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Pope Francis, the Common Good and Global Climate Change

06/13/2015 04:16 pm ET | Updated Jun 13, 2016

It is a line repeated with tiresome regularity in right-wing circles: Pope Francis has no business proposing solutions to the crisis of global climate change. He is not a scientist, they say. He should stick to morals and to matters of faith and doctrine.

Pope Francis' defenders point out that climate change is a moral question. If the destruction of the planet's ecological health is not a moral concern, then what is? But while climate change is certainly a moral issue, it is something much larger and more significant than that. It is a threat to the common good of the world It is menacing the globe's well-being and even the integrity of nations. There are the island nations, of course: the Maldives, Fiji, the many islands and atolls of Micronesia, of course.

But even the Cape Verde Islands and Tonga are at grave risk. It is not a coincidence that Pope Francis conferred the rank of cardinal on Arlindo Gomes Furtado (Cape Verde Islands) and Soane Patiti Paini Mafi (Tonga). They are the first cardinals to represent these small nations, but they have clearly been given a responsibility to the world: to stand at the front line of looming climate catastrophe and carry the message of a world at risk to all of humanity.

Even the world's superpowers are not immune from the effects of climate change. Climate change is disrupting agriculture and water supplies in China. It is melting the Siberian permafrost and releasing thousands of tons of trapped methane in Russia. And it is eroding American coastlines and threatening harbors and beaches close to home. There is no question -- the world is at risk.

Pope Francis now means to address this growing crisis and he intends to do so in the name of the common good. As we look forward to his message, we should understand something of what is meant by the "common good" as Catholics use this term. For I predict that we shall hear this term mentioned frequently in the weeks and months ahead.

The "common good" is a term that has an ancient meaning and Popes have long invoked that ancient heritage. The idea of the common good can be traced as far back as Aristotle. Aristotle maintained that there were certain concerns so widely shared that it was uniquely the community's responsibility to address them. Thus, the community was supposed to see to the common defense, prosecute crime, and ensure that the marketplace operated fairly and to the benefit of all. The community should aim, in other words, at creating the conditions that allowed its members to lead "the good life."

This is not the way contemporary Americans view politics. Politics, as it is widely understood and practiced today, is about satisfying individual interests and wants. Politics in the United States is about short term fixes and quick solutions. It is missing the sober, long-term thinking that comes with reflection on the common good. Just from the standpoint of thinking about problem-solving, I suspect Pope Francis will have some important things to say.

When Pope Francis speaks about the defense of the common good later this week, he will, furthermore, be joining a long line of pontiffs who have used this mode of reasoning to advocate for a better world. The modern papacy might be said to have its origin with Leo XIII (1878-1903). Leo inherited a papacy in deep disarray following Pope Pius IX's military defeats and the loss of the papal states. But Leo had the foresight to realize that the papacy might be rebuilt, not on geographic ambitions or political expedience, but as the conscience and moral voice to the world.

Leo XIII most famously appealed to the conscience of the world in his 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum (best translated as "On Revolution"). Writing near the end of the Industrial Revolution, he feared a death struggle between two opposing camps: the plutocratic captains of industry against socialism. Leo sought a middle ground, most especially by stating a vigorous case for the rights of labor. This much, he said, was demanded by the common good.

Subsequent popes made use of similar arguments, especially on the questions of economic development and justice. St. John XXIII was especially emphatic on these themes. In Mater et Magistra (1961), good Pope John endorsed the modern welfare state: nations today, he asserted, must provide social security and disability for those too old or otherwise unable to work; and they must also commit to ensuring the well-being of workers and farmers.

Pope Paul VI and Benedict XVI both fit firmly within this tradition begun by Leo and advanced by John XXIII. In 1967, Paul VI promulgated Populorum Progressio -- on Human Progress. Recognizing the breakdown of traditional societies, Paul recommended building just social structures to assist in the transition to modernity. Education, just and fair wages, the promotion of human development and flourishing, these were the goals Paul VI called on the world to meet. "Freedom from misery" (para. 6) was his ambition. And in Caritas in Veritate ("Love in Truth," 2009), Pope Benedict XVI warmly restated Paul's lofty ideals.

All of these documents were issued in the name of a global common good. Like his predecessors, Pope Francis sees himself as uniquely empowered to explain and defend the common good. What he is about to do, in other words, is not revolutionary. Popes have long spoken in the way that Francis is about to. But while his defense of the common good is traditional, he is expanding its focus. His vision now takes in the whole question of planetary health.

And, truly, global climate change presents questions about the common good in new and powerful ways. Climate change affects all alike. It crosses boundaries. It threatens not merely humanity but other species and forms of life. The "common" in common good, in other words, is about to receive its most expansive definition -- now encompassing not merely local or national communities, but the entire world.

I expect this week to see Pope Francis reinvigorate the long-standing practice of Popes to speak constructively about the common good. Let us hope it is to good effect.