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Signs of the Times: Pope Francis on Climate Change

by Catherine Vincie, RSHMCategory: Updates

Picture of Pope Francis sitting, with head turned to the right, hand on chin - looking thoughtful - against light blue background with info about leanrning more about Laudate Deum

On the feast of St. Francis of Assisi, October 4, 2023, Pope Francis issued an Apostolic Exhortation (Laudate Deum) on climate change. Laudate Deum is an extension of Pope Francis’ Encyclical Letter Laudato Si’ on the care of our common home. Eight years after the publication of Laudato Si’, the situation of climate change has become so dire that the Pope felt compelled to address “All People of Good Will on the Climate Crisis.” The document is forthright in its review of the relevant facts and challenging in its call for immediate and substantial changes in our understanding of the human community from within nature rather than outside of it. The Pope directly critiques the control of a few powerful, transnational corporations and the failure of world organizations/meetings to limit the damage from the excessive burning of fossil fuels which is warming the planet at an increasingly rapid rate.

Speaking within the Catholic tradition of concern for human dignity, Pope Francis stresses that because of global climate change, we are in a crisis that is intimately related to the dignity of human life (LD 3). He criticizes those who “deny, conceal, gloss over or relativize the issue” (LD 5). He speaks of those who deride what is incontrovertible scientific research on global warming, who ridicule those who are fighting for change, who would place the responsibility for global warming on the poor, or who insist that using cleaner energy would result in a loss of jobs. In sum, the Pope writes that “the climate crisis is not exactly a matter that interests the great economic powers, whose concern is with the greatest profit possible at minimal cost and in the shortest amount of time” (LD 13). He also signals that these dismissive attitudes are found even within the Catholic church (LD 14).

pictures of 5 sisters standing together in front of church, one on far right holding sign  - posed for group picture before climate march

Pope Francis is not afraid to name a “growing technocratic paradigm” as the core of our global crisis. Quoting from Laudato Si’, he repeats that this mentality insists that “goodness and truth automatically flow from technological and economic power as such (LS 105); this must be resisted. Technological advances often are based on a belief that the world’s resources are unlimited and that the human person is free to exploit nature for its limited benefit for the few. The problem is compounded by the fact that “our immense technological development has not been accompanied by a development in human responsibility, values, and conscience” (LS 105).

The Pope not only criticizes the present problems and their roots in an overly optimistic reliance on technology, but he also cites the problem that the relationship between human persons and nature is skewed. “Human beings,” he says, “must be recognized as a part of nature. Human life, intelligence and freedom are elements of nature that enrich our planet, part of its internal workings and its equilibrium” (LD 26). Although he does not use this language, he implies that we must not treat any element of the natural world as an object to be exploited but as a subject to be encountered. We need, he says, to “rethink… questions of human power, its meaning and its limits” (LD 28).

In addition, the Pope mourns the “weakness of international politics.” While individual efforts at recycling, for example, are valuable in that they bring about a change in the culture, these individual efforts are insufficient to mitigate the massive problems of climate change and the destruction of the environment. Worldwide organizations, conferences, and agreements such as the Paris Climate Accord are essential to forestall the irreversible global warming of the sea, land, and air. These global bodies must create agreements that are “efficient, obligatory and readily monitored” to achieve effects that are “drastic, intense and count on the commitment of all” (LD 59).

Finally, the Pope ends by calling on the Catholic faithful to be motivated by their faith. Passages throughout the bible recall that all that God created is good and that all creation, not just human persons, are being called by God towards a fullness as their end (LD 65). On a positive note, the Pope states that “the world sings of an infinite Love: how can we fail to care for it?” (LD 65). Because the problems are so global and massive, Pope Francis calls for a conversion that will bring about “large processes of transformation rising from deep within society” (LD 71).

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