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Nate Rauh-Bieri
 on October 24, 2023

Why the Pope’s New Climate Letter Matters for Everyone

Pope Francis recently released an apostolic exhortation called Laudate Deum. What is it? What does it mean for the climate crisis? What does it mean for us all?

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Did you hear? Recently, Pope Francis issued a letter on the climate crisis. There are many worthy concerns in the world right now, but this critical update is also worth our attention.

This new apostolic exhortation is called Laudate Deum (“Praise God”). It is an update and complement to the pope’s 2015 magisterial teaching on creation care, Laudato Si’. Laudato Si’ has likely done more than anything to help the world see our planetary health crisis through the lenses of belief, values, and ethics. Eight years later, this new, shorter letter “to all people of good will” clarifies Laudato Si’ “because the situation is even more pressing.”

Laudato Deum’s themes are vital for everyone—especially BioLogos readers interested in faith and science. It’s worth reading the letter in full; it’s not long. Here, I’ll summarize what it says. Then I’ll share how it matters for us all—not only for Catholics or other Christians.

A Brief Summary of Laudate Deum

In the pope’s newest apostolic exhortation he reframes the climate crisis. It’s not a narrow “environmental” issue but “a global social issue and one intimately related to the dignity of human life.” In essence: this deserves everyone’s attention.

He goes on to address common climate denial talking points against climate action. The pope is firm: we must move past the old “technocratic paradigm” which views the living world as “resource” rather than gift, “an object of exploitation, unbridled use and unlimited ambition.” Technocracy and growth cannot save us here. The world must put aside this model, which has led to environmental degradation and unequal consumption. (The per capita emissions of richer countries far exceed those of poorer ones.) The pope echoes the world’s leading scientists: “we barely have time to prevent even more tragic damage.” The time to act is now. But how?

The pope stresses that the answer must involve international diplomacy, or multilateralism. He stresses the importance of the annual UN climate conference, known as the conference of the parties, or COP. Released less than two months before COP28, Laudate Deum’s timing is not accidental. Pope Francis blames past COP failures on wealthy petrostates “which place their national interests above the global common good.” Yet we cannot afford to write off this forum: “If we are confident in the capacity of human beings to transcend their petty interests…This Conference can represent a change of direction.”

The world can make this change of direction, but here’s the hard truth: “global emissions continue to increase” when they need to be dropping with haste. Making this shift to clean energy sources is up to not only countries and multiparty negotiations, but also individuals everywhere (“all people of good will”). He says that “what is being asked of us is nothing other than a certain responsibility for the legacy we will leave behind.”

The good news is that our actions can add up to transform society. This is thanks to the gift of faith, which “gives strength to the human heart” and “transforms life, transfigures our goals, and sheds light on our relationship to others and with creation as a whole.” Towards the end of the letter the pope writes, “There are no lasting changes without cultural changes, without a maturing of lifestyles and convictions within societies, and there are no cultural changes without personal changes.” Amen to that.

Family planting a tree in background, while young child tills the soil in preparation to plant another tree.

Image used under license from Shutterstock.com

The good news is that our actions can add up to transform society. This is thanks to the gift of faith, which “gives strength to the human heart” and “transforms life, transfigures our goals, and sheds light on our relationship to others and with creation as a whole.”

Nate Rauh-Bieri

Why Laudate Deum Matters for All

Now that we know a little about what the pope’s climate letter says, we can consider why it matters for us all.

First, the messenger (still) matters. Just as Laudato Si’ was a big deal for collective environmental consciousness, the fact that a global public figure like the pope is again speaking on the topic ought to once again elevate the conversation around the world and cut through the perceived science-religion divide and the political polarization that hampers popular support for climate action in certain countries (like the U.S.).

Of course, to many, the messenger is not uncomplicated. For many folks, the Catholic Church and the pope are not sources of moral authority—not only because of Protestant or American anti-Catholicism, but because of deeply personal and pastoral wounds, and loss of trust in institutional religion. Though I’m not Catholic and am at variance with the Church on multiple fronts, Pope Francis’ theological and moral significance ought not be underestimated.

Second, of course, the message itself matters. In Laudate Deum, the pope seems done: done with climate denial, done with profligate consumption that harms creation and the poor, done with the ideology of unlimited economic growth, and done with “leader”s’ excuses for not doing more about the crisis. He is also done with fossil fuels. Laudate Deum echoes the best available climate science: to preserve a liveable future for all, we must rapidly and justly transition away from fossil fuels.

Third, the manner matters. The tone of Laudate Deum is no-nonsense, even confrontational. Christian climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe describes it “not so much a breath of fresh air as it is a bucket of ice water, straight to the face of those who are standing in the way of and delaying climate progress.”

Some may wonder if cold water to the face really changes hearts and minds. After all, the environmental movement has learned the hard way that arguing science or calling out consumption rarely breaks through to skeptics. But climate communication experts, like Hayhoe, note that the skeptics are not the ones to focus on. The ones who need to be convinced are the “broad middle” who are unengaged, concerned but not activated, or even paralyzed. For this large group, hearing the pope describe the scale of the problem and offer a hopeful way forward may give them the nudge they need to join the work of ecological repair. Perhaps the letter’s most important audience (besides politicians and diplomats) is not a fringe group of climate skeptics, or certain bishops—it’s everyone else listening in.

Profuse smoke from a pollution plant filling the sky during sundown.

Image used under license from Shutterstock.com

In Laudate Deum, the pope seems done: done with climate denial, done with profligate consumption that harms creation and the poor, done with the ideology of unlimited economic growth, and done with leaders’ excuses for not doing more about the crisis. He is also done with fossil fuels.

Nate Rauh-Bieri

Fourth, materialism matters. In line with Catholic social teaching, the pope decries how greed has created our crisis. In a sharp critique at the end of the letter, he calls out high polluting countries, namely the U.S.: “If we consider that emissions per individual in the United States are about two times greater than those of individuals living in China, and about seven times greater than the average of the poorest countries, we can state that a broad change in the irresponsible lifestyle connected with the Western model would have a significant long-term impact.” Some of us would rather not see him make this connection, but the pope doesn’t shy away. He confronts the delusion that the world can sustain current consumption by the rich.

Fifth, multilateralism matters. The letter’s purpose is not only to rouse everyday folks to action; it’s to influence a strong outcome at November’s UN climate conference, COP28. This isn’t the first time the pope has used his influence for a favorable COP process. According to Christian environmentalist Bill McKibben, Laudato Si’ “helped create the moral, cultural momentum that resulted in the Paris climate agreement”—the world’s working framework for global climate action. And in 2021, the pope, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, and Anglican Archbishop Justin Welby wrote an unprecedented joint letter prior to COP26. Let’s all pray that Laudato Deum does as much and more.

Sixth, my and your daily actions matter. We all have something to contribute to the needed transformation of society. Those who can contribute more, ought to. Here are some examples we can draw from the letter:

  • Advocate to pressure leaders to take environmental action. This can be challenging for Americans because of how partisan climate action is in the U.S. Still, it is noteworthy that last year’s large Pew study found that across all religious groups there was a huge discrepancy between participants’ taking personal actions like recycling and making any political engagement. Evangelicals were the least likely group to take any sort of civic action. But the pope is clear that political engagement plays a critical role.
  • Speak with others about how the climate crisis connects to our loves, concerns, values, and Christian beliefs. We can speak up within our own spheres of influence—like Pope Francis does in his. Laudate Deum can be a conversation starter in our church communities—the basis of sermons, study groups, and acts of discipleship. If the pope keeps talking about the climate crisis and its solutions, why not our church?
  • Change our daily habits to reduce pollution and consumption of energy-intensive materials—and do so in a way that influences wider cultural norms. Three major areas are how we 1) power our homes and appliances, 2) move around, and 3) feed ourselves.
  • Mind our money (for those who are wealthy on a global scale). Is it invested in fossil fuels? Could we move it to support climate solutions for the common good? Can we donate it to organizations and people working for cultural and civic and ecological regeneration?
  • Reexamine our values and reconsider our goals. What do they reveal about our “relationship to others and with creation as a whole”?

In the end, Laudate Deum matters to us all because it’s addressed to us all and reaches us all during a 2023 that’s revealed the climate crisis unlike any year to date. It matters to us all because, as the pope reminds us, all of life is interconnected: everything and everyone we love is impacted by the climate crisis. To Christians, the letter’s most stirring line may be this question: “The world sings of an infinite Love: how can we fail to care for it?” That’s the question Laudate Deum challenges the world to respond to—and with haste.

To Christians, the letter’s most stirring line may be this question: “The world sings of an infinite Love: how can we fail to care for it?”

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Nate Rauh-Bieri

Nate Rauh-Bieri writes and works on climate and environmental issues. He attended COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland, as part of the Christian Climate Observers Program. He lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan.