Pope Francis plants a flag in the ground on climate change

Make no mistake about it, there is no longer any rationale for division between science and faith. Over the past decades, scientists and persons of faith have learned to dance in a complementary manner, a “non-overlapping magisterium” as the saying sometimes goes. But as prior conflicts were found to be more molehill than mountain, leaders among the scientific and religious communities have explored collaborative ways to answer scientific questions and provide solutions to real-world problems that reflect a universal motivation to care for our fellow humans and honor our religious traditions.

Such collaboration is necessary, particularly in areas where the impacts of science so deeply affect the lives of people around the world. A present example comes from our changing climate. As I’ve written in these pages before, my work in the developing world has provided me with first-hand experience of how somewhat abstract and theoretical “global warming” studied in my office in the United States is manifested as human impacts, particularly in subsistence agricultural nations. These subsistence countries are already feeling the impacts of climate change. Ironically, those with the least ability to adapt are being impacted beyond their contribution to the problem.

I am a scientist and my motivation for studying climate change is driven by both a desire to understand the Earth’s environment, but also to provide information for decision makers. What are the impacts of taking certain actions? How will they affect the future climate of our children? But that is as far as my science hat can take me. The actual decisions we make to deal with climate change must come from the values of our society and the cost-benefit analyses of taking action.

But there are some in our society who specialize in human values, they think about what actions reflect ethical and moral values we hold as a collective society; in some cases, these are religious leaders.

A recent news splash was made of predictions of an encyclical soon to be given by Pope Francis, the spiritual leader of the Catholic Church with its 1.2 billion members. This encyclical is expected to further solidify the Catholic Church’s strong stance on climate change and its focus on the impact to people around the globe. As examples of this tradition, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops made early and public statements about the challenge of climate change. Among other statements, in 2011, Pope Benedict XVI strongly supported international climate change action. And now, Pope Francis continues that tradition. But this soon-to-be released encyclical should properly be viewed as a continuation of strong statements he has made since ascending to the papacy.

I asked Dr. Michael Naughton, Professor of Catholic Studies at the University of St. Thomas about the significance of the expected encyclical. He told me,

For Francis, our ecological crisis highlights how important the relationship between faith and science is. On one hand, science enriches faith by protecting it from superstition and ideologies. On the other hand, faith helps science to see the deeper human implications of the reality in front of it. One of the terms that will most likely to come from Francis’ encyclical is ‘human ecology,’ which sees our ecological crisis in terms of both our natural as well as cultural and social environments.

While it is not clear what will be in the encyclical, it likely will urge Catholics around to world to take action in their own lives to preserve the environment for themselves, others, and for future generations. The urging will be based on both moral and scientific bases. It may surprise people, but the Catholic Church has long had active and informed scientific bodies which have informed the papacy, in fact there is a Pontifical Academy of Sciences which serves such a purpose.

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Posted by John Abraham on Tuesday, 6 January, 2015

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