This article was published by Grist on Oct. 23, 2023.
By Whitney Bauck
If there’s one person in the Catholic Church who ought to have the ability to influence climate action on a global scale, it’s the pope. And yet as Laudate Deum, his most recent exhortation on climate, demonstrates, even Pope Francis seems frustrated by how little has changed despite his best efforts.
The pontiff didn’t shy away from calling out those he sees as responsible, and after outlining the science proving that climate change is human-caused, he made clear that developing nations contribute little to the problem but bear the brunt of its impacts. He rejected the idea that technology alone will avert disaster and lamented the failure of repeated meetings of the Conference of the Parties to hasten the abandonment of fossil fuels. In drawing from scientific studies, governmental reports, and the works of authors like feminist tech scholar Donna J. Haraway, Francis showed a firm grasp of both the science and politics of climate change while conveying the moral and spiritual implications of the crisis, with the goal of urging “all people of good will” to act.
“Our responses have not been adequate while the world in which we live is collapsing and may be nearing the breaking point,” the Holy Father wrote in the document released October 4.
As the leader of a hierarchical institution with 1.36 billion adherents worldwide, the pope has authority over more people than all but two heads of state. From the first day of his papacy in 2013, Francis made clear that he would leverage his position for the sake of the planet. He took the name of the patron saint of ecology, and in 2015 released a landmark encyclical — the highest form of papal teaching on Catholic doctrine — on the environment, Laudato Si’, which some environmentalists have heralded as the most important climate document of the decade.
But reading Laudate Deum, it’s hard not to be struck by its tone of lament and exasperation at how little has changed in the eight years since Laudato Si’. “It feels like a sad document, as well as an angry one,” said Dorothy Fortenberry, a Catholic writer and intellectual. “There’s a real undercurrent of heartbreak.”
It’s not hard to see why. For all of Francis’ focus on the crisis — and the response from Catholics in much of the Global South — emissions have continued to rise. Support for his call to action has been lukewarm at best, however, in the country with the greatest per capita emissions. An analysis of official writings from U.S. bishops in the wake of Laudato Si’ concluded that the leaders of the Catholic church in America are “silent, denialist, and biased about climate change.” The response to Laudate Deum has been no better.
No wonder Francis is frustrated. The pontiff’s latest document, and the feelings expressed in it, offer a poignant reminder that no one person can fix things on their own. Laudate Deum hints at the importance of sharing and building collective power to effect change, and of working toward a better world no matter how bleak the outlook.