One question seems to be at the heart of Pope Francis’s encyclical: “What kind of world do we want to leave to those whom come after us, to children who are now growing up?” (section 160).
The encyclical does not have to do with the environment alone because the issue cannot simply be approached piecemeal.
Pope Francis asks about the meaning of existence and the values that are at the basis of social life: What is the purpose of life in the world?
For the pope, the science of climate change has been pretty much settled, and we are entering a period of consequences concerning the warming earth. What Pope Francis has interjected into the conversation is a question of values.
The encyclical argues that the climate is a common good, belonging to all and meant for all.
However, this common good is threatened by causes such as consumerism, materialism, a throwaway society, individualism and the inequality created by present economic systems that affect the poor.
“Laudato Si” characterizes climate change as a human rights issue and calls for a radical and urgent transformation of global politics and individual lifestyles to combat it.
So, how may one use the document to integrate the moral components of climate change within Christian universities and seminaries?
How can we teach students to use the encyclical for moral reflection on climate change and creation care?
As you come into the main entrance of my school, Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond, Virginia, there is a sign on the wall in big letters stating that BTSR is “Preparing Ministry Leaders for the Twenty-first Century.”
No one can be a leader in ministry, or, in fact, simply a leader, in the 21st century who has not seriously considered the ethical issues presented in “Laudato Si.”
The moral issues presented in the papal encyclical are far larger than simply organizing university and seminary students to recycle or to change their light bulbs to more efficient styles.
They are issues that are international and national in scope. They call for a change in how we live and who we are that will require churches to produce 21st century Christians who understand the problems and are willing to make the sacrifices necessary to address them.
The encyclical ought to first of all bring to the forefront of the curricula of our universities and colleges the importance of teaching ethics, specifically ethics as a result of theological reflection and dialogue.
“Laudato Si” brings back to the foreground two central biblical understandings: stewardship and care of the creation, and the care of the neighbor, in particular, in the face of the poor.
The ecological movement opened the door for the discussion of creation care, but climate change makes it a central issue for humanity. Not only is humanity threatened but also the place and purpose of other creatures.
What is the role of humanity’s care for them?
Scientists have stated that we are entering a period of a sixth major extinction, this time as the result of human activity, not only because climate change, but also through human-caused habitat loss, our transport of invasive species, and our penchant for overhunting among other things.
The care of the neighbor is seen in the fact that we share a common home with all other human beings for whom we are responsible.
“Laudato Si” notes that the poor of the planet do not have the resources to adapt that richer populations possess. Thus, it is the poor who will suffer the most as the climate changes.
Richer nations are the main drivers of the causes of global warming, particularly by consumption of fossil fuels.
They cannot ask poorer nations to set aside providing their populations with a better lifestyle without discussing how to make the richer nations’ lifestyles more sustainable without damaging the planet.
“Laudato Si” is a wakeup call to Christian and theological education to address pressing issues that will not wait and which have dire consequences for millions of people and creatures.
Christian universities should be at the forefront in research for sustainable and clean energy sources and discussions of economic systems that consider the needs of the poor around them.
Seminaries should integrate the lessons learned to produce Christian leaders who are informed and ready to deal with the issues confronting them through climate change and its causes.
The encyclical calls for honest and open debate and Christian universities and seminaries must be at the forefront of leading that discussion.
Timothy D. Gilbert is the vice president for academic affairs and dean at Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond. He holds a bachelor of arts in religion from Oklahoma Baptist University and a master of divinity and doctorate in Christian ethics from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Climate change and global warming have been growing concerns for him for the past decade.
Editor’s note: This is the sixth in a series of articles offering Baptist responses to the papal encyclical on the environment. Previous articles in the series are: