June 26, 2015

Religion, Climate Change, and Poverty

Peter kaufman 2014By Peter Kaufman

There is a new sociologist on the block: he does not have a Ph.D., does not teach at a university, and as far as I know, may have never even taken a sociology course. In fact, he attended a technical secondary school where he graduated with a chemical technician’s diploma and worked for a time in a chemistry lab (as well as working temporarily as a bouncer). Who is this new sociologist?  He’s an Argentinian named Jorge Mario Bergogli or, as he is commonly referred to, Pope Francis.


Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Pope_Francis_in_March_2013_b.jpg

So why am I calling the leader of the Catholic Church a sociologist? One reason is that since his papacy began in March 2013, Pope Francis has gained a reputation for championing the cause of the poor and excluded. In a statement that might make Karl Marx proud, Pope Francis has criticized the global economic system, also known as capitalism, for promoting a “god of money.” In the same vein, he has attacked globalization and unemployment and, in a somewhat shocking statement, he espoused tolerance, if not outright support for homosexuals.

Although his position on these issues might be supported by many sociologists, his views on these topics are not the main reason why I’m claiming he is one of us. My reasoning is based on the papal encyclical he released recently that calls on humanity to take seriously and begin addressing the problems of climate change. In impressive sociological fashion, this document explains what is occurring in the world today by drawing analytical connections between multiple variables. In other words, Pope Francis is engaging in intersectional analysis.

Sociologists love to talk about intersectionality. Because the world we live in is complex and chaotic, trying to make sense of it in a linear, one-dimensional manner is just not sufficient. We invoke theories of intersectionality in order to understand the relationship between variables so that we can gain a more complete picture of social processes. Most sociological approaches employing intersectionality focus on the interactions between various dimensions of oppression such as gender, race, and social class. In order to understand how any one of these variable might affect us, we need to recognize how they all intersect and are felt concurrently as they shape our lives.

In his encyclical, Pope Francis offers a variation of intersectionality that most sociologists ignore: the relationship between religion, climate change, and poverty. Although sociologists have long been interested in religion—dating all the way back to Max Weber’s focus on Protestantism and capitalism and Emile Durkheim’s interest in religion and social regulation, and also have much to say regarding the environment and poverty, the recognition that these three variables are “simultaneously expressed” to the detriment of the world’s most impoverished people is a sociological insight that warrants more attention. Pope Francis is pointing out , clearly and unmistakably, that these are not merely political issues but are also moral issues that must be addressed by all of us—and especially by those who profess to share his religious beliefs.  

So what exactly did the Pope say and how did he tie these points together into a sociological analysis? Here are some selected excerpts from the encyclical, “Laudato Si: On Care for Our Common Home,” that I categorized around some sociological themes. Some of these are slightly long but it’s worth reading them to really get a feel for the Pope’s multidimensional analysis.

Intersection of climate change and poverty: those who are impoverished are disproportionately affected by climate change:

I will point to the intimate relationship between the poor and the fragility of the planet (¶ 16).

Exposure to atmospheric pollutants produces a broad spectrum of health hazards, especially for the poor 20).

Climate change is a global problem with grave implications: environmental, social, economic, political and for the distribution of goods. It represents one of the principal challenges facing humanity in our day. Its worst impact will probably be felt by developing countries in coming decades. Many of the poor live in areas particularly affected by phenomena related to warming, and their means of subsistence are largely dependent on natural reserves and ecosystemic services such as agriculture, fishing and forestry. They have no other financial activities or resources which can enable them to adapt to climate change or to face natural disasters, and their access to social services and protection is very limited 25).

The human environment and the natural environment deteriorate together; we cannot adequately combat environmental degradation unless we attend to causes related to human and social degradation. In fact, the deterioration of the environment and of society affects the most vulnerable people on the planet: “Both everyday experience and scientific research show that the gravest effects of all attacks on the environment are suffered by the poorest” 48).

The youth of the world want action around climate change and poverty:

Young people demand change. They wonder how anyone can claim to be building a better future without thinking of the environmental crisis and the sufferings of the excluded ( 13).

The “have’s” are largely ignorant of the “have-nots” and yet they dictate policy that adversely affects the world’s poor:

It needs to be said that, generally speaking, there is little in the way of clear awareness of problems which especially affect the excluded.  Yet they are the majority of the planet’s population, billions of people. These days, they are mentioned in international political and economic discussions, but one often has the impression that their problems are brought up as an afterthought, a question which gets added almost out of duty or in a tangential way, if not treated merely as collateral damage. Indeed, when all is said and done, they frequently remain at the bottom of the pile. This is due partly to the fact that many professionals, opinion makers, communications media and centres of power, being located in affluent urban areas, are far removed from the poor, with little direct contact with their problems. They live and reason from the comfortable position of a high level of development and a quality of life well beyond the reach of the majority of the world’s population. This lack of physical contact and encounter, encouraged at times by the disintegration of our cities, can lead to a numbing of conscience and to tendentious analyses which neglect parts of reality. At times this attitude exists side by side with a “green” rhetoric. Today, however, we have to realize that a true ecological approach always becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor (¶ 49).

Global capitalism fuels the economic debt and ecological exploitation of poor countries:

The foreign debt of poor countries has become a way of controlling them, yet this is not the case where ecological debt is concerned. In different ways, developing countries, where the most important reserves of the biosphere are found, continue to fuel the development of richer countries at the cost of their own present and future 52).

The need to see the interrelationship between human costs and economic costs:

Helping the poor financially must always be a provisional solution in the face of pressing needs. The broader objective should always be to allow them a dignified life through work. Yet the orientation of the economy has favoured a kind of technological progress in which

the costs of production are reduced by laying off workers and replacing them with machines. This is yet another way in which we can end up working against ourselves. The loss of jobs also has a negative impact on the economy “through the progressive erosion of social capital: the network of relationships of trust, dependability, and respect for rules, all of which are indispensable for any form of civil coexistence” In other words, “human costs always include economic costs, and economic dysfunctions always involve human costs”. To stop investing in people, in order to gain greater short-term financial gain, is bad business for society (¶ 128).

As I’ve written previously, I am not a scholar of religion nor am I Catholic. Nevertheless, I agree with Pope Francis that the "earth is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor" (¶ 2) and is "beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth" (¶ 21). Moreover, it is undeniable, as the Pope suggests, that there is "an inseparable bond between concern for nature, justice for the poor, commitment to society, and interior peace" (¶ 10).

So even though the encyclical is not a typical “summer reading” selection, I encourage you to explore it further and see what insightful, intersectional, and sociological themes you might find


Dear Peter,

Intersectionality is my new word of the day, Thank you for this amazing topic. I did not entirely realize till now that the human and natural environment deteriorate together. It does go beyond political and moral issues, and in order to understand the effect we must recognize it! awareness is important.

worth noting.

Religion will always be blamed for everything.

Great article.Thanks for sharing the Poe's article.Indeed it's true that the poor and disadvantaged have been forgotten in today's society.

these are slightly long but it’s worth reading them to really get a feel for the Pope’s multidimensional analysis.

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