Pope Francis and Climate Change

Pope Francis has continued to ruffle the precedents of history by pushing forth a campaign urging world leaders to address the perils of climate change, and particularly how it disproportionately affects the poor worldwide.

Expectedly, this initiative has unsettled Catholic lawmakers and interest groups on the right who have historically aligned their religious affinities with skepticism of human-induced climate change. For one, the Heartland Institute, supported in large by the infamous climate-denying Koch Brothers (for whom, ironically, an environmental/cultural exhibit on human origins at the Museum of National History in D.C. is named) has pledged to hold events in Rome protesting the Vatican initiatives.

Critics contend that the Pope has been led astray by the “unscientific” agenda of particular climate “experts.” In so doing, they are effectively taking issue with the use of his platform for moral commentary in addressing a conclusively identified problem they continually polarize as inconclusive.

These critics’ rigid attachment to antiquated belief systems that impede meaningful action to address climate change is one important issue.

But it’s also worth commenting on the contested role and responsibilities of His Holiness himself, who has garnered much attention for his active stances in the political arena since his ordination in 2013. I wrote a previous post in January about Francis’ timely visit to Sri Lanka, where he delivered an unequivocally political message of ethnic reconciliation. Is the Pope by nature a political figure? Is Francis somehow overstepping the moral mandate of his position in endorsing specific political measures to tackle an issue like climate change?

To the extent that power is involved, I would argue that religious institutions are inherently political. The Vatican has both an internal power structure in upholding hierarchies between priests, cardinals, and other officials with distinct privileges and responsibilities, as well as the enormous external power of influencing global opinions on issues like gay rights, human trafficking, income inequality, or even charitable giving to the poor. To the extent that these “moral” issues do concern the distribution of power across people and institutions, they must be political.

The Vatican has had a long history of posturing in the political realm, and though precedent is never necessarily a justification for perpetuating the modus operandi, Pope Francis is warranted in recognizing that his religious platform has an indispensably political dimension, and may well even demand it.

It’s just too bad for those on the right who have historically buttressed outdated beliefs by appealing to the papacy, leaning on the conservatism of this long-standing religious institution to perpetuate ideas anchored in the past. This is a pope who actually listens and honors other authority figures and sources of knowledge around the world, and can disassociate from wedges constructed historically between science and Catholicism that have cast doubt on the latter’s relevance in the world of today. Francis is leveraging his inherently moral and political relevance to take a stand on a 21st century issue that is most certainly moral and political in nature, and in so doing, demonstrating an eagerness to ground the papacy in the world of today.

The Pope may not be the complete political paragon–his unwillingness to seriously consider letting women become priests, in my opinion, challenges that–but he is showing us how power structures grounded in history and tradition might be deployed for necessary, progressive change in the world of today. This is an “inconvenient truth” for those who conflate Catholicism with the rigidity of past social and political conventions, but a welcome stride toward tackling the greatest problems we face today.

Source: The New York Times