‘Laudato Si’’ represents a new ‘Rerum Novarum,’ says Cardinal Rodríguez at Fordham

This story appears in the Francis: The Environment Encyclical feature series. View the full series.
Pope Francis celebrates the Eucharist during a Mass for the opening of the general assembly of Caritas Internationalis in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican May 12. At left is Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga of Tegucigalpa, Honduras. (CNS/Paul Haring)
Pope Francis celebrates the Eucharist during a Mass for the opening of the general assembly of Caritas Internationalis in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican May 12. At left is Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga of Tegucigalpa, Honduras. (CNS/Paul Haring)

by Peter Feuerherd

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Cardinal Oscar Rodríguez Maradiaga of Honduras, one of nine cardinal advisors to Pope Francis who has been dubbed the “vice pope” for his close relationship to Francis, defended his friend’s Laudato Si’ encyclical on the environment as a new Rerum Novarum, which speaks to a crisis in world history with moral clarity.

The cardinal spoke at a panel discussion Tuesday sponsored by Fordham University’s Center on Religion and Culture on the theme of the environment and its impact on the world’s poor. A day earlier, he addressed an audience at Georgetown University.

Speaking to his New York audience -- basking in temperatures reaching the 70s -- the cardinal said climate change addressed by the pope is a reality responsible for cataclysmic changes that have ensnared the poor via hurricanes and typhoons in Mexico and the Philippines and via drought in California.

“What a beautiful summer we are having,” the cardinal joked, a reference to the unseasonably mild temperatures experienced in New York this fall.

Rodríguez said that many critics of the pope’s encyclical attacked it before it ever appeared, and that many others continue to criticize it without reading the full text. The encyclical provides both biblical and modern scientific reasoning, serving as a bridge of dialogue with the modern world, the cardinal said.

Related: Cardinal Rodríguez at Georgetown: Without Paris climate deal, 'some countries will not have a future'

The document was intended to provide moral guidance to the world’s leaders who will address climate change at a conference in Paris later this month. Rodríguez said the moment is urgent and that the wealthy countries of the world need to step up and provide leadership.

Laudato Si’ can be a world changer, said the cardinal, if the world’s leaders listen to Francis like they did to Pope John Paul II’s call to relieve the debt of poor countries in the 2000 millennial year.

“There is an ecological divide that cannot be on the shoulders of the poorest of the poor,” he said. “Sister Earth has been abandoned and maltreated. No can say that (this issue) doesn’t touch me.”

Rodríguez described Laudato Si’ as a new Rerum Novarum, the 1891 encyclical on labor issued by Pope Leo XIII that is credited with inspiring modern Catholic social teaching. 

Joan Rosenhauer, executive vice president of Catholic Relief Services and a panel member, just returned from typhoon-ravaged Philippines, where, she said, people are highly conscious of the impact of climate change, working to recycle and limit carbon emissions.

“How can we not step up?” she asked about the wealthy nations. She noted that the political will exists to make change, as up to 70 percent of American Catholics support the pope on the issue.

Jeffrey Sachs, director the Earth Institute at Columbia University and another panel member, said the pope is fighting the strong influence of the coal and oil lobbies, but will prevail with a moral argument.

History shows, he said, that “the moral dialogue proved to be decisive” in changing attitudes and policies. The Catholic church, he said, provided such leadership with the international debt crisis and the nuclear arms race and can do so again on the environment.

“There is no real scientific debate,” said Sachs, noting the global consensus on the reality of climate change. “The politics has held it trapped,” he said about the reluctance of world leaders to address the issue.

In a question-and-answer session, Sachs emphasized the need for families in poor countries to limit births, and that the church has long recognized the concept of responsible parenthood. On that point, Rodríguez said, “I totally agree with Dr. Sachs,” and in a statement greeted with applause, called for better sex education to help combat teen pregnancies in poor countries.

“We have to face this clearly and fearlessly,” said the cardinal.

Asked by NCR after the talk about events in the Vatican, including indications that Francis is running into strong opposition in rooting out financial corruption, Rodríguez said, “a revolution is going on. But it’s a revolution of love, and hope.”

“Everybody that is trying to make good will have opposition. The books of the Bible, especially the Book of Wisdom, say, ‘If you want to follow the Lord, prepare to battle.’ And the pope is prepared.”

[Regular Catholic press contributor Peter Feuerherd writes from Queens, N.Y.]

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