This past weekend, at the Catholic University of America, a group of theologians gathered with several bishops for a scholars’ conference devoted to approaches to the issue of climate change, especially in light of Pope Benedict’s highlighting of this issue. I was privileged to present one of the papers, and to be able to engage in great discussions over others. As well as CUA and the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies at CUA, the conference was sponsored by the Catholic Coalition on Climate Change – visit their website and sign the St. Francis pledge! Their staff, led by Dan Misleh, did a fantastic job organizing the event. I’ll highlight three takeaways for me.

One, the global reach of the Catholic Church allows for unique opportunities on the global issue of climate change. One of the highlights of the conference was the keynote by Bishop Bernard Unabali, of the diocese of Bougainville, in Papua New Guinea. Bishop Unabali discussed the fate of the Carteret Islands, located several hours from the mainland, which are slowly but surely being overrun by rising sea levels. (The story is on the Catholic Climate Covenant website.) He outlined the very challenging efforts involved in resettling a population in his society. Then, in his homily the next afternoon, Bishop Donald Kettler, of Fairbanks, told a shockingly similar story of a Native village on Alaska’s coast that needs to be moved six miles inland. Two bishops from two very different cultures in totally different areas of the world, facing the same problem. As with Hurricane Sandy, the stories brought home the real impacts of climate change, but also made it personal. Isn’t this an issue of ecclesial solidarity? Of course, Bishop Unabali’s slide show, depicting the very simple life lived by most people in his diocese, also was damning: the people who suffer from the effects of climate change are, sadly, not the people responsible. Thus, Pope Benedict’s sober words:

Let us hope that the international community and individual governments will succeed in countering harmful ways of treating the environment. It is likewise incumbent upon the competent authorities to make every effort to ensure that the economic and social costs of using up shared environmental resources are recognized with transparency and fully borne by those who incur them, not by other peoples or future generations: the protection of the environment, of resources and of the climate obliges all international leaders to act jointly and to show a readiness to work in good faith, respecting the law and promoting solidarity with the weakest regions of the planet. (Caritas in Veritate, no. 50)

Two, it was good for a gathering of theologians and bishops to be convivial and mutually edifying, especially in the aftermath of our election season. I told a (secular) friend where I was this weekend, and they had no idea that the Catholic Church (much less the bishops) had any interest in climate change. That is telling. It is also telling that the scholarly papers did not need to harp on the old “pope versus theologians” issue at all… because it was evident that everyone saw Benedict’s writings as a powerful and important statement for Catholics. Many speakers highlighted the importance of Benedict’s claim that nature constitutes an order that is “prior to us,” and therefore must guide us in its right use. The papers also illustrated the versatility of his thought – though unified in message, the papers displayed a rich diversity of genres, drawing in biblical, patristic, Thomist, Franciscan, and secular resources, including nature writing and other religious traditions. This was truly ressourcement! This kind of atmosphere for doing theology in conversation with the hierarchy is very much needed.

Three, there was a pretty interesting discussion near the end about the question of urgency. There was some discussion going on about why this issue doesn’t get played up in the Church, and it was noted by one bishop that there is a constant challenge to deal with various “constituencies” and their “issue.” This is very understandable. But this brought some fairly strong responses (also seen in the content of the papers) that there really is an urgency on this issue. If it seems clear – in Benedict, and in the papers – that significant changes in wealthy countries are needed, and these changes flow out of a need to rethink our state of “superdevelopment” and “consumerism,” then these changes need to be started now. Climate change tends to be slow. But climate change will progress inexorably if there is no change in our current behavior. As a recent article points out, climate models are continually updated and refined, and recent ones suggest that the “high end” scenarios have become more likely – a 8-degree-Fahrenheit increase by 2100. This will drown a lot more than Pacific islands!

However, it is even more important to see that climate change is not simply one issue with an interest-group base within the Church. Indeed, it would be helpful if we could get past the interest-group model and come to see that the Catholic moral tradition is not a set of discrete issues, but rather a coherent whole. The most important work, then, is not to assess which “issue” gets the most attention, but to evangelize Church and world to the wholeness of this worldview. As Benedict writes:

If there is a lack of respect for the right to life and to a natural death, if human conception, gestation and birth are made artificial, if human embryos are sacrificed to research, the conscience of society ends up losing the concept of human ecology and, along with it, that of environmental ecology. It is contradictory to insist that future generations respect the natural environment when our educational systems and laws do not help them to respect themselves. The book of nature is one and indivisible: it takes in not only the environment but also life, sexuality, marriage, the family, social relations: in a word, integral human development. Our duties towards the environment are linked to our duties towards the human person, considered in himself and in relation to others. It would be wrong to uphold one set of duties while trampling on the other. (CV, no. 51)

There is a unity here, and the better that both bishops and theologians can get at articulating that unity, the better we will all serve God and seek the Kingdom first.