Making the Catholic case for climate change action
Pope Francis strongly advocates for Catholics to take action aimed at countering climate change. (Image source: Wikimedia Commons.)

Making the Catholic case for climate change action

Why is a delegation from the Vatican attending the United Nations Climate Change Conference, COP26? The president of USC Dornsife’s Institute for Advanced Catholic Studies explains. [5¼ min read]
ByDouglas Morino

The big picture:

  • Vatican diplomats dispatched to the United Nations Climate Change Conference are expected to play an unusually active advocacy role.
  • Pope Francis issued his encyclical Laudato Sí in 2015, calling on people of faith to protect the planet and criticizing acts that harm the environment.
  • The pope’ stance as an outspoken advocate for protecting the planet is in keeping with the Catholic faith and is a growing focus of Catholic teaching, according to church leaders.

Among those converging in Glasgow, Scotland, this month for COP26, the United Nations Climate Change Conference, is a delegation from the Vatican. Pope Francis has been an outspoken advocate of environmental sustainability and ecological conservation. His encyclical Laudato Sí, published in 2015, criticizes consumerism, irresponsible development and environmental degradation while calling on Catholics and all people of faith to take action toward caring for our planet.

The Rev. Dorian Llywelyn, president of the Institute for Advanced Catholic Studies (IACS) at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, answered questions regarding the pope’s stance on climate change, caring for our common home and Catholic Social Teaching, which is the church’s doctrine on matters of human dignity and the common good.

What is the Catholic Church’s position on the environment and ecological conservation?

Environmental stewardship is part of Catholic Social Teaching (CST), which has three foundational principles: human dignity, solidarity and subsidiarity — the social organization principle that decisions should be made at the lowest possible level, but that some decisions require larger, concerted action.

A core tenet of CST is that caring for our common home is a universal, human responsibility, and that we should love and care for the ongoing work of creation that God has put in our hands to tend. We shouldn’t abuse creation.

How serious is the issue of climate change for Pope Francis personally?

Care for our common home has been one of the major themes of his pontificate. In speeches, sermons, prayers and writings, he’s emphasized the responsibility of Catholics to join in shared efforts to promote sustainability. He’s acutely aware that climate change affects the poorest countries and individuals disproportionately. 

Eastern Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew has become known as “The Green Patriarch” for his long-term support of environmental stewardship. In that regard, Pope Francis has shown himself to be Bartholomew’s equal.

The Pope’s Laudato Sí calling for environmental action received lots of attention when it was issued. What exactly is it and how has it been received in and outside the Catholic Church?

It’s an encyclical, which is a formal and often lengthy communication by the pope focused on an important element of Catholic teaching. My guess is that Laudato Sí: On Care for Our Common Home will be the best-remembered encyclical Pope Francis has written. 

On the whole, I think it spoke to many non-Catholics who were looking for significant communication from the Catholic Church on this issue. It is a very comprehensive document that deals with many topics, including environmentalism, and has positioned the Catholic Church as a leading advocate for sustainability. 

When it appeared, it was widely acclaimed by representatives of other faiths, and by secular bodies such as UNESCO [the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization].

Within the Catholic Church, it has met some criticism — specifically, the belief that the encyclical covers areas where Catholicism has no particular competence. But overall, most Catholics have welcomed it, even if they aren’t deeply familiar with the whole of its rich content.

Is Pope Francis the first pope to take a stance on protecting the environment?

I’d argue that lessons on the importance of protecting the environment are implicit in the first two chapters of Genesis. That’s how central it is to our faith. So, it’s no surprise that Pope Francis isn’t the first pope to spotlight this issue. In fact, Laudato Sí lavishly quotes the teaching of popes St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI on caring for the environment.

Pope Paul VI’s landmark 1967 encyclical “On the Development of Peoples” contains teaching about the relationship between justice and development, taking up a theme that already appeared in “Gaudium et Spes,” the Second Vatican Council’s major document on the church and the modern world. 

So Pope Francis is contributing to an evolving strand in Catholic teaching. That’s often the way doctrine grows — with the contributions of many minds and hands. Environmental conscience is one of the growth areas in Catholic teaching.

What is the significance of the Vatican sending a delegation to COP26?

Since the Holy See is a sovereign state, its representatives attend important meetings with political leaders. It even has permanent observer status at the U.N. In many respects, the Catholic Church, as a whole, is the largest social body in the world, with members in just about every nation — especially in the developing world. So, it’s appropriate for it be present in some way at COP26.

Vatican officials are often highly skilled diplomats and can be great bridge builders in conflicts. The church is a great convenor of people who wouldn’t normally spend time together. In all cases, the Vatican wants simply to accompany — to be part of the solution if it can, and never the cause of the problem. In this particular case, given the ecological commitment of Pope Francis, I’m guessing the Vatican will play more of an advocacy role than normal.

What role can secular academics and lay Catholics play in achieving the goals outlined in Laudato Sí and COP26?

Academics from a wide range of disciplines can, and should, use their expertise to keep the issues of sustainability front and center.

The Catholic Church doesn’t have its own autonomous blueprint for dealing with climate change and promoting sustainability. But our belief about what it is to be human, and the relationship between the Creator and creation, provides the reasons why Catholics should care about our common home and must support action that attempts to provide effective solutions to the climate crisis, for the sake of this generation and generations yet to be born.

As the world seeks solutions, informed, rational, and humble thinking is an important part of what Catholicism has to offer.