This series of teaching editorials focuses on the relationship between faith and science.
Science, scripture and the teachings of the Catholic Church all point to a need to protect the ecosystems upon which all livings things depend. We are called to care for the earth in the second chapter of Genesis where it says that God put the human in the garden “to till it and keep it.”
“Keep” here means to protect. In the first chapter of Genesis, God says humans should “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” The Hebrew word for dominion is radah and is used throughout the Bible to describe how a ruler should treat his or her subjects. Rulers are to watch over and protect their subjects, not abuse them.
Humans, however, have used an interpretation of the word dominion that gives permission to destroy forests, mountains, waterways and animals. Pope Francis, in his encyclical “Laudato Si’,”points out that “The Judeo-Christian thinking … that grants man ‘dominion’ over the earth has encouraged the unbridled exploitation of nature … is not a correct interpretation of the Bible.” The 24th Psalm reminds us, “the earth is the Lord’s;” therefore, we must be good stewards of the earth so that future generations can share in its bounty.
Scientific advancements have given us the ability to understand better how our planet works and how we can protect it. We are gaining an understanding of just how poorly a job we are doing as stewards of the earth. In “Laudato Si’,” Pope Francis, who was trained as a scientist, reminds us, “There is very solid scientific consensus…that we are witnessing a disturbing warming of the climatic system.” This is precisely what the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has been saying. This international panel relies on the work of thousands of scientists around the world and has been issuing warnings about climate change since 1990. That same year, Pope John Paul II warned of the “ecological crisis” in his message on the World Day of Peace when he called us to “devote ourselves to building up peace with all creation which is inseparable from peace among all peoples.”
Twenty years later the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops spoke strongly about the impact of climate change on the people of the world. They warned us, “People living in poverty — both at home and abroad — contribute least to climate change but they are likely to suffer its worst consequences with few resources to adapt and respond.”
We are seeing the impacts of this in places like Syria where severe droughts from 2007 to 2010 contributed to civil war and intense refugee migration. Millions of people from the Central American countries of Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador are being forced to migrate north in search of food, since their countries are not able to produce enough to feed their people, leading to political unrest.
Millions of dollars are being spent by those in the fossil fuel industry to downplay the impacts of climate change. They run ads on television and print media, issue reports, and write editorials in newspapers across the country. They make significant contributions to political campaigns. Their claims are not based on widely accepted scientific evidence.
The teachings of the Catholic Church make it very clear that caring for God’s creation is a pro-life issue. We must turn to our faith and science when faced with these serious humanitarian crises and not be swayed by corporate and political spin campaigns. We also must not lose hope. Again in “Laudato Si’,” Pope Francis said, “Yet all is not lost. Human beings, while capable of the worst, are also capable of rising above themselves, choosing again what is good, and making a new start, despite their mental and social conditioning.”
Our faith teachings have helped us with immense problems in the past, such as slavery, child labor, women’s equality, and civil rights, so we can have hope that the climate crisis also can be addressed. Already, Catholic institutions are embracing a change to a more just and compassionate energy paradigm. The Vatican has vowed to become carbon neutral. Here in Kentucky many Catholic institutions have installed solar panels, including at the Archdiocese of Louisville’s Pastoral Center, Sacred Heart Academy, Assumption High School and St. William Church in Louisville, the Catholic Action Center in Lexington, St. Elizabeth of Hungary Church in Ravenna and buildings on the grounds of the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth, and the Sisters of Loretto. Let us all pray that through science and faith we can find the truth and a path to a better future.
Tim Darst is the executive director of Kentucky Interfaith Power and Light and the associate director of Earth Literacy at the Passionist Earth & Spirit Center.