The Pope on the Environment

By Charles Bayer
The Pope’s encyclical is about morality not simply climate change.  Contrary to Rick Santorum, morality is about much much more than sex. It falls completely within the bounds of religion to address those moral issues that conservatives want religious figures to avoid.
It will take a long time before any of us understand the implications encased in Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment. This long and complex treatise (Audato Si) will be the subject of extended discussions and PhD dissertations as long as the Catholic Church exists.
The simplistic reading, which may be all that this writer can capably do, might be reduced to two seemingly separate but interrelated issues:

1. There is climate change evidenced by a dangerous level of global warming, and the scientific community is almost unanimous in affirming that human activity is a significant cause.
2. Our market driven economic system in which technology, production and profits are more important than the preservation of our home, the earth, lies beneath the problem.
These two matters are joined in our dependence on fossil fuels, first coal, then oil and finally gas. Clearly confronting this combination amounts to a frontal assault on unrestrained capitalism, not as an inadequate economic theory, but as a root cause of an environmental disaster.
While the Pope’s letter is being seen as a solid endorsement of the long established position held by environmentalists and their political colleagues, it is playing havoc with conservatives who don’t know what to do with it. Here is what two usually rational conservative columnists have said. David Brooks of the New York Times opined that the Pope had overreached in his attack, and ignored the fantastic progress which has been made by capitalism, and particularly by our use of fossil fuels. Michael Gerson of the Washington Post, while not directly endorsing Francis’ position, suggests that the Republican party needs to back off its unrestrained denial strategy as being scientifically wrong, politically dangerous and ethically questionable.
Rick Santorum, a deeply dedicated Catholic, wonders why the Pope is concerning himself and the church with an economic matter, and suggests that his Holiness would do better sticking to moral issues. Granted, the Pope is neither an economist nor a scientist, but neither is Santorum.
The other Presidential hopefuls are hopping around on hot coals not knowing what to say.
At any rate, Francis’ letter is a body blow to climate change deniers. Santorum’s comment goes to the heart of what I want to talk about. What is the proper relationship between political or scientific concerns and religious or moral issues? If there is a wall of separation between church and state, how do religionists dare comment on what seem to be political issues?
When conservatives, Catholic and otherwise, insist that religious spokespersons stick to moral issues, what are the moral issues they are talking about? Santorum sums them up under the catch-all term “family values.” By that he means gay marriage, abortion, birth control, homosexuality and any sexual activity outside marriage. So morality is reduced to sex! The danger to the planet through climate change is not a moral issue because it has nothing to do with the sole venue for morality, which is copulation and its consequences.  
Anyone or any group that fixated on sex as the only sphere of morality might do well with some sort of counseling.

So peace, poverty, hunger, injustice, and environmental catastrophe are not subjects for religious moral scrutiny—only sexual matters. Is it any wonder why the religious preference of increased millions of Americans is “none” and millions of former Christians are now in the “no longer” camp. On the other hand this statement by one of the world’s best known religious leaders may just convince a few that they might have given up on religion a bit early. The notion that religion should stick to its limited venue and stay out of issues bound to be political, is deeply rooted in American society. So what is the proper role for religious leaders in matters of public policy?
Can someone in the name of religion legitimately examine the range of issues the encyclical broaches, or does such an intrusion violate the so-called wall of separation between church and state?

The Supreme Court has consistently ruled that what has been called the wall of separation does not prohibit vigorous involvement by religious leaders in matters of the common interest and societal well-being.
Clearly the government has no constitutional right to support religion by passing laws or making executive decisions that benefit religious institutions. But even that rule is not absolute:  there are, for instance, chaplains in Congress and the military.  And no religious body has a right to be sustained by laws favoring or affirming its dogma or its organization. While this prohibition flows from the establishment clause in the First Amendment, the free exercise clause stands along side. So while there is no organic link that would establish a single religion or religion in general, there is no constitutional wall between religion and public policy.

If religion has any value beside its limited parochial or doctrinal formulation, it is vitally important for it to exercise whatever persuasive power it possesses in order to advocate on behalf of any issue concerned with human welfare, the just interaction among peoples or the sustainability of the planet. Historically religion at its best provides much of the rational cement that prohibits society from reverting to a jungle mentality or simply flying apart, dominated by a mindset focused entirely on a “what’s in if for me and mine.”

In this pastoral letter Francis, while he is speaking basically about the ecological disaster facing the earth through climate change, also deals with among other things:  world hunger, the commercialization of water, the loss of thousands of species and the accompanying decline of biodiversity, the destruction by wars fought for less than just causes, the failure of simple human rights, economic manipulation for the benefit of the few, the current fascination of society with technology while expressing too little passion for human values, the immoral inequality of wealth, the rights of labor, and the economic domination by the market driven capitalist system which forms the distressing basis behind all of these complex concerns. These matters are all interwoven. (par. 92)
“Peace, justice and the preservation of creation cannot be separated and treated individually … everything is related.”
His appeal is for increased conversation about these and other vital contemporary concerns. It is clear the Pope believes that all of the above are ethical matters inherent in all religions and thus valid subjects for discussion by religious leaders.
When Rick Santorum says that the Pope should stick to moral issues, that is exactly what  His Holiness has done!  The 100-page encyclical is about nothing but the morality which holds society together. It is not about sectarian advantage or government support of religious institutions, nor does it invade the space between religious institutions and government.
The Pope’s statement is simply another link in the long chain whereby religious leaders have expressed concerns about human welfare. Martin Luther King Jr. spearheaded the fight for civil rights as a Christian pastor, to name one example.
If there is any problem it may lie in a less than willing religious establishment to become more deeply involved in these moral issues, or worse yet, to come down on the wrong side. It must be remembered that much of the American church defended slavery, fought against civil rights and has supported the citadels of injustice and inequality which plague the common good.
Authentic religion has not only a right but also a responsibility to be involved in matters of public policy up to its neck!