In his tenure as leader of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis has gained great popularity for bringing a modern spirit to a long-standing conservative institution. His unprecedented comments suggesting a tolerance of homosexuality, his condemnation of economic injustice, and official Twitter account have suggested a willingness to embrace twenty-first century change. But while many of Francis’s Catholic constituents and global admirers commend his suggestively liberal attitude, it has been met with less acclaim from more traditional Catholics and even non-Catholic conservatives who have appreciated the Church’s global authority as a conservative institution. This conservative sector is prepared to step up and contest the Pope’s latest concern tending toward liberal politics: climate change.
The Pope has joined the 97 percent of scientists who agree that human-induced climate change is a reality. On April 28, the Pontifical Academy of Sciences held a symposium on climate change in Rome and issued a statement entitled “Climate Change and the Common Good: A Statement of the Problem and Demand for Transformative Solutions.” The statement aims to build momentum for a highly anticipated encyclical that Pope Francis will deliver this summer addressing the environment and the effects of climate change on the poor. This significant and rarely occasioned document is part of a larger campaign through which the Argentine pontiff hopes to influence world leaders to implement a monumental climate change accord in Paris this December, when international commitments to reducing emissions could be decisively established.
In the past, Pope Francis has also declared that “man…has slapped nature in the face,” and that “if we destroy creation, creation will destroy us.” The Vatican’s strong stance on climate change, authorized by the recent statement, has shocked conservative followers both within and outside the Catholic Church. With only about 19 percent of Republicans believing that climate change is real, it is not surprising that many conservatives denounced the statement as exaggerated and misinformed. Indeed, Australian cardinal and climate change skeptic, George Pell, believes that “plants would love it” if carbon dioxide emissions increased. The Chicago-based libertarian think tank the Heartland Institute sent a delegation to Rome to supposedly inform Pope Francis that there is no scientific consensus on a global warming crisis. Members of a Christian evangelical group called the Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation wrote an open letter to the Pope catering to his concerns about economic injustice and asserting that, if anything, the world’s poor will suffer from restricted affordable energy use. Other conservatives recognize the Pope’s noble intentions but criticize his involvement in political issues that are allegedly outside of his expertise.
Conservative disdain for discourse about climate change extends beyond domestic politics or carbon emissions. The answer lies in the tacit link between environmental conservation and population control. The Catholic Church’s integral belief that all life is sacred instructs the Church and its laity to oppose not only abortion, but also any form of contraceptive practices. As humans, after all, are the cause of alleged human-induced climate change, one can surmise that an exponentially increasing human population will only exacerbate environmental issues. If conservatives acknowledge that climate change is real, they might also have to concede that an attempt to abate or control rapid population growth, such as the promotion of contraceptive practices, might help combat, or at least delay, the devastating effects of climate change. Furthermore, the Pope is concerned about the effects of climate change on poverty and economic development. A growing population will consume more of the earth’s limited resources, inevitably leaving a lesser share for each person, a situation likely to be exploited by the affluent and suffered by the poor, further aggravating pre-existing economic inequalities. One might suppose that those unprepared, unwilling, or unable to provide for children ought to be allowed to use contraceptive measures: why further divide limited resources to accommodate new human beings when existing resources are already insufficient to satisfy the current population? While the approval of contraceptive and abortive practices may right now only be a potential, imagined consequence of a belief in climate change, the presence of two pro-choice activists at the Vatican symposium in April provided reason for alarm for many conservatives.
However, conservatives may not have to fear climate change as much as they do. Efforts to sustain our earth are marked by a commitment to preserving life—to sustaining the human population. If anything, the climate change campaign could be conducted harmoniously alongside a pro-life agenda. Additionally, it does not seem like a real possibility that the Catholic Church would renege on its fundamental pro-life stance. Although the Pope has denounced having numbers of children for which parents cannot care properly, he has condemned abortion as sinful and has made no move to counter Catholicism’s contraception ban. Pope Francis may be progressive as the leader of one of the most conservative and influential religions in the world, but he is hardly liberal. Furthermore, concern about climate change is hardly new to the Vatican. The previous pope, Benedict XVI, wrote extensively about the impacts of climate change and was even termed the “green” pope; yet Pope Benedict’s efforts never received a comparable amount of backlash.
Why, then, were conservatives so alarmed when the issue was taken up by Francis? Catholic priest and professor Bruce Morrill offers an answer in the overwhelming moral authority that Pope Francis has achieved globally. Bloomberg poses Pope Francis, viewed favorably by 90 percent of Catholics, as possibly the “most influential person in the world without nuclear weapons.” While the nature of the papal position no doubt lends Pope Francis a great deal of credibility and admiration, he has undoubtedly brought something new to the table—a progressive change to Benedict’s restrained, reasoned, intellectual, and theological approach to his position. Some may criticize Pope Francis for his willingness to engage in politics, but he has continued to amaze his following, make headlines, and gain global admiration.
The pontiff’s aim to influence world leaders to commit their nations to the environment is not his first foray into politics: Obama cited Pope Francis as being instrumental to allowing the development of a re-establishment of diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba. Francis’s severe criticism of market economics, encouragement to conceive of a new economic system and commitment to economic injustice have underlined a real desire for radical and practical action. The pontiff, though in no way approbating homosexuality, stunned followers worldwide in suggesting that it is not incompatible with Christianity and presided over marriages of couples that had not followed traditional Catholic practices (some had lived together or already had children). Although somewhat jokingly, Francis pronounced the Catholic Church one of open doors—even to Martians, should they want to enter. The Pope even praised the merits of the Internet, citing its value in allowing widespread dialogue. Pope Francis’s eagerness to enter the realm of politics, attempts to portray Catholicism as an increasingly tolerant and universally welcoming religion, and demonstrated and realistic understanding of the modern age may be exactly what the increasingly archaic Catholic Church needs in the twenty-first century. It would appear that his work to modernize the Church is paying off considering his global popularity with the laity and youth. Yet this modernization is precisely what is simultaneously disconcerting to others, especially those who acclaim the Church for its long-standing and traditional conservative ideals. Whereas Benedict may have quietly written a document and stayed under the radar, Francis is delivering stirring declarations that will be repeated worldwide. Francis’s track record continues to surprise and impress: one can only wonder what will be next, and what kind of acclaim it will engender.
In a way, a Pope of the twenty-first century must undertake a great balancing act between a modernizing world and a Church viewed as increasingly obsolete. But Pope Francis seems to be taking the challenge in stride. The degree and pace of changes that must be made, however, remains unclear; conservatives could have reason to fear the pontiff’s concern for climate change as only a beginning step on a long, uncertain and dangerous road that the Pope seems all too ready to travel. If the Catholic Church does not reconsider some of its most stringent views and policies, it risks losing its significance as an institution in the modern age and its influence over many followers across the globe. Yet how far can it shift its constituent views before it ceases to be the same Church that has altered and influenced the globe for two millennia? What seems to be clear to Pope Francis, however, is that without a commitment to the environment, there will no longer be an earth on which any sort of Church, its followers, and the rest of humanity can stand. And Pope Francis’s demonstrated commitment to not only climate change, but also to reality, modernity and people themselves suggests a reason to believe that the Catholic Church will continue to have a global impact in this century—and is precisely the reason that he has gained such widespread acclaim and admiration.
The image featured in this article was taken by Agência Brasil. The original image can be found here.