Climate Now

Pope Francis’ Laudate Deum: uniting faith and science in a call to climate action

October 23, 2023 James Lawler Season 1 Episode 122
Climate Now
Pope Francis’ Laudate Deum: uniting faith and science in a call to climate action
Show Notes Transcript

In 2015, Pope Francis - head of the Catholic Church - published Laudato Si: On Care For Our Common Home, a “papal cyclical,” or open letter, to the world’s more than 1.3 billion Catholics  about the ethical imperative of addressing climate change, and the relationship between environmental stewardship and social justice. The publication had an impact: in church-goers’ confidence in the scientific evidence for climate change, in country leaders who cited it in the COP21 negotiations that led to the Paris Agreement, and in catalyzing an international movement among the Catholic community to fight climate change.

But as he makes clear in the follow up “apostolic exhortation” released earlier this month, called Laudate Deum, Pope Francis knows the work accomplished so far is not enough. Climate Now was joined by Dr. Mary Evelyn Tucker, Director of the Forum on Religion and Ecology at Yale University, to examine this urgent papal call for progress in protecting the environment and the poor, and the impact it may have in the global climate movement. 

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James Lawler: [00:00:00] Welcome to a special episode of Climate Now. I'm going to turn it over to my colleague, Ben Hone, who is co-hosting this episode with me to tell us about our guest today and the topic we will be discussing. Ben, welcome. 

Ben Hone: Thanks, James. Just to set the table, Pope Francis released Laudate Deum, a follow up document to his groundbreaking encyclical, Laudato si', once again imploring the world to take urgent climate action and lamenting that not enough progress had been made in tackling environmental issues since his previous words. 

In Laudate Deum, the Pope writes, "Eight years have passed since I published the encyclical letter, Laudato si', when I wanted to share with all of you, my brothers and sisters of our suffering planet, my heartfelt concerns about the care of our common home.

Yet with the passage of time, I've realized that our responses have not been adequate. While the [00:01:00] world in which we live is collapsing and may be nearing the breaking point, in addition to this possibility, it is indubitable that the impact of climate change will increasingly prejudice the lives and families of many persons.We will feel its effects in the areas of healthcare, sources of employment, access to resources, housing, forced migrations, etc.”.

So I have the great pleasure of introducing a mentor of mine, Mary Evelyn Tucker, who is the co-director of the Yale Forum on Religion and Ecology with her husband, John Grim. They're affiliated faculty with the Yale Center of Environmental Justice at the Yale School of the Environment.

They organized 10 conferences on world religions and ecology at Harvard. Mary Evelyn has spoken and written extensively about the papal encyclical on the environment titled Laudato si'. Mary Evelyn, thank you so much for joining us. Thank you for your time [00:02:00] today. How are you? 

Mary Evelyn Tucker: I'm fine. Thank you, both of you, Ben and James.

So nice to be with you and delighted about your work. 

Ben Hone: Will you please summarize for our listeners what the focus of your career has been to date? 

Mary Evelyn Tucker: The issues of the environment, climate change, pollution, biodiversity loss need a- not only the science and policy and law and technology and economics, absolutely essential, but without a moral force, without a comprehensive sense of ethics for why we have to make these changes, all the science and policy, while necessary, is insufficient.

So we were examining in the early nineties with many colleagues from actually around the world of what are the resources from the world's religions. With all of their problems and promise, there's still great potential for transformation. I saw this in the 60s in D.C. with the civil rights movement, Martin Luther King, and the anti-war [00:03:00] movement with William Sloane Coffin.

When these leaders came on board, things began to change. It wasn't just a civil rights bill being passed, it was for social justice, it was for change. And that is what we're trying to do with the world's religions, to activate leaders and laity, along with environmentalists and scientists, for this most urgent crisis which we're in the midst, which the Pope's encyclical addressed in 2015.

And this update is addressing now his apostolic letter, Laudate Deum, it's called, Praise Be to God. The first one was Praise Be in the St. Francis spirit. 

James Lawler: Before we dive into the most recent apostolic exhortation from the Pope, it would be great if you could give us some context for what these things are and what they've been historically. So, when the Pope, the head of the Catholic Church, [00:04:00] publishes, you know, a papal encyclical, what does that mean?

Why does the Pope do such a thing, first of all? 

Mary Evelyn Tucker: So, an encyclical is considered, originally, actually, addressed to Catholics, Christians, but this Pope addresses it to all people. Believers, non believers, he's very, very inclusive. So that's an important point here. But it's a letter that brings forth a key issue of which we should have concern, a moral issue, faith issue, spiritual issue.

And his whole papacy has been directed toward the environment and climate change and the problem of ecojustice, the poor being most adversely affected by these issues.

So, this is a teaching document, let's begin that way, but a teaching document that brings us into why should we care? Why should we act? What should we do? 

James Lawler: In the world today, what is that authority [00:05:00] today? What does that represent today in the world? How meaningful is it, really? 

Mary Evelyn Tucker: I would still maintain that the force of someone like Pope Francis and other key religious leaders is intact because of who he is and what he's been through. And if you look at his biography and if you look at his sense of, yes, I've made mistakes. Yes, I've asked for forgiveness.

He is a truly humble, real person. And, you know, when he came to the UN and just before it was issued in, uh, September of 2015, he was trying to influence the COP meeting in Paris, and one of our colleagues at the School of the Environment in the summer was a bit skeptical about Laudato si’.

He said, oh, it didn't include cap and trade. But he came back from the COP in Paris, and in January, we had a major panel at our School of the Environment, and he held up the encyclical and said, this is why we [00:06:00] got an agreement. Is- that's a moral force that's made and will continue to make a difference again with imperfect people, imperfect institutions, but we're seeking for something that's authentic moral change.

And I think both the encyclical and this updated apostolic letter provides that continuity for change. 

Ben Hone: So Mary Evelyn, I'm interested to hear what were your initial reflections after reading Laudate Deum? How does this document build off of or depart from his original encyclical? 

Mary Evelyn Tucker: The document, which I read twice now, and I'll read it many more times to reflect on it further.

Of course, it's shorter, as we know, than Laudato si', which was a very hefty piece. And it is considered an update, an addendum, if you will. But here's what hits me: it's the urgency, [00:07:00] the level of frustration about deniers, the sense of waste in consumer societies, sense of calling oil companies and countries and businesses to accountability over and over again.

And his critique of earlier COPs, he minces no words. He's got great science advisors. When Laudato si' was released in, in 2015, who was there at the Vatican? It was, uh, Johan Schulneuberger, who was the head of the Potsdam Research Institute for Climate Change, 200 scientists, the largest center for climate research on the planet.

He and other scientists have been key advisors. So, both the encyclical and this update letter has been heavily vetted by the scientists. And what he's trying to do here is say, the scientists have been telling us this for years. Now, part of the [00:08:00] problem is the scientists often can't advocate for change, right?

So he has become an advocate, as many others are, for the science, the message. And that's the power of this Laudate Deum, the new one, is he's going through the science of climate change and saying, there's no doubts, let's get off the doubt panel, step, whatever, because the urgency is so great. And that sense of urgency is exploding.

James Lawler: It's interesting in the structure of this document’s- if you read it, which is very, it's very easy to access online, it's almost something that you should read before, you know, your Thanksgiving dinner because it sort of anticipates all of the climate denialism that one hears, right? 

And it says, if someone says this, this is the truth. If someone says this, this is the truth. It's sort of like a, you know, almost like a handy PR pamphlet to carry around with you. In some, in some ways. It's many other things. 

Mary Evelyn Tucker: Yes, [00:09:00] absolutely. And to be really candid, the first time I read it, the day after it came out, I said, gosh, this is a polished paper.

We, we kind of know the science, you know, then I realized why he's doing it. We've been exposed to it for years because we're at the, you know, School of the Environment and listening to the science over and over again. But honestly, the communication of science, climate change has not been as effective as it could, because it's often given out as facts, as models, as graphs, and people start to glaze over.

And we know it has to be told through stories of who's being affected and “raising up the cry of the earth”, the cry of the poor, as Laudato si' says. And it's got to have a sense of urgency and advocacy. And science doesn't do that well. It resists it, actually. They want to be very objective. We're at this critical moment, the Thanksgiving dinner is a great example, and we have to [00:10:00] figure ways to get through this media morass of denial, of falsehoods, of oil companies denying and on and on for more than 15 years, I could say 20 years of denial coming from the companies and from the media.

James Lawler: Why do you think that this document will break through and what kind of impact would you expect it to have? 

Mary Evelyn Tucker: Well, I think it will break through because we're breaking down, right? The ecosystems are breaking down. The oceans are breaking down. The climate is breaking down in every way that's right in front of us.

And the effects of drought, of floods, of fires- we can go on and on from this past summer, but these past years, everything is literally heating up- has made people much more conscious. You know, a lot of people thought it wouldn't affect them, and now that it's affecting them, you know, from Katrina to today, [00:11:00] we have climate refugees in this country.

And we have insurance companies who are not going to insure coastal water properties and so on. So this crisis is affecting- the cost of insurance is in the trillions of dollars, you know, all the reinsurance industries, Swiss Re, Munich Re have it right on their websites, and we've got to bring them to the table for the changes that are needed.

There's just no question that it's both business, economic change, as you know well, and the personal changes that the Pope's calling for because so many people are being adversely affected. It's rich and poor alike now. And this document then will be seen, I think now, but in due time, as a catalyst and instigator of the changes that are needed and will take a long period of time because [00:12:00] this is the largest challenge in human history, no matter how you speak about it.

So that's why this sense of a flame of hope for moral and ethical change, because no matter what, we don't have to belong to our religion to realize we live in the midst of the most astonishing ecosystems that continually renew us with awe and wonder and beauty. 

But for long-term change, we need a spiritual depth and balance and a nourishment that can contain the work that has to be done. And this is where we like to say, well, there's ecospirituality that feeds us, our times in nature. And there's ecojustice that we can help these changes to happen with compassion for humans and ecosystems alike. 

Ben Hone: So I'm interested to know, [00:13:00] from a communication standpoint, within the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, what happens next?

How will this message be disseminated? Will it show up in your local mass on Sunday morning? How many of the world's almost 1.4 billion Catholics will receive this message? And what's the likelihood that they embrace it? 

Mary Evelyn Tucker: This is a document rich in the science, grounded in ecology, a deep feeling for the biological ecosystems that ground us all.

But it also has the spiritual message, which is why it will endure. It's not one or the other. This unique combination is what will make it last and be inspiring. And as bishops around the world, cardinals and so on, but also lay people, as they begin to realize what's at stake, they will see this, this same kind of conjunction [00:14:00] of what science is telling us and what the moral force of change is.

Now how that's actually going to be played out, I don't pretend to know fully, but how Laudato si' has played out is there's a Laudato si' movement around the world. Many young people are involved. 

And this is why it gives me hope that if we look at the rest of the world, even though the U.S., they'd be falling behind Latin America, there's a lot of support for this because of Leonardo Boff, a great liberation theologian who came up with the term, cry of the earth, cry of the poor. So, but, you know, here in the U.S. to be candid, no secret that the bishops have not embraced this. They're quite conservative by and large.

And the Pope has said, you know, to young people, you've got to confront your bishops and your priests and so on. So there's a confrontation. There's an educational piece. There's protest and, and call to action. But I would say the [00:15:00] most hopeful thing may be the educational piece, which is why we've put a lot of efforts into providing documents and so on, on our website, the Forum on Religion and Ecology, on ecojustice, and on Laudato si' and now Laudate Deum.

James Lawler: You said a moment ago, Mary Evelyn, that it's because of its spiritual context or content that this document will be- will endure. And I'm wondering if you could point us to any particular parts of the document that really illustrate that angle. 

Mary Evelyn Tucker: So, what struck me, the spiritual motivation is more at the end, actually.

Although he begins Laudato si' also with the science, which is very, very interesting, my suggestion is there's a range, a spectrum of spiritual motivations, and he's very strategic in what the appeal is. There's a biblical appeal. God saw everything that he's made, and indeed it was very good, and he goes into that whole sensibility from a Bible perspective. But [00:16:00] what I love and I think appeals to young people or people not necessarily in a religion per se is this larger sense that the universe itself is a context of mystery and meaning and purpose and a depth of connectivity and relationality in the ecosystems, but also in galaxies and how they emerge.

And he says the universe as a whole in all of its manife-, “manifold relationship shows forth the inexhaustible richness of God”. There's a mystical meaning to be found in a leaf in a mountain trail, and a dewdrop in a poor person's face, etc. Even the Judeo-Christian vision of the cosmos defines the unique and central value of the human being amid the marvelous concert of all creatures.

Now, this is, I think, a [00:17:00] vastly emergent spirituality, a cosmic spirituality, this ecological spirituality that will have an enduring appeal. 

Ben Hone: We've touched on the religious and academic areas, but given that COP 28 is soon upon us, what do you anticipate are going to be the outcomes or the knock-on effects on the economic and political spheres from Laudate Deum? Um, and maybe using the historical precedent of Laudato si' coming out before the COP in Paris in 2015.

Mary Evelyn Tucker: Clearly he is trying to do what we all mentioned earlier, like he was trying to affect the Paris COP agreement in December, uh, 2015, and he's trying to do the same for the Dubai, uh, COP. And of course he goes back and forth. You know, saying, well, there's problems there. Oil [00:18:00] companies and so on are involved, but let's not give up hope and it seems as though it's both principles and pragmatism, you know, that he's bringing to the table.

He's a very skilled political guy. It's very savvy. You know, he knows how to bring people on board without going too far. And I think what he's trying to do is he's critiquing these past conferences, but he's also encouraging hope and commitment to change, and that's really important.

He says if we lose hope and if we just become cynical, it's the poor who will suffer, it's future generations who will suffer. He's saying the long-term appeal that we've got to think about with this next COP is the responsible leadership for children and for future generations.

And he says, politics should live up to its name. It's a noble cause, not, not a self centered, ego oriented business [00:19:00] call. He's saying the abandonment of fossil fuels is not progressing at the necessary speed and whatever's being done, they'd be seen only as a ploy to distract attention. And so he's calling for accountability, for measurement.

He's got some very key phrases. So, in section five of this apostolic letter, the Pope raises the question, what to expect from COP 28 in Dubai. He says, if there's sincere interest in making this a historic event, he says, then one can only hope for binding forms of energy transition. This is the key issue, right?

Costs of fuels to alternative and sustainable energy. So he says, binding forms of energy transition that meet three conditions. That they be efficient, obligatory, and readily monitored. Then he says, in order to achieve the beginning of a new process marked by these three [00:20:00] requirements, that it be drastic, intense, and count on the commitment of all.

These are very specific, and I'm sure will be quoted often. His lens is through a compassionate concern for those suffering the most, the poor who have not created this problem in so many parts of the world. So through that lens, of deep compassion and care. He's trying to draw people into this issue. So it's a wonderful lens, but also he's saying it's the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.

And he even says that in certain points, the, the earth is speaking, you know, with all of these weather related disasters. 

Ben Hone: I think it contrasts nicely with his previous sentiment about our technocratic society and how we, [00:21:00] especially in Western civilization, tend to rely on some form of technological breakthrough to act as savior.

And what he's saying is that, in order to change culture, we need to change within first. It starts on an individual level, then a societal level, and then ultimately can lead to governmental and economic change. 

Mary Evelyn Tucker: And his continual critique of a technocratic fix or technocratic mindset is exceedingly important.

You know, we think that we're going to be saved by technology somehow, but he's, he's also critiquing things that are geoengineering. You know, that is not yet proved and we don't know what we're going to release into the environment to try and alter the atmosphere or the oceans and so on and so forth.

So he, he wants a precautionary principle about geoengineering and changing our environment. But he's [00:22:00] also saying this mindset needs to be radically altered. He absolutely says systemic and political changes are essential, but he doesn't want people to give up on what they may do. We want to create not just a sustainable culture, but an ecologically vibrant culture.

James Lawler: Well, thank you so much, Mary Evelyn. Thanks so much for joining us today. It's been great to chat with you. 

Mary Evelyn Tucker: Well, wonderful to chat with you both, Ben, James. 

Ben Hone: Thanks again, Mary Evelyn.

James Lawler: Climate Now is made possible, in part, by our science partners like the Livermore Lab Foundation. The Livermore Lab Foundation supports climate research and carbon cleanup initiatives at the Lawrence Livermore National Lab, which is a Department of Energy applied science and research facility.

More information on the foundation's climate work can be found at