Two Ways Pope Francis Can Take Climate Action

Pope Francis celebrates concluding mass in Philly (Photo by US Papal Visit available on Flickr)

Remember the excitement you had for the Catholic Church a few short weeks ago? Pope Francis’s trip to the United States whipped us all into a faith-based frenzy, especially when it came to his remarks about climate change and environmentalism. Whether you loved what he said or thought he was being too political, one thing is for sure: Pope Francis made an impact.

That’s why I’d like to see the pope build on his popularity and start leading the fight against climate change through example. It’s easy to say we should all care for our common home, but a true leader puts those words into action. Here are two ways Pope Francis and the Catholic Church can take climate action and do something to care for our common home.

Divest from Fossil Fuels

Many, many religious organizations — the World Council of Churches, the Church of England, Episcopal Church, Unitarian Universalists, seminaries, religious schools, and more — are putting their money where their mouths are and divesting from fossil fuel companies. These groups are answering the call of Archbishop Desmond Tutu and United Nations Executive Secretary Christina Figueres to “set the ethical foundation of our global society” by choosing not to fund dirty energy producers.

But the Catholic Church is surprisingly silent on the issue, which upsets many activists eager to see more action from Pope Francis and the Vatican. Almost two years ago, multi-fath groups sent a letter to Pope Francis urging the Catholic leader to divest his church from fossil fuel companies. And last year, environmental group in partnership with Interfaith Power & Light circulated a petition requesting Vatican divestment.

According to a recent article on Aljazeera, the Vatican likely profits from fossil fuel investments. Although it is difficult to determine how much — the Vatican Bank has a long tradition of secrecy — the profits may be significant given the Bank’s estimated $8 billion portfolio. Max Hohenberg, a Vatican spokesman, told The Guardian much of the Vatican’s holdings are in government bonds, so there really isn’t much to divest. But if that’s the case and the Vatican has nothing to lose, why doesn’t it publicly divest?

Some speculate divestment discussions are currently underway, but internal divisions are stalling real action. George Pell, the Australian cardinal who serves as the pope’s chief economic minister, is a climate change denier. Sounding disturbingly like an American, climate-denying politician, Pell recently criticized Pope Francis’s remarks about climate change because the church has “no particular expertise in science.”

Pope Francis is a bridge builder — a soothing voice to divisive hot heads. While many Americans, like me, appreciate his work to find common ground between Democrats and Republicans, the Vatican needs his help too. There really is no excuse for the Catholic Church’s continued divestment delay.

Bring Back Meatless Days

Fossil fuels aren’t the only villain in the war against climate change; meat consumption is responsible for a large proportion of greenhouse gas emissions. According to scientific reports, the global livestock industry produces more greenhouse gas emissions than emissions from cars, planes, trains, and ships combined. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has said also dietary change can “substantially lower” emissions.

How do we lower these emissions and get people to change their diets quickly? Don’t look to governments; they won’t regulate meat eating. Can you imagine a law making it a crime to eat cheeseburgers? And without laws or economic incentives people are slow to adopt change on their own.

Faith groups, like the Catholic Church, are uniquely positioned to reduce the world’s consumption of meat and reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the global livestock industry. Various religions have historically required their followers to fast and abstain from certain foods as an act of cleansing or religious tradition. In the past, Catholics were forbidden to eat meat during Lent and on Fridays throughout the year as a sign of penitence.

But the rules changed under Pope Paul VI who, in an attempt to modernize the Catholic Church, ushered in Vatican 2 and a new custom of eating meat. Today, while the Church preserves the custom of practicing penitence through the abstinence from meat and fasting, it also allows penitence to be shown in other ways with exercises of prayer and works of charity. In practice this means good Catholics must only abstain from eating meat on Fridays during Lent, Ash Wednesday, and Good Friday. On other days, Episcopal conferences can decide when Catholics must also abstain from meat.

If Pope Francis wants to take climate action, revisting the Church’s laws regarding meat eating is essential. Only faith groups have the power to require dietary changes, and major dietary changes are necessary to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Perhaps returning to the old tradition of penitence is more fitting for our modern world.

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About the Author

I'm an organic-eating, energy-saving naturalist who composts and tree hugs in her spare time. I have a background in environmental law, lobbying, and field work. I believe in God; however, I do not call myself a Christian or a Jew or a member of any religion. I am merely someone who finds a spiritual connection to all humans and the environment. You can find me on Twitter, Facebook, and .