Researchers at Yale and George Mason Universities recently reported that the percent of Republicans who believe in climate change has increased 19 points in the last two years. Among other factors, the researchers suspect that Laudato Si’, Pope Francis’ encyclical on ecology, has increased belief in climate change among Republicans.
In view of these statistics – and especially in this election year – it is important to reflect on how Laudato Si’ can contribute to Catholics’ exercise of faithful citizenship. To that end, I here outline how Laudato Si’ might inform Catholics’ consciences.
The Catholic tradition describes conscience as “the most secret core and sanctuary” of a person wherein she discovers God’s law of love and is moved to discerningly “love good and avoid evil” (Gaudium et Spes #16). In order to judge rightly, each person has the responsibility to form his or her conscience. As the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops outline, conscience formation entails four dynamics: openness “to the truth and what is right”; on-going study of Scripture and Tradition; examination of objective facts, data, and options; and prayerful reflection.
In view of conscience formation in the Catholic tradition, it seems that Laudato Si’ can be especially integrated into the second, third, and fourth phases of this process. At the second stage, Catholics might regularly read, study, and pray over the encyclical. In doing so, persons can come to appreciate the deep wisdom which Francis communicates: the intrinsic goodness and dignity of creation of which humans are part (#65); humanity’s unique vocation to “cultivate and care for” creation as both part of and apart from it (#67; Cf. Genesis 2:15); awareness that ecological degradation stems from sin understood as broken relationships with God, others and creation (##8, 66); the moral obligation to “hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor” (#49); and the need for integrated responses to ecological challenges (#139).
At the third stage of conscience formation, Catholics can both learn from Francis’ analysis of objective data and be inspired to similarly seek unbiased information. For example, the pope issues a caution against biased information by criticizing how “there are too many special interests, and economic interests easily end up trumping the common good and manipulating information so that their own plans will not be affected” (#54). Additionally, Pope Francis engages objective data to recognize the need to address pollution and climate change (##20-26), issues pertaining to water (##27-31), biodiversity degeneration (##32-42), “decline in the quality of human life and the breakdown of society” (##43-47) and “global inequality (##48-52).
At the fourth stage of conscience formation, Catholics can use the aforementioned reflections to discern how to exercise faithful citizenship. Although important, voting is actually a relatively infrequent event when compared with the many other ways to practice faithful citizenship. For example, while we Americans can vote in presidential elections every four years and midterm elections in between, we can work to shape public discourse and engage in political advocacy every day of the year. This means that for every vote we cast, we have hundreds of opportunities to urge lawmakers on a variety of different fronts and to advocate for policies like the Clean Power Plan and Congressional funding of the Green Climate Fund by contacting our elected officials and visiting their offices. We can also work to gather citizen support for different issues and initiatives by writing letters to the editor of our local newspaper, convening events that draw media attention, and participating in direct actions that force civil society to take notice of and engage with particular issues. Actions such as these are the true day-to-day “stuff” of faithful citizenship, and if we disproportionately focus on the irregular act of voting, we risk reducing faithful citizenship to less than it is and overlooking the regular opportunities to bring our faith to the public square.
In conjunction with advocacy and organizing, the act of voting is an important way to exercise faithful citizenship. Here, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ document Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship teaches that a person may never vote for a candidate because of her or his support for an intrinsic evil, i.e., an evil with an inherently disordered object (#34). At the same time, however, the church teaches that a person may vote for a candidate in spite of her or his support for an intrinsic evil if the person deems in conscience that there are “other morally grave reasons” for doing so (#35). Here, no priest, bishop, or pope can rightly tell someone how to vote; as Pope Francis affirms in his recent apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia, the magisterium has been “called to form consciences, not to replace them” (#37). As described above, Laudato Si’ can – and should – be used to form the consciences of all Catholics, including those who seek to vote in accord with their faith.
Laudato Si’ seeks to shape public discourse and policy on matters that pertain to integral ecology (in other words, on all matters!). In this election year, U.S. Catholics have an extraordinary opportunity to bring the riches of the encyclical to bear on American political discourse and process. As such, I hope American Catholics use the document to form their consciences and so exercise faithful citizenship that considers the integrity of our common home.
Daniel R. DiLeo is a Flatley Fellow and Ph.D. student in theological ethics at Boston College. He writes regularly for Millennial Journal.