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July 13, 2015

Roughly half the respondents to one poll on a mainstream Catholic website said Pope Francis should not address environmental issues. Online polls, of course, may not reflect actual public opinion. Nevertheless, it is a widespread view that comes up repeatedly – the Church should stick to religion and leave this-world issues to politicians and "experts."

St. John Paul II's response to this opinion was that the Church is an expert on humanity; it brings a moral perspective and a pastoral concern that should never be omitted from discussion of public issues. It raises its voice, for example, on behalf of refugees, the unborn, migrant workers, the young and the elderly, and many others who are part of its parishes, but whose views do not always receive due attention. Those who are marginalized in society need the Church to speak on their behalf.

Indeed, no other group has to repeatedly justify its right to speak to the extent that the Church does.

The Church's voice is, first of all, a moral voice. Moral norms represent a threat to those who perform immoral actions that buttress their position of financial or political power.

Some will argue that the exercise of power can be undercut if decisions are made solely on technical concerns by experts. However, there is no neutral technical perspective that stands above or outside of morality. The exercise of any technique or technology is also the exercise of a certain set of values, a point Pope Francis makes in his encyclical, Laudato Si', On Care for Our Common Home. Ultimately, the attempt to be narrowly technical is a refusal to challenge the status quo.

The Church has a further right to speak about the natural environment. The environment is God's creation, imbued with God's Spirit. The story of creation is a story of God's love of the sun, moon and stars, the waters and the earth, plant and animal life, and the human person who is created in God's image and likeness.

To underline that point, God's Son became human, taking on flesh and becoming part of creation. The Church follows through on the incarnation by employing material elements in its sacraments. Creation itself is a sacrament, an outward sign of God's presence that gives grace.

The Church would be remiss if it did not defend the environment from abuses, if it did not speak up for the earth which is God's home as well as the home of humanity. It must address humanity's responsibility to be responsible stewards of the environment.

The Church itself could be a better steward as could we all. But surely, part of its stewardship is to speak calmly, but with urgency on the moral issues affecting the earth, even if raising its voice does make some people feel uncomfortable about their own actions.