Pope knows: Protect the poorest by protecting the planet

Poverty is a big problem and it demands a holistic solution. While providing food, housing and employment are obvious priorities, there is much more to lifting people out of poverty. Part of the answer is protecting those at the bottom, so they don't lose what little they have.

On that front, Pope Francis has led a renewed charge among people of faith. He is championing the long-standing Catholic principle that to protect the poorest, a basic tenant of Christian faith, we must protect the planet.

While addressing matters of environment and energy may seem far afield for people of faith, it is one of the most important things we can do to fulfill our mission. Many extreme weather events destroy the homes of the poor and devastate their budgets. For example, when an urban area is threatened by a hurricane, those who are fortunate can simply drive (or fly) to safety and stay in a hotel until they can return home. But low-income families will not only lose out on pay from hourly wages as businesses close; often, they can't even afford to leave.

Part of my job working with Catholic Relief Services (CRS) and the Catholic Campaign for Human Development is to do what it takes to uplift the poorest, assisting them in getting the tools they need to work their way out of poverty. But it also means helping them protect themselves from the forces that keep them struggling in a vicious cycle, where what little they've managed to secure gets ripped away because they can't afford to protect it.

That was part of the message that was delivered at a Sept.16 press conference on Pope Francis' ecological encyclical, Laudato Si', by Archbishop Thomas Wenski, chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, Bishop Oscar Cantú, Chairman of the USCCB Committee on International Justice and Peace, and Carolyn Woo, president and CEO of CRS.

That's why when I met recently with the Northern Virginia director for Senator Tim Kaine, I impressed on him the importance of hearing the pope's message: we must both reduce our carbon pollution and provide for those most affected by it.

Here in the United States, there are plenty of people struggling to make ends meet. We should be helping make their hard-fought gains permanent, which means reducing the carbon pollution that threatens to undo that progress when the next big storm wipes out their homes or savings. An excellent first step is to set standards for carbon pollution from power plants, which are our largest source of greenhouse gas emissions.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops supports standards for carbon pollution, like those in the Clean Power Plan. In fact, the bishops most recently wrote a statement of support for these standards in August of this year. And a number of states have already taken steps to implement these standards, finding them practical and economically feasible.

Overseas, we can help the poorest countries adapt to the large impacts they're already experiencing, and prevent further impacts, by fully funding our pledge to the United Nations' Green Climate Fund, which provides resources for these countries to improve their infrastructure, as well as to implement better agricultural practices and environmental policies to minimize the impact of climate changes on their people. The USCCB also supports fully funding our pledge to the Green Climate Fund, recognizing that it is a sound investment in preventing massive conflict over food and water resources, and the widespread displacement of people, that will result from shifting climate patterns and rising seas.

Protecting both the planet and the vulnerable is at the heart of faith. When Pope Francis addresses Congress next week, he will share Catholic teaching on climate and justice. As the pope said in his recent encyclical on ecology and climate change, "True statecraft is manifest when, in difficult times, we uphold high principles and think of the long-term common good." Our elected leaders have been given the responsibility to protect the lives and livelihoods of people everywhere. They would be wise to listen to the church's call for action on climate change.

Walsh is program coordinator for Catholic Relief Services and the Catholic Campaign for Human Development in the Arlington Diocese.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015