Every other Monday, New Wine New Wineskins, a fellowship of early-career moral theologians, shares posts from members. This week, Jason A. Heron and Bharat Ranganathan summarize a chapter from their co-authored manuscript-in-progress, Catholic Social Teaching, Liberalism, and Justice. Check back each Monday for more content from NWNW!

Every day we witness deserts expanding, glaciers melting, long-trapped methane gasses escaping, sea levels rising, and weather patterns becoming increasingly unpredictable. In addition to empirical questions, such results of climate change raise ethical and theological ones. For example, who are our neighbors? How are we to live together in a rapidly changing environment? And how do we determine what we owe one another when we only have access to ever diminishing resources? 

For many ethicists and theologians, such questions are often conceived as intra-generational: they concern the people who live during our own lifespans. But the philosopher Brian Barry argues that climate change recasts these questions as inter-generational: whereas future generations can do nothing to affect us, we can affect their well-being and even their being itself. Climate change thus forces ethicists and theologians to think about what we owe to the people Barry calls “sleepers”: those who will live in the remote future. What are our obligations to these distant neighbors?

For some theological ethicists, such questions, whether intra- or inter-generational, are non-starters: such questions distract humans from their transcendent vocation to love and serve the LORD. So, inordinate care for material creation is tantamount to a Pelagianism ordered to a disenchanted, immanent eschaton. Other ethicists wonder whether it’s even possible to do anything about such problems. Acknowledging our limitations as fallen creatures, such ethicists justify a type of quietism when it comes to large-scale, far-reaching systemic issues such as environmental devastation. Our tack here is different.

We classify people who may live in the remote future as sleeping neighbors. First, on most accounts of neighbor-love, we should love our neighbor as neighbor, without any qualifying characteristics. Second, in response to intra-generational accounts, we argue that temporal proximity shouldn’t count as a qualifying characteristic. Or as Francis notes in Laudato si’, making decisions for the common good requires looking at both the present and future (no. 135). And third, we further argue that properly loving our sleeping neighbors, making it possible for them to enjoy the common good, demands that we radically redress our present practices of overconsumption and environmental destruction and that we reimagine justice as both intra- and inter-generational. 

1. Neighbors

The Christian imagination is supposed to lack specificity when it comes to neighbors (cf. Gal. 3:28). According to Jesus, it seems one’s neighbor is whomever one is in a position to help, even if this means helping an enemy (cf. Lk. 10). So, a Christian’s neighbors are everywhere.

2. Sleeping Neighbors

But this is also true across time. The Incarnation is the LORD’s memory of the covenant with Israel, which stretches not only backward to Abraham, but forward to the LORD’s descendants forever (cf. Lk. 1). As the LORD becomes all in all (cf. 1 Cor. 15) — that is, as history draws toward its ineffable end — a Christian’s sense of connection to future generations should only increase. The LORD binds us together across time. So, when Christians ask, “Who is my neighbor?”, the answer must be in light of a love that knows no spatial or temporal limits. The phrase, “sleeping neighbors,” is thus salutary for the Christian vision of a duty to future generations. Like the “dead” girl in the Gospel, future generations are not beyond the loving gaze of the LORD or his people. They are only sleeping (cf. Matt. 9). 

Consider also Pope Francis’s criticism, in Laudato si’ (no. 178), of a “politics concerned with immediate results,” and his urges for us to be more “far-sighted” in our environmental policy, lest we “forget that ‘time is greater than space.’” From Francis’s perspective, “we are always more effective when we generate processes” than when we hold on to “positions of power.”

3. Loving Sleeping Neighbors

When we keep our sleeping neighbors in mind, our current response to the climate crisis is unjustifiable. Maintaining today’s status quo is equivalent to depriving our sleeping neighbors of access to the common goods necessary for both their survival and their flourishing — goods such as security, stability, and equitable access to material goods, not to mention justice itself. Climate change will continue to impact billions of people. But it disproportionately impacts already vulnerable people. We see this disproportionate impact in affluent societies, where wealthy people can afford to leave properties threatened by climate change while lower- and middle-income people lack the same wherewithal. This disproportion is magnified dramatically when we compare high- and middle- and low- income societies across the globe. And it is magnified exponentially when we compare the global society of those who are alive with the utterly vulnerable societies of those who do not yet exist. 

The ecological crisis calls Christian justice to account. Christians can ignore the claims of those who do not yet exist only if Christians are willing to evacuate the word “neighbor” of meaningful theological content. Our sleeping neighbors deserve access to the goods necessary not only for survival but for flourishing. We can promote this access by doing everything possible to address the climate crisis.

Jason A. Heron is the S. Wilma Lyle Endowed Chair and Assistant Professor of Theology at Mount Marty University. 

Bharat Ranganathan is the Brooks Professor of Social Justice and Religion in the Religious Studies Program at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.