Conversations with conservatives

Reaching across the aisle may be easier than we think

The big question lately is, how do we get conservative Catholics to do something about eco-protection and climate change?

The question is everywhere, and it's coming not only from liberal eco-activists. Moderate and even pretty conservative ones are asking this, too. Of course the question stems from the great ideological divide that is widening even as you read this post. For reasons that are mostly political (that is, I'd say, primordially tribal), there are those on the right who emphatically reject the reality of climate change and eco issues in general, while some on the political left emphatically resist other realities, like the one telling us that life begins at conception.

Either way, overcoming the right-left divide may seem daunting. But it doesn’t need to be.

As someone who considers himself more on the conservative side of things, at least defined by current conventions, I’d like to propose a few ways forward (certainly not an exhaustive review) to help the right be more comfortable with the left when engaging eco and climate issues. In other another post, I'll tackle the matter from the other side.

1. Don’t invite. Just show up. Too often the question being asked is how to invite conservatives to our talks about Laudato Si’, our eco-advocacy planning meetings, and our political marches. How can we get them to come to us, we ask.

But some of the best conversations we can have with our conservative Catholic brothers and sisters will be at “their” events. “Their” fundraisers for pro-life groups. “Their” gatherings in front of abortion clinics saying the Rosary. “Their” talks and planning meetings about issues like abortion, marriage, religious liberty, and so on. Because, after all, those should be our issues, too.

In other words, let “them” get to know you as a friend and fellow fighter in today’s important battles, not just eco-advocacy. Let them get to know you as a person. You’d be surprised how, in time, your new friends will trust you about other matters, like climate change.

2. Listen. This one is tough for me because when I hear folks bring up climate-denial talking points, or legitimate fears about the radical left’s anti-life eco-agenda, my instinct is to quickly speak up, assure, correct, and argue. But as I grow older, God has been helping me appreciate the need to listen, hear, and respond accordingly—with truth, yes, but with charity.

Pope Francis, as always, puts it nicely:

Our openness to others, each of whom is a “thou” capable of knowing, loving and entering into dialogue, remains the source of our nobility as human persons. A correct relationship with the created world demands that we not weaken this social dimension of openness to others, much less the transcendent dimension of our openness to the “Thou” of God. Our relationship with the environment can never be isolated from our relationship with others and with God. Otherwise, it would be nothing more than romantic individualism dressed up in ecological garb, locking us into a stifling immanence. (Laudato Si’, 119)

3. Communicate calmly and accurately—and be open to hearing the other’s understanding of the problem, and their solutions. Eco truths are based on scientific facts—so make sure you know them, and their limits. At a gathering I attended some time ago, an older woman framed her climate-change advocacy statements with the rather emphatic words that unless something is done, “all life on Earth will be wiped out!” Statements like this are unhelpful because they are, of course, not true.

Stick to facts about actual climate impacts, actual eco-statistics. And remain calm. The truth will always be enough.

Good communication skills are also needed when discussing solutions—because lots of times, conservative Catholics really do get the problem, or at least the symptoms of it. But chances are that rather than seeing this or that eco issue as some fault of this or that company, elected official, or policy, those who tend to be more conservative may more readily see problems rooted in something more universal—a lack of virtue or an aversion to grace, perhpas—which are both rooted in the reality of sin.

Either way, seeing problems in different ways results in proposing different solutions.

This post cannot compare and contrast all the possible issues and solutions to matters of biodiversity loss, climate change, plastics pollution, and the rest. The point is that we need to be open to the values and fears of our brothers and sisters, because while they may not be our own fears and core values, they are, ultimately, connected to ours. And they need to be heard.

This gets us back to what Pope Francis has been trying to tell us:

“An open and respectful dialogue is also needed between the various ecological movements, among which ideological conflicts are not infrequently encountered. The gravity of the ecological crisis demands that we all look to the common good, embarking on a path of dialogue which demands patience, self-discipline and generosity.” (Laudato Si’, 201).

4. Forgive. The generosity that Pope Francis speaks of is needed because there will be those who will not listen to the sciences of ecology—human and natural. They will not accept the theory and evidence of a changing climate and its human-induced causes. And they may not be particularly concerned about the devastation being wrought throughout the globe, or its impacts to people today and the lives of those not yet born. In these cases, the suggestions I offer herein will not always be enough.

But … I am a firm believer in building up the common good the old-fashioned way. Showing up. Being open to the other. Rejecting the disunity roused by Satan. And being open always to God’s grace, which ever and again brings his followers together, so that, together, we can protect life and the gift of our common home.

Yes, I believe it’s that simple.

Now let’s go make some friends.

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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.