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Commentary

Why The Pope’s Encyclical Laudato Si' Is Important For Non-Catholics

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Stewart Morris
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Flickr Creative Commons

Images of Pope Francis can be found on everything from beer cans to t-shirts leading up to his US visit. But why all the excitement? And what is it about his recent pronouncements on the environment and social justice that have drawn attention from everyone...not just Catholics? University of Dayton Professor Bob Brecha explains with this week’s Climate Commentary.

In June, the Pope released an encyclical entitled Laudato Si', taken from Saint Francis of Assisi’s Canticle of the Sun, which celebrates Brother Sun, Sister Moon and Mother Earth.  And while the document may be meant as a letter to bishops, it represents a remarkable challenge for all of us to consider in a radical way how our future on this planet will be determined by how we treat all of nature –  including our fellow human beings.

One form of the Golden Rule is that people should treat others in ways they would like to be treated themselves. This is certainly a religious tradition, but it’s also  a fundamental principle of how humans organize themselves societally.  

In the case of climate change and other environmental issues addressed in the Pope's encyclical, people of all creeds – or none – can use the Golden Rule to consider that how we treat the environment today will affect society tomorrow, and beyond.

For example, we emit carbon dioxide today, and sea-level rises slowly over decades or centuries. Emissions in wealthier countries, like the United States, affect people in poorer countries with less capability for adaptation and who are likely to suffer the severest consequences first. Regardless of religion, people for the most part think about what kind of world they wish to leave for their children or grandchildren.  

Laudato Si' is an important tool for motivating Catholics, as well as those of other religious faiths.  Jewish and Muslim leaders have recently made similar statements about climate change, and these all acknowledge the scientific consensus as compiled by the very secular Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.  More broadly, this encyclical can be seen as a reflection of our times and how a younger generation may not be satisfied with playing by the rules of their parents – rules that served some purposes well, but have also created failures.

Pope Francis frames the need to mitigate climate change in theological terms that follow his religious tradition and will reach more than one billion adherents around the world. Laudato Si’ also follows a decades-old tradition of papal statements expressing solidarity with the poor and the need to care for creation. Pope Benedict XVI expressed this in 2009, saying, “The way humanity treats the environment influences the way it treats itself, and vice versa.”  

And the Vatican isn't alone in making a case that. For the continued stability and progress of societies, we must modify the way we think about development and the environment. A globalized world cannot simply be reduced to liberalizing market transactions. We must recognize basic rights to food, shelter and health care. We also must learn to measure well-being in something other than monetary terms and to remedy growing inequality, while at the same time mitigating and adapting to a changing climate.

Grassroots movements in the U.S. and around the world are increasingly active in these areas as witnessed by the Climate March last September, the Occupy Movement, the Divestment Movement and the opposition by millions of Europeans to the proposed free trade agreement between the U.S. and the EU.   

In the case of climate change the key issue is how we expand and internalize the notion of the Golden Rule to take into account other parts of nature as integral to our well-being. We already have the technological know-how to move away from business-as-usual.  Regardless of belief system, we have to push ourselves toward more empathy for others, both elsewhere and in the future, and then to act accordingly.

Bob Brecha is a professor of Physics and Renewable and Clean Energy at the University of Dayton, and Research Director UD's Hanley Sustainability Institute.  Follow him on Twitter: @BobBrecha