Pope Francis Gets the Moral Framing Right: Global Warming Is Where the Practical and the Moral Meet

06/25/2015 03:40 pm ET | Updated Jun 25, 2016

Beginning with my book Moral Politics in 1996 (Ch. 12), I have been arguing that environmental issues are moral issues. There I reviewed and critiqued conservative metaphors of nature as a resource, as property, as an adversary to be conquered.

Instead I argued that we needed to conceptualize nature as the giver of all life, as sustainer and provider, as having inherent value, imposing responsibility, and deserving gratitude, love, adoration, and commitment.

I suggested alternative metaphors of nature as mother, as a divine being, as a living organism, as a home, as a victim to be cared for, and a whole with us as parts inseparable from nature and from each other.

This week, Pope Francis in his Encyclical used all of these and then went much further. First, he got all the science right -- no small task. I have been writing for some time about role of systemic causation in global warming and the environment. The Pope not only got the ecological system effects right, but he went much, much further linking the environmental effects to effects on those most oppressed on earth by poverty, weather disasters, disease, ocean rise, lack of drinking water, the degradation of agriculture, and the of the essential aesthetic and spiritual contact with unspoiled nature. And more, he spoke of our moral responsibility toward animals.

He spoke in metaphors that might sound strange coming in a scientific or political speech, but somehow seem entirely natural for the Pope.

The title of the encyclical is "On Care for our Common Home." This simple phrase establishes the most important frame right from the start. Using the metaphor of the "Earth as Home", he triggers a frame in which all the people of the world are a family, living in a common home.

This frame carries with it many assumptions: As one family, we should care for each other and take responsibility for each other. A home is something we all depend on, physically and emotionally. A home is something inherently worth maintaining and protecting.

164. "...there has been a growing conviction that our planet is a homeland and that humanity is one people living in a common home."

61. "...our common home is falling into seri­ous disrepair."

13. "Humanity still has the ability to work together in building our common home."

Pope Francis explicitly states what most progressives implicitly believe but rarely say out loud: "The climate is a common good, belonging to all and meant for all." The "Common Good" frame is about interdependence, shared responsibility and shared benefit.

156. Human ecology is inseparable from the notion of the common good, a central and uni­fying principle of social ethics.

157. Society as a whole, and the state in particular, are obliged to defend and promote the common good.

Critics of Pope Francis have attacked him as having a naïve understanding of the economy, of being anti-technology, or of denying the so-called productive role of self-interest. But he is doing much more, suggesting that business and technology can, and ought to, have moral ends, especially in the face of the looming worldwide disaster of global warming. He is further pointing out, correctly, that the global warming disaster and hugely disastrous other effects were created by the business-technology axis seeking profit above all, without being structured to serve the common good.

129. Business is a noble vocation, directed to producing wealth and improving our world. It can be a fruitful source of prosperity for the areas in which it operates, especially if it sees the creation of jobs as an essential part of its service to the common good.

54. The alliance between the economy and technology ends up sidelining anything unrelated to its immediate interests.

The pope of course realizes the challenge. An alternative religion of market fundamentalism has taken hold both in public discourse and in the minds of the public -- so much so that it is hard to imagine a change in time to avert disaster.

108. The idea of promoting a different cultural paradigm and employing technology as a mere instrument is nowadays inconceivable.

Indeed, market fundamentalism has become a kind of alternative religion, with its own idea of what is natural (the primacy of self-interest) and moral (in the conservative version of the in the Invisible Hand metaphor, if everyone pursues his own profit, the profit of all will be maximized). Pope Francis correctly points out that these metaphors have run wild, "ending up" creating enormous wealth for some, disaster for the many, and the terror of global warming for the earth. In market fundamentalism, there is only "individual responsibility," no common responsibility for the common good. Without such common responsibility, there will be no way to avert the coming disasters of global warming, which has been created by market fundamentalism and will be perpetuated by it, unless it is checked.

In market fundamentalism, wealth is measure of the good: an overall increase in monetary wealth is a moral triumph. But while the industrialization of China has increased the wealth of China's capitalists, of American corporate outsourcers to China, and of the Chinese government, the Chinese have suffered an ecological and social devastation, an overwhelming "cost" -- a cost beyond the measure of money. Just look at the pollution in Beijing and desertification in western China. Via global warming, they are imposing that cost on the world, just as the industrialization of the West has in the past.

Pope Francis extends his view of morality using the commonplace economic metaphor of "Moral Accounting" in which there are debts, costs, people who owe, people who are owed, and an expectation that debts should be paid. He points out that no one makes it on his own, that pre-existing resources, often taken from others and the labor of others, have made life possible for anyone who is economically well-off. We all have debts. We also all have basic rights, e.g., to human dignity. When market fundamentalism shifts the resources of others and fruits of the labor of others to the wealthy, robbing the poor of their right to dignity, the wealthy incur a debt, a moral debt.

30. Our world has a grave social debt towards the poor who lack access to drinking water, because they are denied the right to a life consistent with their inalienable dig­nity. This debt can be paid partly by an increase in funding to provide clean water and sanitary services among the poor.

51. A true "ecolog­ical debt" exists, particularly between the global north and south, connected to commercial im­balances with effects on the environment, and the disproportionate use of natural resources by certain countries over long periods of time.

159. The Portuguese bishops have called upon us to acknowledge this obligation of jus­tice: "The environment is part of a logic of re­ceptivity. It is on loan to each generation, which must then hand it on to the next".

These are just a few examples of the many metaphors and frames used to powerful effect in this document. They have one thing in common, which they also share with the progressive value system: they are rooted in a worldview based on empathy.

This is Empathy writ large, beyond individual empathy: it is a global empathy for all humanity, all of life -- animals, fish, plants, and Nature, which provides all life. What is absent is the all too common narrow view of religion as about individuals alone, in which THE spiritual issue is whether YOU get into Heaven, and that is a matter of personal responsibility. You are responsible for yourself, not for others, not for all of life and what is life-giving. That narrow view of individual, not social or global responsibility is completely absent from the Pope's message. The message takes morality to the global level, to an ecological spirituality. It is a message especially appropriate for American democracy, which begins with the idea of union, of citizens caring for one another and taking the responsibility working through their government to provide public resources for all, whether for business or personal life, and with freedom and dignity for all as inalienable rights.

The whole Encyclical is well worth reading. It is a remarkable document and one that needs to be taken to heart not just by the world's Catholics, but by the world's full population, now and for many years into the future.

I am an advocate of the separation of church and state. I don't have a Pope. I have never tended to follow the edicts of a Pope just because he was Pope. And I am not doing so here.

It is vital to bear in mind that this Encyclical is not just a matter of church doctrine. All policy within the political domain is a matter of morality. Every politician who proposes a policy does so on the basis that it is right, nor wrong or morally irrelevant. This Encyclical is overtly about politics and the role that a global morality needs to play in politics.

I have long argued that global warming is the moral issue of our time. President Obama has said the same. I am now thrilled that Pope Francis, spiritual and moral leader of 1.2 billion Catholics, has not just agreed, but has gone so much further, and that he has framed the issue so powerfully, often in language that flows most easily and readily from a Pope, and yet makes so much moral sense, whether you are Catholic or not, religious or not.

Moral questions are not the same as practical questions. But the fate of the earth in the face of global warming is so practical a question that it becomes a moral one. That is the lens through which to read the Pope's Encyclical.

Portuguese Bishops' Conference, Pastoral Letter Re­sponsabilidade Solidária pelo Bem Comum (15 September 2003), 20.