How's the Weather in Rome?

The world is abuzz with the release of the new Papal Encyclical on the Environment “Laudato Si.”

By William Schweiker|July 2, 2015

The world is abuzz with the release of the new Papal Encyclical on the Environment “Laudato Si.”
Surprisingly, a draft of the letter was leaked to the press before the official release of the text on June 18, 2015. Not unsurprisingly, the critics are already lining up and sharpening their knives all the better to trim the text.
No doubt the coming weeks and months will be filled with interpretations, appraisals, and renunciations of the letter. One of the objectives of Sightings is to bring some order to the confusion of discourse about religion in public life.
And confusion there is, especially about this encyclical and Pope Francis’s concern about global climate change. So, the task of this issue of Sightings is to bring some order to the confusion. I do so under two headings.
And you thought that the Galileo Affair was over!
One remarkable feature of Francis’s letter is its unapologetic use of current science to back its claims about human involvement in climate change and also the extent of environment damage.
Recall that the Catholic Church in 1633 tried and condemned Galileo and with him, seemingly, all of modern science. Yet none other than Pope John Paul II vindicated Galileo in 1992.
In recent times, the Vatican has sponsored work in astronomy and physics as well other scientific research. “Laudato Si,” whatever else it is, in a keen reminder that religious conviction and scientific inquiry cannot and ought not be at cross-purposes on crucial public topics like the environmental crisis.
But wait, that’s not all.
In a New York Times article (June, 17, 2015), Sandro Magister, a blogger on the Vatican for L’Espresso, admitted that he leaked the encyclical and also that, on June 1, 2015, he had written that the “inspirers” of the letter were “being advocates of abortion.” 
When I first read that claim, I scratched my head in disbelief. How did he get from climate change to advocacy for abortion? The Times article does not explain the charge.
But one wonders if lurking behind Magister’s words is not a worry born in 1633, namely, that science is displacing the human from the center of the physical universe and that once endorsed no one can trim the impact of science on moral questions, including reproduction and birth.
If that is so and should the likes of Magister triumph, then the gallant work of Francis in the name of knowledge might be lost.
Keep you eyes on this point as it develops. The science and religion debate is heating up all over again.

Are you your brother’s (and sister’s) keeper?
For those of us in the US, every day brings a new Republican candidate to the race—marathon—for the Presidency. At least five of the current candidates are Catholics and Francis’s encyclical poses some real challenges for them.
How can they appease a conservative base that often denies human involvement in climate change and yet remain true to their faith community?
Some, like Rick Santorum, simply assert that the Pope should get his nose out of scientific matters. Jeb Bush, having announced his candidacy a few days ago, said at a campaign event and reported in the same edition of The New York Times, that “I don’t get my economic policy from my bishops or my cardinals or my pope.”
Smart words on the separation of Church and State and ones that echo President John F. Kennedy’s many years ago. But then Jeb went further, saying, “I think that religion ought to be about making us better as people and less about things that end up getting into the political realm.”
Once again, I had to scratch my head. Doesn’t being better people also make us better citizens, people who are concerned with the poor, the vulnerable, the marginalized? 
What about all of the “values” discourse by conservative politicians or the constant drum beat of American as a “Christian Nation.”
The fact is that Pope Francis’s encyclical does connect the dots, and rightly so, between climate change and other ecological endangerments and their great impact on the lives of the poor and the vulnerable. This connection is hardly a new idea nor is it rocket science. It has long been known that climate change and environment injustice go hand in hand.
But one wonders if Jeb Bush and other conservatives have not grasped the wider implications of Francis’s letter without even having read it. If you connect climate change with an obligation to care for the poor, then, my goodness, you might also be obliged to worry about health care, employment, and fair wages.
Keep you eyes on this point as it develops. The debate about the place of government with respect to moral obligations to the least among us is heating up all over again.
Not doubt there is more work for Sightings to do as we process the argument and implications of “Laudato Si.” For now it is important to see how this letter draws into focus many other issues: religion and politics, faith and science, personal obligations and government programs, moral responsibility and clear understanding of the challenges we face.
But of course, this is part of Francis’s point. The environment is a sacred trust that we hold and for which people are responsible and that impacts all other facets of our lives.

Yardley, Jim and Elisabetta Povoledo. “Leak of Pope’s Encyclical on Climate Change Hints at Tensions in Vatican.” New York Times, June 16, 2015, Europe.
Hale, Christopher. “Rick Santorum wants Pope Francis to leave science to scientists only when it’s convenient for him.” Washington Post, June 4, 2015, Acts of Faith.
Davenport, Coral. “Pope’s Views on Climate Change Add Pressure to Catholic Candidates.” New York Times, June 16, 2015, World.
Werner, Erica and Matthew Daly, AP. “GOP Dismisses Pope Francis’ Climate Thoughts: GOP lawmakers, candidates shrug off Pope Francis’ call for action on climate change.” U.S. News & World Report, June 19, 2015, News.
Heer, Jeet. “The Last Time Conservatives Dismissed a Major Encyclical, It Ended Terribly for Them.” New Republic, June 17, 2015, Religion.
Sargent, Greg. “Morning Plum: The Pope should stick to theology, climate skeptics say.” Washington Post, June 17, 2015, Plum Line.

Image: On June 18, 2015, in Manila, Philippines, environmental activists prepare to listen to speeches in a Catholic church about Pope Francis' encyclical on climate change. Credit: Bullit Marquez / AP Photo.

Author, William Schweiker, (Ph.D. UChicago) is Edward L. Ryerson Distinguished Service Professor of Theological Ethics at the University of Chicago Divinity School. He is the Director of The Enhancing Life Project, supported by the John Templeton Foundation, which explores the basic but widely unexamined aspiration of human beings to enhance their lives and seeks to increase knowledge in order to assist them. He is the 2015-2016 President of the Society of Christian Ethics. Books by Schweiker include: Religion and the Human Future: An Essay in Theological Humanism (2008, with David E. Klemm), and Dust that Breathes: Christian Faith and the New Humanisms (2010).

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William Schweiker

Columnist, William Schweiker (PhD’85), is the Edward L. Ryerson Distinguished Service Professor of Theological Ethics at the Divinity School.