This summer, Pope Francis released one of the most important and eloquent works of our time: Laudato Si. A meditation on modern culture and our responsibilities to our creator and one another, it directly confronts the sin and injustice of continued environmental degradation and inaction on climate change.
Wednesday, Pope Francis delivered that urgent message directly to the American people. Speaking at the White House, he applauded President Obama for his work to repair our "common home" and he encouraged us to consider the world we leave our children and which we create for others.
A man of peace and a man of the poor, Pope Francis speaks out of obligation because to him our situation compels it. He recognizes that our planet "groans in travail" at the "sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life." He reminds us that our climate, "a common good, belonging to all and meant for all" is imperiled by greenhouse gases. He sees our failure to consider the environmental threats to our most vulnerable brothers and sisters as pointing "to the loss of that sense of responsibility for our fellow men and women upon which all civil society is founded."
The pope uses reason matched to principle to point out a simple truth -- climate change is happening and it will hit the weakest the hardest because they lack the resources to prepare.
Examples of this inequity are abound. Drought in California makes produce more expensive, but it leads to famine in sub-Saharan Africa. Storm surges and flooding will destroy the coastal homes of the wealthy, but will kill those without transportation as it did in New Orleans' Lower 9th Ward. Wealthy countries with political and capital reserves remain stable during tough times, but resource shocks can drive developing nations to war and destruction. Extreme heatwaves are tolerable with air-conditioning, but are deadly without it. These challenges can drive migration that presents its own dangers.
As leader of a church with 1.25 billion members and two thousand years of institutional history, Pope Francis cannot remain silent -- many of those at greatest risk are part of his flock. But he is also worried about those whose disrespect for creation and preference for comfort over sacrifice drives climate change skepticism. He must make them hear too the "cry from the earth and cry from the poor."
That means calling upon the freest and strongest country in the world to account for its timid skepticism. Pope Francis' sternest reminder falls upon wealthy countries, like the United States, where our public moral and religious dialogue all too frequently ignores the inconvenient truth that our comfort and prosperity threatens lives at home and elsewhere.
Congress could do worse than to rise to Pope Francis' challenge and stand up for the most vulnerable in the face of fierce opposition by powerful interests. Because while we may not always see eye to eye with the Pope on matters of theology or public policy, America was founded, as President Ronald Reagan said, "a shining city upon a hill". If we truly believe that destiny -- in American exceptionalism itself -- then we have a duty to sacrifice and act exceptionally. As America's greatest theologian, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, "The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy."
I am glad that Pope Francis has asked us directly to measure where we stand in these challenging times. His is a needed reminder and an act of good conscience. As he becomes the first Pontiff in history to address the United States Congress, I appreciate his wise counsel on the issues that our nation and the world must confront and I join millions of Americans in welcoming him to our nation.