Panel: Pope’s message in new document on climate isn’t partisan, but is matter of faith

WASHINGTON (OSV News) — Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation “Laudate Deum,” released Oct. 4, was described as the sound of a broken heart, disappointed by the world’s lack of action on environmental damage and climate change, at a Georgetown University panel discussion.

In the eight years since the pope’s encyclical “Laudato Si’, On Care for Our Common Home,” “we’ve not seen significant progress,” said Jose Aguto, executive director of Catholic Climate Covenant, a nonprofit group based in Washington. “So he wants us to step into this work” using “a lot of courage.”

The Oct. 12 discussion “Caring for the Environment and Each Other: Pope Francis’ Follow-up to Laudato Si’” was sponsored by the university’s Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life.

“Laudate Deum” (“Praise God”) contains the pope’s strongest language on climate change.

“We must move beyond the mentality of appearing to be concerned but not having the courage needed to produce substantial changes,” it states. “We know that at this pace in just a few years we will surpass the maximum recommended limit (in worldwide temperature increase of 1.5 (degrees Celsius) and shortly thereafter even reach 3 (degrees Celsius) with a high risk of arriving at a critical point.”

John Mundell, director of the Laudato Si’ Action Platform, acknowledged both the emotion and urgency expressed in the new document. “Pope Francis is challenging us to live a more authentic faith life,” he said, noting the new exhortation asks the faithful, “Am I experiencing a new light in my life?”

None of this surprised Sharon Lavigne, who leads Rise St. James, a faith-based environmental justice group in the Louisiana region known as “Cancer Alley” from the effects of industrial pollution.

On the panel, she drove home the real effects of pollution. Her neighbors eventually realized they were being poisoned by a massive Formosa Plastics plant.

Her area’s elected officials, she said, feel beholden only to industry. “We will not be able to breathe. We will not be able to live. This is genocide,” she said.

Lavigne, the 2022 Laetare Medal recipient from the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, said of the corporate polluters, “We are being sacrificed so they can make a profit.”

Aguto observed that the exhortation is aimed particularly at Americans when it states, “If we consider that emissions per individual in the United States are about two times greater than those of individuals living in China, and about seven times greater than the average of the poorest countries, we can state that a broad change in the irresponsible lifestyle connected with the Western model would have a significant long-term impact.”

The document is “clear that caring for the environment is integral to our faith,” Aguto said. “This should not be a partisan issue. It’s an issue of our faith.”

Christiana Zenner, an associate professor of theology at Fordham University in New York, called the document “a challenge of the heart.”

She thought Pope Francis came off as “a little cranky,” however, with these words: “Once and for all, let us put an end to the irresponsible derision that would present this issue as something purely ecological, ‘green,’ romantic, frequently subject to ridicule by economic interests.”

“We have a greater moral voice when we are doing what we’re saying,” said Mundell. “Right now, (Catholics) are not doing so well, but there’s hope.”

“We need to rethink among other things the question of human power, its meaning and its limits,” “Laudate Deum” states. “We have made impressive and awesome technological advances, and we have not realized that at the same time we have turned into highly dangerous beings, capable of threatening the lives of many beings and our own survival.”

In a 2022 panel at Georgetown, Anna Robertson, director of youth and young adult mobilization at Catholic Climate Covenant, spoke about a 2021 report from the Springtide Research Institute that said 74% of Catholics ages 13 to 25 identified environmental causes as an issue they are concerned about or care about.

“So this is a huge concern,” Robertson said then. “And this is a real pastoral crisis for our church and young people who want to see our joys and hopes and anxieties reflected in the church and embraced by it.”

Pope Francis, in the exhortation, hoped for progress at the next Conference of the Parties (COP28) to be held in late November in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

“If we are confident in the capacity of human beings to transcend their petty interests and to think in bigger terms, we can keep hoping that COP28 will allow for a decisive acceleration of energy transition, with effective commitments subject to ongoing monitoring,” he stated.

Kurt Jensen writes for OSV News from Washington.

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