. Church leadership generally differentiates between matters of science and matters of religion, and they are probably aware that climate science is not a matter of belief anyway. Rather, the church acknowledges that disbelief in climate change (and the Big Bang, and evolution by natural selection) are not precepts of the Church. In any case, the meat of Catholic teaching on climate change is not that it is real but that it is a moral issue.
One hopes that, on this subject at least, the Church proves an able and powerful teacher.
Science and religion have long been estranged, with large pockets of suspicion on both sides. It is not difficult to find people who believe–incorrectly–that one cannot be both a Christian and a scientist (whether the same perception exists for other religions I do not know), and that scientific ideas and religious ideas are mutually exclusive. While there are, indeed, Christian denominations that do define themselves in these terms, and while there are a few vociferously atheistic scientists (notably Richard Dawkins), as a general rule, science and religion are not actually in conflict.
Religion and science do not conflict with each other because they do not operate in the same plane–they are different sides of a coin, different hands of a person, whatever metaphor you like. The job of science is to answer what? and the job of religion is to answer why? Functioning societies need some way to answer both types of question and neither question can stand in for the other. For example, if you don’t know whether a dog can suffer, then all the moral philosophizing in the world will not tell you whether it is ok to kick dogs. On the other hand, if you discover that dogs can suffer and you go ahead and kick them anyway, science can’t tell you to stop–although a scientist might, because scientists, being human, can think about morality as well. Religion is, among other things, a social structure for moral reasoning and instruction.
Science has informed us that human-caused climate change is real and that it hurts poor and persecuted people disproportionately. Pope Francis has joined his predecessors and colleagues in asserting that humans therefor have a moral obligation to stop changing the climate and to help the disadvantaged adapt to the change we have already committed ourselves to.