Let Us Pray for the Catholic Church

“Who’s Under Your Carbon Footprint?” asks a coalition of Catholics concerned by climate change, in a new ad in The New York Times. It’s part of a recent advocacy campaign brought on by the Catholic Climate Covenant reminding people of the connection between climate change and poverty, and calling on Catholics to reduce their carbon footprint and, subsequently, their impact on the poor.

That’s exciting news—as is the coalition’s effort to get people to take the St. Francis Pledge to Care for Creation and the Poor, which asks people to reconsider their own lives, change their consumption patterns, and advocate for stronger action on climate change.

Certainly every bit helps, but how much will this new campaign make a difference? If the Catholic Church really stands behind this message, it will need to encourage people to make not only the little changes—such as the type of light bulb they use—but also more dramatic reductions in their consumption levels, perhaps even a reconsideration of God’s call to “Be Fruitful and Multiply.” In this full world, where Americans on average consume the resources of 9.4 people living in a poor country, this will mean consuming dramatically less and multiplying somewhat less energetically.

Will the Catholic Climate Covenant be willing to go this far, even at the risk of alienating a share of believers? For good or for ill, the Catholic Church has not shied away from controversial issues—you know the ones I’m referring to—so perhaps it will be willing to step into the ring on an even more taboo subject: questioning our perpetual growth economy and consumer culture.

But that’ll take a few things:

First, the Church will need to fully understand the stakes. Climate change is expected to disrupt society dramatically and possibly cause the death or displacement of hundreds of millions of people. Considering that many of the Church’s adherents are in Africa and Latin America—places that will probably be hardest hit from these ecological and political disruptions—this becomes not just an issue of justice but one of self-preservation.

Second, this will need to be a truly heartfelt campaign. Is this Catholic Coalition sincere, or is it just attempting to reengage less excited Catholics and make Catholicism more relevant? If sincere, then this is the exactly right moment to act. We have a window of less than a decade to stabilize the Earth’s climate, we have an international climate agreement coming up at the end of this year, and we have an economic recession.

Preach a message of simplicity and charity and help people transition away from a culture of consumerism, and in 500 years the Catholic Church might be celebrated as one the most important voices at humanity’s moment of reckoning. It might even be remembered as a central player in helping to pull humanity down a new path—one where faith and responsibility led us to a more equitable, charitable, and sustainable future.

Both of these are big “ifs” that few of even the leading climate advocates have fully considered. And whether the Catholic Church will internalize this message itself, only time will tell. But considering the stakes, let’s pray that it does.

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