On his recent papal trip to Sweden, Pope Francis used the occasion to enumerate some “modern Beatitudes” for our time, including: “Blessed are those who protect and care for our common home.”
This is one blessing which, at least in the United States—the world’s greatest consumer and polluter—isn’t falling on fertile soil.
Since his election, Francis has repeatedly returned to this theme of caring for creation—a message that reached its crescendo in the release of his encyclical Laudato Si in June 2015.
Yet 16 months later, the evidence suggests that Church leaders will have to play the long game to ensure that the pope’s message is a permanent one.
A new study released in October in the journal Climatic Change found that “the encyclical did not have broad effects on overall acknowledgement of and concerns about climate change” and further that “people who had heard about the encyclical appeared to be more polarized than those unaware of the document.”
Among the findings of the study was that for those already wary of climate change, they “not only resisted the message but defended their preexisting beliefs by devaluing the pope’s credibility on climate change.” Political and cultural blinders alike seem to have entrenched those that had already made up their mind on the matter.
In an interview with The Guardian, the study’s lead author, Nan Li of Texas Tech University, puts it bluntly: “The pope and his papal letter failed to rally any broad support on climate change among US Catholics and non-Catholics.”
While some may be quick to view these findings as evidence of both the pope and the Church’s waning moral authority, history reminds us that the Church is quite used to operating in the space of decades and centuries-long thinking.
In 1891, Pope Leo XIII released his groundbreaking encyclical Rerum Novaram that has since served as the backbone of Catholic Social Teaching. In that document, Leo highlighted the vast and growing disparity between holders of capital and impoverished laborers and called for something called the “just wage.”
Scandalously, he asserted that what the market set as the price of labor might not be the moral price, and that workers might need to challenge the dominance of capital by asserting their power in collective action.
The response to Rerum Novaram among the Catholic businessmen of Europe was similar to Jeb Bush’s remarks as a candidate in the Republican primary: “I don’t get economic policy from my bishops or my cardinal or my pope.”
Yet just a little more than a generation later, business and Church leaders alike had taken Leo’s warnings to heart. In the aftermath of World War I, it was the Church’s social doctrine as outlined in Rerum Novarum that served as a blueprint for building a just society when it came to navigating wages, working conditions, and the commonweal.
Nowadays, the just wage is an accepted mainstream part of Catholic Social Teaching, and it’s hard to find a Catholic who would assert the contrary. Yet at the time, the pope was told that wages and markets were not areas of the Church’s competence.
Those who screened out Leo’s exhortations argued that wages and markets belong to the world of the sciences and not the sacristy. Those who screen out Laudato Si’ say the same about climate change.
And usually, over time, this becomes clear—consider the case of the death penalty in the United States.
In 1974, as the death penalty was re-imposed in many states, the U.S. bishops voted to oppose it. In a 1980 statement they spoke directly to the concerns of citizens, both Catholics and non-Catholics alike, who disagreed with them on this front.
“We urge them to review the considerations we have offered which show both the evils associated with capital punishment and the harmony of the abolition of capital punishment with the values of the Gospel,” they pleaded.
“We urge them to bear in mind that public decisions in this area affect the lives, the hopes and the fears of men and women who share both the misery and the grandeur of human life with us and who, like us, are among those sinners whom the Son of Man came to save.”
It was a brave stance at the time, which won the bishops few supporters in the pews. Yet the indefatigable efforts of Catholic leaders from the likes of Sr. Helen Prejean to bishops such as Cardinal Theodore McCarrick have resulted over time in a growing tide of not simply Catholic opposition to the death penalty, but also reduced public support for the practice and an overall decline in its use.
Similar comparisons could be also made to the abortion debates where the Church has long been the most vocal opponent of the practice. By championing an approach that defends women and children alike, we now see overwhelming public support for abortion restrictions.
Writing in Laudato Si, Francis reminded us: “Once we start to think about the kind of world we are leaving to future generations, we look at things differently; we realize that the world is a gift which we have freely received and must share with others.”
In other words: we need to be converted to a deeper reality. We need to see with new eyes, so that we see the effects on families of unjust wages, and the horror of the death penalty and abortion, and the effect on the developing world of our unfettered consumption.
Such conversions are not easy, they take time, and in the short term they encounter truculent resistance.
But the good news is that, over time, sometimes decades later, and often imperceptibly at first, our eyes are opened.