Find the developing series on issues to consider this election season here.
The primary elections are starting to loom in American politics and Pope Francis has made environmental stewardship more of a focus for Catholics than it has perhaps ever been before with his 2015 encyclical Laudato Si, which concerned “our common home,” and cited Patriarch Bartholomew’s views that “to commit a crime against the natural world is a sin against ourselves and a sin against God” (LS 8). How the candidates stand on environmental issues is thus a concern for Catholics that fits into the body of Faith, particularly because it is our home, the place that provides the basic foundation for human flourishing.
In Laudato Si, Pope Francis wrote, citing Pope Benedict XVI, “ ‘the book of nature is one and indivisible’, and includes the environment, life, sexuality, the family, social relations, and so forth. It follows that ‘the deterioration of nature is closely connected to the culture which shapes human coexistence’ “ (LS 6).
Pope Francis sees a profound unity within Creation that is both the work of God that gives him glory and the domain of man which provides us our sustenance. Francis notes that, “Pope Benedict asked us to recognize that the natural environment has been gravely damaged by our irresponsible behaviour,” and also that human lives have suffered because of that, since humans and natural world are an interrelated whole. He continues that, “Both are ultimately due to the same evil: the notion that there are no indisputable truths to guide our lives, and hence human freedom is limitless” (LS 6).
Thus, because there is truth, because reality and the earth are real, we have duties to the earth and to each other. We have to live in accord with the inherent goodness of the earth, the biblical commandment that we steward it, and the biological realities that govern both. One key biological reality that Francis mentioned was “sexuality and the family.” He asks us to remember that at a very basic level, we are created male and female and we are born into families. In ignoring the natural world, we have come to ignore these social truths.
So as we approach the election, we must keep these two paradoxical principles in regard to the environment in our minds: that it has intrinsic worth as God’s creation and that it has worth as it serves humanity and offers us the basic survivals of our life.
Approaching the election, let’s briefly look at the parties and how they stand on the environment. In my opinion, no candidate offers a truly Catholic platform, though some are preferable to others.
True to form, the Democratic candidates place a bigger emphasis on the environment, mentioning climate change and investing in new, clean energy sources such as electric and solar. More energy, more knowledge and more jobs are clear and present goods. However, the interdependence of life cannot be forgotten. Many communities throughout the U.S. are dependent on older sources of energy such as coal mining and oil drilling and shipping.
It’s not that we can’t move away from these, it’s that as we do, we need to simultaneously invest in the rehabilitation of these communities. That means coal-mining towns in Appalachia that are already very poor need to be invested in and helped to find new, decent, suitable industries. Otherwise, you have disenfranchised persons by the thousands who feel left behind, newly unemployed and out of options. That’s not good.
Of the Democratic candidates, Bernie Sanders gets is partially right when he says, “Climate change is not just an ‘environmental issue,’ it is also a global national security issue as well. Climate change is an international crisis that threatens vulnerable communities all over the world.” He is aware of the human dimension. But his platform lacks the integration of human ecology that Pope Francis sees; Sanders advocates for the environment, but not for unborn children.
Hillary Clinton focuses on clean energy creation goals, but the human component is lacking in her platform.
Martin O’Malley, a self-professed Catholic and Democrat says he wants to “Create a new Clean Energy Jobs Corps to partner with communities to retrofit buildings to be more energy efficient, improve local resiliency, create new green spaces, and restore and expand our forests so they can absorb more greenhouse gases.” He seems tapped into the human component, but one wonders if he recalls those who are economically dependent on the production of fossil fuels.
All three Democrats seek to grow the government as they respond to calls for environmental protection.
The Republicans, on the other hand, seek to reduce government involvement and put more faith in the citizens. For the most part, they either ignore the environmental issue or address it only in terms of American energy independence, which they translate into drilling, hydraulic fracturing, and oil exportation, policies that rely on fossil fuels, produce large amounts of carbon emissions which are linked to greenhouse gases.
The prominent Republican candidates are at present more numerous than the Democrats and include: Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Ben Carson, Donald Trump, Carly Fiorna, Jeb Bush, Rand Paul and others. Across the board, they vow to permit the Keystone Oil pipeline, a private industry oil project that President Obama has blocked with investigations into the proposal and its potential effects. Rubio and Cruz focus on American energy independence; Rubio’s website mentions that he wants to invest in higher education to train researchers into new technologies as well.
Trump and Carson have no mention of environmental or energy issues on their websites whatsoever.
Jeb Bush sees the human impact of energy policies and believes that American energy independence will strengthen the economy and the communities that produce them. He says that energy “is also an input into every other economic sector. That means cheaper, more reliable energy benefits American families in multiple ways. More domestic energy leads to more jobs, higher wages, lower gas prices and smaller electricity bills.”
Carly Fiorna mentions the Keystone pipeline; Rand Paul promises to cut red tape that interferes with new research into new sources.
In my mind, energy independence and new, cleaner energy are both worthy goals. The environment can be respected under both to somewhat different degrees. We must not however, forget the human interaction with the natural world which provides all our air and energy and health.
The importance of human life, even within the environmental issues, is paramount. Catholics and Christians in general are frequently criticized for voting exclusively on “social issues” like abortion and gay marriage and ignoring other facets of human life. And this criticism is widely true: we do vote on the life issue, but it is not to ignore other important realities. On the contrary, all aspects of human life and the common good are built on a fundamental understanding of the goodness of life and when it starts. The Catholic Church’s teaching is highly reasonable: that life starts from the moment the body comes into existence, which is conception. Without respect for life and where it comes from, there can be no true respect of any other human good. And if we are placing the environment in opposition to humanity instead of integrating the two, there is a problem.