Pope Francis on the Environment

When Catholic Pope Francis issued his latest encyclical titled, Praise Be, the Associated Press wrote, “Francis framed climate change as an urgent moral crisis…blaming global warming on an unfair, fossil-fuel based industrial model that harms the poor the most. The document…was a stinging indictment of big business and climate doubters.”

The encyclical, delivered June 18, contained over 37,000 words. Pope Francis allotted just over 1,300 words for a section titled “Pollution and Climate Change” – just over three percent of his remarks. If we analyzed his priorities in a word cloud, the term “climate change” is absent. That said, Pope Francis did address climate change. He condemned the modern world’s “throwaway culture,” an expression he also used to describe the modern scourge of abortion.

Unlike many of my conservative friends, I admire Pope Francis as a religious leader. Clearly, he seems to break the mold in many respects. But, while not Catholic myself, I don’t think he strays doctrinally from historic teachings. Granted, climate change is not an historic teaching. It’s not a topic we expect any church leader to address given its scientific basis. But his encyclical on the environment generally follows a solid tradition of Catholic teachings. Then again, Pope Francis is not my ecclesiastical leader and, if he were, perhaps I’d be more sensitive to his words.

What I do admire about Catholic teachings on social and political issues is their focus on the common good – a matter upon which free societies depend and a matter upon which most freedom-loving Utahns fail to grasp. The idea of the common good is actually easy to understand: Diverse people live together in community and must find acceptable, respectable and dignified ways to live in harmony.

Environmental issues provide great examples of the common good. In economic terms, pollution is an externality – that is, when one person pollutes, others can be affected – so we pass laws dealing with pollution. Of course, the challenge is to balance human autonomy and the common good. We could easily go to the extreme of seeing every human action as part and parcel of the common good. Likewise, we could justifiably argue that because anything can be considered the common good in a free society, the common good always should be subordinated to personal liberties, a view held by most freedom-loving Utahns. But that assumption is not only intellectually lazy, it would be wrong of us to think that way.

In his encyclical on the environment, Pope Francis cited the teachings of his very conservative predecessor Pope Benedict. He said, “Pope Benedict asked us to recognize that the natural environment has been gravely damaged by our irresponsible behavior. The social environment has also suffered damage. Both are ultimately due to the same evil: the notion that there are no indisputable truths to guide our lives, and hence human freedom is limitless. We have forgotten that ‘man is not only a freedom which he creates for himself. Man does not create himself. He is spirit and will, but also nature’. With paternal concern, Benedict urged us to realize that creation is harmed ‘where we ourselves have the final word, where everything is simply our property and we use it for ourselves alone. The misuse of creation begins when we no longer recognize any higher instance than ourselves, when we see nothing else but ourselves’.”

As a fellow conservative, I can’t argue with that sentiment, nor would I want to. A cornerstone of a free society is private property, but so too is virtue and a correct understanding of the common good. Like all other rights in a free society, private property is not absolute. Clearly a property owner does not have the right to construct a nuclear energy plant on his property independent of community concerns. Less clear but no less concerning is how a property owner maintains it within close proximity to his neighbors. I think all of us understand the point about the “environment” around us.

Admittedly, Pope Francis’s concerns about global warming seem a bit of a reach within his moral construct on the environment. But he’s entitled to his opinions.





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