Climates of relation

What can we do when issues like climate change polarize us?

“The wounds that divide us are rooted in the loss of confidence that the members of the household of the faith actually, in fact, love one another.” Most Rev. Daniel Flores, Bishop of Brownsville, Texas

Bishop Flores said this Monday afternoon at a panel on polarization within the Church. The event, held by the University of Notre Dame’s Center for the Study of Religion and Society, came at just the right time for Catholic ecologists: The gathering and a subsequent, ongoing conference took place as climate change continued to divide the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.

The problems of the day

Five thousand miles from the event at Notre Dame, another gathering was held in Rome. Its purpose was discussions on climate change and sustainable development, among others. Sponsored by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, “Protect the Earth, Dignify Humanity: The Moral Dimensions of Climate Change and Sustainable Humanity” brought together one-hundred leaders in science, business, diplomacy, and development experts, all from a variety of faiths—including high level officials of the United Nations, most especially its president Ban Ki-moon.

The meeting culminated in this joint declaration. The document stated, essentially, that humanity needs to live within its means; that the strong must sacrifice for the weak; and that we must all love our neighbor.

"As global society increasingly defines itself by consumerist and monetary values, the privileged in turn become increasingly numb to the cries of the poor." Cardinal Peter Turkson

“Climate-change mitigation will require a rapid world transformation to a world powered by renewable and other low-carbon energy and the sustainable management of ecosystems,” the statement read.

It continued:

These transformations should be carried out in the context of globally agreed Sustainable Development Goals, consistent with ending extreme poverty; ensuring universal access for healthcare, quality education, safe water, and sustainable energy; and cooperating to end human trafficking and all forms of modern slavery. All sectors and stakeholders must do their part, a pledge that we fully commit to in our individual capacities.

Now of course some of this attracted the attention of the following: those who object to the science of climate change; those who object to calls for abandoning fossil fuels; and those who cringe at certain suggestions that wealthy nations should help poorer ones.

And so, for instance, The Heartland Institute warned its supporters about the event and sent scientists to the Eternal City to plead with the pope’s advisors; The Cornwall Alliance posted an online petition—again, to plead with the pope; and The Acton Institute fired up their significant publishing resources to counter the inevitable result of the Vatican conference.

Political categories coming into the a-political Church

In general, as I understand it, these organizations and their supporters argue that wealthy nations are wealthy because they do things correctly and poor nations are poor because they often do not. And so rather than take from the rich to help the poor, the poor should run their communities and nations like the wealthy do, so that the poor can thus acquire wealth—which, of course, assumes lots of things, including that resources are unlimited.

A few days before the Vatican event, Dr. E. Calvin Beisner, Founder and National Spokesman for the Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation, issued a press release saying that he would also be in Rome speaking on these issues. (He just wouldn’t be at the Vatican.)

Beisner said that “[a]dding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere isn’t going to cause dangerous global warming, but it sure will enhance all life on earth—including human life, especially among the poor.” He went on to argue that the science of climate change “is wrong” so there should be no policy or religious pressure to do anything about it.

“Requiring the world to abandon the abundant, reliable, affordable energy provided by fossil fuels in the name of fighting global warming oppresses the poor. They desperately need that energy, and for now and the foreseeable future no other energy source can give it to them.”

This line of reasoning did not impress many, including the Holy See.

Cardinal Peter Turkson said as much when he spoke at Tuesday’s gathering. His comments transcended political ideologies. They were urgent, blunt, and prophetic.

Despite the generation of great wealth, we find starkly rising disparities–vast numbers of people excluded and discarded, their dignity trampled upon. As global society increasingly defines itself by consumerist and monetary values, the privileged in turn become increasingly numb to the cries of the poor.

Further on the cardinal spoke about climate change:

Today, the ever-accelerating burning of fossil fuels that powers our economic engine is disrupting the earth’s delicate ecological balance on almost-unfathomable scale. … Climate-related disasters are a reality both for poor countries on the margins of the modern economy and for those at its heart. Consider the devastating droughts from California to Syria to Africa. Consider the increasing prevalence of extreme weather events, which always hit the poor hardest.

"In the Catholic tradition, defending the sanctity of life and fighting for social justice are not clashing political agendas." Kim Daniels

All of this sent shock waves of support through much of the eco-world and among Catholic ecologists in particular. A barrage of news stories followed and Catholic climate-change activists, such as the Global Catholic Climate Movement—of which I am a founding member—issued a press release applauding the Vatican document while warning those who would disparage it.

But the disparaging continued and the polarization seemed to deepen. Concerns grew on both sides of the ideological divide that the "other side" was seeking to hijack the work of the Church. As the sun set over Rome, then Paris, and then New York, many of the lines that had been drawn in sand were being carved in stone.

The question is, what next? And what can we expect in the coming weeks as we await the release of the papal encyclical? And after that? More polarization?

One hopes not. Which is why the Notre Dame conference—and the work of so many—is so very vital.

Una Ecclessia

Writing a year ago with John Gerhing, Kim Daniels tackled polarization in the National Catholic Reporter. “The Catholic church is diminished by the nasty rhetoric, tribalism and litmus tests that often define the dysfunctional culture of secular politics.”

Daniels, a former spokesperson for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and a co-founder of Catholic Voices USA, went on to say that

In the Catholic tradition, defending the sanctity of life and fighting for social justice are not clashing political agendas, but part of the same moral framework for building a just society. When we slice and dice the unity of Catholic teaching into disparate parts, we risk reducing our faith to just another ideology in service of political ends.

Daniels is at the Notre Dame conference on polarization, as is Dr. Charles Camosy, a moral theologian from Fordham University. Both are well known for working to overcome that which divides. They’re looking for different ways to speak about issues—better ways to talk to one another.

For instance, Camosy’s latest book, Beyond the Abortion Wars: A Way Forward for a New Generation (Eerdmans) is the latest example of efforts to get past the divisiveness that comes from the modern social wars—and that go against everything unitive that Christ came for. (Check here for more on the book.)

The acceptance of only what we want to hear is a phenomenon that researchers have known about for some time. Lately many have been examining the impact of selective acceptance of science in the context of issues like climate change.

Not everyone listens to science

The engagement of abortion provides helpful lessons, I think, for those of us working on issues of ecology, sustainability, and climate change. As science has increasingly offered better pre-natal images and understandings of what happens after the moment of conception, it would seem to be more difficult to deny the humanity of the unborn, at all stages after conception.

But according to public opinion polls, not everyone accepts the science. Supporters of abortion rights (that I’ve spoken to, anyway) often refuse to admit to the humanity of a human embryo, or the human qualities of a month-old unborn baby. It is all very odd. What is clear and objective to one person is subjective or simply not acknowledged by another.

And so it goes with climate change.

Dr. Pablo Canziani of Argentina, who had worked with Cardinal Bergoglio in Buenos Aires, knows this first hand.

He says that years ago he had a discussion with a fellow scientist during an international meeting on climate change. “He basically chose atmospheric variables which showed the weakest change signals so as to prove his point,” Canziani said. “He would not accept to discuss other evidence. It was impossible to make him comment on evidence that went again his argument line.”

The acceptance of only what we want to hear is a phenomenon that researchers have known about for some time. Lately many have been examining the impact of selective acceptance of science in the context of issues like climate change.

(To this end, you may be interested in the webinar “Why We Don’t Believe Science” by Dr. Ellen Peters of Ohio State University. Dr. Peters will be offering an interview with Catholic Ecology that will be dedicated to this topic. But for now it suffices to say that people often enter a conversation with an outcome in mind.)

Not helping, of course, are many in the secular media who enjoy fanning the scientific “debate” on climate change. We saw this with coverage last week of a Duke University study on decade-to-decade variability in climate models. What was reported was often not the nuances of the study. Rather, the headlines simply stated that our climate models “are wrong”—which is not what the study said. (See, for instance, here and here.) Still, the headlines helped those so inclined to question the evidence for the dangers of human-induced climate change.

Here’s the problem: Encouraging bad science on climate change (or human life) makes it easier for some of our brothers and sisters to disagree with a cardinal or the pope when they speak on the issue. And that increases disagreement and division within the Church. And that causes our ancient enemy to gloat. And allowing that to happen, my friends, is a violation of our baptismal promises.

Our goal must always be unity.

“Loving in the present”

The title of the Notre Dame conference tells us something: Polarization in the U.S. Catholic Church: Naming the Wounds, Beginning to Heal

And as Bishop Flores reminds us, division is the result of a lack of love. The bishop’s words reminded me of similar ones by a young Fr. Joseph Ratzinger, who in the late 1950s wrote a doctoral thesis that concluded with this exhortation: a Church that seeks peace in the future must “love in the present.”

And so in the turbulent days ahead—as skeptics and climate advocates continue to engage and debate—let us do three things:

Let us hear the voice today of Cardinal Turkson (and soon Pope Francis in his encyclical) and truly listen to and support what he is saying.

Then let us consider that it may be good that climate skeptics are seeking to be part of the conversation. After all, if they are speaking with us, might we not be able to help them see things anew?

And more radically, let us consider the people that we desperately disagree with. Then let us imagine ourselves loving them, if for no other reason then they are children of God and thus our brothers and sisters. And even if you may think of someone as an enemy or even a "sinner" for their ideological beliefs (although it is not a formal sin to adhere to this or that worldly ideology), remember that Christ dined with sinners.

And he loved them.

As Bishop Flores said in his comments about loving the one we disagree with,

There is, perhaps, too much gravity and not enough levity in our circles these days. I would go so far as to suggest … that until we have reached a point wherein we can actually laugh together and enjoy the simple and primary gift of being together in the same world—in the same Church and in the same room—then it is not yet time for us to discuss the issues that divide us.

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About the Blog

Catholic Ecology posts my regular column in the Rhode Island Catholic, as well as scientific and theological commentary about the latest eco-news, both within and outside of the Catholic Church. What is contained herein is but one person's attempt to teach and defend the Church's teachings - ecological and otherwise. As such, I offer all contents of this blog for approval of the bishops of the Church. It is my hope that nothing herein will lead anyone astray from truth.