What Matters to the Heart: Pope Francis, Climate Change, and Sustainability

Flourishing means more than just having enough for ourselves; it means building a just society so our neighbors have enough to eat, medical care, employment, and dignity. Flourishing involves practicing sustainability so that the next generations will enjoy life on a good earth.
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His Holiness Pope Francis has become, in the two years since his election on March 13, 2013, the most highly respected religious leader in the world, adored by Catholics and non-Catholics alike. Pope Francis addresses and touches on issues that matter to us the most, issues that matter to our hearts. What matters to the heart is what he experienced as a Bishop in 21st-century Buenos Aires. The Pope calls us to live lives in which all people flourish and have the opportunity to live productive, caring lives.

Flourishing means more than just having enough for ourselves; it means building a just society so our neighbors have enough to eat, medical care, employment, and dignity. Flourishing involves practicing sustainability so that the next generations will enjoy life on a good earth. As Pope Francis writes in his recent Encyclical Praise Be to You - Laudato Si' - On Care for Our Common Home, "Authentic human development has a moral character. It presumes full respect for the human person, but it must also be concerned for the world around us and take into account the nature of each being and of its mutual connection in an ordered system."

This is the Pope's message as he speaks and writes. Nothing transcendental, nothing extravagant, just simple gospel-based common sense theology. It is theology that we all need to hear, so that we can change our ways and stop taking everything that we want at the expense of our neighbors.

Make no mistake. Some people are not only unwilling to share what they have, they are unwilling for other people to share what they have with those in need. But the Gospel proclaims good news for our sisters and brothers who are poor, pushed to the margins and disenfranchised.

God calls us to become good stewards of God's earth, to take only what we need, to live justly, and to share God's abundance so all have enough to live.

However, too often, the riches of the earth are exploited and the lives of people who live in poverty are diminished with no thought given to stewardship or the Gospel. Pope Francis reminds us, for example, that people are sick from breathing high levels of smoke from fuels used in cooking or heating. People who live in poverty groan under the weight of hardship and difficulty caused by rich people's resource-hoarding lifestyles. The earth groans from our abuse, misuse, and exploitation. The poor and the earth groan due to their suffering and their pain.

When we participate in actions that create such suffering and pain, we sin. We sin against God and against one another. When we poison the earth, its water, and its air, our sin involves a betrayal of God who entrusted the earth to our care. When our actions cause climate change, we sin against those affected by climate change. Those most affected by our environmental wastage are people who are neglected, trampled on, and disenfranchised, pushed to the wayside by the rich and the powerful. Our brothers and sisters suffer because of the greed of the rich and powerful nations. That includes us.

Pope Francis reminds us of our sin -- sin against God, our brothers and sisters, and God's earth. Recent statistics show that the popularity of the Pope is decreasing here in the United States. Perhaps this is because the Pope understands how global economics, climate change, and social injustice intertwine to impact us all, our sisters and brothers living in poverty first and most deeply. Grounded in his faith and this understanding, Pope Francis speaks the true Gospel about poverty and climate change. And many times, the truth hurts. It is much easier to turn our backs against the prophet's call than to follow their lead.

But we cannot ignore the Pope's plea that echoes the scientists' warnings about climate change. We need to recognize that we do not own the land. As Indigenous spiritually often reflects, we only borrow the land and its riches, kept in trust for our children and our children's children.

The earth belongs to God and we are God's caretakers. We are only temporary guests. We are not entitled to destroy the earth because of our selfish lifestyles. People with wealth are not entitled to exploit the riches of the earth at the expense of people living in poverty. Take care of the earth and all the people of the earth needs to be our new commandment.

God gives us so much to work with sun, wind, water, arable land, and one another. But when we violate God's trust, the sun, wind, and water fight back with hurricanes, meltdowns of glaciers, tornadoes, fierce winds, and earthquakes. When we unleash fluorocarbons, plastic resin vapors, sulfur oxides, and hydrocarbons into the air, the forests of the world begin to fail to supply the oxygen all life needs.

Pope Francis, in Laudato Si', reminds us, "The climate is a common good, belonging to all and meant for all." If it is for all, we need to fight for the benefit of all.

As we await his visit to the United States, it is time to address what matters to the heart and face the issue of climate change and follow in the steps of the Pope and so many others. It is time to care for God's good earth so that all people might flourish.

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