Is harming the environment a sin?

As world leaders prepare for the UN climate summit, religious figures are meeting in Ireland to consider how Pope Francis is influencing the politics of climate change

One in six Americans and one in three Catholic Americans say they were influenced by the pope’s message that climate change is a crucial moral issue.

The study, by climate-change researchers at Yale University and George Mason University, in the US, found that the percentage of Catholics who said they were very worried about global warming more than doubled after Pope Francis's visit to the US in September. And the proportion who denied the scientific consensus on climate change declined by 10 percentage points among Catholics and six points among the US population as a whole.

The pope's Laudato Si': On Care for Our Common Home was published in June 2015. Over 120 pages Francis covers everything from loss of biodiversity, and access to drinkable water as a human right, to intergenerational solidarity, ecological education and spirituality. He says he wants to "address every person living on this planet . . . for decisive action here and now".

Clear moral teaching

The former Green Party MEP Nuala Ahern says it is the first clear moral teaching on the environment from a Christian world leader. “It’s a call to dialogue which is hugely significant for scientists, politicians, the business community and ordinary people,” she says. “He is saying that it’s not just about science, technology and behaviour, but it’s also a question of ethics and how we live. He is saying that we are not separate to nature but a part of it.”

Ahern says that the language of the encyclical is both poetic and practical. “I think it will have a powerful impact beyond Catholics and the western world. Faith leaders have an enormous role to play. Climate change is so overwhelming that we need everybody to tackle it.”

Together with colleagues at the Green European Foundation, Ahern is studying religion and green values. “Many politicians on the left don’t want to know about religion. Even Green politicians are resistant to serious engagement with religion, but we are beyond that phase of the church’s overarching power in telling us what to do. This encyclical is a sign that the Catholic Church at a high level is shifting to a new moral ground, and it’s not before time. In fact it’s well overdue.”

Today at the Columban Ecological Institute at Dalgan Park, in Co Meath, the ecotheologian Fr Sean McDonagh is hosting a conference on Laudato Si' and CopCOPOP21, the UN climate-change conference in Paris.

The climatologist John Sweeney, emeritus professor at Maynooth, climate scientist from NUI Maynooth University, will address the conference. "It is difficult to overemphasise the scholarly quality and potential impact of this work. What many anticipated as a theological treatise turned out to be a scientifically robust, readable and inspirational document," Sweeney says. "The pope suggests market economics needs to be tempered by social and environmental responsibility to a much greater extent. Our disconnection with the natural world is leading, Francis says, to an ecological crisis of our own making as our throwaway culture destroys our common home. And, in that, the pope identifies climate change as a human-induced problem rooted in an insatiable quest for unsustainable growth and material consumption."

Sweeney says that Pope Francis sees emissions trading as a flawed mechanism that won't tackle the root of the problem. Instead, the pope suggests, an "integral ecology" recognises the components of the environment under threat for their intrinsic worth and not as resources for exploitation.

And Francis emphasises that “an ecological debt of developed countries requires them to finance sustainable development in poorer countries, linking natural and human rights to more practical issues of financial compensation as part of a global accord on climate”.


Speaking about the moral teaching in

Laudato Si’

, McDonagh says that the pope is “asking for a shift in the moral imagination. He is saying that interfering with biodiversity through deforestation and other interventions in the natural world is a sin. It is revolutionary to call this a sin.”

McDonagh says that a key point in Laudato Si' is its belief that every species of plant and animal has intrinsic value. "What he means here is that every creature has its own purpose; it's not just there for us. He also speaks about the three vital relationships: our relationship with God, with humanity and with the earth itself."

The Rev Andrew Orr, a Church of Ireland priest who is chairman of the Christian environmental lobby group Eco-congregation Ireland, says that the encyclical is significant in that Pope Francis has a statute that no other world religious leader has. "He has a moral authority that no political leader can match, so it's significant that he has made climate change a priority of his papacy."

Rev Orr says that the document will primarily reach Catholics but also have a wider influence. “It’s very significant that he has reached the conservative Catholic cohort in the United States, [which] was ambivalent about climate change. And the ethical dimension is very important, because the science will only be accepted when it is in tune with people’s values.”

The papal encyclical also values the work of nongovernmental organisations to put pressure on governments to develop more rigorous controls.

Rev Orr says that churches and other organisations can bring a message of hope by calling on governments and businesspeople to act on climate change. “The hope comes from working collectively to put pressure on politicians to come up with an agreement at Cop21 that will be acted on.”

What the pope says: from ‘Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home’

“Ecological culture cannot be reduced to a series of urgent and partial responses to the immediate problems of pollution, environmental decay and the depletion of natural resources.

“There needs to be a distinctive way of looking at things, a way of thinking, policies, an educational programme, a lifestyle and a spirituality which together generate resistance to the assault of the technocratic paradigm. Otherwise, even the best ecological initiatives can find themselves caught up in the same globalised logic.

“To seek only a technical remedy to each environmental problem which comes up is to separate what is in reality interconnected and to mask the true and deepest problems of the global system.

“An authentic humanity, calling for a new synthesis, seems to dwell in the midst of our technological culture, almost unnoticed, like a mist seeping gently beneath a closed door.”