Abortion has dominated the pro-life debate for decades, providing a hot-button issue particularly important to Catholics in the United States. But another issue may take its place as the number one 'pro-life' concern, as the National Catholic Reporter argued in a recent op-ed.
In a piece entitled "Climate change is church's No. 1 pro-life issue," the NCR wrote, "The Catholic church should become a major player in educating the public to the scientific data and in motivating people to act for change."
Referencing the 2014 National Climate Assessment, the article said it was time to confront climate change as human-induced problem and see it as the foremost pro-life issue for the Catholic Church:
If there is a certain wisdom in the pro-life assertion that other rights become meaningless if the right to life is not upheld, then it is reasonable to assert that the right to life has little meaning if the earth is destroyed to the point where life becomes unsustainable.
Pope Francis has also called for environmental stewardship, saying, "if we destroy Creation, Creation will destroy us." In his inaugural address the pope reiterated the church's mission of "respecting each of God's creatures and respecting the environment in which we live."
Pope Francis addressed "all those who have positions of responsibility in economic, political and social life," and implored them to be "protectors of creation, protectors of God's plan inscribed in nature, protectors of one another and of the environment."
Heeding the pope's charge, the Vatican hosted a five-day summit in May to address the pressing concerns of climate change and the church's role in promoting sustainability.
The meeting -- “Sustainable Humanity, Sustainable Nature, Our Responsibility” -- ran from May 2-6 and brought together the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, as well as scientists and experts from 14 countries.
The interdisciplinary nature of the Vatican's summit reflected something the NCR editorial said is key, which is that climate change is a universal issue that will take universal effort to combat.
Finding a fix for climate change and its potentially disastrous consequences, particularly for the global poor, is not the work of a single discipline or a single group or a single political strategy. Its solution lies as much in people of faith as in scientific data, as much or more in a love for God's creation as it does in our instinct for self-preservation.
NCR reporter Dan Misleh attended the Vatican conference and wrote a follow up article reflecting on the work he believes Catholics must do in their own communities to promote sustainability. He writes:
We are a small band of concerned Catholics steadily working in the vast middle of Catholicism, where parishioners, pastors, principals and pupils are not yet aware, don't really care, or simply haven't made care for creation a priority in their daily lives. It is here that the most work is needed.
Misleh and the NCR staff aren't the first ones to compare climate change to the pro-life debate. In 2011, top U.S. bishops’ Committee leader Stephen E. Blaire brought the issue home by descrying the impact of mercury poisoning on children's health.
In an address entitled “Sacred Air: Breath of Life" at the 2011 Festival of Faiths conference in Louisville, Ky., Blaire said, “It is hard to imagine a situation that so clearly illustrates this link between the environment and life issues as the impact of mercury and other toxic air pollution on children’s health."
In a letter to the Environmental Protection Agency earlier that year, Blaire also wrote, "Children, inside and outside the womb, are uniquely vulnerable to environmental hazards and exposure to toxic pollutants in the environment."
Where U.S.-based Catholic bishops and journalists have promoted sustainability, Catholic politicians have tended to focus more on the abortion side of the pro-life debate. As of 2010, three of the 24 Catholic senators and 26 of the 126 Catholics in the House of Representatives had a 100% pro-life voting record as compiled by the National Right to Life.
Most of these high pro-life voters have scored dramatically lower on climate change issues, as ranked by the League of Conservation Voters. These Catholic politicians may not have heard the message from their pope, however, who reiterated in his homily on Wednesday the imperative to be "Custodians of Creation."
"Creation is not a property," the pope said, "which we can rule over at will; or, even less, is the property of only a few: Creation is a gift."