What do SCS and the Pope have in common? A lot.

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Photo by Photo by Tony Gentile/Reuters: Slate.com

Last week, Pope Francis made history. In a landmark message, Pope Francis called upon Catholics worldwide to take action against climate change. This isn’t just big news. It’s huge. This is Pope Francis’s first encyclical (a formal teaching on Catholic doctrine) and the first encyclical in the history of the Catholic Church devoted to climate change.

An encyclical is a formal document passed down through the Catholic Church from the Pope to all Bishops, Cardinals, and even individual parish priests. These church leaders are meant to embrace the encyclical in their local teachings. Pope Francis’s encyclical, however, goes even further. Instead of directing his message to higher-ups in the Church, Pope Francis remarked that his encyclical “is aimed at everyone.”

What exactly does Pope Francis say about climate change in this watershed document? Not only does he recognize that humans are instrumental in the destruction of the planet and a primary cause of climate change, but he also notes that certain populations are bearing the brunt of the climate’s destructive effects. The “worst impact [of climate change] will probably be felt by developing countries in coming decades,” he writes, describing how first world countries reap the benefits of pollution in the form of cheaper goods, quicker production times, and easier profits while developing countries are left to suffer.

In this way, Pope Francis demands that we all act as good stewards of the Earth. Not only is it up to us to care for the Earth, but it is up to us to care for the people on it. Pope Francis reminds us that climate change is matter of human rights and social justice.

This message, while officially addressed to Catholic Bishops, is for all of us on Earth. At the Sitka Conservation Society, we hear his call loud and clear. We have long been working to protect the environment of Southeast Alaska while simultaneously promoting sustainable and resilient communities. People and place go hand-in-hand. If you set out to protect one, you’ve got to look at the other too.

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Photo by Christie Costello: jvcnorthwest.org

As a member of the Jesuit Volunteer Corps Northwest stationed at a conservation non-profit, Pope Francis’s encyclical really resonated with me. The document strikes right at the intersection of the Catholic identity of JVC Northwest and my service plan at the Sitka Conservation Society. Here at SCS, I work towards social and ecological justice in Sitka every day. Social and ecological justice are core values of JVC Northwest and values I’ve also found during my time at SCS.   

To me, ecological justice means giving all children a chance to experience pristine nature and preserving it for future generations. I teach Sitka’s 4-H youth about environmental stewardship through gardening, outdoor skills, and kayaking. These activities teach kids useful skills while also encouraging them to be outside and explore the Tongass. By experiencing nature in a fun and safe way, these kids are learning to value the place they call home. As they grow, my students will be more likely to protect these special places and become advocates for public land.

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The SCS 4-H Gardening Project at work: Photo By Lione Claire

In the past, reasons for protecting the Earth from pollution and climate change have been presented from a scientific perspective. Pope Francis offers us a different lens: faith. Regardless of where you stand on matters of spirituality, we hope this new way of looking at the Earth will draw more supporters to protect the wilderness we hold dear here in Southeast. Thanks Pope Francis for bringing environmental protection to the forefront of your agenda!


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