For Catholics around the world, climate change is a heightened priority – and many are taking action in the wake of efforts by Pope Francis to focus on environmental stewardship.
It’s a story that runs counter to popular perception, which holds that religious people do not believe in climate change – or believe that it falls outside the realm of human control.
In truth, people of faith have played important roles in environmental causes for generations. Yet, at the same time, polls find that devout Americans are generally less likely to be concerned about global warming than their nonreligious peers.
But among Catholics this may be starting to change. In the year since Pope Francis released his encyclical, Laudato Si, imploring his followers and fellow believers to care for the earth and its creatures, observers say more and more Roman Catholics are beginning to view climate change as a moral issue in which caring for the earth and caring for the poor intersect.
Environmentalism among Catholics wasn’t absent before, but now it’s running higher than in years.
“What helped to connect the dots between the Catholic faith and the environment was, of course, the encyclical of Pope Francis, Laudato Si,” says Tomás Insua, the Boston-based co-founder and coordinator of an international network of over 300 Catholic organizations engaged in protecting the environment and fighting climate change. “That was the big moment that really galvanized a lot of momentum in the Catholic community.”
Action from Brazil to India
The group, the Global Catholic Climate Movement (GCCM) was founded in 2015 just a few months before the encyclical’s release. Since then it has organized about 40,000 Catholics from around the world to participate in a march demanding that world leaders take action during the Paris climate negotiations.
They also mobilized almost 1 million Catholics to sign a petition asking world leaders to keep global warming under 1.5 degrees C below pre-industrial levels. Then in May 2016, around 30 Catholic organizations joined an amicus brief in support of President Obama’s clean power plan.
These collective efforts are echoed by initiatives that local organizations are pursuing in many nations.
In Brazil, Catholic groups have been instrumental in fighting logging and deforestation. In India, too, churches and parishes across the country launched projects in the spirit of Laudato Si. To mark Earth Day in April, the Catholic non-profit organization Caritas initiated a tree planting campaign in the Karachi region, planting thousands of trees to help beat the region’s extreme heat. Church organizations also run campaigns to cut down on waste, promote organic farming, and start transitioning towards the adoption of solar power.
Likewise, GCCM released its own eco-parish guide, which it distributes to Catholic churches around the world that are aiming to reduce their carbon footprint. The guide provides instructions on how Catholic churches can reduce emissions by adopting a low carbon lifestyle, advocate for climate justice, and care for populations harmed by climate change.
“The actions were totally unprecedented because Catholics pretty much were overwhelmingly passive on the climate issue before,” says Mr. Insua in a telephone interview. “Mobilizing nearly 1 million Catholics for climate justice last year, that would have been absolutely impossible without the encyclical, there was no way we could have achieved anything nearly as close to that.”
A shift in opinion
In 2015, on the eve of the release of Pope Francis’s encyclical, research showed that Catholics in the United States were divided over global warming. Their differences mirrored the partisan divide found among much of the population, with around 80 percent of Catholic Democrats claiming there is solid evidence that the Earth is warming, and only half of Catholic Republicans claiming the same. Meanwhile, around 60 percent of Catholic Democrats said that global warming is a serious, man-made problem, while just a quarter of Catholic Republicans agreed.
But over the past year, perceptions began to shift. Just 6 months after the release of Laudato Si, the percentage of American Catholics who thought climate change is a moral issue jumped from 34 percent to 42 percent, according to a study conducted by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication. Meanwhile, a study released by the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies at the Catholic University of America found that Catholic Republicans who read Laudato Si were 10 percent more likely to agree that human activities are responsible for climate change.
Lonnie Ellis, associate director of the Catholic Climate Covenant, a US-based climate advocacy group that formed in 2006, agrees that things have changed over the past year.
“We were doing this before Pope Francis made it cool, and it’s been a great 10 years. But in the last year Pope Francis just elevated our work immensely and we’ve been able to do some really big things,” says Mr. Ellis.
The group now has around 205 “creation care teams”, or groups that meet to promote environmental education and discuss a faith-based approach to caring for the earth, working around the country.
It’s not that concern about climate change is absent among people of other faiths. For example, although Evangelical Christians show up as among the least concerned about climate change, in one recent poll fully 59 percent say that human actions are behind the rise in greenhouse gases versus 67 of the US public overall.
And like other religious and nonreligious groups, Evangelicals are are far more likely to call climate change a “very” or “somewhat” important issue than to say it’s only “a little” or “not” important, according to the recent study by Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate.
The poll found, however, that Catholics are more likely to be concerned about climate change than any other US Christian group.
A deep-rooted tradition
The name of the encyclical, Laudato Si (“praise be”), is taken from a line in St. Francis of Assisi’s Canticle of Creatures, a religious text that extolled the virtues of nature. Born in 1182, St. Francis of Assisi is considered the Catholic Church’s foremost ecologist.
But some historians point to 1971 as the year when the environmental tenets of Catholicism began to make a comeback. That was when Pope Paul VI published a letter called Octogesima Adveniens, or “a call to action.”
“Man is suddenly becoming aware that by an ill-considered exploitation of nature he risks destroying it and becoming in his turn the victim of this degradation,” he wrote.
Not long after, Pope John Paul II, elected to the papacy in 1978, told the United Nations that, “the Church’s commitment to the conservation and improvement of our environment is linked to a command of God.” He also called for moral solidarity on the environment between industrialized and developing nations.
These calls for environmental justice were then absorbed by other parts of the Catholic leadership, including the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). All this gave added legitimacy to local church leaders who wanted environmental conservation to count among the Catholic church’s central teachings.
Despite this rich history, including Pope Benedict XVI ordering solar panels for the Vatican’s roof, experts say no Catholic leader has placed been so urgent and radical on the issue of ecology as Pope Francis.
During a speech last year at the World Meeting of Popular Movements in Bolivia, the Pope called for an immediate change to the way the world economy is run.
“Today, the scientific community realizes what the poor have long told us: harm, perhaps irreversible harm, is being done to the ecosystem,” he said.
“Let us not be afraid to say it: we want change, real change, structural change.”
While many Catholics were unaware of the church’s stance on the environment prior to the current Pope’s vocal advocacy, experts say that changed dramatically over the last year.
Distrust of 'liberal agenda'
Bill Patenaude, an engineer with the state of Rhode Island’s Department of Environmental Management and a member of the Global Catholic Climate Movement, said the idea of ecological protection is now sinking in among people who were traditionally climate-change skeptics.
“Environmental issues and climate change have been spearheaded by the political left for a long time, and there is a lot of distrust,” says Mr Patenaude, adding that the issues supported by the political left are often in conflict with the positions of American Catholics. “I think some climate skeptics are reacting to the liberal agenda, not so much to what the science is showing and what people are experiencing. But I think there is a trend of people putting that aside.”
In developing countries with a large Catholic population, the faith-based connection between social justice and environmentalism was already evident to many, experts say. That’s because people see the effects that extreme weather conditions and natural disasters linked to climate change have on the poor.
But in much of the industrialized world, the connections weren’t as apparent. The effort by Pope Francis has opened up new conversations, says Mr. Ellis of the Catholic Climate Covenant in the US.
“Even in corners that you wouldn’t expect, like in the Rust Belt, people are talking about it,” Ellis says. “It’s been phenomenal in the last year, we have to turn down a lot of talks being planned around the country on Laudato Si.”
'A hopeful vision'
“The poor and vulnerable are disproportionately impacted by disaster,” adds Maria Vorel, Catholic Charities USA’s senior vice president for disaster operations, during a conference call with reporters to mark the one-year anniversary of the encyclical. “Laudato Si crystallizes the realities of disasters in the US. Pope Francis called on all to look at our impact on the environment and the interaction of the environment on people, especially the vulnerable.”
Meanwhile, a plethora of small Catholic groups are working around the country to assist vulnerable populations in poor regions such as the Appalachian Mountains as they grapple with the effects of climate change and environmental degradation.
Ultimately, many Catholics say that the Pope’s message has resonated so widely because of its emphasis on unity and its contrast with the often gloomy narrative surrounding climate change.
“There is a hopeful vision,” says Ellis. “The advocacy, not only does it change the system as a whole, but it helps pull us all in to meet this challenge together.”