After Laudato si’: Roman Catholic Church

Whilst Laudato si’ continues to provide inspirational guidance on climate change, much remains to be done within the Roman Catholic Church

The ecumenical charity Green Christian welcomed Laudato Si’ as “one of the most encouraging doctrinal statements of the modern era”, which “launches a new programme of prophetic witness and collaboration [reaching] well beyond the Paris climate summit this autumn. Its post entitled “Green Encyclical: Now the work really starts” expresses concern that Catholic Social Teaching “must now urgently be called to account in the light of the encyclical… if [ecological renewal in the church’s witness] is going to take root, it is vital that his ‘integral ecology’ gains access to the citadels of Catholic teaching on social justice and on ‘life’”.

Whilst such a fundamental change in Catholic doctrine would seem  unlikely even  in the medium-term, there are nevertheless other areas within the Roman Catholic Church where work needs to commence, as highlighted by the following examples.

People and Planet Conference

Two weeks after Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato si’ was published, the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace joined CIDSE[1], the international alliance of 17 Catholic Development Organisations, in hosting the international conference “People and Planet First: the Imperative to Change Course” in Rome, 2-3 July 2015. A Press Conference before the meeting heard presentations from Cardinal Peter Turkson, Professor Ottmar Edenhofer, Naomi Klein and Bernd Nilles.

Understandably, Cardinal Turkson stressed the messages in Laudato si’ of global and intergenerational equity, and the notion of the climate as a common good; the COP21/CMP 11 conference in Paris, 30 November to 11 December 2015 was “crucial in identifying strong solutions for climate change, ‘accompanied by the gradual framing and acceptance of binding commitments’” (Ls 180). Linked to these are the UN Sustainable Development Goals (2015-2030)[2], which will be discussed at the 70th U.N. General Assembly 25th to 27th September 2015[3]. Cardinal Parolin’s subsequent presentation added the UN Third International Conference on Financing for Development” in Addis Ababa, 13 to 16 July, infra.

Canadian author and anti-globalisation activist Naomi Klein pointed out that the encyclical places attention on the world’s most vulnerable regions, which have been often disregarded by international politics, and significantly, highlighted the call for divestment that was launched through the Encyclical, but not so enthusiastically adopted by the Church itself, see below. Whilst she should not be criticised for repeating the explanation of global warming in Laudato si’ [Ls 23]

“because when we were burning ever larger amounts of fossil fuels … greenhouse gases were accumulating in the atmosphere and relentlessly trapping heat,”

she happened to pick up on one of the few points, and an anoraky, pedantic one at that, that has been criticized by climate scientists[4]. More important, however, was the presentation of Professor Ottmar Edenhofer in which he reiterated the view that carbon pricing can help to finance sustainable development goals[5], confirming our assessment that “the strategy of buying and selling ‘carbon credits’, [Ls 171] appears to be intended as example of the general themes expounded elsewhere in the document, rather than a condemnation of carbon trading per se.

Finally, Bernd Nilles, CIDSE Secretary General, launched the CIDSE’s three-year campaign: “Change for the Planet- Care for the People”, which reflects many of the encyclical messages, and links Catholic development work for social justice with the promotion of sustainable living. Whilst this was an initiative of CIDSE rather than the Church, the proposal was formulated “together with the Bishops”.

Message of the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant Peoples for World Tourism Day 2015

Coincident with the CIDSE conference, on 2 July the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People announced … the Message of the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People on the occasion of World Tourism Day which … will be celebrated on September 27, this year on the theme: ‘One billion tourists, a billion opportunity.’” However, the celebration of “one billion tourists” in the Pontifical Council’s message did not lie easily with some of the comments at the CISDE presentation on 1 July, supra:

“One billion of the 7 billion people on this planet consume too much to allow all people to live a dignified life, (Bernd Nilles)”; and

“It is mainly the global upper- and middle classes rapidly filling the atmosphere by consuming products which entail vast greenhouse gas emissions, while climate change effects will primarily hit the poor and further exacerbate global inequality, (Professor Ottmar Edenhofer).

Not an exact parallel, but close enough to make uncomfortable reading. Furthermore, despite the role of the Pontifical Council, “migrants and itinerant people” did not merit a reference. On 1 July, the UN News Centre reported that in the first six months of 2015, 137,000 desperate people had been forced to make the perilous journey to cross the Mediterranean Sea into Europe, mostly by war, conflict or persecution – “a maritime refugee crisis of historic proportions.”

The Message is littered with quotations from Laudato si’, but contains no direct reference to the substantial impact of tourism on climate change: the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) states that CO2 emissions generated directly from the tourism sector account [in 2005] for 5% of global CO2 emissions, which in terms of emissions of countries  would rank as the 5th largest polluter worldwide; although each person is not engaged in this activity for more than 4-5 weeks each year, yet the resulting emissions are greater than those produced by billions of people living and working for one year in large industrialized countries or new emerging economies.

Without apparent irony, the Pontifical Council Message includes the statement: “Many times we pretend we do not see the problem. ‘Such evasiveness serves as a license to carrying on with our present lifestyles and models of production and consumption’(Ls, 59)”. But perhaps the most pertinent statement in the Message is “a change in lifestyles and attitudes is necessary and surely more important. “Christian spirituality proposes a growth marked by moderation and the capacity to be happy with little’(Ls 222)”.

Divestments and Corporate Engagement

The Church of England has been acknowledged as being in the forefront of institutional investors and has been active in its divestment from investments in thermal coal and tar sands and in its corporate engagement with fossil fuel producers in which they remain invested. It is also involved with electricity generation utilities, large energy users and producers of energy intensive products to encourage them actively to contribute to the transition to a low carbon economy. In April this year, the Church adopted of a new climate change policy recommended by the Church’s Ethical Investment Advisory Group (EIAG) that sets out how the three national investing bodies (NIBs) will support the transition to a low carbon economy.

The Roman Catholic Church has not shown great enthusiasm to follow this lead; at the launch of Laudato Si’ an article in The Guardian suggests that the Vatican may consider divestment from fossil fuels. Flaminia Giovanelli, a lay woman who serves on the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Peace and Justice is reported as saying “I think that the Vatican bank may think of initiatives which are at the core of this change. So we will see in the future … it [divestment] may be considered by the Vatican”. The article suggests that the hesitancy to act may reflect internal divisions about whether investment decisions by the Institute for Religious Works (IOR), a.k.a. the Vatican bank, which has about €6bn (£4.25bn) under management, ought to reflect Pope Francis’s values, particularly ones that might still be considered contentious within the church’s hierarchy, i.e. the climate change denier George Pell, the Australian cardinal who acts as the pope’s chief economic minister.

Max Hohenberg, a spokesman for the Vatican bank, suggested that the issue was largely irrelevant since “there really isn’t much to divest”; about 95% of the bank’s assets were invested in government bonds, and the rest was invested in stocks held in investment funds. “If you look at divestment and look at the profile of the institute”, he said, “you will come to the conclusion as an objective observer that it really does not have much relevance at the IOR,” adding that that the bank did not have any social investment policies in place; establishing one meant that it would likely be seen as a “model” within the church, “which is obviously quite a big issue”.

Comment

There is little doubt on that Laudato si’ made a significant impact worldwide on its publication and continues to provide inspirational guidance on climate change. It is pertinent, however, to question what the Roman Catholic Church itself is doing to pursue the messages within the Encyclical and ensure their adoption within the Church. In his address to the People and Planet First Conference[6], Cardinal Secretary of State Pietro Parolin considered Laudato si’ in relation to the international sphere, the national and local sphere, and the sphere of the Church – emphasising the two pressing requirements relevant to all three, namely “redirecting our steps” and promoting a “culture of care”. With regard to the Church, he said:

“ … the Catholic Church.  She finds nourishment in the example of Saint Francis who, as indicated from the very opening pages of the Encyclical, ‘lived in simplicity and in wonderful harmony with God, with others, with nature and with himself.   He shows us just how inseparable the bond is between concern for nature, justice for the poor, commitment to society, and interior peace’ (Ls 10).

Pope Francis  states once again that ‘the  Church does not presume to settle scientific questions or to replace politics’ (Ls 188), but seems to be the bearer of the need to ‘question… the meaning and purpose of all human activity’(Ls 125)”.

In terms of putting this into practice, internally the Church has the potential to influence the carbon emissions associated with its own buildings and property holdings, clergy and laity, as well as its investments. Following General Synod’s adoption of Sharing God’s Planet in 2005, the Church of England has addressed these issues with varying degrees of success, and next week’s discussions in York will be important with regard to their continued development. The successes and failures of these initiatives provide valuable lessons on how Laudato si’ might be progressed in the Catholic Church.


[1] Coopération Internationale pour le Développement et la Solidarité.

[2] https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/sdgsproposal.html.

[3] In particular, goals 11, 12, 14 and 15 of the 13th Sustainable Development Goal, “Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts.”.

[4] A more precise scientific explanation is: “incoming solar radiation is reflected by the atmosphere, but the rest is absorbed by Earth’s surface. And as the Earth absorbs that solar radiation, it also warms. That warmed surface then emits and radiates more thermal energy, and the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere absorb it.

“So technically, greenhouse gases are not preventing solar rays reflected from the Earth to be dispersed in space, they are absorbing and re-emitting longwave radiation emitted from Earth’s surface … The result is that the surface of the Earth and lower atmosphere are warmer than they would be if no GHGs, (greenhouse gases), were present.”

[5] In his introductory comments to the Encyclical on 18 June Prof Schellnhuber said: “Putting a price on CO2 emissions – either in the form of emissions cap & trade systems like the one in Europe or the one that China plans to set up, or through national CO2 taxes – is an effective instrument to protect the common good.”

[6] Cardinal Parolin spoke on “The Importance of the Encyclical Laudato Si’ for the Church and the World, in the Light of Major Political Events in 2015 and Beyond”; the, Zenit version of the text is here, and VIS narrative version here.

Cite this article as: David Pocklington, "After Laudato si’: Roman Catholic Church" in Law & Religion UK, 7 July 2015, https://lawandreligionuk.com/2015/07/07/after-laudato-si/

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