In this April 25, 2015 file photo, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum speaks at the Iowa Faith & Freedom 15th Annual Spring Kick Off, in Waukee, Iowa. (Nati Harnik, File/Associated Press)

This opinion piece is written by Christopher Hale, the executive director of Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good and the co-founder of Millennial.

Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum caused a small uproar earlier this week when he said that Pope Francis should stop talking about climate change and “leave science to the scientists.”

His comments reflect a concern that many conservatives have about Pope Francis’s upcoming June 18 encyclical letter that will address humanity’s obligation to do better in its care of God’s creation.

One group from Chicago, the Heartland Institute, is so worried about Francis’s letter that they went to Rome earlier this spring to troll a Vatican conference on climate change and to refute Francis’s letter two months before its release.

One speaker said that Pope Francis would “demean” the office of the papacy and the Church if he published the document and put his moral authority behind fighting global climate change.

It didn’t stop there. He then suggested the pope is “kicking the poor in teeth” by standing with a wide-consensus of scientists in saying that climate change is real, at least partially human, and disproportionately harming poor countries.

Santorum, a practicing Catholic, seems to be singing from the same hymnal: “The church has gotten it wrong a few times on science, and I think that we probably are better off leaving science to the scientists and focusing on what we’re really good at, which is theology and morality.”

[5 faith facts about Rick Santorum: Church-state separation makes him want to ‘throw up’]

It’s comical that Rick Santorum is telling the pope, who Catholics believe is the Vicar of Jesus Christ, what topics are on and off the table. But what’s beyond the pale is the idea that caring for creation and addressing climate change is outside of the realms of “theology and morality” and reserved for scientists alone.

This notion flies in the face of the Christian faith tradition. The very first words of the Bible tell us that God himself is the creator of heaven and earth. God’s first home for us was a garden, and God’s first vocation for us was to be gardeners that protect, care, sustain and develop creation.

Pope Francis spoke earlier this year about our global failure to live up to this mission. “Man has slapped God in the face,” the pope said. “We have taken possession of nature and Mother Earth. God always forgives; we men sometimes forgive; but nature never forgives. I believe that man has gone a bit too far. Thank God that today, many, many people are talking about it.”

[Why Pope Francis is about to make a dramatic wave in the climate debate]

But this isn’t Francis’s issue alone. In fact, it was Benedict—not Francis—who the media first dubbed the “green pope” for his environmental activism. “If you want to cultivate peace,” Benedict famously said, “protect creation.”

Santorum has never seemed concerned when Francis or his predecessors have used their moral authority to wade into other issues that connect faith and science, most notably claiming that a human embryo is in fact a human person.

The Catholic Church speaks on issues of faith and science not as some academic exercise, but because these issues affect human flourishing, and we’re called by God to defend the dignity of every woman, man and child.

Just as the Church is unafraid to defend the dignity of the child in the womb, we cannot be afraid to defend the dignity of those who are the victims of a global economy that kills through environmental exploitation, rampant consumerism and structural inequalities.

What Santorum seems to misunderstand, but that Francis, Benedict and the Church get is that protecting creation is first and foremost a religious issue.

Protecting creation and addressing climate change is a response to the God’s ancient request that we be good stewards of all that God has given us: clean air, fresh water and fruits of the harvest.

As presidential candidates from both parties gear up for 2016, perhaps it would be best if they spent less time lecturing Francis on what to talk about and spent more time heeding his words:

“I beg the Lord to grant us more politicians who are genuinely disturbed by the state of society, the people, the lives of the poor!”

Hale helped lead national Catholic outreach for President Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign. You can follow him on Twitter.

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