For the many of us—clergy and laypeople, academics and plain citizens, in the U.S. and throughout the world—who for decades have been saying that the environmental crisis calls for a religious perspective and an activist religious response Pope Francis’ bold words are a wonderfully welcome addition.
At least three things give those words special weight: first, as the years pass the reality of both global warming in particular and the other dimensions of the crisis (including the vast scale of pollution, species loss, and environmental illness) have become increasingly clear. Second, Pope Francis has established himself as a humble, intelligent, and authentic spiritual leader. If political conservatives resent his critique of capitalism, and cultural conservatives wish he would condemn homosexuals, an awful lot of other people (Catholic or not) see him as a man trying to live up to the traditional Christian virtues of love, forgiveness, and humility.
Third, and perhaps most important: Francis is clearly and unambiguously (for the most part, at least, skirting population control) calling a spade a spade: he rejects consumerism and unfettered capitalism, anthropocentrism and turning the earth into “an immense pile of filth.” He does not take refuge in vague generalities or idealistic appeals to unthreatening platitudes.
As an essentially secular person, I am delighted. Every (serious) environmentalist needs every other (serious) environmentalist. If there was ever an “issue” on which religious and secular, scientists and critical theorists, people of all races and nations and cultures might agree, it is this one.
We are left, however, with some serious questions. First: to what degree will anything said by the Pope, or any other religious leader from the head of the World Council of Churches to the Patriarch of Orthodox Christianity, make a difference? Some years ago I read that American Catholics use birth control at the same rate as non-Catholics. As a predominantly Christian country the overwhelming consumerist and militarist U.S. is clearly paying scant heed to Biblical admonitions against wealth, violence, revenge, or arrogance. As one woman from Italy interviewed on the radio said about his environmental stand: “I like this Pope—so I will do what he says.” The implication being, of course, that if she didn’t like him she might not.
In the end it may be that for the vast majority of people religious virtues are simply too demanding to live up to. Loving your enemy (even loving your neighbor), overcoming desire, truly seeing Allah as the only God (as opposed to wealth, power, or masculine privilege), and so forth are observed much more in the breach than in reality throughout the world’s religious communities. Perhaps the values and virtues of religious environmentalism—care and respect for other creatures, concern for the future of the earth, carefully avoiding any industrial policy which harms the most vulnerable—are just too hard to follow as well.
The second question concerns the behavior of the Catholic Church itself: its vast wealth and property, the institutions it directs, the level of consumption of its leading figures (from bishops and cardinals to the presidents of Catholic universities and heads of Catholic hospitals). How much property could be sold, with proceeds going to green the ones that are left? How many cuts in salary or benefits would the top men be willing to accept in order to do their part? What kinds of sacrifices will the Church advocate for its better off members throughout the world: that they should eat more locally, stop consuming meat, drive less, fly less, challenge existing ecologically destructive policies and powers, and start being really careful with everything they throw “away”? Where is the church’s wealth invested and when will that wealth be disinvested from the fossil fuel industry? When will powerful lay members of the church, what we Jews call the “big givers,” hear that wealth derived from global warming or other forms of pollution is no more acceptable than wealth derived from prostitution rings or drug sales?
The sad truth is that the Catholic Church, like the university which pays my salary, like almost all the concentrations of wealth and power in the world, depend heavily on an economy and industrial system that are environmentally destructive. It is fine and fitting for Francis to scold governments and corporations and greedy consumers. But the scolding must include his own huge community, and given his position a series of detailed environmental guidelines—perhaps not orders but definitely stronger than mere suggestions—need to follow.Finally, there are the related questions of hope and despair. While the Pope’s declaration is one among many positive signs, the overall tendency in environmental matters has been continuing deterioration. The sheer quantity of refuse we’ve deposited in earth, air, and water; the crushing number of extinguished species; the rising costs to economies, cities, villages and islands. As well, and most significant, the way the majority of the most powerful commit themselves to only minor variations in business as usual. What is a realist to do, but despair of our species?
Theists have one advantage over those of us whose sense of the sacred is limited to the natural universe. This advantage resides in the belief that there is, at the heart of existence, an Intelligence and Intention that is fundamentally on the side of goodness, love, and care. Like the cowboys who used to ride over the hill to come to the rescue at the end of the movies I saw as a child, belief in God serves as a beacon of trust that Someone, Somehow, is On Our Side.
Exactly how this will work out in practice is somewhat vague, and surely every believer is aware of all the times—the wars, plagues, famines, abused children, and genocides—when at least in the short run only evil triumphed. Yet we do not have to know how God is on our side to be comforted by the thought that She is. Indeed it is one of the characteristics of both institutional religions and non-denominational and eclectic spirituality to believe that whatever happens in the short run, by a mysterious cosmic calculus every good act matters—somehow. While some will talk of Heaven and others of Karma, and others not know what to say, there is a trust that it makes some kind of difference to live with love, even if we cannot see what kind of difference that is. Again: those of us who are, for want of a better term, “naturalists,” can have no such faith or hope.
Yet perhaps, and here I speak simply for myself, the ultimate outcome is not what matters most. Ask yourself: if you possessed a completely accurate crystal ball that could foretell the future with unerring accuracy; and the ball showed you a future in which completely acidified oceans, near constant overwhelming droughts and floods, tens of millions of climate refugees, and decimated agriculture have all come true—well, what then?
Would it then make sense to give up our work, leave the fridge door open, buy a gas guzzler, stop teaching and writing and talking to people we know and demanding that governments and corporations and churches and universities change their ways? Even if we won’t win, should we stop trying to live with love?
I don’t think so and in whatever ways we disagree about God, Heaven, Scripture, or the role of gender in religious institutions, I am reasonably sure the Pope doesn’t think so either. Let our work continue. Let us live lives of love. Whatever the future holds, it’s the best way to live today.
Roger S. Gottlieb is professor of philosophy at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. This essay is adapted from the just published For Our Common Home, edited by John B. Cobb. Two of Gottlieb’s most recent books are the Nautilus Book Award winners Spirituality: What it Is and Why it Matters and Engaging Voices: Tales of Morality and Meaning in an age of Global Warming.