On Laudato Deum: a Reflection (Part 1)
Pope Francis’ new exhortation Laudato Deum has been spun negatively by some critics and embraced enthusiastically by climate activists, Catholic and secular alike.
In it, Francis builds upon his groundbreaking 2014 pastoral letter Laudato Si’, lauded by both faith and science communities for urgently addressing climate change. Laudato Si’ has also been decried by those who doubt the human origins of climate change and believe the Catholic Church shouldn’t speak out on the issue. In Laudato Deum, he assertively intervenes in the public sphere just ahead of the Synod meetings to assess progress — and lack thereof — on efforts to reduce climate change and address its worse effects. He argues for immediate governmental and intergovernmental commitment to new targets for reducing carbon emissions.
Given current polarization of American society, the controversy surrounding Laudato Deum has been entirely predictable — unlike the statement itself, which breaks new ground that will be important for the climate change debate raging today and beyond.
It matters that the Catholic Church has chosen to forge ahead in calling for urgent action against climate change and to stop public policies and corporate practices driving ecological destruction. Pope Francis took much heat for clearly naming the realities of climate change as a threat to humanity, for his embrace of a whole-world ecological view of reality, and for his articulation of a spirituality that links ecological consciousness and “integral human development.” Integral human development is Catholic-speak for an approach to economic development, public policy, faith formation, and education that is centered on the whole human person and the communities in which the person is shaped, including economic and political systems.
In Laudato Deum, Pope Francis doubles down on that commitment, reiterating that the challenge remains urgent. He also places climate change near the center of Catholic understanding of the “signs of the times” today, and sees the Holy Spirit calling Catholics and all people to act to address it. The Church is clearly going to forge ahead on this terrain, despite climate denialism and the attack of skeptics.
Pope Francis has chosen to intervene very publicly and directly in a key contemporary policy.
But the implications of Laudato Deum go beyond the climate change debate. Two things in particular stand out:
First, Pope Francis has chosen to publicly intervene in a key contemporary policy debate — and to do so unambiguously, devoid of the vague principles and generic statements characterizing some Catholic commentary on public issues. Clearly, he has judged the impacts of climate change — current and foreseen — to be such a threat to the ecological basis for life that they constitute the kind of grave moral issue that the Church has always believed itself called to address. So he has shed the frequent Catholic reticence to weigh in on issues perceived as “political” in a partisan sense, instead writing with the clarity and urgency that the Church has historically adopted for what it sees as existential threats: direct governmental attacks on the Church, attacks on the sanctity of life, the threat of nuclear war, anti-Catholic bias and genocide.
He has judged the impacts of climate change — current and foreseen — to be such a threat to the ecological basis for life that they constitute the kind of grave moral issue that the Church has always believed itself called to address.
In a political sense, the Catholic voice on climate change will not vastly change the power dynamics that shape immediate governmental policies on energy and the environment. However, in a moral sense, this assertive Catholic public stance — alongside similar assertiveness from other religious and spiritual traditions, indigenous communities, scientists and thought leaders — may shift the cultural terrain on which political dynamics are forged. In that sense, the ‘soft power’ of moral and spiritual suasion may ultimately matter greatly for the ‘hard power’ dynamics of politics.
Second, Laudato Deum breaks important new ground in official Vatican approaches to science. Since the scandals around the Catholic Church’s condemnation of early modern astronomers — and the intellectual humiliation of being proven simply wrong on the science — the Church has been wary of being “caught out” as wrong on scientific questions. To be clear, the broad Catholic intellectual tradition has remained deeply engaged in scientific, philosophical and social scientific debates of all kinds — behind the scenes. But papal teaching has been cautious — sometimes to the point of undercutting its own voice on important issues.
Laudato Deum breaks important new ground in official Vatican approaches to science.
In my judgment, Pope Francis in Laudato Deum successfully avoids prejudging scientific details that remain debatable surrounding climate change. But he actively embraces the contemporary science of climate change where something close to scientific consensus has emerged — which covers most of the terrain important for informing current public policy debates. The science and the immediately visible changes to the climate simply place beyond doubt (in the Pope’s judgment) the idea that urgent and bold action must be taken. And he builds from that premise to argue for specific actions and goals in broad strokes.