Two momentous events happened yesterday: the Vatican finally discovered PowerPoint and the Pope (or at least the person in charge of his Twitter account) proved that he had mastered the use of social media sufficiently to grab people’s attention and get his message into the headlines of evening news bulletins around the world.
This has always been the plan for his Laudato Si encyclical, on our relationship with the planet and how we are treating it. The Pope writes:
The urgent challenge to protect our common home includes a concern to bring the whole human family together to seek a sustainable and integral development, for we know that things can change. The Creator does not abandon us; he never forsakes his loving plan or repents of having created us. Humanity still has the ability to work together in building our common home…
I urgently appeal, then, for a new dialogue about how we are shaping the future of our planet. We need a conversation which includes everyone, since the environmental challenge we are undergoing, and its human roots, concern and affect us all. The worldwide ecological movement has already made considerable progress and led to the establishment of numerous organizations committed to raising awareness of these challenges. Regrettably, many efforts to seek concrete solutions to the environmental crisis have proved ineffective, not only because of powerful opposition but also because of a more general lack of interest. Obstructionist attitudes, even on the part of believers, can range from denial of the problem to indifference, nonchalant resignation or blind confidence in technical solutions. We require a new and universal solidarity. As the bishops of Southern Africa have stated: “Everyone’s talents and involvement are needed to redress the damage caused by human abuse of God’s creation”. All of us can cooperate as instruments of God for the care of creation, each according to his or her own culture, experience, involvements and talents.
Pope Francis has aimed this exhortation well beyond his own Roman Catholic family because he knows that the future of world which he refers to as ‘Our common home’ and ‘Our sister’ is in the hands of each one of us. His rallying cry has been heard and the world has promptly responded. Even the Guardian has felt the need to publish a lengthy extract; it is the first time they have given a papal encyclical anywhere near this much attention. They may have avoided sharing the references to God and the deep spirituality which flows through the 180 pages, but still it stands as an example of how the media has lapped up Francis’ words and fallen in love with them. They are unashamedly catholic, radical and uncompromising, and they are a gift to humanity which is being received with gratitude and open arms.
Well, mostly with open arms.
It is a sad yet predictable case that some who see themselves as guardians of the Christian faith and civilisation itself over in the US bitterly opposed Pope Francis even before they had read a word. Around two thirds of US Evangelicals believe that human activities are not affecting Earth’s climate. Two of the Republican presidential candidates, Rick Santorum and Jeb Bush, fall into the same camp despite being Roman Catholics. Bush’s comment that when it comes to climate change, he would not be guided by the church; alongside Santorum’s that “we probably are better off leaving science to the scientists”, display a distinct irony: Pope Francis has a degree in Chemistry and undoubtedly a far better understanding of science than either of the two presidential hopefuls. In addition, they both refuse to take notice of the vast majority of scientists who have used extensive research to conclude that we as a species are adversely impacting our planet and its climate through our consumption of its resources.
Bush and Santorum, along with all of those who agree with them, are rapidly becoming a stubborn minority who argue their partisan case from a distance while everyone else continues to become increasingly aware that solutions to climate change are needed and seek to do something about it. And we don’t need to look hard for the evidence, whether it be the pledge by G7 leaders last week to phase out fossil fuel usage by the end of the century; Tuesday’s Lambeth Declaration on climate change, signed by British religious leaders from different faiths; or Wednesday’s lobby of Parliament by 9,000 representatives from over 100 charities and organisations which together make up the Climate Coalition.
Climate talks and pledges are nothing new, and too often they have resulted in more disagreement than progress. But recently there has been a noticeable shift in attitude and urgency around the world. A ComRes survey for Tearfund released this week found that practising Christians consider the most pressing global issue – by a considerable margin – which we will face over the next decade is climate change. Earlier this month, IKEA pledged $1 billion of climate finance shared between renewable energy investments and help for vulnerable communities affected by climate change, providing a strong lead for national governments to follow. We now wait to see how the United Nations Climate Change Conference, being held in Paris at the end of this year, will unfold.
In view of all this, we observe that Laudato Si has arrived riding on a wave of optimism. It comes at a crucial time, but more than just adding another voice to the many already clamouring for attention, it offers something greater than we have possibly seen before on this issue. Too often, the politics of climate change has focused either on the science behind it or the economic consequences. What Pope Francis is able to do is provide a moral framework which fuses science with faith in a way that is impossible to ignore. It is so compelling and broad in its scope that even for those who profoundly disagree with the science of climate change, there is enough to justify intervention purely through the call to love each other and our planet.
It is a heartfelt plea not just for governments to act, but for each one of us to consider the way we live and where the excesses may lie. We owe it to our world to treat it with respect because we are in rather than above it, and we are also utterly dependent on it. Nor can poverty be separated from the state of the planet when the latter directly affects the former for millions of people.
Above all, whether we choose to acknowledge it or not, we have a spiritual connection to the world around us. We are part of God’s creation that surrounds us. We are called to be stewards, not abusers; to be thankful for what we have, and not endlessly demand more to meet needs which can never be satisfied through consumption.
Returning to Pope Francis’ own words, in conclusion:
In calling to mind the figure of Saint Francis of Assisi, we come to realize that a healthy relationship with creation is one dimension of overall personal conversion, which entails the recognition of our errors, sins, faults and failures, and leads to heartfelt repentance and desire to change…
All is not lost. Human beings, while capable of the worst, are also capable of rising above themselves, choosing again what is good, and making a new start, despite their mental and social conditioning. We are able to take an honest look at ourselves, to acknowledge our deep dissatisfaction, and to embark on new paths to authentic freedom. No system can completely suppress our openness to what is good, true and beautiful, or our God-given ability to respond to his grace at work deep in our hearts.