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Few Baptist Voices Join Global Discussion on Papal Encyclical

Pope Francis released last week a much-anticipated encyclical on the environment, which he titled “Laudato Si” (or “Praised Be”).

Some Baptists offered their opinions on the document and its potential impact. Many Baptist leaders, however, seemed to ignore the papal document making headlines around the world, in part due to attention to the church shooting in Charleston, South Carolina.

In his encyclical, Francis warned of the “grave implications” of climate change, adding, “It represents one of the principal challenges facing humanity in our day.”

He particularly criticized richer countries for environmental destruction that hurts poorer countries.

Robert Parham, executive editor of EthicsDaily.com and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics, praised Francis ahead of the release of “Laudato Si” for bringing attention to the importance of environmental issues.

“A billion Catholics, who see the moral imperative to address climate change, will outweigh the billionaires who finance the global warming deniers,” Parham argued as he noted how the encyclical would impact those within the Catholic Church.

Parham especially urged Baptists to consider Francis’ words and do more to make environmental topics a key moral issue. He expressed his regret that “even moderate Baptists … skirt the issue.”

“While Baptists claim to be people of the book, we have glossed over the book’s message about the environment,” he added.

Mark Woods, a Baptist minister and journalist in England, praised “Laudato Si” as “a profound, insightful and moving analysis of what’s wrong with our world and how to start fixing it.”

“It is a truly remarkable document, not just for what it says about climate change but for its wisdom on the whole way in which human beings relate to their environment and to each other,” Woods added.

Aaron Weaver, communications manager for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, also expressed his optimism about the potential impact of “Laudato Si.”

Weaver, whose doctoral dissertation at Baylor University explored various Baptist perspectives on environmental issues, sees the encyclical as “a great opportunity to restart conversations on environmental issues in our faith communities.”

“I hope the moral framework that Pope Francis offers in his encyclical will prompt people of faith to think about environmental issues in new and holistic ways,” Weaver added.

“And for my fellow Baptists, cause us to recall the ethical wisdom of theological voices from our own tradition, such as [Southern Baptist] Henlee Barnette and [American Baptist] Jitsuo Morikawa. What should a 21st-century Baptist environmental ethic look like in terms of our personal practices as well as our public policy commitments?”

A key Southern Baptist leader expressed less excitement about “Laudato Si.”

Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, called “Laudato Si” “a very interesting document,” adding, “Pope Francis is absolutely right to identify our care for creation as a theological issue. ”

However, Mohler mostly criticized Francis for addressing the problem of global warming.

Mohler criticized Francis for accepting the scientific consensus on global warming but did not offer any evidence to suggest scientific findings should be dismissed.

“[S]everal of the Pope’s central claims about climate change have more to do with the current scientific consensus than with theology,” Mohler claimed. “Pope Francis has also tied the credibility of his papacy to scientific arguments that may well change over time, perhaps radically.”

A frequent public critic of the Catholic Church and the papal office, Mohler’s statement on “Laudato Si” included a jab at papal legitimacy.

“Evangelical Christians reject the very idea of the papacy and the concept of the Vatican as a political state,” Mohler argued. “We do not issue encyclicals nor do we claim to represent a sovereign state with a foreign policy. The Pope’s encyclical will be much discussed, but time will tell if there is any major policy impact from his arguments.”

Conservative talk show hosts offered stronger condemnation of “Laudato Si,” including labeling Francis “a Marxist” and claiming he is in “alliance” with President Barack Obama to “reshape the world by taxing the rich, taxing fossil fuels and redistributing the wealth.”

Despite the criticism from Mohler and Fox News personalities, climate scientists agree Francis got the science right.

In fact, some scientists believe Francis painted a more cautious picture than scientists generally offer on the topic.

Some leaders from other Christian traditions also praised Francis for advancing the discussion of environmental topics.

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople, who leads the Orthodox Church, argued “the Pope’s diagnosis is on the mark.”

“We are especially grateful to Pope Francis for recognizing our insistence on the need to broaden our narrow and individualistic concept of sin,” Bartholomew added, “and we welcome his stress on ‘ecological conversion’ and ‘reconciliation with creation.'”

Anglican Bishop of Salisbury Nicholas Holtam, the Church of England’s leader on environment, also praised “Laudato Si.”

“I wholeheartedly welcome the papal encyclical, Laudato Si, a major contribution to tackling climate change, which is one of the great moral challenges of our times,” Holtam said. “Churches and other faith communities have a unique power to mobilize people for the common good and change attitudes and behaviors. We also need to strengthen our politicians to achieve ambitious, accountable and binding climate change agreements, nationally and internationally.”

Brian Kaylor is a contributing editor for EthicsDaily.com. You can follow him on Twitter @BrianKaylor.

Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of articles offering Baptist responses to the papal encyclical on the environment. The first article in the series is:

5 Observations from Pope’s Encyclical on Creation Care