I had the pleasure of attending a panel discussion here at Portland State about climate change in the context of Pope Francis’ encyclical, “Laudato si,” on Nov. 9.
This important encyclical was published in June and helped draw more attention to the current crisis our planet is facing in regard to climate change, environmental degradation, mass consumerism and sustainability.
The encyclical takes its name from an Italian prayer attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, titled the “Canticle of the Sun.” in which he praises all of God’s creation and calls to mind the dignity and beauty of the world.
Usually the pope issues an encyclical to certain groups as a means of teaching, instruction or edification, but Pope Francis desired to engage the whole world with “Laudato si.” He desired to start a dialogue between the Church and the scientific community in what could be called the biggest challenge humanity has faced in recorded history.
Such a dialogue is what took place during the panel discussion on Nov. 9.
The panel was sponsored by the Catholic Student Association and featured Dr. James Pankow, a professor of chemistry and civil and environmental engineering at PSU; Dr. Robin Hahnel, a professor of economics at PSU; and Fr. Lucas Laborde, a Catholic priest from St. Patrick’s.
They each spoke individually for 30 minutes about the topic of climate change from the perspective of their academic background and spoke about the issue in very real terms.
Fr. Laborde spoke primarily about the theological significance of the encyclical and the goals of the Holy Father. He stressed we must discuss practical and scientific solutions to climate change but also sought to underline the true root cause of this crisis in today’s culture and the human heart.
Dr. Pankow gave an intriguing and entertaining presentation on the leading causes of climate change, which included using an infrared camera to illustrate what is going on in our atmosphere.
Dr. Hahnel focused his presentation on how this debate is playing out on the global political field, especially in regard to the United Nations Climate Change Conference going on in Paris between Nov. 30 and Dec. 15.
Following their presentations, the panelists took questions from the audience and continued the dialogue about the environmental movement and what actions need to be done in order to stop the damage we’ve done.
As a practicing Catholic who does not spurn scientific discovery and advancement, this panel greatly warmed my heart. To see a priest flanked by two university professors respectfully discussing a topic that concerns all of us was inspiring, especially in a world where people often dismiss the role of religion in society.
Despite the fact that the religious opinion on climate change is often dismissed due to the fact there are a lot of vocal conservative Christians in the United States who deny climate change, I think the Church and religion will have an interesting role in this dialogue.
A survey conducted by the Pew Research Center a few years back showed people who are religiously unaffiliated believe humans have an impact on climate change more than the national average.
However, research from a Pew Religious Landscape Survey showed an interesting trend among individual Christian denominations and other religions when it came to concern about the environment.
Not surprisingly, evangelical Protestant denominations like Baptists, Latter-day Saints and Pentecostals were the least likely to support environmental regulations.
Mainline Protestants like Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians and Anglicans were the Christians most likely to support environmental regulations. These denominations were followed by Catholics and the Orthodox.
Another study conducted by Public Religion Research Institute found that three in four Hispanic Catholics were either very (43 percent) or somewhat (30 percent) concerned about global climate change.
This was more than the national average, any other religious group and more than those who are religiously unaffiliated.
Hispanic Catholics also attend church more than any other demographic here in the United States.
Today about one-third of the Catholic Church in America is made up of Hispanics. About 57 percent of adult Hispanics identify as Catholic, and Hispanic Catholics have a greater retention rate for religious faith over generations than white Catholics.
This means that one of the fastest growing demographics in the United States are not only more likely to go to church but are also more likely to support environmental policies.
Knowing this gives me a lot of hope, and I think it’s about time people from different faith backgrounds see the inherent dignity of our common home.
I’m thankful Pope Francis has provided the opportunity for this dialogue and advocates a form of environmentalism born out of a love for the Earth and humanity that is not at odds with faith.