Why We Should Read Pope Francis’s Encyclical on Creation

If you have been paying attention to the media hype about Pope Francis’s first encyclical, Laudato Si’, you might be forgiven for assuming that the pope’s 180-page encyclical is devoted to the issue of climate change. In fact, the encyclical devotes relatively little attention to the phenomena of global warming: as little as 2% of its text, according to climate change skeptic Calvin Beisner. It offers but a cursory summary of the scientific consensus, calling the faithful to accept that consensus and take steps to curb global warming. But it offers nothing in the way of an argument that would persuade a climate change skeptic to change her position on the issue. The only way that might happen is if the skeptic in question is a Catholic Christian – or otherwise admirer of Pope Francis – who is committed to following papal direction for its own sake.

The danger, however, is that a thoughtful, theologically insightful, and morally helpful statement of the Catholic Church’s teaching on creation will be ignored by many conservatives because of its conclusions regarding climate change. This danger is all the greater given the valid economic critiques that have been raised against the encyclical by Catholic intellectuals such as my friend Sam Gregg, not to mention the criticism from climate change activists and scientists that Pope Francis significantly understates the threat of global warming.

You might be surprised, then, to learn that Laudato Si’ is first and foremost a theological document whose assertions regarding policy are presented cautiously and tentatively – as proposals for debate and discussion – rather than as conversation stoppers.

The pope is quite clear on this point:

[T]here is no one path to a solution. This makes a variety of proposals possible, all capable of entering into dialogue with a view to developing comprehensive solutions [60]. On many concrete questions, the Church has no reason to offer a definitive opinion; she knows that honest debate must be encouraged among experts, while respecting divergent views. But we need only take a frank look at the facts to see that our common home is falling into serious disrepair [61].

It is worth emphasizing that when the pope speaks of “this situation” which requires a solution he is not primarily referring to the problem of climate change. Rather, he is talking about ecological deterioration in general. We are wrecking our planet in more ways than one, and the pope’s fundamental thesis is that in doing so we are failing both to love God and our neighbor by failing to live as stewards of the creation that he has given to us as a gift.

The solution, Francis is at pains to stress, cannot consist simply of changes in laws or regulations. What is required is nothing less than “ecological conversion” away from the self-centered, consumerist-driven, technocratic paradigm that dominates modern society and that leads modern society to dominate [i.e., ruthlessly exploit] creation. (It is the same sort of dominating attitude, the pope points out, that characterizes modern attitudes toward the embodied human being, giving rise to moral catastrophes ranging from abortion to rampant confusion about gender.) On this central point, as I hope to argue in forthcoming posts, Laudato Si’ is a praiseworthy and helpful document. I would even go so far as to say that it is one that all serious Christian leaders should read.

But why, you may ask, is the pope taking a position on global warming, a point on which there are “honest debate[s]” and “divergent views.” Here, it is clear, the pope must defer to the experts. But he obviously believes that there is a meaningful consensus that the church is obligated to take seriously.

I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, as a Reformed Protestant I do not believe the pope has any divine authority within the church. Just as important, following Calvin I would argue that the church has no authority to offer official pronouncements on matters of academic debate or public policy. Its public authority is tied up with, or contained within, the Word. When the church attempts to use its spiritual authority to “come down” on matters of controversy or disagreement it almost always ends up undermining its own credibility. The exceptions – areas on which scriptural teaching is relatively clear – merely prove the rule.

So while I am an admirer of the tradition of Catholic social teaching, I think that teaching is at its best when it avoids pronouncements on specific policies.

On the other hand, I believe the document’s clear theological teaching on what evangelicals like to call creation care is desperately needed within conservative evangelical circles. We tend to be dangerously and irresponsibly suspicious of environmental concerns. To be sure, as the pope notes, there is a radical sort of environmentalism that is in sharp conflict with Christianity. But too many conservative Christians have gone to the opposite extreme of turning environmentalism into a whipping boy. How many times have I heard pastors drop off-handed remarks dripping with scorn for “environmentalism”? How often do our writers list environmental concerns as one of those areas on which Christians need not work towards any substantive agreement? It’s as if stewardship for creation were no more important than what baseball team you root for or what style of music you like.

In part this dismissive attitude arises from an unhealthy skepticism toward science and the scientific community. It is true that within certain strands of society there is far too great of a deference towards science. But too many evangelicals go to the opposite extreme.

Let’s face it, for most of us our conclusions regarding biology or quantum physics, let alone climate change or evolution, come down to who we decide to trust (which, incidentally, is one good reason why the church should abstain from ruling definitively on these matters). For instance, most of us are not experts on the matter of climate change, and it is eminently reasonable for us to defer to the consensus of the scientific community (this book offers a good introduction to the issue). On the other hand, it can be praiseworthy to withhold judgment while continuing to learn from what others have to say. The scientific community has not done a very good job persuading the American public of its concerns about climate change in a measured, sympathetic way. But populists on both sides tend to be dogmatic and even shrill, undermining the trust necessary for thoughtful and open-minded communication. Both sides need to do the hard work of listening and learning in a spirit of humility and respect.

Enough about that. I want to stress that this encyclical is not primarily about global warming. I’ll have more to say about the positive aspects of the pope’s encyclical in the next few posts. For now let me just say: Read it. Reflect upon it. Take its call to Christian stewardship seriously. It won’t do you any harm, and it just might do your Christian sanctification a world of good.


About Matthew J. Tuininga

Matthew J. Tuininga is the Assistant Professor of Moral Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Posted on June 25, 2015, in Conservatism, Environment, Evangelicals and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Why We Should Read Pope Francis’s Encyclical on Creation.

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