Dear Friends in Christ:
When Pope John Paul II was “in his prime,” how did liberal Christians view him? That question was at the forefront of my mind twenty years ago when the nonprofit group for which I was working asked me to help launch a faith-based environmental coalition. Included were leaders from Christianity’s left wing – e.g., from Episcopal, UCC, and Methodist bodies – plus a prominent female Lutheran minister. It was safe for me to assume that few of these ordained people would share my Pope’s pro-life passion, but partly because I’m half Polish and three-quarters Slavic overall, I was always very protective of him.
It turned out that I had nothing to worry about: They revered him! Why? They were willing to look past our differences, and they were very familiar with the leadership trail he blazed in his powerful 1990 World Day of Peace message on the environment. In it he declared that the “greenhouse effect” (these days more commonly called global warming or climate change) had already “reached crisis proportions as a consequence of industrial growth, massive urban concentrations and vastly increased energy needs. Industrial waste, the burning of fossil fuels, unrestricted deforestation, the use of certain types of herbicides, coolants and propellants: all of these are known to harm the atmosphere and environment. The resulting meteorological and atmospheric changes range from damage to health to the possible future submersion of low-lying lands.” He made it clear that he was speaking to everyone, regardless of faith, but also exercised papal authority. “At the conclusion of this Message,” he said, “I should like to address directly my brothers and sisters in the Catholic Church, in order to remind them of their serious obligation to care for all of creation.” To me, this was a perfect illustration of what Church leaders call the Seamless Garment, that is, a consistent ethic of life extending from the firmly-established (if little-known) doctrine of Catholic Social Teaching.
I was thrilled in 2015 that Pope Francis’ first encyclical was on the environment, On Care for Our Common Home (Laudato Si’), and that, in particular, it spoke to climate change at length. It has also been very gratifying that this encyclical has received considerable attention. A year after it was published, a Georgetown University poll determined that 60% of American Catholics perceived an increase in temperatures due to higher concentrations of heat-trapping gases and that this largely results from human activity. That percentage was a bit higher than American adults as a whole. I think Laudato Si’ would have a greater effect on Catholics if we realized that a very solid foundation had been laid by Saint John Paul II a quarter of a century earlier and that it isn’t a radically new stance on the environment. In fact, in between John Paul and Francis, Pope Benedict issued similar warnings about climate change in numerous writings and speeches.
As a volunteer throughout my entire adulthood, as well as in a few jobs, I have always tried to push concern about the environment beyond liberal versus conservative, and it has been very gratifying that top Catholic leaders have done likewise. These Popes have also helped bridge an even greater gap, between theology and science, by demonstrating considerable respect for the research and computations of climate scientists. All told, our recent Popes have been role models for all denominations for stripping ideology from the care of God’s creation. Read more on our website at sj.org—click on Get Involved, Service & Outreach, and Education and Reflection.
Dear Friends in Christ: