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The U.S. Catholic Church Should Embrace the Vision of Laudato Si’

This week, in one of my columns at the National Catholic Reporter, I looked at the role apocalyptic despair plays in preventing Catholics from embracing the kinds of societal and personal changes we need to counteract climate change. The situation is so dire, and so monumental, that there is a tendency to throw up our hands and think there isn’t much any one of us can do to avert disaster.

I have come to the conclusion that this is one of the reasons the U.S. bishops’ conference has not taken major steps to implement Laudato Si’. But it is not the only reason. There has been a sustained campaign to deny the reality of climate change and Pope Francis’ authority to treat the issue.

Aggressive denialism was far more prominent than apocalyptic despair when the encyclical was published. Even such a prominent academic as Princeton’s Robert P. George wrote a “prebuttal” to Laudato Si’ for First Things before Laudato Si’ was even published. “The Pope has no special knowledge, insight or teaching authority pertaining to matters of empirical fact of the sort investigated by, for example, physicists and biologists, nor do popes claim such knowledge, insight or wisdom,” George opined. “Pope Francis does not know whether, or to what extent, the climate changes (in various directions) of the past several decades are anthropogenic—and God is not going to tell him. Nor does he know what their long-term effects will be. If anything he teaches depends on views about these things, all he will have to go on is what everybody else has to go on, namely, the analyses offered by scientific specialists who have studied the matter.”

Such statements were technically accurate but insidious too, and have only grown more so. George doubled down on them at the time with a column that, among other things, cited prominent scientists who raised objections to the dominant view that climate change is real and much of it is caused by human beings. Nobody loves a contrarian more than me, but the scientists he cites, such as Freeman Dyson and Richard Lindzen are not just outliers, they are cranks.

So far as I can tell, Robert George has not modified his stance. He certainly has not stepped up and said, “Pope Francis was right and I was wrong.”

Another person all too willing to cast doubts about Laudato Si’ at the time it was published was EWTN’s Raymond Arroyo. He aired a segment featuring a representative from the Heartland Institute. “Heartland” sounds so wholesome, you can be forgiven for thinking they make apple pies and support mothers. In fact, the organization is a libertarian group, funded by individuals and groups with long track records of supporting libertarian positions on a variety of issues. Libertarianism is many things but no iteration of it is consistent with Catholic social teaching.

Arroyo has continued his drumbeat of climate denialism. His 2020 interview with then-President Donald Trump was a study in advanced sycophancy, and he set climate change against abortion as a life issue, allowing Trump to differentiate himself from Joe Biden saying, “I’m pro-life, he’s not.” There was no follow-up.

When Biden appointed John Kerry to be his point man on climate change, Arroyo went on Fox News to suggest Kerry is compromised because of his wife’s business dealings with China. Arroyo said Mrs. Kerry had as much as $5 million invested in a Chinese hedge fund. Her net worth is estimated to be about $750 million so $5 million is a rounding error. And, if Arroyo was concerned about grifters, that concern was never manifested during the Trump years.

For people who rely on Fox and ideologically related media for news, they really have been fed nonsense about climate change year after year, always dressed up in authoritative-sounding, pseudo-scientific, intellectual drag.

The Catholic Church in this country could take the lead in beating back this tide of misinformation. Many of the people in the pews are conservatives and they likely have been exposed to lies about climate change. But they also look outside and see that the temperature is above 110 degrees or their street is flooded or that the air is thick with unhealthy clouds of smoke from Canadian wildfires. A priest doesn’t have to be an expert on climate change to call his parishioner’s attention to the problem: All he needs to know about the science was set forth by Pope Francis in Laudato Si’.

Regrettably, as the U.S. bishops debate their new priorities and plans – they punted on the issue at their June meeting in Orlando—it seems unlikely that they will place a reboot of Laudato Si’ at the top of their list of priorities. But they should. As the daily weather report attests, the ill effects of climate change have already begun and they are only going to get worse.

At a deeper level, the vision of Laudato Si’ challenges the libertarianism that is at the heart of so much in American politics and culture, even though our Catholic teachings are allergic to it. Perhaps, just perhaps, the climate crisis will cause Americans to rethink their famous rugged individualism. Perhaps, just perhaps, the Catholic Church in the U.S. can be at the vanguard of shedding that selfishness which has always endangered the soul, and now endangers the planet. 

Michael Sean Winters is a journalist and writer for the National Catholic Reporter.


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M. Woodward

The comment that issues related to Laudato are too "monumental" for U.S. clergy seems letting them off the hook far too easily. Perhaps only "monumental" from the perspective that the clergy would have to stand up to the political (and frequently rich) parishioners who seek to intimidate. One local pastor did finally say "Get over it" to the anti-Laudato segment in the pews.) Bishops elsewhere in the world are taking action (consider the Irish bishops' recent directive on pollinator gardens) Our group's extended (7 years) Care for Creation experience suggests that the bishop and priests in our state, rather than being overwhelmed, don't understand the science (a recent comment from our pastor was "It's hot, but it will probably change again) and also don't want to understand and/or promote awareness of Laudato (from our pastor, "No one wants to talk about it") A few years ago, when I polled a couple of US seminaries about whether Laudato was part of the curriculum, the response was "We offered an initial class, but no one was interested, so we discontinued it.")

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