Pope Francis is changing the conversation on climate change from fear to love in his new environmental encyclical, addressed to all people, and one of the highest forms of church teaching for the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics. Francis calls us home, to love our neighbors and our common home, our gift from God. Yes, he calls us to energy conversion, but from energies of despair and denial to God’s sustainable energy of generous love and sharing. Climate change is not about polar bears vs. profits. He challenges both the left and the right, calling us all in a new direction, beyond fear and paralysis to love and agency, from indifference and greed to global solidarity. The encyclical is not an “ecobummer,” as Francis reminds us that we are “created for love,” and that God’s ” love constantly impels us to find new ways forward,” to build “a civilization of love.” A positive way out of the ecological impasse? As the encyclical is titled, “Praised be!”
Francis reminds us that we are neither spectators to an environmental train wreck, nor powerless to change course. He repeatedly reminds us of our God-given agency, both our complicity in environmental degradation, but also, more importantly, our ability to change course. He calls, as all Popes do, for all hands on deck, for greater international institutional capacity, greater corporate accountability, and greater local and individual action. This call to action using all our institutions is both a practical and a moral matter. When the challenges are this urgent, we have to use all available tools, and work through, reform, strengthen, expand and improve many institutions: states, existing and new international institutions, civil society partnerships, more ethically oriented businesses, churches and individuals– all have a role, and no one is off the hook. This wide invitation to act is also a moral matter, as we all are called to use our agency and God-given gifts for the common good.
Pope Francis, as he always does, calls for respectful and effective dialogue among the local, national and international actors. He urges us to listen to and amplify local voices, which can “make all the difference” particularly when international politics are log jammed. Some of the most loving and effective responses to creation care arise at the local level, due to a sense of “responsibility, a strong sense of community, a readiness to protect others, a spirit of creativity and a deep love,” and concern for what we will “leave to our children and grandchildren.”
This creative community love is in the DNA of all effective environmental protection. For example, when I was a toddler growing up in Buffalo, New York, Lake Erie was dead. The massive great lake, one of the largest in the world, was so badly polluted that people could not swim in the lake, huge fish kills were common, and the Cuyahoga River, feeding into the lake, caught fire. Big industries used the lake as a dump. While all were impacted, the poor (who did not create the crisis) were hit hardest, who used the lake for food, drink, and exercise. The rich could opt out of the crisis, through private swim clubs, imported fish and bottled water. Growing up, my mother told me how mothers concerned about the health risk to their families organized in “Housewives Against Pollution.” They successfully lobbied for environmental protection measures, which eventually became state law, industry standards, and international law, and the health of the lake rebounded. When Pope Francis notes that “access to safe drinkable water is a basic and universal human right, since it is essential to human survival” and that community engagement “makes all the difference,” I think of these busy mothers, engaging in politics out of love for their children and communities.
Pope Francis acknowledges the serious self-destruction we have done to our common home and our relationships, but his message is optimistic. He likens environmental protection to falling in love. Our abilities to creatively love, to join in the circle of God’s love, can heal our self-destruction. In contrast, the public debate on climate change is marked by fear. The latest reports by climate scientists and climate deniers do not mention “love” once. For Pope Francis, love is central to environmental protection; he discusses love 71 times. Francis reminds us that we are not alone on our journey home. Our Creator does not abandon us, but constantly invites us to join His project of love. We “still have the capacity of collaborating to build our common home.” It is never too late to do the right thing. God still invites us to love, and to come home to respect, protect, and share his bountiful garden. “Praise be!”