A timely message, given the approach of Earth Day 2021 on April 22, was delivered recently by a Creighton University professor who took the position during an endowed lecture that caring for the environment constitutes a necessary response to God’s love.
Working actively to build the Kingdom of God through a commitment to charitable works, social justice, and addressing climate change is not optional for people wishing to live fully the Catholic faith, Daniel DiLeo, PhD, told an online audience March 22.
DiLeo, assistant professor and director of the Justice and Peace Studies Program at Creighton, delivered the annual Clarke University Shemmel Endowed Lecture in Theology. His lecture was followed by remarks from the Most Reverend Michael Jackels, archbishop of Dubuque, Iowa, where Clarke University is located.
DiLeo’s lecture, titled “Climate Change and Catholicism: Climate Justice as Essential to Catholic Mission” cited leading Catholic authorities, including Pope John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis, to establish the church’s longstanding commitment to protecting the global environment, or, as Francis termed it in his 2015 encyclical Laudato Si’, “our common home.”
“Drawing on the Ignatian tradition, we speak about ‘finding God in all things,’” DiLeo said. “To the extent that we are going to love God, we have to love that which God has created and which God continues to sustain.”
Love of neighbor, DiLeo said, requires care for creation since humans are part of the natural world.
“As Pope Francis described it,” DiLeo said, “‘Nature cannot be regarded as something separate from ourselves or as the mere setting in which we live. We are part of nature, included in it, and thus encouraged to have interaction with it.’”
The essence of Catholic theology, DiLeo said, is that love of God, of self, of neighbor and of Earth, are all intertwined in a unified response to God’s eternal outpouring of love — a response that understands care for God’s creation as essential to the fullness of faith.
The modern challenge of climate change, which is the result of more than 200 years of industrialization, represents a moral challenge to Christian tradition, DiLeo said. Citing scientific data demonstrating potentially catastrophic rises in sea levels, and temperature increases that could make human life difficult to sustain, DiLeo said an active response is required from those whose faith is grounded in the “schema” of Christian faith. This posits the freely flowing love of God and the active response of humanity to that love through both individual actions and structural reforms.
World Health Organization models suggest that climate change is already causing 150,000 deaths annually, DiLeo said, and that between 2030 and 2050 that figure could rise to 250,000. He also cited a warning from Richard Miller, PhD, professor of systematic and philosophical theology at Creighton, that with a 4º to 6º centigrade warming — which is possible this century — “the carrying capacity of the planet could be reduced to between a half a billion and a billion people.”
Given such dire predictions, he said, it is important that the church act on its oft-stated conviction that all things addressed in Catholic social teaching are interconnected—including commitments to ecology and human life.
Cultural habits and practices that fuel climate change can even be associated with racism, he said, citing the 2018 Fourth National Climate Assessment from the federal U.S. Global Change Research Program.
“In urban environments,” the document said, “economically disadvantaged communities and communities of color live in neighborhoods with the greatest exposure to climate and extreme weather events and are, therefore, disproportionately affected by climate stressors.”
Given the church’s long societal reach and presence, which includes 70 million U.S. Catholics, 176 Latin Catholic archdioceses, 17,000 parishes, 434 active or retired bishops and archbishops, 35,929 priests and 18,193 deacons, more than 7,000 elementary, secondary and post-secondary schools, more than 500 hospitals, 100,000 buildings and millions of acres of land, DiLeo said the church can set a powerful example in battling climate change and educating people about the dangers associated with that phenomenon.
Unfortunately, he said, that potential has not been fulfilled.
Data, experience and conversations suggest that the Catholic Church in the United States has not treated Pope Francis’s Laudato Si’ with “anywhere near” the urgency his environmental statement deserves or that science indicates, DiLeo said. Several months after release of the 2015 encyclical, he reported, just 18% of U.S. Catholics reported hearing Laudato Si’ discussed in their places of worship. And, he said, statistics show that less than half of white Catholics in the United States believe that climate change is a critical issue, with many politically conservative Catholics doubting the pope’s expertise.
However, DiLeo said, again citing Laudato Si’, there is always hope that Catholics will accept the need to respond to God’s love by reacting responsibly to the need to protect that which God created.
“All is not lost,” Pope Francis said in the encyclical. “Human beings, while capable of the worst, are also capable of rising above themselves, choosing again what is good, and making a new start, despite their mental and social conditioning.
“Hope would have us recognize that there is always a way out, that we can always redirect our steps, that we can always do something to solve our problems.”
In his response to DiLeo’s lecture, Archbishop Jackels said a division appears to have arisen among U.S. Catholics between those who emphasize issues such as abortion, the death penalty, physician-assisted suicide and stem-cell research; and those who focus on planetary and environmental causes. It is necessary, he said, to embrace both.
“We defend the fundamental right to life, yes,” Jackels said. “But we also defend what people need to live in dignity — productive work and fair wages, food and shelter, education and health, care and protection from harm. And we defend the earth, because where else will the people live whose right to life we fight for?”