When science meets belief – Can climate change relaunch the Catholic Church?

Once one of the world’s most dominant institution, the Catholic Church has been experiencing a steady decline in support, especially among younger generations whose progressive views increasingly diverge from the institution’s long held beliefs. Between 2007 and 2014 only, the percentage of US Americans between the ages of 18-49 identifying as Catholics has dropped by 9% [1]. While still significant, the institution’s popularity in many developing countries is also dropping.

What does this have to do with climate change?

The fight against climate change could create a unique opportunity for the Catholic Church to regain momentum and consolidate its position, both among progressive youngsters in the developed world and in developing countries.

In times of challenged political leadership, leveraging its (still) broad reach and Pope Francis’s personal popularity towards pushing the moral agenda behind a topic such as climate change can be the Church’s strategic step towards modernization.

Why strategic? On the one hand, the uneven distribution of climate change impacts between the rich and the poor, its accentuating effect on modern slavery [2] and its consumerist drive turn climate change into a perfect match for the Church’s recent discourse against extreme capitalism [3], as well as for its attempts to “make peace with science”. At the same time, while human intervention in climate change is still a controversial topic among many Catholics (despite overwhelming scientific evidence), it is arguably a less divisive (although not fully unrelated) topic than reproduction [4] or same-sex rights, thus “safer” for the Pope to address externally and potentially drive internal support within the millenary institution.

What has the Church done about it?

On the 8th of June 2015, ahead of the Paris Climate Change Talks, Pope Francis has issued the first ever papal encyclical[1] dedicated to environmental issues (Laudato Si of the Holy Father on Care for our common home). The ~200 page document expresses support for the “scientific studies that indicate that most global warming in recent decades is due to the great concentration of greenhouse gases (…) released mainly as a result of human activity” [5]. The text also highlights the generational divide on environmental issues, as well as its disproportionate impacts on the less privileged “Young people demand change. They wonder how anyone can claim to be building a better future without thinking of the environmental crisis and the sufferings of the excluded.”[5].

Vatican’s support for the climate cause, and specifically the Paris COP 21 deals did not end here. In July 2015, the Pope gathered 60 mayors from the world’s largest cities at the Vatican to pledge support for the cause [6] and in the months preceding the Paris talks, the Church has encouraged clerics from participating countries to address their governments in support of the agreements [7]. Furthermore, in September 2015, during the first Papal opening of the UN General Assembly in history, Pope Francis expressed his confidence that the COP21 talks in December “would secure fundamental and effective agreements” [8].

What’s next?

While the position has spurred enthusiasm among climate change supporters, it has not been totally free of criticism. The negative reactions of environmentally skeptic Catholics offended by the Church’s interference in the issue [9] (after all 53% of US Catholics do not believe humans play a role in global warming [10]), the disappointment of “cap and trade system” supporters facing the Pope’s dismissal of the approach in the encyclical, or the worries of Peruvian mine workers of the renewable transition costing them their jobs cannot be ignored [7]. Neither can potential financial backlashes in the form of interrupted support from interest groups negatively impacted by environmental policies.

I believe however that the fundamental match between the environmental cause and the Church’s strategic direction, as well as the acknowledgement of the size and uniqueness of the opportunity will lead to sustained efforts from the Vatican. But I also believe the strength of its next steps and its unequivocal lobbying for the Paris agreement to be religiously followed through by signatory countries will define the benefits the institution will be able to harvest from the journey it has just started.

I think it is now time for the Pope to go back to the Vatican, gather his bishops together and make sure his encyclical is disseminated and translated into individual diocese discourses as fast as possible. While this internal dissemination might be one of the biggest battles the Pope will have to take, I believe it is also the one with the highest promise for him to fulfill his mandate and allow the Catholic Church to once again make history, for the benefit of mankind.

Quote from Pope Francis White House speech in September 2015 [11]
[1] Pew Research Center, “Religious Landscape Study”, 2014, http://www.pewforum.org/religious-landscape-study/religious-tradition/catholic/, accessed November 3, 2016.

[2] Gillen D’Arcy Wood, “Is climate change the new slavery?”, April 17, 2014, http://grist.org/climate-energy/is-climate-change-the-new-slavery/, accessed November 3, 2016.

[3] Robert P. Barnidge, Jr., “Against The Catholic Grain: Pope Francis Trumpets Socialism Over Capitalism”, Forbes, March 11, 2016, http://www.forbes.com/sites/realspin/2016/03/11/against-the-catholic-grain-pope-francis-trumpets-socialism-over-capitalism/#6d67db304a73, accessed November 3, 2016.

[4] Erasmus: Religion and Public Policy, “Pope Francis sees links between exploiting the planet and exploiting people”, The Economist, March 20, 2016, http://www.economist.com/blogs/erasmus/2016/03/catholicism-ecology-and-slavery, accessed November 3, 2016.

[5] Pope Francis, “Laudato Si’ — On Care for Our Common Home”, Libreria Editrice Vaticana, May 24, 2015, http://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/encyclicals/documents/papa-francesco_20150524_enciclica-laudato-si.html, accessed November 3, 2016.

[6] Gaia Pianigiani, “At Vatican, Mayors Pledge Climate Change Fight”, The New York Times, July 21, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/07/22/world/europe/mayors-at-vatican-pledge-efforts-against-climate-change.html, accessed November 3, 2016.

[7] Justin Catanoso, “Vatican Presses COP21 Negotiators for Strong Climate Agreement”, The Pulitzer Center, December 12, 2015, http://pulitzercenter.org/reporting/vatican-presses-cop21-negotiators-strong-climate-agreement, accessed November 3, 2016.

[8] United Nations News Centre, “‘The future demands of us critical and global decisions’ Pope Francis tells UN General Assembly”, September 25, 2015, http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=51966#.WBz2FC0rK6I, accessed November 3, 2016.

[9] Coral Davenport and Laurie Goodstein, “Pope Francis Steps Up Campaign on Climate Change, to Conservatives’ Alarm”, The New York Times, April 27, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/28/world/europe/pope-francis-steps-up-campaign-on-climate-change-to-conservatives-alarm.html, accessed November 3, 2016.

[10] Quirin Schiermeier, “Why the Pope’s letter on climate change matters”, Nature, June 18, 2015, http://www.nature.com/news/why-the-pope-s-letter-on-climate-change-matters-1.17800, accessed November 3, 2016.

[11] Natural Resources Defense Council,  “Join Pope Francis and Demand Global Climate Action”, 2015, https://secure.nrdconline.org/site/Advocacy?cmd=display&page=UserAction&id=3857, accessed November 3, 2016.


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Student comments on When science meets belief – Can climate change relaunch the Catholic Church?

  1. This is perhaps the most unique blog post on climate change I have come across. While it seems unusual to mention the Catholic Church in the context of climate change, it is actually rather brilliant. As the head of the Catholic Church, the Pope has an enormous influence on the opinions of Catholics. As mentioned by Corina, 53% of US Catholics do not believe humans play a role in global warming. After hearing the opinions of the Pope, I have to imagine at least some of those people will be swayed. Additionally, I completely agree that having the Pope speak out on the issue of climate change will draw more millennials back to the church. Many millennials view the church as out of touch, and this is a strong step towards connecting with the younger generation.

  2. Do you think that you can reengage young people with God through climate change? Are we not just seeing a shift away from religion? I just wonder if the shift has more to do with how religion is now less important for many than other beliefs. And further, given the inability to change doctrine, is the Pope not alienating himself by trying to alter beliefs, as we see with his views on homosexuality

  3. Very interesting article. I never thought about the catholic church, when I was thinking about climate change.
    The big advantage, the catholic church has, is that it acts on a suprational level. It’s true, the church can use their warning message, in order to make their people take actions against the climate change. On the other side the catholic church can use this message in order to regain their prestige, because they actively are involved in fighting climate change (Whether it is equally effective in all countries around the globe, is another very interesting question). In that way more people feel closer related to their church.
    Now, for me, there’s the question, what Pope Francis can actually achieve with his message. How can he strengthen it? It is certainly not enough to speak about climate chance, more there have to be concrete actions: For example providing entities like rooms, money, people (who research or have influential positions).

  4. It’s great to see the Church take a position on climate change and argue that humans have caused it. While this is ruffling some feathers, the whole point of such an institution is to lead its people. Being willing to upset some of its members to advance an important cause might well broaden its appeal as an organization to turn to for guidance. As science gains popularity and strength, the Church will need to embrace it to survive. This seems like the beginning of such a change. Hopefully, it will be able to balance the truths we continue to unveil with the spiritual guidance for which it is known, leaving neither behind.

  5. Great post Corina and a very interesting take. I have to admit, I knew very little about the Church’s involvement on this particular issue and I find it very inspiring that it is taking a progressive approach and as you say ‘making peace with science.’ I did find an update article from this summer that looks at some additional statistics- a new US study said that 68% of US Catholics believed humans have a part in climate change. This is significantly higher than your study from summer 2015 (perhaps the methodologies differed?), so perhaps the Pope has had some good! That said, the article does question whether the Pope had any impact as only 32% said he had an influence of them (many didn’t hear of his remarks in the first place). Interesting discussion!


  6. I echo Roanna’s sentiment that this is the most unique and thought-provoking commentary I’ve read on the subject. However, given the strong contingent of Catholics who don’t believe in our impact on global warming, how do you think the Pope will frame the discussion on climate change going forward, in a manner that will resonate with those “non-believers?” What are some tangible measures, in your view, that the papacy can take to help bridge the gap between science and religion?

  7. Great read – well articulated and original.

    The Catholic Church exists to unite. As such, it has historically attempted (with mixed success!) to avoid controversy, which by its nature divides. This makes the Pope’s actions in June 2015 – which stepped away from this pattern – all the more fascinating.

    I would echo some of the above comments in observing that there seems to be a fundamental tension here between voicing a progressive, modern view when you are representing what is fundamentally a conservative, ancient institution. Though to many of us the issue of climate change is unarguably something we need to shout about in order to lobby for legislative change, it is difficult for the Catholic Church – a body that represents many old-fashioned and illiberal views – to be a fore-running voice in the debate.

    That said, I absolutely applaud the Pope’s intentions to risk division for the greater good. There is no reason why religion and science cannot exist without contradicting each other.

  8. This was super interesting – thanks for writing, Corina! I agree with your general sentiment that the Catholic Church, led by Pope Francis, has the potential to generate more awareness and momentum to take action regarding climate change – Pope Francis has generated more enthusiasm across a wider range of people than his predecessors through some of his statements and actions – from driving a 20-year old car to disguising himself to minister to the homeless without drawing too much attention to himself, he both ‘talks the talk’ and ‘walks the walk’ that he is one of the people. I think this is exactly the kind of issue that religious institutions have the opportunity to have a great impact on by taking an active stance, although I would like to think that such a rallying cry would be driven more by concern for what is right than a focus on membership or affiliation.

  9. Corina, thanks so much for sharing. Its reassuring to see leaders, like Pope Francis, taking bold stances to support efforts to mitigate climate change. There are few leaders with the social and worldwide capital of Pope Francis. His support along with the Catholic Church was imperative to the cause. In 2014, the U.S. Defense Department released a paper on the anticipated effects of climate change. In this paper, they concluded that global instability, conflict, and hunger were all likely outputs of climate change (http://www.defense.gov/News/News-Releases/News-Release-View/Article/605221). With such drastic effects, its only logical that the Pope would be compelled to get involved; not doing so would arguably be neglectful.

  10. Really interesting post Corina. Being a catholic and coming from a predominantly catholic country which was once a leader in renewable energy generation (Spain), I would have perhaps framed the issue differently. Not so much as the Church seeking to revamp its popularity among the environmentally-conscious millenial generations, but rather as a largely disinterested attempt to raise awareness about climate change among a group that is – as you point out – resistant to the idea that humans can influence climate. To me it has always been surprising how many catholics make a connection between religion and meteorological science! They would argue – in simplistic terms – that because God created Earth, only God can influence something as intrinsic to Earth as its climate. Well, Laudato Si quickly changed that opinion. On the other hand, I have not come across many environmentalists that have become “more catholic” as a result.

  11. At first glance, climate change and Catholicism could not seem further removed. I am very impressed and a little shocked that the church has chosen this topic as a way to modernize, and you describe the thought process and potential benefits very well. I’m still skeptical of its potential impact, largely because the gap in the “target markets” between Catholicism and climate change seems to be too large. I think the church would be better served to choose a topic that already has atleast some bit of resonance or potential bridge with its current audience. For example, presumably 50% of Catholics are women, so in theory choosing a topic related to women’s rights should resonate more easily and quickly with a large group of Catholics… although maybe they’re already focused on this? The benefit to the Church of pushing climate change is that, if successful, it could connect with all Catholics regardless of demographic, so from that perspective I see the allure.

  12. I grew up practicing the Catholic religion in a very conservative city. Within my community, it seemed that Catholicism was more about condemning extramarital sex and birth control than about working to solve important issues – corruption, poverty, health issues, crime, etc. In other words, focusing on sexual topics was a more powerful way to gather support.

    Although I think it is great that the church is now supporting the fight against climate change, I am not sure if this is enough to revert the downward trend. The main themes that the church has used to attract believers have not been focused on logic, but rather on feelings of personal fear and guilt. Climate change on the other hand is more about working towards the long-term sustainability of our world. I struggle seeing how they would be able to use this as a way to attract followers.

  13. First of all congratulations, I think this is an amazing post, which I never thought to read when discussing about climate change. I feel that the Pope has made a very compelling case when calling humanity (Catholics and Non-Catholics) responsible for climate change and by saying that is our responsibility to fix it. As oppose to some that might say, I don’t think this represents an actual “evolution” of the Church’s message, instead I believe that the message is very well aligned with what the Catholic Church believes, that the Earth is God’s creation and as humans we need to use it wisely and take care of it. Having said that I think that the marketing component is crucial as we see that the Pope is “re-launching” an old truth in many different channels and utilizing this to get closer to a sector that has been walking away for a while. I totally agree that this could be an opportunity for the Church to get closer to the youngsters with this message. I think the complete idea is a great, with a great promotion!

  14. Great write up! As many have mentioned, this is an unexpected and interesting topic regarding climate change. I had never really thought about the Catholic Church’s public stance (or the Pope’s public endorsement) on climate change. Although I do find it somewhat clever, I wonder if it is an effective tactic from a perspective of making an impact and strategically gaining popularity. From the perspective of making an impact, I wonder: does the Pope’s involvement and push for multilateral agreements actually make a difference? Will it produce results to the point of actually moving the balance and permitting this to become an actual Catholic movement? From the perspective of gaining popularity: will this help the Church to strategically gain more followers or awaken loyalty from their current base given their beliefs about climate change?

  15. What an interesting article. I would never have connected the Catholic Church with climate change, but your post did a nice job highlighting the institution’s potential for impact. As you point out with the Catholic Church, given the size of the challenges in front of us with climate change, we need to rely on our largest, most powerful institutions to help drive the necessary changes before it becomes too late. It’s sad to read of just how many people still refuse to believe the many studies that have proven that climate change is real and is primarily a result of human-made greenhouse gases.

  16. Thank you for sharing this interesting topic. Often leaders must face internal conflict within their organizations. Do I acknowledge an issue that my believes/employees disagree with? I think that Pope Francis is leading the Catholic Church in a modern direction. Whether or not you believe in a certain religion, you can not escape the realities of what is going on in the world, particularly with climate change. My hope is that Pope Francis will use his position of power to help make influential decisions to help bring awareness to and help fight against climate change.

  17. Coming from a very conservative Catholic family, I think it is incredibly important for the Pope to galvanize the Church to act on climate change. However, I think that the positioning needs to focus on ideas skeptical Catholics can get behind, such as the fact the climate change (man-made or not) is sinking countries and threatening the lives of the poor. I honestly think if the Pope pushes this issue too far, he will alienate the older generations in the church who happen to be the most engaged and tend to give the most money. I think appealing to the people aspect of climate change will have a greater impact on fundraising for the cause, which, in the end, is the biggest contribution the church can make to mitigating the effects of climate change on communities around the globe. Even if they convince the remaining Catholics to believe climate change is caused by humans, that doesn’t necessarily mean they will participate in the cause. We need a better marketing campaign and call to action to really use the power of the Catholic church to make change; the fewer people we alienate while also bringing in young people as you said, the more change we can make!

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