BY ANDY BARTON
This month marks the eight-year anniversary of Pope Francis’ Encyclical Letter, Laudato Si’ (On Care for Our Common Home). When it was initially published in May 2015, it received both praise and criticism from Catholics and non-Catholics alike. In a somewhat less politically polarized world than the one we are living in today, Francis’ plea for environmental consciousness and care became linked with partisanism. Progressive, non-Catholics for whom much of the church’s moral teaching is objectionable, nonetheless praised the letter while some conservative Catholics took exception, mostly to what were regarded as critiques of capitalism.
The past eight years have done nothing to bridge the gap between political left and right and the environmental movement has become increasingly more polarizing since Laudato Si’ was published. In large part, the divide over the issue was exacerbated with a wave of Democrats elected to Congress in 2019 and the subsequent “Green New Deal” presented as a governmental response to climate change. When the Biden administration took over in 2021, the issue took on an even more partisan identity, seen by many conservatives as a part of the radical progressive agenda in the United States.
It is unfortunate that environmentalism and the specific issue of climate change have been weaponized by our political parties. For Catholics, Laudato Si’ serves as a reminder that the care for God’s creation is, above all, a tenet of Catholic Social Teaching, those fundamental principles of the Catholic faith that have been articulated through history to guide the faithful toward achieving a just society. As the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops state on their website: “Care for the earth is not just an Earth Day slogan, it is a requirement of our faith.”
Yet there are still too many people who either choose not to see the impact of climate change or believe that it simply is not an issue, despite the science (and Pope Francis’) assurances. In the increasingly rapid pace of our daily lives, it is hard to see the effects unless there is a catastrophic event like fire or flooding. But the evidence is there, both locally and globally. Things are heating up and drying out. Central Colorado is experiencing severe drought and has been since 2017, with a brief three-month reprieve in 2019, according to data from the University of Nebraska’s U.S. Drought Monitor. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) predicts the condition to persist at least through July. In El Paso County, the annual precipitation has decreased by 0.13 inches per decade since 1972, according to NOAA. In Douglas County, annual precipitation has dropped 0.4 inches per decade over the same period – that is 10% less precipitation per year today compared to 50 years ago. Those drops are significant in a land that averages less than 20 inches of precipitation per year. As the population continues to grow throughout Colorado, the implications of these trends are far more catastrophic than the watering restrictions and wildfires that we have come to live with in this state over the past 20 years.
Playing politics with climate change keeps us mired in debate and losing valuable time. As Pope Francis writes: “We lack leadership capable of striking out on new paths and meeting the needs of the present with concern for all and without prejudice toward coming generations.” We need a Catholic Church that can transcend the polarization because real change will only come through collective awareness, advocacy, and action. It is going to take the kind of solidarity and focus on the common good that the church has brought to life in serving our poor and protecting the dignity of human life.
We need the commitment of the Church because caring for our common home will inevitably be challenging. Pope Francis’ willingness to call out the uncomfortable realities was the main reason many people objected to Laudato Si’. He writes, “Many things have to change course, but it is we human beings above all who need to change.” That is a tough pill to swallow, especially when we consider the implications of the changes that Pope Francis calls out in the pages of Laudato Si’. It is an act of faith, something that often challenges our comfort in its many manifestations within the church.
If you have never read Laudato Si’, or it has been a while, I would recommend it for your summer reading list. If possible, read it outside the context of the partisan bickering of our nation. Allow Pope Francis’s words to speak to the seriousness of the crisis we are facing and to the hope that our faith can bring. If nothing else, find the two prayers that he uses to close his encyclical letter. The second ends with the exhortation: “O Lord, seize us with your power and light, help us to protect all life, to prepare for a better future, for the coming of your Kingdom of justice, peace, love, and beauty. Praise be to you!”