A Moral Obligation

In the months since he published his papal appeal for global action to fight climate change, Pope Francis has advanced beyond measure the public dialogue on the central environmental challenge of our time. In schools, churches and community groups nationwide, his encyclical, Laudato Si, On Care for Our Common Home, has fired the collective conscience of the nation.

Next week, the pope lends voice to urgency, when he journeys to Washington to deliver his message of moral imperative to President Obama and the U.S. Congress, before traveling to New York to make his case before the United Nations General Assembly.

When the pontiff and the president sit down at the White House on Wednesday, it will be a meeting of largely kindred souls. No leader anywhere has done more than Obama to cut the dangerous fossil fuel pollution that's driving global climate change. The president is far from satisfied, though, nor should he be.

"We've got to move faster," Obama said earlier this month at a school in Kotzebue, Alaska. "We're not moving fast enough."

Pope Francis will face the main reason for that the next day, when he delivers remarks to a joint meeting of the House and Senate on Capitol Hill, bringing a message of moral clarity to a place of moral ambiguity.

Seldom has straight talk on environmental stewardship been more sorely needed than now, with Republican leaders in both houses of Congress doing everything they can to block needed progress in the fight to protect future generations from the dangers of climate change.

The pope is a man of faith, not politics. His robe is white, not red or blue. And he comes to single out no party or partisan caucus or base. He comes instead, bearing the burden of truth on our climate crisis, and a call for the change we need.

Regardless of our faith, he's said, we have a moral obligation, all of us, to be responsible stewards of the earth we share and the natural systems upon which all life depends.

We have a moral obligation to future generations, to safeguard their natural inheritance, set an example of care and leave them a liveable planet.

And we have a moral obligation to those people already paying a high price for climate change, the sick and impoverished, communities of color and others living on the front lines of environmental degradation worldwide.

To turn our backs on those obligations, the pope writes, would be to continue down the road to where "the very foundations of our life begin to crumble."

That message is already being received widely across the land, where the encyclical has been incorporated into the curricula of schools and colleges and has formed the core of study groups, prayer circles and informal gatherings nationwide.

Encyclical study guides have been produced by groups like the Archdiocese of Washington, the Columban Center for Advocacy and Outreach and the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship. Some schools, like Santa Clara University, have written their own curriculum guides to the encyclical, to be used in classes on business ethics and related fields.

"In ethics, it's about doing the right thing, and actions have consequences," said Arthur Gowran, who is incorporating the encyclical in the environmental ethics class he'll teach next semester at Broward College in south Florida. "Sometimes something appears to be good," he explained, "but ultimately isn't."

Inter-faith discussions are being held on campuses like Seattle University. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops prepared a discussion guide meant to help educators, religious figures and others lead groups in prayer, discussion and reflection about the pope's message. And high schools and middle schools are using the encyclical to teach students the links between personal responsibility and good citizenship.

"It's all about relationships - with our creator, each other and what we've been entrusted with," said Louisa Bateman, who is teaching the encyclical in her environmental science class at St. Cecilia Academy in Nashville. Fighting climate change, Batemen told the Tennessee Register, is everyone's responsibility. "It's not just up to other people."

No, it's not. And that's precisely the point.

Science tells us the truth about what's happening to our planet. We're just wrapping up the hottest summer since global record-keeping began in 1880. Last year was the hottest year on record, and the first eight months of this year were hotter still. Fourteen of the 15 hottest years ever recorded have occurred in this century. Seas are rising, deserts are widening and storms, floods and wildfires are raging.

The earth is telling us every way it knows how that it can't keep choking down unmitigated tons of carbon pollution from burning fossil fuels. Pope Francis is telling us, it's time to act. That's what gives purpose to our beliefs and confers meaning upon our convictions.

The pope has put before us one of the most profound spiritual challenges of our time. Our response will determine what kind of world we leave to our children. It will say much about who we are as people led by purpose and faith. And it will shape the most foundational decisions we make about the responsibility we share to care for our common home.