The Pope and Climate Change

Can <i>Laudato Si</i> Help Modernize the Catholic Church?

The following is an introduction to the recent Breakthrough Journal essay "Modern Pope" by Sally Vance-Trembath. To read the Journal piece, click here.

This month, Pope Francis again referred to climate change as a “sin.”

Recalling last year’s landmark encyclical Laudato Si (Our Common Home), Francis spoke of climate change as an unacceptable trashing of God’s creation, and as an unjust imposition of environmental devastation against the world’s most vulnerable poor populations.

Last year, with Mark Lynas and Michael Shellenberger, I criticized Laudato Si for its apparent rejection of modernity, its skepticism toward technology, and its simplistic posture towards markets. "Laudato Si is very relevant to the emerging ecomodernist movement,” we wrote, "because it makes explicit the asceticism, romanticism and reactionary paternalism inherent in many aspects of traditional environmentalist thinking."

Not so fast, says Dr. Sally Vance-Trembath, a theologian at Santa Clara University. In a new essay for the Breakthrough Journal, Vance-Trembath argues that Francis’s climate encyclical “can only be understood in the context of his broader effort to drag the Church, once and for all, out of its feudal traditions, authoritarian hierarchy, and hostility toward the modern world and into dialogue with the broader human community."

An expert in the papacy and the centuries-long evolution of the Church, Vance-Trembath explains the backdrop behind Francis’s long, complex, sometimes contradictory text. She contrasts Francis to his predecessors Benedict XVI and John Paul II, whom she writes, were committed to an old-world regal, feudal, and paternalistic Church. Fortunately, she observes, Francis follows much more closely the footsteps of John XXIII and Paul VI, who led the 1960s Second Vatican Council to make the Church more egalitarian and progressive.

Vance-Trembath places Laudato Si in the context of this evolution, with all its fits and starts. Above all else, she writes, the text is inductive—an explicit gesture towards a flexible framework and open dialogue over how to solve environmental problems in a practical, human world.

Flexible as it is, though, Laudato Si certainly has its flaws. “Catholic teaching texts are very often internally inconsistent,” writes Vance-Trembath. As a result, she finds her own faults with the encyclical, particularly Francis’s tendency to unhelpfully diagnose the societal problem of climate change as a personal “moral choice.”

Vance-Trembath is right to celebrate Francis’s rejection of the reactionary papacies of John Paul and Benedict. If the Catholic Church is going continue as a major social force, it must reconcile itself with a modernizing world, a process that Francis has renewed. But if the Church is going to constructively contribute to solving environmental problems, Francis will also have to reconcile the Church’s evolving views about the environment with the scale and complexity of modern social, economic, and technological arrangements. A modernizing church will need to embrace ecological modernization if it is to have much useful to say about our common home.