When climate change protesters marched on Wall Street last September, their charge was to bring attention to a global urgency that requires a deep and abiding transformation of the way we think about, invest in and relate to the environment.
Laying blame on the corporate, bureaucratic and industrial world follows on the heels of Lynn White Jr., who – in the 1960s – pointed the finger at religion as being at the root of our ecologic crisis.
He cited Christianity as the most anthropocentric faith tradition the world has ever known; what with its linear creation story, the eviction of pagan animism from every corner the church claimed as her own, the uniqueness of humankind being made in the image of God, and the ostensible submission of the natural order to human utility.
It is true that there are a number of Christians who are less than enthusiastic about supporting the environmental movement, accusing it of somehow suppressing – if not outright abandoning – regard for the human poor in its alleged preferential option for nature.
It is also the case that concern in the church for climate change varies between and within the denominations.
For instance, the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) together with the American Academy of Religion (AAR) surveyed a random sample of more than 3,000 adults living in the U.S.
They found – among other things – that while more than seven in 10 Hispanic Catholics indicated that they are “very concerned” or at least “somewhat concerned” about climate change, only four in 10 white Catholics could say the same.
The growing trend among many religious groups in the U.S., though, is in recognizing climate change as a moral issue that is a pressing threat to the common good writ large.
The Forum on Religion and Ecology at Yale shows – in its extensive list of statements regarding climate change from the various Christian denominations (and many other of the world’s religions) – that the concern is widespread.
The National Religious Partnership for the Environment, the Catholic Climate Covenant, Creation Justice Ministries, the Evangelical Environmental Network, and Interfaith Power and Light are among the many organizations that have constructively engaged pastoral communities to make stewardship less about putting an end to the use of Styrofoam coffee cups and more about a constructive re-evaluation of how energy, food, materials and so on are being used in congregations and in everyday living.
The faithful are listening, but many only “get on board” once they are convinced that the call to protect the environment is, first and foremost, rooted in their tradition.
Unsurprisingly, the PRRI/AAR report shows that Americans who attend religious services (at least once a month) at which clergy occasionally (if not frequently) address the question of climate change will score higher on the Climate Change Concern Index.
The issue, of course, is that the majority of respondents suggest that they are not hearing much about the subject at those services in the first place.
In the Roman Catholic world, this is expected to change.
Human responsibility and accountability vis-à-vis our relationship with the environment will be at the core of Pope Francis’ highly anticipated encyclical on ecology to be released some time in 2015.
This will continue and accentuate a discussion that has been gaining momentum in the church over the last 25 years or so.
In his message for World Day of Peace on Jan. 1, 1990, Saint John Paul II made plain that global peace is threatened not only by the arms race and war, but also by the lack of respect due to nature, atomistic and reductionistic attitudes toward the environment, and the plundering of the earth’s resources.
The integrity of the created order, he urged, demands a new solidarity.
Twenty years to the day later, Pope Benedict XVI affirmed the teachings of his predecessor and spoke of the need for a profound cultural renewal that would foster a responsible stewardship to help counter “myopic economic interests” and develop more far-sighted policies.
The church, he affirmed, cannot and must not be idle in the face of the ecological crisis; responsibility toward creation is the church’s duty.
When the current pontiff was asked why he chose to be called Francis, his response was telling: “[Francis of Assisi] is the man of poverty, the man of peace, the man who loves and protects creation; these days we do not have a very good relationship with creation, do we?”
The coming encyclical on ecology is expected to underscore how humans are fashioned from the earth for the earth as tenants – or, better, custodians – of a world that belongs entirely to God (Psalm 24:1; Leviticus 25:23).
There is little doubt that Pope Francis will speak, as he has previously, against the West’s “culture of waste,” which, in his view, has a penchant for excess, is quick to dispose and – as a champion of individualism – demotes interdependence to a lamentable mark of weakness.
Importantly, I suspect that he will show how human poverty, theological anthropology, the Church’s moral tradition, economic development and our common responsibility to protect the earth are so tightly interwoven that not one of these concerns can properly be tended to without attention to all others.
Cory Labrecque is the Raymond F. Schinazi Scholar in bioethics and religious thought, interim director of the master of arts in bioethics program and co-director of Catholic studies at Emory University’s Center for Ethics. A version of this article first appeared on Sightings, a publication of the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School. It is used with permission.