Global Environmental Politics

Master's Degree Programs in Global Environmental Policy and in Natural Resources and Sustainable Development

Reflections on Pope Francis’ Address to the US Congress

On September 24, Pope Francis gave a historic speech before a joint session of the US Congress. One of his major themes was environmental protection. Quoting from his recent encyclical, Pope Francis said, “We need a conversation which includes everyone, since the environmental challenge we are undergoing, and its human roots, concern and affect us all.”

Below, some of the faculty in the Global Environmental Politics program in the School of International Service at American University offer thoughts and reflections on Pope Francis’ remarks to Congress.

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Professor Judith Shapiro, Director of the Natural Resources and Sustainable Development Program

— Two Climate Leaders Converge on Washington DC

This week Washington, DC sees visits from not one but two world leaders whose offices have traditionally been understood as anti-liberal and anti-environmentalist. The Pope and the General Secretary of the Communist Party of China are missing each other by a day, not surprising because of the traditional hostility between the CCP and the Vatican. (Catholic “house churches” are banned and suppressed in China because the Party is threatened by adherents’ fealty to the Pope.)

Yet Pope Francis and President Xi Jinping share common cause in their concern for climate change. Both have articulated an about-face in the weight that their institutions are giving to environmental degradation and the health of the planet. China announced its bi-lateral agreement with the U.S. during the APEC summit last November, committing China for the first time to cap emissions, and thereby invigorating the lead-up to the Paris climate negotiations. Pope Francis’ Climate Encyclical, published in May, reminds world leaders and people of faith the world over that we must change our usual way of doing business lest we destroy the planet.

“This week … reminds us how quickly things can change – one of the world’s most conservative institutions, the Vatican, is now plumbing liberation theology roots, while China has transformed itself … to a country accepting its role and responsibilities as a superpower.”

During his first visit to the U.S., the Pope has featured climate change in his public remarks along with his concern for immigrants and the poor, indicating that the Encyclical was just an opening salvo in his attention to the issue. This is thus an historic week in Washington, and we may feel heartened by the position of these two leaders and by their willingness to use their prominent institutions to help shift the earth’s people toward a more sustainable path.

This week also reminds us how quickly things can change – one of the world’s most conservative institutions, the Vatican, is now plumbing liberation theology roots, while China has transformed itself from one of the world’s most prominent naysayers and foot-draggers in the climate negotiations to a country accepting its role and responsibilities as a superpower. U.S. legislators have much to learn.

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Professor Paul Wapner

— The Polite or Deeply Political Pope?

I traveled with students in my freshman seminar, “Environmental Ethics,” to the Mall to hear the Pontiff’s remarks to Congress.  We had read the Pope’s Encyclical that powerfully called on people to care for “our common home,” which includes environmental protection, social responsibility, and the deepening of justice throughout the world.   Over 100 American University students and professors also attended.

Before the Pope’s address, various leaders of the climate justice movement took the stage to provide political context and give greater voice to the Pope’s comments about climate change and how it disproportionately affects the poor.  When the Pope finally appeared on the jumbotrons, he spoke movingly about joining together to work for a more humane world.  Many of us were touched by his soft urging to feel each other’s pain, welcome the refugee, care for the powerless, and make the golden rule central to our lives.

In the context of my course, we were listening particularly for references to climate change.  Many of us hoped his address would become a call to arms, as it were, encouraging Congress to take up the task of advancing meaningful climate legislation both at home and abroad.  On this score, some of us were disappointed.  To be sure, the Pope appealed for a “courageous and responsible effort to redirect our steps, and to avert the most serious effects of the environmental deterioration caused by human activity.”  This elicited applause and underlined the Pope’s abiding concern for environmental wellbeing. It did not, however, bring people to their feet.  Like many of his remarks, the comment only obliquely referenced climate change.

“A day later, I’m still wondering about the Pope’s shrouded words.  Was he merely being polite to a partisan chamber or was he reaching for something deeper than legislative initiative?”

A day later, I’m still wondering about the Pope’s shrouded words.  Was he merely being polite to a partisan chamber or was he reaching for something deeper than legislative initiative?  Was his call for unity and care a soft-pedaling of what he really feels in his heart or an attempt to grow our collective humanity that sits beneath the particularities of climate change legislation?  Living in DC and teaching at American University, I find myself forever torn between the immediate necessity to advance particular policies—especially on climate change—and the shifts in the broader socio-cultural templates that inform our political lives.

The Pope’s visit provides the opportunity to stretch between the urgent and the perennial.  It reminds us of the various layers of human collective concern.  As he makes clear in his Encyclical, out of compassion and for reasons of justice, we must act quickly and decisively to dismantle the structural engines that generate climate change.  And, as his remarks to Congress make clear, we must do so within a broader context of understanding, empathy, and kindness toward each other.

To be honest, I wish the Pope gave Congress a harder time about its inability to move forward on climate change.  Nonetheless, I’m glad he prodded our representatives at least to remember what care and common purpose are about.

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Professor Malini Ranganathan

— The Pope on Politics

Perhaps the most striking thing about the Pope’s remarks to Congress was not that he deftly wove together the life and legacy of four historic American individuals while also conveying how urgently we need to address contemporary social problems. The most striking thing was that he took the occasion to reflect on the meaning of “politics”. This is not easy at a time and in a city where “politics” is somewhat of a dirty word. To students entering undergraduate and graduate programs broadly dedicated to global environmental politics today, this was an important message to hear.

The Pope was as eloquent and pithy as he was idealistic and visionary in his definition of politics: “an expression of our compelling need to live as one, in order to build as one the greatest common good”. This notion of politics is quite the opposite of what many consider it to be—a game of power, interests, and money. Yet, as the Pope went on to say, “if politics must truly be at the service of the human person, it follows that it cannot be a slave to the economy and finance”. This is a resurrected notion of politics—politics as service, politics as aiming for the common good, politics as implementing a culture of care. Inherent in this expansive and resurrected notion of politics is, of course, an inextricably interlinked and justice-based approach to society and the environment, as the Pope repeatedly called for in Laudato Si, the encyclical published in June 2015.

“If I was somewhat disappointed that students in my Environmental Sustainability and Global Health class did not hear the Pope once mention “climate” in his delivery to Congress … I was nevertheless thankful that they heard this vision of politics.”

American University students were out in great numbers for the Moral March for Climate Justice (organized by the Earth Day Network and interfaith groups to coincide with the Pope’s remarks to Congress on Thursday morning). If I was somewhat disappointed that students in my Environmental Sustainability and Global Health class did not hear the Pope once mention “climate” in his delivery to Congress—and this will form the basis of a discussion in our class next week—I was nevertheless thankful that they heard this vision of politics.

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Author: sisgep

The Global Environmental Politics program in the School of International Service at American University offers a unique, specialized, and world-leading graduate environmental studies education. We have two degree tracks: Global Environmental Policy (GEP), and our dual-degree Natural Resources and Sustainable Development (NRSD) option with the UN-mandated University for Peace in Costa Rica. Join us!

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