The Pope heard round the world

By Hutton Marshall
Originally published in the San Diego Free Press on September 24th 2015

The Pope is in town.

Not this town, unfortunately — he’s in Washington, D.C.  Today, Pope Francis will give a historic address to Congress, where he is expected to speak on the escalating climate change crisis. This closely watched event will further solidify his stature as an acknowledged global leader of the climate change movement.  He caps the year in Paris with an address to world leaders at the UN-sponsored climate-change summit COPS 2015.

Earlier this year, Pope Francis released his Encyclical Letter entitled “On Care for our Common Home.”  A passionate, comprehensive 40,000-word exhortation about caring for the planet, the Encyclical weaves modern climate science together with teachings from Catholicism and other religions, to build the case that caring for Earth’s climate is a moral obligation, a matter of justice for the poor and vulnerable. He thus breaks down the barriers between religion and science, and between environmental stewardship and social justice.

Pope Francis is by no means a rogue actor in using his papal authority to speak out on climate change. As the Encyclical notes, previous popes have spoken to the same issues.

Saint John Paul II became increasingly concerned about this issue,” Pope Francis writes. “He warned that human beings frequently seem ‘to see no other meaning in their natural environment than what serves for immediate use and consumption.’  Pope Francis also notes that his conservative predecessor Pope Benedict XVI spoke out on the environment as it relates to economic justice and  “proposed … correcting models of growth which have proved incapable of ensuring respect for the environment”.

The Pope and U.S. Politics

By speaking with papal authority, Francis may be able to help jump-start America’s weak legislative response to climate change. The timing of the Pope’s address to Congress coincides with President Barack Obama’s new environmental regulations, intended to limit carbon emissions, especially from the nation’s dirtiest coal-fired power plants. The regulations promise a tough political battle; several conservative, coal-heavy states have already responded by suing the federal government.

Even if Obama’s carbon rules survive these court challenges, they can be rescinded the next time an advocate for the carbon industry wins the White House. Congressional attitudes must change if American efforts to combat climate change are to succeed in the years to come. Pope Francis, in speaking to a Congress that’s 31 percent Catholic, may be able to plant the seeds for such an attitude change.

Climate change as an issue of social justice

Since his election to the papacy in 2013, the Pope has emerged as the champion of the world’s poor, declining to reside in lavish papal housing and don the rich, ornate attire associated with his office. In detailing the impacts of climate change, he points out that poor countries suffer more from climate change than developed nations that typically pollute much more. Due to a variety of factors—less responsive emergency services, more fragile infrastructure—poor communities fare considerably worse when struck by natural disasters, which have become more frequent as ocean waters continue to rise and warm.

These communities also struggle more with displacement caused by climate change. Uprooting one’s life is hard enough with the money to do so. With native Alaskan fishing villages seeing their livelihoods vanish and Pacific island communities at risk of being swallowed up by the ocean, we’re seeing an entirely new class of refugees emerge around the world. The Pope has brought into the light that this trend affects those without financial resources much more than others.

American Catholics’ response to the Pope’s climate message

Surveys show that the Pope’s views on climate change still differ from those of many Catholics, at least in the United States. Nevertheless, American Catholics, 22 percent of the population, are slightly more likely to express concern about human-caused climate change than the average citizen.

As a subgroup of the US population, Catholics reflect the partisan divide we experience when discussing climate change. A 2015 Pew Research poll found that Catholic Democrats were more than twice as likely (62 percent) to feel concern as Catholic Republicans (24 percent). The same poll, however, showed an overwhelming majority hold a favorable view of Pope Francis and feel he represents a major change for the better for the Catholic Church. This gives hope that his strong stance on climate change can have a substantial influence on his American congregation.

Predictably, Pope Francis’ address to Congress has been polarized by the unending partisan lines drawn whenever climate change is addressed on the national level. Rep. Paul Gozar, a Catholic Republican, says he’ll boycott the speech, because, rather than address violent conflicts with religious undertones or the “persecution and execution of Christians and religious minorities,” His Holiness will speak about the “fool’s errand of climate change.”

The Pope has strong words for such obstructionist attitudes which, “even on the part of believers, can range from denial of the problem to indifference, nonchalant resignation or blind confidence in technical solutions.”  As for political leaders who take such stances, the Pope asks, “Why would  anyone, at this stage, to hold on to power only to be remembered for their inability to take action when it was urgent and necessary?”  Clearly Pope Francis takes the long view of history rather than the short view of any nation’s politics.

For our nation, it is disappointing that partisan loyalty trumps the opportunity to see one’s internationally acclaimed religious leader speak in person.  Yet House Speaker John Boehner, another conservative Catholic, has responded with a more open mind and with greater respect for his spiritual leader: “We are humbled that the Holy Father has accepted our invitation and certainly look forward to receiving his message on behalf of the American people.” The Pope and the Speaker will also meet privately during Pope Francis’ visit. It was, in fact, Boehner who issued the invitation to Pope Francis, the first time in our history for a pope to address a joint session of Congress.

The response here in San Diego to the Pope’s visit to the U.S.

Here in San Diego, the papal visit and address to Congress has inspired the creation of the San Diego Coalition to Preserve our Common Home, a name echoing the title of Encyclical.  This evening in response to Pope Francis’ address to Congress, the Coalition is sponsoring local faith, labor, community and environmental leaders to speak on climate action as a matter of justice for the poor and future generations.

Alliance San Diego’s Eddie Junsay, a community empowerment organizer and one of the forum’s speakers, applies this climate justice message at a local level:  “We need to make sure the voices of communities of color, poor communities, and youth are heard as these are the very people that are most affected by our decisions on climate.”

Karma Lekshe Tsomo, a Buddhist leader and Professor of Theology at the University of San Diego, speaks to the same issues in basic human terms: “The connections between climate change and social and economic justice are so clear — they all turn on compassion.”

The voice of Pope Francis is being heard around the world and has reached us here in San Diego.  He is speaking to all of us — not just Congress, not just Catholics.  Multitudes are responding to his call for climate justice.

Speak Your Mind