The Pope, Climate Change, Morality, and the Politicians

During my lunch break today, I stumbled on an article about the Pope’s upcoming encyclical on climate change.

It reports reactions to the encyclical in which the Pope explains why he accepts human activity is responsible for most of the current climate change and for other ‘situations of environmental degradation’, and in which he calls on all people to fulfill their roles as stewards of God’s creation by changing their wasteful and polluting behavior.

As is usually the case with anything new that comes out concerning climate change and environmental issues, the politicians and pundits quoted in this article approve or criticize his message according to strict party lines. Including (surprise, surprise!) many Catholics.

An aside: the day I see an American Catholic politician change their views even a bit when they don’t accord with the Pope’s, I’ll actually be impressed by their religious sincerity. This Pope has roundly criticized unfettered capitalism and the amassing of great personal wealth, to the discomfiture of many, and has shown other signs of being progressive (or regressive in the sense that his views hearken back to an earlier time, being far more consistent with those of the biblical Jesus than with those of modern conservative politicians). After all, when new and convincing evidence comes along or when a better argument is made, we should all be open to changing our beliefs, right? And who is more qualified to offer these to a Catholic than the Pope? I’m not arguing that Catholics should just blindly agree with everything the Pope says, no one should. At a certain point, though, when you call yourself Catholic but dismiss whatever the Pope says that disagrees with your politics, you might be a ‘cafeteria Catholic’, a pejorative that conservative Catholics traditionally have thrown at liberal and progressive Catholics. I’m just sayin’.

Anyway, the part about how the divide over the pope’s message parallels the party line doesn’t surprise me. What does is that those who reject the Pope’s teachings on climate change and environmental stewardship try to defend their dismissal on the grounds that the Pope’s message is about science and politics and, therefore, they don’t have to listen to him on this matter since he should be ‘focusing on what [he’s] good at, which is theology and morality.’

So what is morality to these people? In the article under discussion, Rick Santorum, Jeb Bush, and Bill Donahue, all three conservative and politically influential Catholics, talk about morality as one thing, and anything having to do with caring for the earth which might have political ramifications another. So how, exactly, is the matter of how and why we should care for the earth not an issue of morality? Do they think that morality consists entirely of things like ‘don’t swear or lie’, ‘go to Church’, or ‘for God’s sake, repress your sexuality until it simultaneously feels super forbidden, barely fun, and only to be enjoyed in the narrowest of circumstances’? These guys are not, by any means, the first people I’ve heard try to narrowly define morality so that it doesn’t interfere with their politicking or whatever other business they’re engaged in. And this sort of thing is not limited to conservatives: liberals and progressives regularly spout that ‘keep your morality to yourself and out of politics’ bit too.

Morality and politics, in fact, are all about the same things and should pursue the same goals: how we go about sharing this world with one another; how we do right by each other while protecting our own rights; how we go about treating everyone with justice, compassion, and integrity.

Hate to tell you this, fellows, but when you talk that way you sound about as foolish as those Heartland Institute people accusing the Pope and the United Nations of being ‘unscientific’ for agreeing with the scientific consensus. And let me tell you, Jeb Bush, the ‘political realm’ ‘ought to be about about making us better as people’. I sincerely hope all these guys were quoted out of context or just misspoke about the relationship between morality and politics.

Because if any politician really believes politics and morality are two separate things, their constituents should be worried, and they are doing the wrong job. In any case, we’ll see if they really believe politics and morality are separate the next time a political issue having to do with reproductive health care comes up.

Sources and Inspiration:
Kirchgaessner, Stephanie and John Hooper. ‘Pope Francis warns of destruction of Earth’s ecosystem in leaked encyclical’, The Guardian, June 16 2015.
Neuman, Scott. ‘The Pope Is About To Weigh In On Climate Change. Not Everyone Is Happy’, The Two-Way: Breaking News from NPR, June 17, 2015.

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