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Pope on the Pope: An Evangelical Climate Scientist Reflects on Laudato Si’

Monday, 13 July 2015  | Mick Pope

As a climate scientist cum budding eco-theologian, it is hard to contain my excitement that the head of the largest Christian denomination has made such a pronouncement on climate change, ecological issues and their underlying socio-political drivers. As an Evangelical, I have my differences with Catholicism, but this is no time to elaborate doctrinal divisions. All Christians need to turn their attention together toward the pressing issue of climate change and other ecological problems. These issues are profoundly ethical and concerned with justice and the common good; hence non-Catholics should also read this document with great interest. In what follows, I identify four key ideas from the encyclical.

The first is that science and faith are not like oil and water: they can and should mix in an appropriate manner. A number of years ago, Stephen J. Gould tried to establish that science and religion were two separate 'magisteria'. In the magisterial Laudato Si’, Pope Francis has produced a remarkable synthesis of the two by developing a holistic ecology of the human and non-human world. As the Einstein (mis?)quote says, “science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.” This encyclical is neither blind nor lame.

The Pope writes that “the Church has no reason to offer a definitive opinion; she knows that honest debate must be encouraged among experts.” He is clearly listening to the consensus of scientists and brings the two magisteria together into “an intense dialogue fruitful for both.” Such a dialogue is essential in the church where the wrong voices are often listened to, for “obstructionist attitudes, even on the part of believers, can range from de­nial of the problem to indifference, nonchalant resignation or blind confidence in technical solu­tions.”

The second key idea is one addressing the Anthropocene (although not named as such). Climate change “represents one of the principal chal­lenges facing humanity in our day.” Australia has a longer and more intense fire weather season. Sea level rise is causing the Carteret Islanders to move to mainland Papua New Guinea. Tens of thousands of people have died in European heat waves. The Indian monsoon is being disrupted. More than 2°C warming will decimate coral reefs, see further rainfall decline in southern Australia, and produce sea level rise of 'biblical' proportions in the centuries to come.

Yet climate change is not the only way in which humans have become a force for geological change on this planet. Scientists have established nine planetary boundaries for a safe operating space for humanity, and the Pope identifies many of these. For example, he notes that “Industrial waste and chemi­cal products utilized in cities and agricultural areas can lead to bioaccumulation in the organisms of the local population, even when levels of toxins in those places are low.” It has become very clear, for example, that Neonictonoids are a major factor in the decline of bees. Their loss will severely impact many of our food crops that need bees for pollination.

Francis’s eco-theology is not merely pragmatic, but shaped by passages like Psalm 104 and his namesake, when he reflects upon the role of algae, worms, insects and microorganisms, and writes, “It is not enough, however, to think of dif­ferent species merely as potential “resources” to be exploited, while overlooking the fact that they have value in themselves... [and] give glory to God by their very existence.”

Thirdly, Francis develops a holistic ecology. Humans are joined to the rest of creation, and we must “… recognize that our body itself establishes us in a direct relationship with the environment and with other living beings.” This connection is spiritual, for we have communion with the rest of creation, and must avoid being reduced either to a material/spiritual dualism or a scientific detachment that views the world from the outside: “we are not dis­connected from the rest of creatures, but joined in a splendid universal communion. As believ­ers, we do not look at the world from without but from within.”

Unlike a reductionist material account of the world, or pantheistic views (God is nature), the Pope affirms human uniqueness. He develops “an approach to ecology which respects our unique place as human beings in this world and our relationship to our surroundings” and develops a human ecology which implies “the relationship between human life and the moral law, which is inscribed in our nature and is necessary for the creation of a more dignified environment.” This dignified environment includes a sustainable relationship to nature, but also the importance of well-designed cities, drawing attention to the impacts of overcrowding, slums, violence, disconnection, and the need for access to facilities and employment.

As such, Pope Francis echoes the idea of 'donut economics': the operating of an economy that respects human needs for development and flourishing while recognising planetary boundaries. He notes: “particu­lar appreciation is owed to those who tirelessly seek to resolve the tragic effects of environmen­tal degradation on the lives of the world’s poor­est.”  He also recognises that electricity is a human right, noting that “people take sick, for example, from breathing high levels of smoke from fuels used in cooking or heating.” And yet, climate change cannot be ignored in such development, for “many of the poor live in areas particularly affected by phenomena related to warming.” Hence “a true ecological approach always becomes a so­cial approach; it must integrate questions of jus­tice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.” Part of the solution is that “developed countries ought to help pay this [ecological] debt by significantly limiting their consumption of non-renewable energy and by assisting poor­er countries to support policies and programmes of sustainable development.” The last key idea is a critique of modernity. The Pope attacks the myths of “a modernity grounded in a utilitarian mindset (individualism, unlimited progress, com­petition, consumerism, the unregulated market).” He critiques the “idea of infinite or unlimited growth” as being “based on the lie that there is an infinite supply of the earth’s goods, and this leads to the planet being squeezed dry beyond every limit.” While he praises science and technology, he warns of the Babel like view where science and technology shape our way of seeing the world in a reductionist manner, and he sees this as the cause of “the deterioration of the environ­ment” and which also “affects every aspect of human and social life.” In other words “Nobody is suggesting a return to the Stone Age, but we do need to slow down and look at reality in a different way, to appropriate the positive and sustainable progress which has been made, but also to recover the values and the great goals swept away by our unrestrained delusions of grandeur.”

Pope Francis walks a fine line, on the one hand critiquing the “exces­sive anthropocentrism” of modernity while maintaining that “Christian thought sees human beings as possessing a particular dignity above other creatures.” We are not the only game in town, but we have a unique role in using but keeping good care of the Earth (Genesis 2:15). This must be done with the biblical idea of creation at the forefront of our thinking, for “nature is usually seen as a system which can be studied, understood and controlled, whereas cre­ation can only be understood as a gift from the outstretched hand of the Father of all.”

Contrary to the grand homogenising narrative of modernity, there must be a greater respect for “the history, culture and architecture of each place”, and a wedding of two worlds in “a dialogue between scientific-technical language and the language of the people.” He gives particular place to recognition of indigenous cultures, something well-worth stressing in the Australian context.

If I have one critique of the encyclical, it is its approach to population. The Pope is correct to say “to blame population growth instead of extreme and se­lective consumerism on the part of some, is one way of refusing to face the issues.” The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has shown that over the past 30 years, the two major drivers of warming are growing affluence and population, with population’s contribution being static. It is Western lifestyles that are a major cause of climate change. However, people still need feeding, housing and so on, and more people means increasing requirements. In an ABC radio interview, Sir David Attenborough laments the forecast of 11 billion people by end of century: “We all want places to put our houses and our gardens, and roads and airports. And all that space, where's it going to come from?”

There is no moral way of dealing with population in the short term. Appropriate development and improving the lot of women in the developing world will see global population slowly level off. What is required is well articulated in the encyclical; an ecological conversion. The church, with its story of the hope of the gospel has the spiritual resources to call people to this conversion. We need to join Pope Francis in taking up this prophetic challenge, rather than staying in thrall of modernist myths, and follow the world into catastrophe.



Byron Smith
July 13, 2015, 7:53PM
Excellent summary. Thanks Dr Pope.

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