Laudato Si' turns one year old: Time for action

by Michael Sean Winters

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One year ago today, Pope Francis signed his encyclical Laudato Si'. We didn't know it at the time: The encyclical was leaked on June 15 and published officially on June 18. But, I hope this morning's reflection will be the first of many attempts to take stock of the issues raised in that encyclical.

There have been many, many academic conferences studying the text of Laudato Si'. Some have been better than others, as is always the case with academic conferences, but it seems to me that the really fruitful ones were multi-disciplinary, in which climate scientists engaged theologians, and political analysts encountered both, and all three tackled the economists. As Pope Francis made clear in the document itself, the problem posed by climate change is a Hydra, a many-headed set of interlocking challenges. At the same time, both the urgency and the enormity of the problem warrants an "all hands on deck" approach, so it is not only conducive to truthful analysis to bring many people to the discussion, it is necessary if we literally are going to save the planet.

It is a good sign that the opposition to the encyclical came and went pretty quickly. The Acton Institute complained that the document insufficiently valued the market economy and the role of fossil fuels in alleviating poverty. The devotees of laissez-faire railed against the encyclical's call for government regulations, indeed for international regulations, to help curb the toxicity of man's involvement with the planet. Those who deny climate change made a brief, nettlesome, but inconsequential effort to sidetrack the discussion the Holy Father accelerated. Indeed, it was the frank and thorough manner with which Francis set forth the scientific evidence that led to one of the happier developments this year: More and more commentators acknowledge that if the deniers were to be believed, we would have to accept that there has been some kind of conspiracy conducted by 95 percent of the world's scientists, all working in tandem, to foist the science of climate change on an unsuspecting world. Many of us who are scientifically illiterate are not in a position to examine the scientific data, but we know that such a conspiracy is impossible.

Public opinion has evidently been moved by the Holy Father's intervention. A study conducted by the Yale University Program on Climate Change Conversation indicated that within six months of the encyclical's release, 11 percent more Catholics in the U.S. said they were worried about global warming than had been before, and 8 percent more of the general population. The percentage of people who think global warming will harm people here in the U.S. and abroad also increased: 17 percent more Catholics thought global warming would harm people in developing countries and 13 percent more thought people in the U.S. would be harmed. This shows the effectiveness of groups like Catholic Relief Services, to say nothing of the reporting of outlets like NCR, in helping people to realize the dire consequences of global warming, especially for the poor.

There is still work to be done. At the Africa Faith & Justice Network, they just posted several links to articles that detail the degree to which multinational corporations respond to regulations on toxic waste disposal in their own countries by turning sub-Saharan Africa into the world's toxic waste dump. This is outrageous, and those who think the market can resolve a problem like this misunderstand the power of the market. Only government action, prompted by popular outrage, will ameliorate these horrors being perpetrated on the poorest of the poor.

The U.S. Bishops did a good job with the rollout of the encyclical last summer. The President of the USCCB, Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, and Washington's Cardinal Donald Wuerl held a press conference at the National Press Club the morning the text was released. There were so many reporters, they had to commandeer an adjoining room for the overflow. Many bishops wrote columns about the encyclical. But, the bishops declined to re-draft their document on voting to better reflect the magisterium of Pope Francis last November and the Vice President of the conference, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, sneered at the one bishop who suggested they do so, San Diego's Bishop Robert McElroy. I would also point out that if the bishops had donated as much energy and attention this past year to embracing environmentally friendly technologies in the physical plants at our Catholic institutions as they had to making sure those institutions did not have to cover contraception in employee health insurance programs, we would be leading by example, showing the whole country that it is possible to take steps right now to help save the planet.

The Catholic Climate Covenant (CCC) has undertaken several programs in the past year. They have been busy training Creation Care teams, training clergy in how to educate their people on the themes of the encyclical, forming a group of Latino leaders who are focused on spreading the good news in that fast-growing community. And, in an email sent out the other day, the CCC said they were working to "implement a diocesan-wide pilot program to encourage the embrace of renewable energy and energy efficiencies for parishes, schools, and other Catholic facilities." This makes me hopeful. We have had a year to study the text and to ponder it and to pray over it. Now it is time to take action.

The Catholic Church in the United States has a large plant. We own a lot of properties from Catholic schools to cemeteries to rectories. We employ a lot of people. If we choose to set an example in caring for creation, we can. Indeed, many of the steps that can be taken now represent low-hanging fruit, such as switching to LED lighting or installing solar panels on our facilities. Down the road, if we do not pick the low-hanging fruit now, we will only face tougher and tougher choices. It is my hope, and it is a confident hope, that the leaders of the Church will take actions this year in the spirit of Laudato Si'. As Pope Francis said, "Reality is more important than ideas."

[Michael Sean Winters is a Visiting Fellow at Catholic University's Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies.]

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