In “The Joy of the Gospel,” Pope Francis thoughtfully asked for suggestions for church reform that might better meet the needs of evangelization today. I trust he is getting a strong response! As an observer at the Vatican conference Sustainable Humanity, Sustainable Nature, I would like to offer a suggestion for how the church might focus her works this century and advance the interests of the world’s poor—and the church’s mission as well.
At the meeting, hosted by the Pontifical Academies of Sciences and of Social Sciences at the Vatican last May, participants reviewed the latest sustainability “signs of the times.” The news is not good. The sustainability challenge is huge, and will require wholesale changes to the world’s economies. Because of its potentially devastating impact on the poor on all continents, the church has a strong interest in mounting a robust response this century to the challenge of sustainable development.
To appreciate the magnitude of the emerging challenge, consider first what human activities are doing to the abundant home that God has given to us:
• Biologists say we are living in the sixth period of mass extinctions in the 4.5 billion-year history of our planet and the first created by humans. Species are estimated to be going extinct at 100 to 1,000 times the natural “background” rate.
• Human activities are changing the climate. Concentrations of three key greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide, have increased to levels unseen in at least 800,000 years.
• Some 87 percent of the world’s oceanic fisheries are fished at or beyond capacity, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization.
• Oceans are 26 percent more acidic than before the Industrial Revolution. Acidification is now occurring 10 to 100 times faster than at any time in the past 50 million years.
We are essentially remaking planet Earth, our only home. Such carelessness is of direct interest to the church, not only because of our obligation to protect God’s creation, but because of our mandate to care tenderly for our sisters and brothers. Indeed, the human impact of environmental carelessness is direct and broad. Consider again:
• Sea level rise brought about by climate change will displace hundreds of millions of people this century and will increase the risk of violent conflict.
• Some 29 countries, home to 458 million people, were absolutely water scarce in 2011. This means they have little room to accommodate additional demand for water. By 2025 population growth will raise this number nearly four-fold, to 1.8 billion people.
• Around 805 million people worldwide are chronically hungry, yet global demand for agricultural products is projected to increase by 60 percent by 2050, even as climate change reduces crop yields at the global level by 2 percent per decade for the rest of the century.
In sum, an abused environment increasingly means a wounded human family. This makes the sustainability challenge more and more a solidarity challenge. For this reason, and because of the global scale of the challenges, redesigning economies to be sustainable while protecting the poor should be a strategic priority for the church this century.
The Response of the Church
One oft-repeated sentiment at the Vatican conference was that the church’s voice could be pivotal in helping to address this crisis. It was fascinating and humbling to hear a group of scientists acknowledge that their cutting-edge analyses and data are not enough to prompt creation of sustainable economies. Several noted that the world needs a change of values—a transformation of hearts—that will engender solidarity with nature in service of solidarity across the human family. Of course, few institutions know more about conversion of the heart, or have more experience promoting it, than the Catholic Church.
Fortunately, the church stands before this historic challenge with an impressive set of tools: moral authority, experience in advocating for the dispossessed, a large and diverse membership base, a global network of dioceses and parishes, influence over church and lay financial holdings and a skilled diplomatic corps, to name a few. Few institutions at the global level have such a diverse toolbox at their disposal. Skillfully employed, these assets could help convert the threat of civilizational decline into a civilizational rejuvenation in which solidarity and dignified lives for all become the standard by which human societies are evaluated. Consider the contribution the church could make in each of these areas.
Scripture and Tradition
More than any other asset, Christian Scripture and church teaching can be used to open hearts in favor of more just and sustainable societies. After all, what explains Pope Francis’ power to attract a broad base of faithful and nonbelievers alike? I believe it is his capacity to speak about values that touch every human heart, especially our common longing for justice and righteousness. Imagine tapping the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church or the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace in a focused effort to build sustainable economies. Here are some areas that might be addressed:
• What do longstanding Catholic principles—of, say, the dignity of the human person, or the option for the poor—contribute to human understanding of humanity’s proper relationship with the natural world? How might these insights be elevated in Catholic life and more broadly developed and communicated?
• Can the “Jubilee economics” emerging from the Book of Leviticus and the sharing and solidarity principles modeled in the Acts of the Apostles be made relevant to modern economies? What is their contribution to curbing rampant consumerism, the driver of so many sustainability challenges?
• What insights might Catholic social teaching offer to advance secular frameworks of environmental ethics such as the “contraction and convergence” proposal for addressing climate change or the principle of a right to water or food?
A Global Network
The church’s dioceses and approximately 221,000 parishes constitute an unparalleled global network of potential cross-border solidarity and mobilization. Through social media and financial transfers, the potential for greater interactions among Catholic entities worldwide is huge, yet underdeveloped. How might this network be used to prevent or address suffering in the world today and in the process create a greater sense of solidarity and universalism in the church?
• How can the church build relations of solidarity between Catholics in wealthy parishes and those in poorer communities, within and across countries? Can inexpensive communications tools be used to create parish-to-parish ties that help to tackle major environmental and justice challenges in a united way?
• Can parishes develop and share broadly creative local ways to integrate environmental concerns into traditional Catholic teaching regarding stewardship and generosity, thereby infusing new life and commitment to parish-level implementation of Catholic Social Teaching?
• Within parishes, can social assistance and mutual aid efforts be strengthened to handle what may be a greatly increased load in the decades ahead?
Caritas Internationalis is the church’s international relief and development agency. All of its focus areas—conflict, food, development, health and migration—will be stressed by the crises created by unsustainable development, with great strain to its budget and the budgets of its 160 allied organizations. On the other hand, expanded funding of Catholic development agencies, like Caritas or its U.S. affiliate, Catholic Relief Services, and mobilization of their skills and capacities could be pivotal in mitigating problems created by environmental and related social challenges in the decades ahead. To imagine an expanded role for Caritas and its affiliates, the following questions could be helpful:
• Can the mission of Caritas and its allies be deepened through diocese-to-diocese or parish-to-parish linkages? Can they become more direct conduits of assistance in ways that benefit the marginalized while building ties of solidarity across the globe?
• Would opportunities for direct parish-to-parish assistance make Caritas a more visible and relevant agency for Catholics worldwide, strengthening a sense of solidarity among all Catholics?
Paying for It
Adequate financing of initiatives that show solidarity with the poor and care for the natural environment is critical. Catholics in wealthy countries—where heavy consumption produces, for example, a disproportionate share of greenhouse gases—could be challenged to engage in greater sharing with those disproportionately affected, the poor in developing countries. Building relationships of solidarity might involve consideration of questions like these:
• Amid the greatest transfer of wealth in human history (from aged parents in wealthy countries, for example, to their adult children), can the church become active in catechizing parishioners who are wrestling with the proper disposition of inherited wealth and use this wealth—valued in the tens of trillions of dollars in the United States alone by 2050—to help build more resilient societies in poor nations?
• Might the church endorse (or help to establish) investment firms that specialize in socially responsible investing and in charitable investing, with special emphasis on funding initiatives that protect the poor and the environment?
• Can the church ensure that its own investments favor initiatives that protect the poor and the environment, perhaps through divestment of holdings of fossil fuels?
The Vatican’s diplomatic corps is the oldest in the world and is highly regarded. The Secretariat of State, the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace and the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue should continue to elevate the place of sustainability and human development in forums and capitals worldwide. As part of this effort, they might work to address some of these questions:
• The church should continue to advance implementation of the right to food and the right to water as basic human rights. How might church concerns about consumerism, inequality and other issues related to just and sustainable economies be given higher profile in the diplomatic life of the church?
• How might the global parish faithful, who number more than one billion, be engaged to support initiatives of the Vatican diplomatic corps? Can social media be employed to better connect parishioners with Vatican diplomatic efforts?
Sustainability and Solidarity as Opportunity
The vision underlying these suggestions is one of a global church united and inspired by Gospel values to address unprecedented threats to human well-being. Mobilizing for the crises now unfolding is an appropriate response for the church, and would likely strengthen it on many fronts:
• The poor in developing countries would receive the assistance and justice they deserve.
• Wealthy parishioners would be nurtured and catechized into a metanoia of compassion for the suffering.
• Relationships between the church’s central agencies, such as Caritas, and parishes worldwide would be strengthened.
• A vigorous response to one of the church’s key competitors—consumerism—would be mounted.
• Wealthy parishioners would receive guidance regarding the proper disposition of their gifts.
• The voice of the church would be strengthened in international forums.
• Ample space for collaboration with other faiths and with secular groups would be created.
The church has much to offer to help Catholics read the signs of the times and to soften the hearts of all to respond appropriately. The sooner it is fully engaged, the greater the prospects for avoiding widespread suffering in this century—and the greater the church’s own prospects for successful evangelization. Indeed, I believe the sustainability crisis is an opportunity for the church to create robust Christian communities worldwide that are rooted in solidarity and motivated by a fervor to ensure the dignity and well-being of all.