THE BLOG

Pope Francis and Climate Change: A Catholic Tradition

02/02/2015 11:17 am ET | Updated Apr 04, 2015

By Carolyn Woo

In taking up the important issue of climate change, Pope Francis is acting in the long tradition of the Catholic Church to decry threats to the world God has created and entrusted to us as well as injustices that endanger humanity and disproportionately affect the poor.

In 1891, Pope Leo XIII issued a document called Rerum Novarum which addressed the moral dimensions of economic life in light of the Church's tradition dating back through Sacred Scripture. This teaching reminds us that the goods of Creation are meant to benefit all humankind. Private property and the free market system must advance the well-being of all and the earth that sustains us. The document uplifted the sanctity of the individual, responding the many collectivist ideologies proposed to redress the inequities wrought by the industrial revolution.

In subsequent generations, Popes have added to this body of work that came to be known as Catholic Social Teaching. That is what Francis is doing today, building on the established teaching of the Church and relying on the Catholic belief that science illuminates and reveals the creation of our Lord and shapes the actions of mankind.

One theme throughout Catholic Social Teaching is a respect for free markets as necessary for individual dignity along with a recognition of the injustice and despair that can result from the excesses of capitalism. It is in this tradition that Francis takes on climate change, not to constrict the entrepreneurial spirit that God has placed in humanity, but to ensure that the changes wrought by the overreliance on fossil fuels do not damage our world and its communities and countries in a way that does not allow their citizens to retain their dignity, their autonomy, their God-given rights.

At Catholic Relief Services, we are very aware of the impact of climate change on the poor around the world; that those who have contributed the least to this problem are suffering -- and will suffer -- the most from it.

In Bangladesh, rising sea levels make flooding more frequent and severe. A continued rise will send millions fleeing, affecting not just those who must leave their homes but also neighboring communities and countries that will receive them. In Central America, scientists see that temperature changes are threatening the future of traditional cash crops, sending many more into cities to seek work. There they will encounter the conditions -- poverty, violence -- that motivate thousands to embark on dangerous journeys to the United States as refugees. In the Philippines, ferocious typhoons are hitting unprepared areas that have never seen such storms before. In the Sahel region of Africa, droughts are becoming more frequent and of longer duration.

Pope John Paul II recognized that we must take responsibility for such consequences, stating, "We face a fundamental question which can be described as both ethical and ecological. How can accelerated development be prevented from turning against man? How can one prevent disasters that destroy the environment and threaten all forms of life, and how can the negative consequences that have already occurred be remedied?"

He said that, "the stronger and richer nations must have a sense of moral responsibility for the other nations, so that a real international system may be established which will rest on the foundation of the equality of all peoples and on the necessary respect for their legitimate differences."

Pope Francis knows that God calls us to act. And that in acting, we will not only save so many poor from the sufferings brought about by climate change, but, as Leo XIII understood 123 years ago, will also preserve the role of the free market as necessary for the dignity and progress of mankind, saving it from its own excesses.

Carolyn Woo is president of Catholic Relief Services, the official overseas humanitarian agency of the Catholic community in the United States.