The Long Slow Work of Change: Former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta on 'Laudato Si''

U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta attends Pope Benedict XVI's general audience in Paul VI hall at the Vatican Jan. 16. (CNS photo/Paul Haring) (Jan. 16, 2013)

Over the last few weeks I've been reaching out to a wide variety of prominent Catholics in California, getting their reactions to "Laudato Si'." This week, I hope to post some of their responeses. 

Monterey native Leon Panetta has spent his life working in government. After sixteen years as a member of the House of Representatives, Panetta served in the Clinton Administration as the Director of the Office of Management and Budget and as President Clinton’s Chief of Staff. He later served in the Obama Administration as Director of the Central Intelligence Agency and Secretary of Defense.


Secretary Panetta is a lifelong Catholic who graduated magna cum laude from Santa Clara University and went on to receive his J.D. from there as well. Since retiring from government service, he and his wife, Sylvia, have founded the Panetta Institute for Public Policy, a nonpartisan center that works especially in forming young people interested in government.

What did you think of the encyclical?

I was very pleased with reading the document itself, because so much in our modern day society is based on the headline version and the Internet summary of what it is. And that in many ways can always be distorted by virtue of how someone is trying to shade their view of what was presented. So I wanted to have the chance to read it and get the full flavor of just exactly what the pope wanted to present in this encyclical.

There’s always debate about, is this in fact a moral issue or is this just a political issue? And I think what comes through in the document is that it really is about morality in our times, the question of what our relationship as God’s creatures should be to nature. But also I think what’s striking is the fact that he reflects on what other popes have said on this issue, which is frankly something I was not aware of, going back to John Paul and the others, and obviously his focus on St. Francis and the bishops of South Africa…and obviously his reflections on Jesus and the Gospel. But also I think of the focus on the poor and the fact that they are the most vulnerable in our society that are paying the highest price for our failure to care for our planet.

One of the things the pope talks about is how we need to change not just our policies, but our way of thinking about these things. How do you think we do that? How do we get people to change not just a law here or there but their overall way of thinking?

It’s a reality that no one is successful at changing anything that is this important without creating the dialogue that you have to have among all people about the importance of doing this. Nobody can just dictate this—world leaders, presidents of the United States, no matter what they say or want, they cannot just dictate that we deal with this issue. What they have to do, and those of us who are in politics understand perhaps better than anybody, is you need to have that important dialogue so that people are talking about why this is important, why it is necessary to deal with it. And in many ways I think what may be the most important aspect of this letter is that it isn’t just obviously a plea for the problem of climate change, it really is a call to action, a call to that dialogue that needs to happen if we really are going to protect the future of our planet.

You’ve worked with two presidents with a similar kind of idealism. President Obama in particular has been very interested in changing the way we think, a conversion of our imagination. What would you say we could learn from their experience?

We have an Institute of Public Policy here [at the Panetta Center] that tries to inspire young people to lives of public service, and what I always say to them is in a democracy we govern either by leadership or by crisis. And if leadership is willing to take the risks associated with leadership, I think we can ultimately avoid crisis. But if leadership is not there, then inevitably we will govern by crisis. I think we can apply that here in that presidents obviously have spoken to this issue and raised the concern about the need to address it, but to make it work not only do you need to inspire that dialogue, you have to exercise very strong leadership that involves taking risks.

And one of the things that struck me in what the pope did here is not only did he call for this greater dialogue, not only did he identify why this is important to discuss for all people on our planet, but he took a political risk in issuing this encyclical. This is an issue that is controversial in many ways and yet he was willing to speak out on it, and I think exercising that kind of leadership is ultimately what others are going to have to do if we’re ever to be successful at dealing with this crisis.

You can play it safe—i.e. I’m dealing with enough problems in the world and you can low key this…but I think it’s to his credit that he wanted to bring this to the attention of the world. And he’s in a place where he can do that. It isn’t without risk, of course, but it shows me that this pope has the courage to speak out when he believes something needs to be done.

Pope Francis also talks about how climate disaster and other disasters—like war or the poverty of nations—are connected. Does that fit for you?

Absolutely. I’ve spent a lot of time working on ocean issues. I was chair of the Pew Oceans Commission, we issued a report on the concern about the state of our oceans. And the reality is, when the oceans are impacted, when the fisheries are impacted, when there’s a rise in sea levels, it’s the most vulnerable in our society that carry the most heavy cross—it’s the fisherman and their families, it’s those who live near the coast lines and the rising tides and the disasters that take place.

I think the pope, by focusing on that issue, makes it very clear that this isn’t just about those of us who have been successful and want to enjoy the mountains and the oceans because we love nature that way. This is about people whose very lives are dependent on nature, who have to be helped. And I think that point needs to be made, and it’s isn’t usually one of the arguments I’ve heard either in the Congress or elsewhere when it comes to protecting our environments.

Would you say in your work as the Director of the CIA or Secretary of Defense you’ve seen the importance of responding to climate change?

Both when I was at the CIA and at the Defense Department, I established offices to focus on the security impacts of climate change. At the CIA I thought it was critical to look at where are droughts occurring, where are water problems occurring, where are the coastlines being impacted by sea levels rising or by the increase in the temperature of our oceans. Just one example—as the ice sheets and the polar areas were receding, the whole issue of the effort to go after the resources there and the competition for those resources, all of this raises security issues that we have to be aware of. So there is in a very real sense a relationship between what’s happening to our climate and what’s happening to the security of our planet.

Would you say there are certain parts of the world where the security concerns coming out of climate change would be greater?

Sure, if you look at the Asia region, what we saw happen in areas around Indonesia, the impact of the typhoons and the damage that was done. We are now seeing on a somewhat regular basis natural disasters of one kind or another that really are demanding that the countries of that region really pay attention to how we protect against these kinds of disasters.

It was interesting to go to China and find that the Chinese, who generally have gone out and fished the oceans of the world in a pretty aggressive way, as a result of the fisheries diminishing, are now asking themselves what do we do to try and protect these fisheries for the future. They’re beginning to talk about sustainable fisheries. So it’s unfortunate it has to happen this way, but it’s the old story, to get the attention of the jackass you often have to hit him across the head. Too often these disasters have to happen to get people to pay attention to what’s taking place.

It’s as though we only react, we’re not capable of planning.

It’s always the case no matter how much you try to tell people the problems that we’re confronting, people tend to take things for granted until it hits home in some very real way. That’s in many ways what I think the pope is trying to do is to get us to wake up without having to go through that kind of disaster.

Every time we take on big issues like this, we have to understand there is no leaping ahead to a solution. You have to go step by step. And I think what the pope has given us is at least a guideline for how we can move forward on this issue. That’s ultimately the way you get it done, there’s no magic here, it’s going to take a lot of work and a lot of prayer. 

It seems like it’s very hard for Americans to accept that kind of step-by-step process. Like politicians end up having a better sense of the patience needed to get things done.

It is the challenge because it’s a little bit like what you see happening out of Charleston, that we kind of bow our heads, pray, are concerned about why these kinds of things happen, and then life kind of goes on after that. And I think the role of leaders is to make sure that we don’t forget, that we don’t suddenly move on and do other things, but that we focus on what is it that we have to do to make change. And in many ways…that just doesn’t happen, without some very strong leadership that is willing to take risks.

On a slightly different topic: You’ve had many important, difficult jobs. How would you say being a Catholic has impacted your work?

Let me put it this way—I spent my life saying a lot of Hail Mary’s in order to try and make it from day to day.

But the way I was taught at Santa Clara and I guess my deep faith in God and also in people, they have given me the strength to be able to confront a lot of challenges. Because in the end I think that if we really care about doing the right thing, we can help make people’s lives better. And I think in many ways that’s the real calling we should have, to make people’s lives better.

Especially in the jobs when I had to make decisions about life and death, those are the toughest decisions of all. And the ability to be able to rely on your faith and your relationship with God in those tough moments is what helped me get through it.

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