Pope Francis’ Advancement of the Catholic Climate Agenda

COMMENTARY: Both Pope St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict contended that life ethics and social ethics should go together in theory. Pope Francis argues that they really do go together in practice.

‘Save the Baby Humans.’ Pope Francis has explained that loving life and the environment should go hand in hand.
‘Save the Baby Humans.’ Pope Francis has explained that loving life and the environment should go hand in hand. (photo: Maria Oswalt / Unsplash)

Pope Francis issued two messages for Earth Day, April 22, including a brief video address to President Joe Biden’s two-day climate summit of world leaders. He endorsed the general climate goals of the upcoming Glasgow summit this November, just as his 2015 encyclical, Laudato Si, was intended to support the U.N. goals at the Paris climate summit that year.

Indeed, May 2020-May 2021 was declared a “Laudato Si Year” at the Vatican to give an added boost to the Glasgow summit, originally scheduled for last November.

Whenever the Vatican aligns itself with the climate agenda of the United Nations, concerns are raised about the allies that the Church finds at her side — often those who also promote policies on life, sexuality and the family at odds with Catholic teaching. 

For the most part under Pope Francis, the Vatican has simply ignored those criticisms. But in an important passage in a recent book, Pope Francis explained his thinking. 

Let Us Dream: The Path to a Better Future was released last December. The book is sui generis; it is not an interview book, but arose from interviews between the Holy Father and his authoritative biographer, Austen Ivereigh. The book is written in the Holy Father’s voice, so may be considered a ghost-written book, with the writer not so ghostly. The book’s title page states that Pope Francis is the author, “in conversation with Austen Ivereigh.”

Pope Francis explains that he sees the ecological crisis and the crisis of a “throwaway” society — abortion, euthanasia, gender ideology, family breakdown, indifference to migrants, sex trafficking, exploitation of vulnerable workers — as related. 

“I made the case [in Laudato Si] that an ecological conversion is necessary to save humanity not only from destroying nature but from destroying itself,” Pope Francis/Ivereigh wrote on pages 34-35 in Let Us Dream. “I called for an ‘integral ecology,’ an ecology that is about much more than caring for nature; it’s about caring for each other as fellow creatures of a loving God, and all that this implies.”

A large part of what is “implied” appears in the Holy Father’s subsequent 2020 encyclical, Fratelli Tutti, on the care and concern owed to each other within the human family.

In Let Us Dream, drafted at more or less the same time as Fratelli Tutti, Pope Francis makes his conceptual framework clear.

“In other words, if you think abortion, euthanasia, and the death penalty are acceptable, your heart will find it hard to care about the contamination of rivers and destruction of the rainforest,” the Holy Father writes. “And the reverse is also true.”

“So even while people will strenuously argue that these issues are different in moral terms, as long as they insist that abortion is justified but not desertification, or that euthanasia is wrong but polluted rivers are the price to pay for economic progress, we will remain stuck in the same lack of integrity that put us where we are now.”

This is a bold claim: that those who care about the environment will also care about life and family issues and vice versa. There seem to be many actors, going as far back as the United Nations mega-conferences on the environment (Rio 1992), population (Cairo 1994) and women (Beijing 1995), who are passionately committed to promoting abortion and related issues as part of an ecological agenda. Indeed, many at the Biden summit last week would be in that category.

“I believe that the future we are called to build has to begin with an integral ecology, an ecology that takes seriously the cultural and ethical deterioration that goes hand in hand with our ecological crisis,” Pope Francis writes. “The individualism brought on by the technocratic paradigm has its consequences.”

Pope Francis’ ecological priority thus includes the cultural and ethical issues of life, sexuality and family as well as his emphasis on economic justice. Leading with the environment does not neglect the other issues. Rather, the Holy Father believes that it will advance them as well. 

The concept of “integral ecology” combines two earlier concepts; “human ecology” from Pope St. John Paul II (Centesimus Annus, 1991) and “integral human development” from Pope Benedict XVI (Caritas in Veritate, 2009). 

In Caritas in Veritate, Benedict links together the teaching of Pope St. Paul VI on sexuality (Humanae Vitae, 1968) with his teaching on economic justice and development (Populorum Progressio, 1967). Benedict argues that they go together and that Catholic teaching embraces both. 

“This is not a question of purely individual morality,” writes Pope Benedict about Humanae Vitae. “The Church forcefully maintains this link between life ethics and social ethics, fully aware that ‘a society lacks solid foundations when, on the one hand, it asserts values such as the dignity of the person, justice and peace, but then, on the other hand, radically acts to the contrary by allowing or tolerating a variety of ways in which human life is devalued and violated, especially where it is weak or marginalized’” (Caritas in Veritate, 15).

Benedict here is quoting John Paul’s Evangelium Vitae (1995). John Paul and Benedict argued that the two — “life ethics” and “social ethics” — should go together in theory. Pope Francis argues that they really do go together in practice, so that advocates for the one will be led to become advocates for the other.

That view animates the Holy Father’s enthusiasm for the U.N. climate agenda, not as a rival to his own social magisterium, but as a means of advancing it. Whether that is a dream — as the book title suggests — or reality will become clearer in the time between Biden’s climate summit and the U.N. meeting in Glasgow later this year.