The Catholic Church hierarchy, beginning with the Pope more than two decades ago, has framed climate change as a moral issue involving ‘the future of God’s creation’ and one best viewed through four principles guiding Catholics’ worldview.

On January 1, 1990, Pope John Paul II delivered his World Day of Peace message to Catholics around the world, and for that year’s address he lamented a “widespread destruction of the environment.” World peace, he warned, was threatened not only by arms, conflict, and injustice, but by “a lack of due respect for nature.”

John Paul II’s message on that day pointed to a worldwide ecological crisis, and while it did not mention climate change by name his references were clear. “Industrial waste, the burning of fossil fuels, unrestricted deforestation, the use of certain types of herbicides, coolants and propellants: all of these are known to harm the atmosphere and environment,” he said. “The resulting meteorological and atmospheric changes range from damage to health to the possible future submersion of low-lying lands.”

This is one in an ongoing series of features
exploring climate communications to various faith communities.

The late Pope’s words came shortly before The First Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, IPCC, in 1990, which itself warned that “anthropogenic climate change will persist for many centuries.”

Pope John Paul II invigorated activism among Catholics toward environmental justice, and his 1990 message inspired later statements from the Church — some focusing more sharply on climate change. They include a pastoral statement in 1991 by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops on environmental protection, “Renewing the Earth,” and “Global Climate Change: A Plea for Dialogue, Prudence and the Common Good.” The bishops’ 2001 statement, aligned with its involvement as a partner in the National Religious Partnership for the Environment, guides Catholics on the climate issue today in the U.S.

Creation, Stewardship, One Human Family Cited

“At its core, global climate change is not about economic theory or political platforms, nor about partisan advantage or interest group pressures,” the bishops said in their 2001 statement. “It is about the future of God’s creation and the one human family. It is about protecting both ‘the human environment’ and the natural environment. It is about our human stewardship of God’s creation and our responsibility to those who come after us.”

Pope Benedict XVI has carried the Catholic Church’s message forward in numerous speeches and writings. This past January, he advocated for progress at this June’s climate talks at the UN Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro (Rio+20).

The Catholic Church today, from the Vatican to the U.S. Conference on Catholic Bishops to individual parishes in communities across the country, works to increase awareness about climate change and its risks among lay Catholics; educates individuals, churches, schools, religious colleges and universities, and other Catholic institutions about how to cut energy use and live more sustainably; and advocates in support of legislative action by state governments, the U.S. Congress, and the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change to curb carbon emissions.

The Vatican and, significantly, U.S. bishops clearly say they support the scientific consensus on climate change, but the roughly 77 million U.S. Catholics overall are of course by no means single-minded on the topic. Dissent today does not appear particularly organized, but there are plenty of people who are unhappy with the Church’s stance on the topic. Rick Santorum, the Republican primary candidate for president who is also a Roman Catholic and shares many of the same socially conservative views of Evangelicals, rejects mainstream climate science. On February 10, the former two-term Pennsylvania senator characterized the scientific consensus on climate change as “this politicization of science” and a “façade” by the political left to deny Americans their freedoms.

Catholic Principles, Climate Teachings, and Moral Imperative

Nevertheless, the Catholic Church’s leaders have taken a strong stance on the issue, framing the climate change challenge in language that is particular to Catholicism but also common among people of other faiths. Taking action to curb carbon emissions is, at its core, a moral imperative, the Church teaches. But climate change also is seen through the lens of four principles that guide the worldview of Catholics on many topics: acting with a sense of prudence in the face of uncertainty; protecting the poor and most vulnerable; working toward a common good; and promoting human solidarity — with one another and with future generations.

In its 2001 statement, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops articulated these principles in relation to the climate change challenge:

On prudence: “In facing climate change, what we already know requires a response; it cannot be easily dismissed. Significant levels of scientific consensus — even in a situation with less than full certainty, where the consequences of not acting are serious — justifies, indeed can obligate, our taking action intended to avert potential dangers. In other words, if enough evidence indicates that the present course of action could jeopardize humankind’s well-being, prudence dictates taking mitigating or preventative action.”

On protecting the poor: “We especially want to focus on the needs of the poor, the weak, and the vulnerable in a debate often dominated by more powerful interests. Inaction and inadequate or misguided responses to climate change will likely place even greater burdens on already desperately poor peoples.”

On the common good: “Global climate is by its very nature a part of the planetary commons. The Earth’s atmosphere encompasses all people, creatures, and habitats. The melting of ice sheets and glaciers, the destruction of rain forests, and the pollution of water in one place can have environmental impacts elsewhere …. Responses to global climate change should reflect our interdependence and common responsibility for the future of our planet. Individual nations must measure their own self-interest against the greater common good and contribute equitably to global solutions.”

On solidarity: “… the common good requires solidarity with the poor who are often without the resources to face many problems, including the potential impacts of climate change. Our obligations to the one human family stretch across space and time. They tie us to the poor in our midst and across the globe, as well as to future generations.”

Catholic Activism in the U.S.

In the U.S., The Catholic Coalition on Climate Change and its campaign for education and action, called the Catholic Climate Covenant, is the primary instrument of the Church’s activism on the climate issue.

Catholic Climate Covenant Website

The coalition, which includes Catholic Charities USA, Catholic Relief Services, the Franciscan Action Network and other groups, was launched in 2006 to increase awareness among lay Catholics about the Church’s teachings on climate change. In 2009, the coalition launched the Catholic Climate Covenant. The website for the Catholic Climate Covenant is anchored by an image of a child, presumably from a developing country, and the words: “WHO’S UNDER YOUR CARBON FOOTPRINT?” Click the image and you’re taken to a sobering video that frames climate change squarely as a moral issue, a threat with negative impacts falling hardest on the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people.

The site offers background on Catholic teachings about climate change, news, and tips for reducing one’s personal carbon footprint. Catholics are urged to take the St. Francis Pledge, a commitment to doing something about climate change. Named for the patron saint of animals and ecology, St. Francis of Assisi, the pledge urges lay Catholics to “Care for Creation and the Poor and join[ing] the Catholic Climate Covenant.” The St. Francis Pledge “is a promise and a commitment by Catholic individuals, families, parishes, organizations, and institutions to live our faith by protecting God’s Creation and advocating on behalf of people in poverty who face the harshest impacts of global climate change.”

St. Francis Pledge…care for creation and the poor.

In April 2011, the Catholic Climate Covenant campaign announced 24 trained “Catholic Climate Ambassadors” to help educate lay Catholics about the Church’s teachings through presentations at churches, schools, and other venues.

Anthony Strawa, an atmospheric scientist at NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, CA, said he applied to become an ambassador after deciding that he wanted to do something concrete about climate change, instead of just studying it. He first became involved in the local Sierra Club in the San Jose area, and then began working within the Diocese of San Jose.

“Our primary duty is to basically make Catholics aware of the church’s position on climate change,” Strawa said. “They have a very strong position on that, particularly as it affects the poor and vulnerable. So our primary mission is to convey that message and to try to motivate people to get involved, to act and advocate for climate change policies.”

As the chairman of the Catholic Green Initiative in his diocese, Strawa also has helped parish schools install solar panels, and has advocated for state legislation in California related to climate change and sustainability.

In the wake of failed initiatives in the U.S. Congress to pass comprehensive energy legislation, activities by the Catholic Coalition on Climate Change are focused now on grassroots efforts to educate people and shape individual behaviors related to consumption and energy use, said Dan Misleh, executive director of the coalition.

“Because there’s no climate change legislation, we’re doing very little work in Washington,” Misleh said. “We’re spending most of our time on the road, developing programs and projects and leaders around the country to share the message of the Catholic approach on this.”

An Uneasy Relationship Evolving

Catholic activism on climate change has not automatically led to an easy alliance between people of faith and climate scientists or environmentalists, Misleh said. “I think environmentalists and the scientific community tend to be pretty skeptical about religion, and so I think that there’s some uncomfortableness with getting too cozy — for faith people getting too cozy with scientists and the other way around,” he said.

However, times are changing. The proliferation of news about global warming in recent years has caused many people to tune out. Meanwhile, as “skeptics” have worked hard to discredit the science, climate change for many Americans has been reduced to a polarizing political issue.

Environmentalists and scientists who care deeply about the realities of climate change need a new way to frame the topic in order to reach the larger public, and speaking about the challenge in ethical and moral terms can be a new and effective way to reach people, Misleh said.

Scientists Need Faith Community to Reach ‘Minds and Hearts’

“The faith community really can’t understand this problem without understanding the science … and the scientific community is going to need the faith community to inspire and motivate and provide a different kind of vision for how we live on this planet together,” Misleh said. “I think until that dialogue really kind of ratchets up, it’s going to be tough for either community to go this alone. In other words, we can’t do this without the science and technology that they are going to bring, and they won’t be able to change minds and hearts without us.”

Pontifical Academy’s 2011 glacial melt study ‘a huge deal’.

A powerful example of the emerging alliance between the Catholic Church and scientists is a study commissioned last year by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, which examined glacial melt. The study’s 24 authors included climate scientist Veerabhadran Ramanathan, from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, CA; Nobel Laureate Paul Crutzen, formerly from Scripps; and Lonnie Thompson, of Ohio State University. The study was issued by the Vatican on May 5, 2011 and presented to Pope Benedict XVI (see Forum article). In language you won’t find in most scientific papers, the authors wrote:

We are committed to ensuring that all inhabitants of this planet receive their daily bread, fresh air to breathe and clean water to drink as we are aware that, if we want justice and peace, we must protect the habitat that sustains us. The believers among us ask God to grant us this wish …. We appeal to all nations to develop and implement, without delay, effective and fair policies to reduce the causes and impacts of climate change on communities and ecosystems, including mountain glaciers and their watersheds, aware that we all live in the same home. By acting now, in the spirit of common but differentiated responsibility, we accept our duty to one another and to the stewardship of a planet blessed with the gift of life.

“That was just a huge deal for us, because it did clearly indicate that the Pope is concerned not only about the moral implications of climate change but of climate change itself, the science of climate change,” Misleh said.

How American Catholics View Climate Change

So, where do lay Catholics in the U.S. stand on the climate issue? A public opinion poll conducted last September by the Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland (CISSM), part of the University of Maryland, found that 83 percent of Catholics would endorse an international agreement aimed at “reducing the greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change.”

However, when asked how they see the goal of “preventing climate change,” only 35 percent of Catholics saw it “as part of an obligation to protect God’s creation.” Forty-four percent of Catholics saw it as an important goal but not “in terms of an obligation to protect God’s creation.” Twenty percent, or one in five Catholics, did not see preventing climate change as “an important goal.”

Only four in ten of the people polled for that study said they think there is a consensus among scientists that urgent action on climate change is needed and that enough is known to take action. The study did not single out responses from Catholics on this point.

While the poll suggests that most Catholics favor acting to curb global emissions, perhaps because of their own adherence to the Catholic principle of prudence, it also reveals some doubts about the science, as well as a perspective that differs from the Catholic clergy. Misleh said it’s not a surprise that there’s going to be a diversity of views.

“There are 70 million of us or so in this country, so we are not all like-minded,” Misleh said. “We all try to live our faith the best way we know how, and we can legitimately come to different conclusions on important moral issues.”

Climate Dissent Among the Faithful

The conservative political group, Catholic Advocate, is one organized effort that appears at odds with the Church’s teachings about climate change. Led by Deal Hudson, who led Catholic outreach for President George W. Bush, the group back in 2010 urged Catholics to watch out for climate legislation:

“Senator John Kerry (D-MA) is expected to unveil the latest version of climate change legislation. Higher energy costs and increased taxes are issues that affect all Americans. Higher energy costs also will have a major impact on parish facilities. The climate change issue must be watched.”

Some Catholics have been upset that the Church has spoken out on the climate issue, either saying it should not be a priority or that the clergy are aligning themselves with liberal concerns that don’t reflect Catholic values.

When the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in early February asked Catholics to fast on Friday, February 3 as part of the initiative “February First Fridays for Food Security,” the bishops chose food insecurity and climate change as the theme.

Commenters on the site,, which posted a story on the initiative, were uniformly opposed to the USCCB’s taking on the climate issue. Only donors to the site are allowed to comment. Among them:

  • “Just when you thought the USCCB was actually becoming relevant and standing up to real problems (the HHS contraceptive mandates), they revert to the historical mean and prove their reflexive allegiance to left-wing social justice initiatives founded on junk science. Yawn!”
  • “Back to supporting more fantasies and lies, allowing the liberal agenda to continue to infuse the Church, as we fast and pray in sorrow and repentance for fake issues instead of fasting/repenting of what the present politicians have made the law and mores of the land.”
  • “Cooercive HHS regulations from Washington and here in Maryland the Dems are trying to pass a Same-sex marriage bill …. and the Bishops are asking us to fast about climate change!!! Aagggghhhhh!”
  • “Where do they get this non-sense from? Notice how global warming (which it isn’t) has now changed to climate change which is a natural phenomenon. Representatives of the Church should stay out of areas they know nothing about.”

In a letter to the editor of a suburban newspaper chain in Pennsylvania in December, Paul Crovo, an energy analyst and a member of the Kitchen Table Patriots, a Tea Party group, offered a more detailed objection to the Catholic Church’s activism.

“As a practicing Catholic and one who has also diligently researched this subject for the last several years, I am increasingly disconcerted to see the Church and the bishops take such an inflexible position on an issue that has become more fraught with controversy and uncertainty as new studies and data fail to corroborate earlier claims of the climate-change alarmist community,” Crovo wrote.

“… The USCCB should carefully consider the optics of aligning itself with organizations professing beliefs in a radical environmentalist agenda, some of which go so far as to extol the virtues of population control and worship of the Earth to the detriment of mankind, beliefs clearly not part of Catholic dogma.”

Back in 2007, offered a distinctly different view than the one the Catholic Church’s leaders have promoted since Pope John Paul II’s 1990 address. The site posted an essay by a writer named William A. Borst, a frequent contributor to the Mindszenty Report. The report is a publication of the anti-communist Cardinal Mindszenty Foundation, led by Eleanor Schlafly (who apparently is the sister of conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly’s late husband, Fred).

Global Warming: The End of Civilization?” attempts to de-bunk mainstream climate science; compliments Michael Crichton’s 2004 book, State of Fear and work by climate skeptic S. Fred Singer; rails against the Kyoto Treaty, The New York Times and Al Gore; and warns Catholics against “the charlatans and hucksters who wrap themselves in flags of revolutionary green.”

“Nothing in Church teaching serves as a mandate to follow dictates of Al Gore and his fellow zealots,” Borst wrote. “Catholics do not have to join Greenpeace or the Sierra Club. They can respect the Earth without making it a pantheistic deity. Like other Americans, they will adapt to the positive realities of natural global warming.”

Catholic Perspective, Global View

Despite dissent among lay Catholics on the climate issue, Strawa and Misleh say many Catholics are receptive to the Church’s teachings on the topic.

“I do believe that when people realize that the Pope has said a lot about this, that it is part of our faith and it’s as old as Genesis, really, and that it’s something that the bishops talked about, they tend to stand up a little better, perk up a little bit, and realize that this isn’t the Sierra Club in prayer,” Misleh said. “It’s really an authentically Catholic approach to this issue that is consistent with our values and our faith. I think a lot of people are simply relieved, when we go out to give talks, that it’s not Al Gore and it’s not Carl Pope [the former director of the Sierra Club]. It’s actually the Pope.”

Young people, in particular, are receptive to what the Church has to say about climate change, and Catholic Climate Covenant programs are building at Catholic colleges and universities around the country, Misleh said.

While climate change remains a polarizing political issue in the United States, the Vatican views it from a more global perspective.

Failure in Durban … A ‘Moral Apartheid’

“The Vatican is hearing from bishops from around the world, not just in the U.S., about these concerns,” Misleh said. “The fastest-growing Catholic populations are in Africa and South America, and both those continents are experiencing fairly dramatic changes in weather patterns.”

During the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Durban last December, Honduran Cardinal Óscar Rodríguez Maradiaga said during a special mass in Durban that failure at the climate talks would be a “moral apartheid.” Cardinal Rodriguez is president of Caritas Internationalis, a confederation of 165 Catholic relief, development, and social service organizations operating around the world. It regards climate change as a serious environmental justice issue for the globe’s poorest people.

“Just as South Africa’s Apartheid era policies sought divisions along race lines, today the world’s environment and energy policies divide man from nature,” Cardinal Rodriguez said.

Additional Resources on Catholics and Climate Change:

Also see:
Nationwide Climate ‘Preach-In’ To Target Broad Faith-Group Congregations
Judaism and Climate Change
Episcopalians Confronting Climate Change
Baptists and Climate Change
The United Church of Christ and Climate Change
‘Green Muslims,’ Eco-Islam and Evolving Climate Change Consciousness
Presbyterians and Climate Change
Preachable Moments: Evangelical Christians and Climate Change
Mormon Silence on Climate Change: Why, and What Might It Mean?

Bruce Lieberman, a long-time journalist, has covered climate change science, policy, and politics for nearly two decades. A newspaper reporter for 20 years, Bruce worked for The San Diego Union-Tribune...