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Can Pope Francis Change the Moral Climate on Climate Change?

06/18/2015 09:59 am ET | Updated Jun 18, 2016
ALBERTO PIZZOLI via Getty Images

Although l'Espresso magazine already leaked a draft of Pope Francis's encyclical on the environment, anticipation of its official release is still causing a stir. The encyclical is more than an instruction, it is a global wake-up call. Pope Francis wants decisive and immediate action, and he won't accept excuses.

Two Catholic candidates for the Republican presidential nomination haven't waited for the encyclical's release to declare that the pope has over-reached. Jeb Bush challenged the pope's authority to address the issue in the first place:

I don't get my economic policy from my bishops or my cardinals or my pope... [Religion] ought to be about making us better as people and less about things that end up getting into the political realm.

Rick Santorum went further ignoring the scientific consensus on man-made climate change and that the pope himself has a graduate degree in chemistry. Speaking as a Catholic, he advised:

We're probably better off leaving science to the scientists and focus on what we're really good on, which is theology and morality. When we get involved with political and controversial scientific theories, then I think the church is probably not as forceful and credible.

Both Bush and Santorum would like to characterize climate change as a back-burner economic and political dispute, not as the moral challenge of our times. Climate change threatens the lives and welfare of future generations, as well as the integrity of the planet itself. A proponent of "ecojustice," Pope Francis sees climate change not only as problem in the future but as integrally tied to a host of social justice issues demanding our immediate attention. Runaway consumption and the exploitation of natural resources and human labor have created a severe burden for poor people, especially in developing nations, and a crisis of unprecedented proportion for everyone.

Oddly enough, many of Francis's opponents seem to think of morality as limited to personal and family values. Presumably, they are more comfortable with Catholic leaders opposing abortion, contraception, and same sex marriage. It may be that some bishops are as well. At their annual spring general assembly last week, the U.S. bishops drafted their strategic priorities for 2017-2020. Recycling their priorities over the past several years, they failed to include climate change, poverty, or inequality, the very issues at the top of Pope Francis's agenda.

Perhaps some are concerned that ecojustice activism may mean joining forces with those who do not share their views on population control. The pope, however, seems to be taking a "big-tent" approach to building an ecojustice coalition. The head of the Pontifical Academy of the Sciences, Archbishop Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo, bluntly dismissed the objection raised by a Catholic watchdog group that the pope was wrong in collaborating with advocates of abortion and contraception, like Jeffrey Sachs and United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. Sordono urged that Catholic critics broaden their perspective: "Unfortunately, there is not only the drama of abortion, but there are also all these other dramas, in which you should also be interested, because they are closely related."

The pope won't allow ecclesiastical or political leaders to pigeonhole the climate change crisis as an isolated ideological issue unrelated to morality and religion. Nor will he be cowed by those who challenge his authority to rally support for a cause that has for far too long been mired in partisan politics and economic self-interest. The pope is taking his case directly to all of us who share life on this planet, whatever our politics and whatever our religious perspective. We are share a common fate and, like it or not, moral responsibility for that fate. The new wine of ecojustice can't be held in the old wineskins of political parties, hierarchical indifference, national sovereignty, and moral myopia.