Climate & Faith:
Religious Apathy, A Papal Call, & the Need to
MOVE toward New Forms of Community
According to a major Catholic publication, Pope Francis has decided to call for a world multireligious conference of religious leaders on “Climate Change” and to issue a Papal Encyclical on the climate crisis.
I want to begin with celebration of this decision, then address the evidence of deep unconcern or apathy about climate in many US religious communities, and end with my suggestions of what might be causing the apathy and how to get past it – including how the Pope’s action might help.
This report says the news came from Bishop Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo, an Argentinian who is close to the Pope and is Chancellor of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, when he delivered Cafod’s [British Catholic Agency For Overseas Development] annual Pope Paul VI lecture on Friday a week ago.
(A Papal Encyclical is a letter to the whole Church or even to the whole world, as Saint Angelo Roncalli (Pope John XXIII), may the memory of this tzaddik continue to be for a blessing — uniquely did on the dangers of nuclear weapons for Easter 1963.)
The Shalom Center and Interfaith Moral Action on Climate have called for both these actions in letters to Pope Francis. (I am not claiming we were the key factors that led to that decision; but perhaps our letters helped.) If the reports are accurate, these actions by the Pope could be a major turning-point in religious involvement. Hallelu-YAH! — Let us praise the Breath of Life!
To truly celebrate the hope of such actions by the Pope, we need to face a darker undertone that explains why these actions by the Pope could be so important. A recent national survey of opinion about climate in the US by the Public Religion Research Institute http://publicreligion.org/research/2014/11/believers-sympathizers-skepti... shows that in most US white religious communities, there are low levels of concern over climate change:
Climate Change Concern Index by Religious Affiliation
Source: PRRI/AAR, Religion, Values, and Climate Change Survey, November 2014
The numbers below correspond to these four categories: Very
concerned; Somewhat concerned; Somewhat unconcerned; Very
All Americans 29 21 29 21
Hispanic Catholic 43 30 21 6
Unaffiliated 38 22 26 14
Black Protestant 37 21 26 14
Non-Christian 43 22 35 9
Jewish 27 26 35 13
White Mainline Protestant 22 21 31 26
White Evangelical 18 17 34 30
White Catholic 17 24 32 28
Moreover, it is very rare for white Christian clergy to give sermons about the climate crisis. (There is no report on Jewish clergy.) Interestingly, Black and Hispanic clergy do much better. So much for the white-environmentalist self-flattering thought that the non-white communities don’t care!
The involvement of religious and spiritual communities at a new level calls for us to address not only moving away from the Carbon-Pharaoh economy but moving toward a new kind of world community, rooted in compassion and community: a world community of sustainable and shared abundance:
A world community that addresses the needs of disemployed and low-income workers, of the desperately poor as well as the desperately overworked –— poor or affluent; of those denied the possibility of creating their own music, dance, art, poetry; of those denied public health uncorrupted by poisons in the air and earth and water, and those denied the individual healing of a shared medical system; those denied privacy by an intrusive corporate market, and those denied liberty by an encroaching government.
These people are being ill-served now by the top-down economy, ecology, and culture of the Carbon Pharaohs; but I think they are not so much “unconcerned” as frightened and baffled by what it will mean to them to move into a different world. So any transition to a post-carbon society must for both political and moral reasons meet their needs.
This is a new understanding of the Bible’s Sabbatical Year, the Shmita Year of “Release” in which organized agricultural bossiness paused, the free growth of the Earth was freely available to all, and debts were annulled. It is the world of “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on Earth as it is in Heaven.” It is the world of “right speech, right action, right livelihood” in the Noble Eightfold Path.
This is Martin Luther King’s “Beloved Community.” For those ancient visions must today be translated for a world not only of agriculture, as was their original context, but of high-tech mining, drilling, communication; of new ways to draw on the ancient wind and solar sources of energy. What are jobs and income and restfulness in that world? What are schools and the arts and health in that world?
There are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of such new communities already among us. We need to lift them up and multiply them.
If a Papal Encyclical on Climate addresses these questions; if a multireligious conference called by the Pope to address the climate crisis includes not only the official leaders of religious communities but at least some of the grass-roots and pavement-top prophets and practtitionrs of hope, then it can truly address the apathetic, “unconcerned,” among the religious communities reported in the PRRI study.