The Pope, the Planet and Public Health

05/05/2015 05:56 pm ET | Updated May 05, 2016

As far as I can tell, there seem to be two basic religious attitudes toward the planet. One may be summed up along the lines of: It was made for us, and we can do whatever we want with it (or to it). The other is: It was made for us, it is precious beyond measure, and our appreciation for the gift is reflected in how we care for it.

Perhaps there are others, but I am no theologian; these are the obvious divisions I've encountered.

I much prefer the "maybe we ought to take care of it" perspective. For one thing, I am rather fond of this little planet. For another, like every parent, I've been at the other end of the gifting scenario. When my wife and I make or acquire something very special for our kids, we generally prefer that they not carve it to bits and spit on it.

So for reasons having nothing to do with religion, sign me up for membership in the camp that believes since it was beautiful when we got it, we ought to try to keep it that way.

But of course my opinion on the matter carries very little weight. In comparison to the vast impact of human machinations on the fate of this planet, my personal following -- no offense to those of you here, I appreciate you! -- is inconsequential. In addition, no one seeking religious or theological guidance on the topic is tuning in to my sermons. Mine is a secular program.

I can only say, then, how delighted I was to read yesterday in the New York Times that the Pope is on my side. Or rather, I'm on the Pope's side. Well, we are on the same team.

Pope Francis has advocated for responsible stewardship of our precious, planetary gift right along. Now, though, he is devoting an encyclical to climate change, our implication in it, and what nations around the world should be doing about it. In general, I am not unduly preoccupied with such literal Pontifications, but in this case I am certainly inspired to say: Amen, Holy Father!

The situation is particularly interesting because the political camp inclined to refute our implication in climate change is home to many Catholics. Media coverage quotes those who contend the Pope is being "misled" on the topic; but that would seem to be a precarious allegation against someone with a hotline to the Almighty. If the Pope resides in special proximity to absolute truth from a higher authority, then his views on what's right really have to carry special weight and credibility. If not, well that opens up an entirely different concern. Either way, it seems to be an in-for-a-penny, in-for-a-pound scenario: the Pope's opinion matters, or it does not.

I have noted I am no theologian, and I can go a bit further. I prefer evidence to faith. I like science. Evolution is a fact. Religion is not really my thing.

On that basis, I suppose I could be dismissive of the Pope's opinion on this topic (and he of mine!). I suppose I might contend that the Pope holds other positions with which I disagree, and espouses views opposing my own -- so we simply don't belong on the same team. I might even argue that some of the doctrine advocated by the Pope seems to me, as an outsider, rather silly.

But were I to do so, I would be missing the big picture.

There are more than 7 billion of us here now, and it's what most of us do that will define our relationship to the planet, the environment, and the climate. I can potentially reach hundreds of thousands via this very outlet; but even if I did, and everyone among that number were fully persuaded, we wouldn't be a large enough group to matter. The Pope is speaking to hundreds of millions; that might be.

More importantly, our congregations differ not only in size, but in demographics. There are no doubt some of you who visit here, and adhere to the Pope. But by and large, I suspect the Pope's message effectively reaches constituencies disinclined to pay much attention to me; and maybe, on a smaller scale, vice versa.

Which means it's good for the cause for us, and many others besides, to be on the same team. Not because we are alike, but because we are different. Not because we always agree; but because we agree about this. Not because we are reaching the same audiences, but because we are reaching distinct audiences, and by coming together, have the potential to bring them together, too; and grow the movement.

So again, amen, Holy Father!

Some of you may by now have discerned that I seem to have some other axe to grind here, and you are correct. I don't think I have to be Catholic to agree with the Pope about the climate. And while each of us might be judged by keeping the company of the other on this issue, we might be better judged, apart and together, for the common cause that brings us together in the first place.

As a Preventive Medicine specialist, my career-long mission has been preventing disease, promoting health, adding years to life and life to years. What we know reliably about lifestyle as medicine has stunning potential to do exactly that. Turning that body of knowledge into the power of routine action is encumbered by a variety of challenges, but salient among them is our cultural disinclination to acknowledge that we know where "there" is. Agreeing on the destination is prerequisite to directing the necessary resources to enable and empower us all to get there from here.

Despite appearances to the contrary, I know that there is a massive consensus about where "there" is, i.e., what constitutes the fundamentals of healthy living, including dietary pattern. And I have devoted this stage of my career to exposing that massive, empowering global consensus among experts and influencers, long veiled from the public by the forces of private profit at the public's expense.

In so doing, I have apparently invited a variety of ad-hominem-by-proxy attacks in Cyberspace directed at me, and at those who join with me. The allegation is generally along the lines of: I dislike someone on this Council, or reject their views on something, therefore I say it harms you and the effort to have them on board.

Nonsense. I am delighted to be aligned with the Pope on the climate; I have not become Catholic.

As with planetary stewardship, the modern trends in public health are shaped not by individuals, but by cultural patterns. Decisions or commitments made by any few of us cannot matter much. Decisions and commitments made by us in unprecedented congregations, sufficient to change cultural norms, alter social circumstances, and modify environments -- can move the very mountains of modern epidemiology. The job is rather monumental; only in a unity not seen before does the strength reside to get it done.

This, then, is the rationale for the Council of Directors of the True Health Coalition, an assemblage, thus far, of over 150 of the world's leading experts and influencers in the area of diet, lifestyle, and health -- from more than 20 countries. We are not all endorsing one another; we are endorsing core truths, and common cause.

I had not thought to invite the Pope to join us, despite our disagreements about some other things, but maybe I should. Sustainability figures directly in efforts to promote better health for ourselves, and our children. The dietary patterns decisively associated with human health benefit have similarly salutary implications for the environment. Conversely, efforts at planetary protection, from climate stabilization to the preservation of potable water sources, cannot succeed if dismissive of the massive impact of prevailing patterns of diet, and lifestyle.

Yes, I am suggesting, or requesting, that those who go prowling through a roster to look for a name they don't like as a reason to cast aspersions at the whole enterprise should stop. Each additional member means access to a larger and more diverse following, including a contingent of adherents who might otherwise not be listening at all; and that in turn means a larger following for the cause, and a greater likelihood of making a meaningful difference.

If the Hatfields and the McCoys came together to defend the world from an extra-terrestrial invasion, would they be better judged by the company they were keeping -- or the cause?

Here's to taking good care of this precious planet of ours, and here's to doing the same with the precious commodity of health.

Pope Francis, in case you are listening: there's a spot on the Council for you any time you like. But no -- I'm still not Catholic.


David L. Katz, MD, MPH, FACPM, FACP is the founder of the True Health Coalition, and will gladly stand with anyone of influence in the service of this cause who is willing to stand with him, whatever their bowling average, bathroom tissue, or beliefs about the Easter Bunny.

Director, Yale University Prevention Research Center; Griffin Hospital

Editor-in-Chief, Childhood Obesity

Founder, The GLiMMER Initiative