Bruce McDougal watches embers fly over his property as the Bond Fire burns in the community of Silverado in Orange County, Calif., Dec. 3, 2020. (AP/Noah Berger)
If you had to spend 14 minutes with Pope Francis, what would you say?
Recently, this hypothetical scenario has become our reality.
In October 2021, Pope Francis launched a three-year campaign to listen to the perspectives and wisdom of ordinary Catholics. The objective of this “synodal process”, as it is called, is far from trivial. Francis wants this intentional listening to discern the future directions of the Roman Catholic Church.
Through a synodal project of our Jesuit institution, Loyola University Chicago, we met with university students from the central United States and Canada to discuss concerns and solutions related to migration and its root causes. We were then elected to speak directly to Francis — to represent the interests, hopes, dreams and anxieties of young Catholics in our region.
So what have we said to the pope on behalf of our peers?
As young people, we told him that climate change is the most pressing social issue of our generation — one that threatens our future, is a deep source of generational anxiety and is inextricably linked to all other social issues.
The effects of climate change are well documented: food and water stress, resource conflicts, severe weather events, illnesses and deaths. Climate change is already causing on average 20 million refugees each year and 5 million premature deaths. With global droughts and rising sea levels, estimates show there could be 1.4 billion climate refugees by 2060 and 2 billion by 2100. All of these adverse effects disproportionately harm to communities of color.
Given these terrifying numbers and projections, we also told Francis that our generation is frustrated with American Catholic leaders who do not seem to grasp the gravity of our crisis and are unwilling to embrace Church teaching.
Francis echoed the teachings of his predecessors Saint John Paul II and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI: Climate change is a moral issue and requires prompt and vigorous action. As a global moral voice, the Catholic Church controls vast resources – money, buildings, land, educational institutions – and must use its assets to address the climate crisis. Francis describes all this in “Laudato Si’“, his 2015 encyclical letter to Catholics and “all people of good will”.
However, one of us recently co-wrote a study with Creighton University faculty that demonstrated bishops’ climate silence: In more than 12,000 columns written by US bishops in diocesan newspapers, less than 1% even mentioned climate change.
These findings echo broader sentiments that the bishops are not teaching about climate change. They also support evidence that most bishops have failed to take concrete action commensurate with the climate crisis. For example, no US diocese has committed to carbon neutrality. Likewise, in our experiences, priests never talk about climate change. Few parishes use clean energy.
Young people value authenticity and deplore hypocrisy. We told Pope Francis that the failure of U.S. Catholic leaders to share and implement the church’s own teachings on climate is at the root of the disillusionment of many in our generation with from the church.
As a global moral voice, the Catholic Church controls vast resources – money, buildings, land, educational institutions – and must use its assets to address the climate crisis.
As young Americans, we told him that the frustration over failed climate leadership also extends to elected officials. Our generation is a victim of leaders’ reluctance to adopt science-based climate change policies. We told Francis that this failure of civic leadership makes many of our peers cynical about civic engagement and skeptical of our institutions.
Given these failings, we told the Pope that young Catholics recognize the need for a new strategy. Following Catholic and Christian precedents, we have proposed active nonviolence that expresses Christian love as a missing complement to existing climate actions.
In his A 2017 World Day of Peace message, Francis has repeatedly called for “active nonviolence” that works for justice. Here in the United States, Christian active nonviolence has a famous history.
Reverend John Markoe, a Creighton University Jesuit priest, used active nonviolence to fight shopkeeper discrimination in Omaha, Nebraska. Reverend James Lawson used active nonviolence to desegregate food counters in Nashville, Tennessee. The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., whom Francis celebrated during his speech to Congress in 2015, used active nonviolence to desegregate buses in Montgomery, Alabama. Lawson and King drew on the active discipline of nonviolence from Gandhi’s salt march in India.
King emphasized active nonviolence as being driven by love for one’s community of which, out of love, more is asked. He also stressed that it was a last resort after a failed negotiation. Such negotiation is underpinned by conversion and what Francis calls “authentic encounter”.
The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. speaks at an interfaith civil rights rally at the Cow Palace in San Francisco on June 30, 1964. (Creative Commons/George Conklin)
We agree that our generation should continue attempts at negotiation, including meeting with bishops and elected officials to express our deep concern about climate change and demand adequate action in response. In fact, this summer Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich of Luxembourg and Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago urged young Catholics to seek conversations with their bishop on climate change.
If these appeals fail, however, Christian love justifies – and we believe compels – the active nonviolence that follows the faithful precedent of Markoe, Lawson and King.
It’s no secret that we are running out of time to avoid a climate catastrophe. Nobel Prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates that to have a 50% chance of avoiding rapidly accelerating global warming, the world must nearly halve carbon pollution by 2030 and become carbon neutral by 2050.
The current inaction of bishops and legislators despite closing the window of opportunity to protect our future suggests that time can perpetuate injustice. In this time of climate crisis, talking about active nonviolence is a timely—and, indeed, belated—expression of Christian love.
To catalyze adequate climate action, we proposed to Francis the creation of comprehensive centers for active education and training in nonviolence. This recommendation follows Lawson’s idea that change does not happen spontaneously, but requires training in evidence-based nonviolent strategies.
The failure of American Catholic leaders to share and implement the church’s own teachings on climate is at the root of the disillusionment of many in our generation with the church.
The centers would train Catholics and other people of goodwill. Since active nonviolence seeks a change of heart that begins with genuine encounter, these centers would teach St. John Paul II’s concept of “ecological conversion” as well as negotiation and advocacy skills. These centers would also teach proven techniques of non-violent direct action.
Francis applauded our group’s insights. In the face of modern challenges, he insisted that “we need the prophecy of nonviolence” and affirmed “the construction of nonviolent activities”.
Drawing on our generation’s frustrations with the hypocritical failure of American Catholic leaders to share and implement the Church’s teaching on climate change, he said, “Nonviolence is the way of the non-hypocrisy of humanity, which is the real revolution, the real change, the real liberation. … Through the path of non-violence, you attain sincerity and reject all hypocrisy.”
We had the unique opportunity to speak directly with Pope Francis on behalf of our peers. We told him that for many of our generation, climate change encapsulates what the Second Vatican Council called “the joys and hopes, sorrows and anxieties of the people of that time.” We told him that the current inaction of our religious and political leaders is forcing young people to turn to the famous Christian tradition of active nonviolence.
As young Catholics discouraged by the failure of the negotiations, we regard this course of action as one of the obligations of our faith. For our sake and that of present and future generations, we hope and pray that you agree.
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