Let’s start with a prayer: God our father, by the labor of man you govern and guide to perfection the work of creation. Help us to use your gifts wisely and make this world a place where all our fellow men and women can discover your love, both in the beauty of nature and in the beauty of moral truth. Amen.
Is it for real?
Is it as bad as some people say it is?
And, if it’s bad, what can we do about it?
In this lesson we will briefly examine the global warming debate and give some suggestions about our attitude as Catholics towards this issue.
Hard to ignore
The news this October and November seemed to be full of things related to global warming. The southeastern US experienced a drought, Oklahoma was flooding, wildfires were raging in California, and the ice was melting in Alaska. In television specials such as CNN’s Planet in Peril, we heard claims that these natural disasters were due in part to global warming.
And global warming was in the news in another way, too. In October former Vice President Al Gore and the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (UN IPCC) received the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize for increasing public awareness of the dangers of global warming. During the month of November the UN IPCC published the final part of its report, Climate Change 2007, which again made international headlines.
Is it real?
But is global warming for real? Certainly Mr. Gore has become the most prominent figure in convincing people that global warming is real, imminent, and extremely dangerous. In his book and documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, Mr. Gore warns us about a sea rise of twenty-three feet due to the melting of the polar ice caps. That would put most of New York City and many other coastal areas underwater. Worst of all, according to Mr. Gore, we humans are the main cause of this warming.
Some points of dissent
Many scientists, however, disagree with Mr. Gore, and that is the source of the global warming controversy. For example, in October, a High Court judge in Great Britain agreed with many other experts when he ruled that Mr. Gore’s documentary contained serious errors and needed to be balanced with the presentation of another point of view. The judge cited scientific studies that show that a sea rise of the magnitude claimed by Mr. Gore would take thousands of years to happen. He noted nine “alarmist exaggerations” in Mr. Gore’s book and documentary.
After the Nobel Prize was announced in October, a scientist named Dr. John Christy, a member of the IPCC (and the winner of the prize), published an article in the Wall Street Journal that made headlines. He denounced the unscientific bias in the IPCC report and the manipulation of its conclusions by Mr. Gore. Dr. Christy pointed out that at best the report offered projections of possible outcomes, not definitive predictions. Like many other scientists, Dr. Christy also explained that the computer models used to make these projections were incapable of representing the complexity of the real world. He also joined other scientists in stating that the temperature information that Mr. Gore used in his documentary was faulty.
An earlier lead author of the IPCC report and professor at MIT, Dr. Richard Lindzen, has repeatedly expressed his dismay about the “hysterical panic” seemingly promoted by the IPCC report and Mr. Gore’s work.
No easy consensus
Clearly, in spite of what many media sources have been saying, there is no scientific consensus about global warming. Some scientists are convinced it is a problem; others are not. Some scientists are convinced that human activity is causing it; others are not. As Catholics, how should we respond?
What’s a Catholic to do?
First, we should have a concern for the environment. Recently Pope Benedict XVI has been reminding young people that we are called to be stewards of God’s creation, that environmental respect and responsibility are an integral part of Christian commitment.
At a gathering of 400,000 young people this past September in Loreto, Italy the pope stated, “There is no doubt that one of the fields in which it seems urgent to take action is that of safeguarding creation…. We need a decisive Yes to care for creation and a strong commitment to reverse those trends that risk making the situation of decay irreversible.”
Human life a marvel, not a cancer
But Pope Benedict has also warned us of a mistaken type of environmentalism that sees man as the cancer of the planet, that sees people as pollution, and that thinks the solution is in promoting anti-life policies such as abortion, sterilization, and contraception. That, says the pope, is clearly not the solution: “How disturbing it is that not infrequently the very social and political groups that, admirably, are most attuned to the awe of God’s creation pay scant attention to the marvel of life in the womb” (Sept. 15, 2007).
Reflecting God’s wisdom and care The human family has been created in God’s image (Genesis 1: 26-27).
Through our likeness to God, we human beings have been given the task of exploring, developing, and shaping the earth (Genesis 1:28). God has asked man to be a loving and wise gardener in charge of developing the earth (Genesis 2:15).
The earth was created for the human family. When we build communities and interact with the raw materials around us, we are doing something good, something positive. The human family and human culture are the pinnacles of God’s creation. We can actually add to the beauty and wonder of creation through our own creative interaction with the environment – that is part of what it means to be human.
Therefore, as Pope Benedict has reminded us, Christian environmentalism always puts respect for human life as its top ethical priority and sees human culture as positive, not cancerous.
Realism that is resourceful
True, man can damage himself and the environment if he uses his power for selfish purposes. But he can use his power to serve, to help the earth, and to help others. Yes, pollution is bad and can even be a serious sin because it is an irresponsible abuse of God’s gifts. But on the other hand, making intelligent and productive use of those resources is a good thing.
Opportunity for evangelization
Pope Benedict also sees an opportunity for evangelization in our legitimate concern for the environment. He sees it as an opportunity for reflecting on ethics. Just as we discover certain laws in the environment (in nature) that must be respected for the health of the planet, so also we can discover in ourselves, in our human nature, laws for true spiritual and moral health. These ethical laws (summed up in the Ten Commandments) are a matter of life and death. They are the path to true happiness. And following these ethical laws also affects our interaction with the environment. So, today’s concern for respecting the laws of nature can open an opportunity for reflection on the health of following moral law. This is part of what Pope Benedict XVI means when he talks about the need for a “human ecology.”
Being scientific about science
The pope also shows us that in analyzing the debate on global warming we must be prudent and weed out facts from exaggerations. Pope Benedict is recognized by both Catholics and non-Catholics as one of the great intellects of modern Europe. He studies issues carefully before speaking out, and the environment is no exception. In fact, the Vatican sponsored a scientific congress on global warming this past spring during which experts presented both sides of the debate.
The pope is listening to science, and he is also reflecting on the insights of previous Church teaching about the environmental issue. He wants to know more about the scientific arguments on all sides, because he is aware that oversimplifications can sometimes blur rather than clarify the truth.
Yes, science is an excellent instrument for fact-finding, but it has its limits, and throughout history many credible scientific theories have even been proven wrong or have needed serious adjustment. For example, in the 1960s a famous population “expert” named Paul Erlich helped cause widespread alarm through predictions of worldwide famine due to overpopulation, but his predictions never came true – his theories were wrong. Because science works with more complicated reasoning than just our immediate knowledge, there is always room for error. Responsible scientific research recognizes its limits.
A key to future comments
So far, in his discourses Pope Benedict has not used the specific term “global warming,” showing he is prudent about the debate being waged, but during the last six months he has used the term “climate change” several times, a term that is a similar but not identical term.
He will certainly talk more about climate change, but he will also caution us to look for balance, avoiding the alarmism and hysteria that can easily be manipulated into anti-life policies.
The Holy Father will ask us to promote a truly Christian environmentalism, where man is seen as a blessing, not a curse. He will remind us that he believes in us. He believes that we can find creative solutions to environmental challenges – solutions that help us develop and become good stewards of creation rather than try to expel man from history.
So, how can a Catholic show concern for the environment? We can promote a culture that is respectful of the environment, but also of ethical values, especially the value of human life. We can work for balance in the debate and avoid alarmism. We can live stewardship and responsibility, taking care of our natural environment out of charity and respect for all men, made in God’s image. We can start with our own lives: conserving electricity, recycling, avoiding unnecessary waste, enjoying the beauty of nature, making good use of the resources we have been given, and sharing those resources with others in need. In this way we can help this world to be a place where our fellow men and women discover God’s love, both in the beauty of nature and in the beauty of moral truth.
God blessed them, saying: “Be fertile and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it. Have dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, and all the living things that move on the earth.”
For creation awaits with eager expectation the revelation of the children of God… in hope that creation itself would be set free from slavery to corruption and share in the glorious freedom of the children of God.
(Romans 8: 19-21)
When I see your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and stars that you set in place – what are humans that you are mindful of them, mere mortals that you care for them? Yet you have made them little less than a god, crowned them with glory and honor. You have given them rule over the works of your hands, put all things at their feet.
“How disturbing it is that not infrequently the very social and political groups that, admirably, are most attuned to the awe of God’s creation pay scant attention to the marvel of life in the womb.”
(Benedict XVI, Sept. 15, 2007)
“Scientific predictability also raises the question of the scientist’s ethical responsibilities. His conclusions must be guided by respect for truth and an honest acknowledgment of both the accuracy and the inevitable limitations of the scientific method.”
(Benedict XVI, November 6, 2006)
“Alongside the ecology of nature, there exists what can be called a ‘human’ ecology.”
(Benedict XVI, Message forWorld Day of Peace 2007)
“Preservation of the environment, promotion of sustainable development and particular attention to climate change are matters of grave concern for the entire human family.”
(Benedict XVI, Sept. 1, 2007)
2415: “The Seventh Commandment enjoins respect for the integrity of creation. … Man’s dominion over inanimate and other living beings granted by the Creator is not absolute; it is limited by concern for the quality of life of his neighbor, including generations to come; it requires a religious respect for the integrity of creation.”
373: “In God’s plan man and woman have the vocation of ‘subduing’ the earth as stewards of God. This sovereignty is not to be an arbitrary and destructive domination. God calls man and woman, made in the image of the Creator ‘who loves everything that exists,’ to share in his providence toward other creatures; hence their responsibility for the world God has entrusted to them.”
Saints and Heroes
Environmentally Friendly Monk and Wise Counselor
John Gualbert, Abbot
(entered Heaven in 1073)
St. John Gualbert is patron saint of parks and foresters, but he had to have a conversion before he began the road to holiness. John was nobleman from Florence, Italy who wanted revenge for his brother’s murder, and spent many years looking for the murderer. He eventually found the man, and, just as he was about to kill him, he had a vision of Christ on the cross forgiving his enemies. John could not bring himself to execute his plan of revenge. He forgave the killer. Soon John had an even deeper experience of Christ and felt called to be a monk. He entered a monastery near Florence and eventually was asked to found a new monastery. He became known as a wise counselor. Even bishops and popes came to him for advice. He was a light of truth and grace in a difficult time for the Church and society in general.
So why is he the patron saint of parks and foresters? The area surrounding his monastery at Vallombrosa, near Florence, was wild and deserted when he first arrived. John thought that it would be more conducive to contemplation and a dedicated lifestyle if the grounds were better kept. But instead of a traditional garden, he opted to have his monks plant trees (firs and pines mostly), creating a park and nature preserve to enhance the prayerful environment. This park and monastery are still there, and can be visited today.
Discovering God’s Presence in Faith and Nature
Saint Teresa of Los Andes
Teresa was born in Santiago de Chile on July 13, 1900. Growing up, those who knew her closely called her Juanita. In her diary she claims that as a little girl she was proud, self-centered, and stubborn. She says that at the age of ten she became a new person, when she made her first Communion. Soon the holiness of her life shone out in her actions at home, in school, and with friends. She was young like her friends, but they knew she was different. They often sought her support and advice. According to those who knew her, she was cheerful, happy, sympathetic, attractive, and communicative. She also loved sports and had great enthusiasm for the beauty of nature. She found God in the beautiful settings around her. When she was fourteen she decided to consecrate herself to Christ as a religious. On May 19,1919 she entered the tiny monastery of the Holy Spirit in the township of Los Andes, near Santiago, Chile. She was eighteen years old. She knew a long time before that she would die young. A month before she died, she related this to her confessor. She accepted her sickness with happiness, serenity, and confidence. She was nineteen years old when she died. She is the first Chilean to be declared a saint.
- What is global warming? According to Mr. Gore, what is the main cause of it? Do you agree with him?
- What is alarmism? Do you think alarmism about global warming is exaggerated, or do you think it is justified?
- What attitudes can a Catholic bring to the global warming debate that can be a special help in the debate?
- Has Pope Benedict XVI talked about global warming? What words has he used rather than “global warming?” What has he said about it?
- Refer to lesson
- Do a search for “climate change” on the Vatican Web site (www.vatican.va)
- For more information, see the following articles
- “The ‘Green Pope’? Benedict’s Balanced Approach to Environmental Issues” by Edward Pentin, National Catholic Register, Sept. 3 -Oct. 6, 2007, page 5
- “Holy Father Worried About Planet’s Future,” Zenit, Sept. 2, 2007
- “Pope Encourages Ethical Ecology,” Zenit, June 7, 2007
- What particular danger does the pope point out when referring to the promotion of concern for the environment?
- What is the pope referring to when he calls for attention to a “human ecology?” What things can we do to promote this “human ecology?”
- What simple things can we do in our daily life to help reduce energy use? Can these things have an impact on the environment? What other ways can we show good stewardship for the natural resources God has entrusted to us?
- Do you think the global warming debate is only about science, or do you think other values also are in play? If more than science is in play, can you list some of the other values involved?
- Going deeper, are the attitudes of a Catholic toward the global warming debate and environmental issues different than those of a non-Catholic?
Hints / Answers:
- Regarding Catholics and people of good will: The attitudes of an informed Catholic can be similar to the attitudes of many people of good will toward this debate in the insistence on balance, stewardship, and responsibility. There are Catholics on both sides of the global warming debate and involved in the research on both sides of the issue.
- Regarding Catholics and other Christians: The attitudes of an informed Catholic towards this debate are similar to the attitudes of many other Christians in the emphasis on the dignity of human life, but in the Catholic contribution there is a very clear priority given to the fundamental importance of the value of human life. Human life is not just another value among many. It is the fundamental value that takes absolute priority. Without respect f or human life, no true science can happen. Without respect for human life, science becomes evil and destructive. When science promotes theories that recommend disrespect for human life, it is not true science. An informed Catholic is aware of this and puts respect for the dignity of human life as his or her top priority in analyzing the claims of scientific theories.
- In fact, Pope Benedict XVI has insisted on the confidence that the Catholic faith has in reason. He offers reason as a basis for Catholic dialogue with science and with other cultures and religions. You may remember his comments in Regdendsburg, Germany, that tried to explain this but were so misunderstood by some superficial news reports and by many Muslim groups.
- However, a well-formed Catholic is also familiar with the history of science and knows that scientific theories, even very widely accepted scientific theories, have often been wrong. There are many examples of this, such as the early theories of spontaneous generation or the example given in the lesson about the population explosion theory (a theory still perpetuated by many misinformed environmentalists). This reality of the history of science is natural, because science deals with very complex realities which are open to many different interpretations. (As a simple example, we may observe that the grass is wet on our lawn. If we did not see exactly how it became wet, we may propose many theories as to how this came about: a neighbor watered the lawn, dew was formed from the overnight changes in temperature, it rained, etc.). Our scientific knowledge is highly mediated. It uses a reasoning process that is more complicated than simple observation, and new data can constantly change its theories and conclusions. Scientific knowledge is not infallible. A well-formed Catholic knows this.
- Also, a Catholic is aware that other motives can taint our study and interpretation of scientific data. These motives can be the desire to advance a certain cause, the desire for fame, the desire for power, etc. Even science is not free from corruption. Discernment and prudence have to be exercised.
- Write an essay expressing your own opinion on global warming. Make sure to back up your opinions with facts and research, site your sources.
- If you were to dedicate yourself to environmental issues as a profession, what profession would you choose? Explain your choice in one or two paragraphs.
- How can we as young Catholics help promote a “human ecology,” as the Holy Father recommends? Give some of your personal suggestions in a short essay.
- Do you find that contemplating nature helps you discover God’s presence better? If this is true for you, write about a time when this happened to you. What lessons about God does nature help you to learn?
- 1. Read one of the following articles and report to the group:
- “The Life-Sapping Human Virus: Losing Equilibrium in the Ecology Debate” by Father John Flynn, Zenit, Nov. 19, 2007
- “Alternative Views on Climate Change” by Toni Johnson from the Council on Foreign Relations
- “The Politics of Global Warming” by Thomas Sieger Derr in First Things, August/September 2007
- Investigate what type of drastic action Mr. Gore recommends. Do a report for the class.
- Do a report on the following: A conservative think tank, The Heartland Institute (www.heartland.org), has been regularly publishing ads in major newspapers such as The New York Times, challenging Mr. Gore to a debate on global warming. Mr. Gore has not accepted the invitation, but has criticized the persons who are offering to debate him. Investigate this ad and the people behind it. Do a report to the group or class on the organization and people who are challenging Mr. Gore do a debate. Report on Mr. Gore’s rebuttals to these people.
Divide in two teams, then have a global warming debate about the following topic:
Does global warming merit drastic action immediately?
Each team takes a side, and using the following resources, presents their argument:
- Al Gore’s documentary, An Inconvenient Truth.
- Eight minute documentary by ABC News show 20/20 reporter John Stossel:
Al Gore Global Warming Debate
- One hour and ten minutes documentary by BBC Channel 4: The Great Global Warming Swindle
- Times Online, October 10, 2007, “Al Gore Told There are Nine Inconvenient Truths in His Film” by Nico Hines
Virtuous Vocabulary Verification:
Abuse – to use wrongly; misuse; to hurt by treating badly; mistreat
Alarmist – spreading exaggerated reports of danger, alarming rumors, etc.
Balance – a state of equilibrium; equality in value or importance, as between two things or the parts of a thing
Charity – the love of God for humanity, or a love of one’s fellow human beings
Climate change – the variation in the earth’s global climate or in regional climates over time; changes in the variability or average state of the atmosphere over time scales ranging from decades to millions of years
Creative – having or showing imagination and artistic or intellectual inventiveness
Ethics – the system or code of right and wrong; morals; values, standards
Global warming – a slight but continuing increase in the temperature of the lower atmosphere, usually attributed to an intensifying of the “greenhouse effect” that could lead to harmful climatic conditions
Human ecology – respect for nature not only in natural ways, but also by means of an upright moral life
Manipulation – to falsify (figures, accounts, etc.) for one’s own purposes or profit; to manage or control in an unfair or fraudulent way
Moral – relating to, dealing with, or in accord with right and wrong
Pinnacle – the highest point; culmination
Projection – advance estimate based on known data or observations
Prudent – capable of exercising sound judgment in practical matters; acting or working in a thoughtful way; accurately or thoroughly done
Reasoning – the drawing of inferences or conclusions from known or assumed facts
Respect – to feel or show honor or esteem for; hold in high regard; to consider or treat with deference or dutiful regard; to show consideration for
Responsibility – condition or quality of being expected or obliged to account (for something, to someone); answerable; accountable
Sin – an offense against God
Steward – a person put in charge of the affairs of a large household or estate; one who acts as a supervisor or administrator, as of finances and property, for another or others
Wisdom – good, sound judgment; judicious decision making; Gift of the Holy Spirit
- A brief presentation of Catholic teaching on environmental issues: Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, (Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2004) Chapter Ten: “Safeguarding the Environment” (pages 255-174)
- An article from NASA that would seem supportive of climate change:
- An article by a Catholic climate change scientist who expresses concern about climate change and recommends ways we can work to overcome it.
- Some views against alarmism on global warming
- An interesting book in favor of alarmism about global warming: Al Gore, An Inconvenient Truth, The Crisis of Global Warming, Viking, Rodale, 2007
- An interesting book against alarmism about global warming: Christopher C. Horner, The Politically Incorrect Guide to Global Warming and Environmentalism, Regnery Publishing, 2007