Going to Church in the Senate: The Ministry of Responding to Climate Change

Tricia Jedele

Senator Sheldon Whitehouse has made a number of passionate speeches throughout the week regarding climate change impacts and the dire need to address climate change. He is establishing himself as a courageous leader on the single most important issue facing this country – the reality of a changing climate and our moral, economic, and human obligation to respond to the threat we continue to blindly build. He will not let his colleagues (or the country) forget the seriousness of this issue and the need to respond to it.

Interestingly and importantly, this past week, Senator Whitehouse spoke with strong references to Pope Francis and his call to Catholics to care for Creation – a connection we rarely hear in the Senate. In fact, a more common theme these days, among congressmen and clergymen alike, has been to invoke the Bible to justify a do-nothing approach to climate change, arguing that the idea that we can irreparably harm our environment runs contrary to scripture.

As a Roman Catholic myself, I can confidently say that the Church’s call to advance social justice on the one hand (i.e., protecting the poor, caring for the Earth and its creatures) and protect human life (i.e., opposing abortion, birth control, etc..) on the other hand, creates a conflict for voters that has often been exploited and manipulated by the dominant political parties in the United States. Indeed, there even have been a number of masses I have attended during election years past when I have been made to feel that a candidate’s position on abortion is the only deciding factor when voting. This isn’t because the Church asked me to vote one way or the other, but it was because “life” was only viewed through the single issue of abortion, and not the global lense that would allow one to consider the disproportionate impact that our continued reliance on fossil fuels, and our steadfast refusal to respond to climate change is already having on the poorest of the poor and on Earth’s natural systems.

I hope that by choosing the name Francis, our new Pope has done more than signal a concern for the poor and the environment. I hope that by choosing this name, and by being a former student and teacher of chemistry, Pope Francis’ mission will be to remind Catholics everywhere that they can believe in the science of climate change, advocate for the protection of all creation, and for social justice and the poor, and still be a good Catholic. Indeed, without such advocacy “justice will be unachievable.” http://conservation.catholic.org/u_s_bishops.htm

St. Francis of Assisi preached the duty of men to protect and enjoy nature as both the stewards of God’s creation and as creatures ourselves. On November 29, 1979, Pope John Paul II declared St. Francis to be the Patron of Ecology. During the World Environment Day 1982, Pope John Paul II said that St. Francis’ love and care for creation was a challenge for contemporary Catholics and a reminder “not to behave like dissident predators where nature is concerned, but to assume responsibility for it, taking all care so that everything stays healthy and integrated, so as to offer a welcoming and friendly environment even to those who succeed us.”

It would be truly inspirational if the Church would begin to pray during its Prayers of the Faithful that our political leaders make the right choices when it comes to caring for our natural world; and then, perhaps, Catholics would learn as much about the ministry of our new Pope during mass as they might from the Senate floor.

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