The Churches Warm Up To Climate Change -- Sightings (Cory Labrecque)

With Evolution Weekend on the near horizon, you couldn't ask for a better essay from the Martin Marty Center's Sightings columns.  One of the key points where faith/science conversations need to intersect is around climate change.  In this essay Cory Labrecque gives us an overview of ways in which the topic is being broached (or not broached) in churches.  In this regard he points to the upcoming encyclical that Pope Francis will be issuing, an encyclical that will provide important Catholic teaching on ecology.  Let us continue the conversation!

The Churches Warm Up To Climate Change
Flooding in Chiang Mai, Thailand, 2011                                        Image: 501room /
When climate change protesters marched on Wall Street last September, their charge was to bring attention to a global urgency that requires a deep and abiding transformation of the way we think about, invest in, and relate to the environment.

Laying blame on the corporate, bureaucratic, and industrial world follows on the heels of Lynn White, Jr., who – in the 1960s – pointed the finger at religion as being at the root of our ecologic crisis. He cited Christianity as the most anthropocentric faith tradition the world has ever known; what with its linear Creation story, the eviction of pagan animism from every corner the Church claimed as her own, the uniqueness of humankind being made in the image of God, and the ostensible submission of the natural order to human utility.

Concern for Climate Change Varies Within Denominations
It is true that there are a number of Christians who are less than enthusiastic about supporting the environmental movement, accusing it of somehow suppressing – if not outright abandoning – regard for the human poor in its alleged preferential option for nature.

It is also the case that concern in the Church for climate change varies between and within the denominations. For instance, the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) together with the American Academy of Religion (AAR) surveyed a random sample of over 3,000 adults living in the US and found – among other things – that while more than 7 in 10 Hispanic Catholics indicated that they are “very concerned” or at least “somewhat concerned” about climate change, only 4 in 10 White Catholics could say the same.

 Growing Realization: Climate Change is a Moral Issue

The growing trend among many religious groups in the US, though, is in recognizing climate change as a moral issue that is a pressing threat to the Common Good writ large.

The Forum on Religion and Ecology at Yale shows – in its extensive list of statements regarding climate change from the various Christian denominations (and many other of the world’s religions) – that the concern is widespread. The National Religious Partnership for the Environment, the Catholic Climate Covenant, Creation Justice Ministries, the Evangelical Environmental Network, and Interfaith Power and Light are among the many organizations that have constructively engaged pastoral communities to make stewardship less about putting an end to the use of styrofoam coffee cups and more about a constructive re-evaluation of how energy, food, materials, etc, are being used in congregations and in everyday living.

Level of Concern About Climate Change vs. Church Attendance

The faithful are listening, but many only “get on board” once they are convinced that the call to protect the environment is, first and foremost, rooted in their tradition.

Unsurprisingly, the PRRI/AAR report shows that Americans who attend religious services (at least once a month) at which clergy occasionally (if not frequently) address the question of climate change will score higher on the Climate Change Concern Index. The issue, of course, is that the majority of respondents suggest that they are not hearing much about the subject at those services in the first place.

Pope Francis' Anticipated 2015 Encyclical on Ecology

In the Roman Catholic world, this is expected to change.

Human responsibility and accountability vis-à-vis our relationship with the environment will be at the core of Pope Francis’ highly anticipated encyclical on ecology to be released some time in 2015. This will continue and accentuate a discussion that has been gaining momentum in the Church over the last twenty-five years or so.

In his message for Word Day of Peace on January 1, 1990, Saint John Paul II made plain that global peace is threatened not only by the arms race and war, but by the lack of respect due to nature, atomistic and reductionistic attitudes toward the environment, and the plundering of the earth’s resources. The integrity of the Created order, he urged, demands a new solidarity.

Twenty years to the day later, Pope Benedict XVI affirmed the teachings of his predecessor and spoke of the need for a profound cultural renewal that would foster a responsible stewardship to help counter “myopic economic interests” and develop more far-sighted policies. The Church, he affirmed, cannot and must not be idle in the face of the ecological crisis; responsibility toward Creation is the Church’s duty.

Encyclical: Humans as Custodians of a World That Belongs to God

When the current pontiff was asked why he chose to be called Francis, his response was telling: “[Francis of Assisi] is the man of poverty, the man of peace, the man who loves and protects creation; these days we do not have a very good relationship with creation, do we?”

The coming encyclical on ecology is expected to underscore how humans are fashionedfrom the earth for the earth as tenants – or, better, custodians – of a world that belongs entirely to God (Ps 24.1; Lev. 25.23). There is little doubt that Pope Francis will speak, as he has previously, against the West’s “culture of waste,” which, in his view, has a penchant for excess, is quick to dispose, and – as a champion of individualism – demotes interdependence to a lamentable mark of weakness.

Importantly, I suspect that he will show how human poverty, theological anthropology, the Church’s moral tradition, economic development, and our common responsibility to protect the earth are so tightly interwoven that not one of these concerns can properly be tended to without attention to all others.


Moynihan, Colin. "Climate Change Protesters Tangle With Police at Wall St." New York Times, September 22, 2014, N.Y./Region.

Benedict XVI. “If You Want to Cultivate Peace, Protect Creation.” Message for the Celebration of the World Day of Peace. January 1, 2010. xliii-world-day-peace_en.html.
Francis. “Audience to Representatives of the Communications Media.” March 16, 2013. rappresentanti-media.html.

John Paul II. “Peace with God the Creator, Peace with All of Creation.” Message for the Celebration of the World Day of Peace. January 1, 1990. xxiii-world-day-for-peace_en.html.

Jones, Robert P., Daniel Cox, and Juhem Navarro-Rivera. “Believers, Sympathizers, and Skeptics: Why Americans Are Conflicted About Climate Change, Environment Policy, and Science.” Findings from the PRRI/AAR Religion, Values, and Climate Change Survey. Washington: Public Religion Research Institute, 2014.

White, Jr., Lynn. “The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis.” Science 155. 3767 (1967): 1203-1207.

Image: 501room / creative commons.

To read previous issues of Sightings, visit
Author, Cory Labrecque, (Ph.D. McGill) is Raymond F. Schinazi Scholar in Bioethics and Religious Thought and the Interim Director of the Master of Arts in Bioethics Program at Emory University's Center for Ethics. He also serves as Co-Director of Catholic Studies. Labrecque's research lies at the intersection of emerging/transformative technologies (especially regenerative and anti-ageing medicine)  and on philosophical and theological perspectives on human nature and the human/nature relationship. 

To comment, email the Editor, Myriam Renaud, at
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