Pope Francis waves to faithful on April 15, 2014 upon his arrival on St. Peter’s square at the Vatican to lead his weekly general audience. AFP PHOTO / VINCENZO PINTOVINCENZO PINTO/AFP/Getty Images

With the official release of Pope Francis’s encyclical on the environment, it’s clear that several strains of thought prominent in the U.S. will be particularly challenged by the document. That includes U.S. individualists who tend to support limited government and fewer environmental restrictions — Rush Limbaugh has already accused Francis of Marxism — and also those who perceive a strong conflict between science and religion.

The Pope’s entire case for caring for “our common home,” as he puts it, is moral. And the precise moral worldview being articulated — what might be called communitarianism, the idea that we’re all in it together, that “it takes a village” — deeply challenges an individualistic value system that research suggests is quite prevalent in the U.S. In several places in the text, indeed, the pope explicitly critiques “individualism” by name.

“In the particular case of the United States of America, which does have a strong individualistic trend, we will be challenged by the Pope,” says Bill Patenaude, a Rhode Island based Catholic commentator who writes the blog Catholic Ecology.

Vatican leaders released Pope Francis's environmental encyclical June 18 in Vatican City. (The Vatican English)

At the same time, the document also represents a mega-merger of religious faith and a vastness of carefully researched scientific information — challenging the conflict-focused way that so many Americans have been conditioned to think about the relationship between science and religion.

In essence, then, the Pope rolls science and faith into a comprehensive statement about our global, common responsibility to address the planet’s vulnerability.

Let’s take them in turn:

American Individualism. The United States, says Dutch social psychologist and intercultural researcher Geert Hofstede, is “one of the most Individualist…cultures in the world.” Individualism, in Hofstede’s definition, is “a preference for a loosely-knit social framework in which individuals are expected to take care of only themselves and their immediate families.”

Hofstede isn’t the only one making such observations. The Pew Research Center noted recently that “Americans’ emphasis on individualism and work ethic stands out in surveys of people around the world.” That’s not to say that every American is a rugged individualist — just that this way of thinking, and feeling, is more prominent here than in many other nations, according to researchers.

There are many benefits to individualism, in the sense of how it drives people to strive to succeed, and allows them to choose their own paths and innovate in order to get there. In the context of the Pope’s encyclical, though, what matters is how such an outlook also helps to explain why we have such conflicts over collective environmental problems like climate change. For instance, numerous studies have found strong links between manifestations of individualism — such as free market beliefs and libertarian values — and the denial of global warming, or the perception that it isn’t a very serious problem.

That includes the research of Yale law professor Dan Kahan, whose “cultural cognition” model divides people’s moral values along two axes — one running from being very hierarchical to very egalitarian, and the other running from being very individualistic to being very communitarian. In this analysis, individualists are people who are much more likely to assent to statements like “It’s not the government’s business to try to protect people from themselves” and “It’s a mistake to ask society to help every person in need.”

Here’s a figure from Kahan’s research, dividing people’s value systems up into four quadrants based on where they lie on the hierarchist-egalitarian and individualist-communitarian spectra, and then further noting what kinds of issues those in the different quadrants tend to view as “high risk” and “low risk”:


Credit: Dan Kahan

In the context of U.S. politics, we’re used to watching hierarch-individualists (Republicans) and egalitarian-communitarians (Democrats) clash along both moral axes. But the Pope is a different blend than we’re used to. “The Pope is hierarch communitarian,” says Kahan by e-mail. “No doubt about that.” In this analysis, Francis lies in the top right quadrant of the diagram above. Yes, he’s pro-life — but also an environmental activist.

The communitarian side lies at the heart of the Pope’s current environmental endeavor, and his call to address a global, collective problem — warming. And to focus, in particular, on how it harms those who are most vulnerable.

“That’s very much where the climate problem has taken the environmental movement is concern for the people who are affected by it but didn’t cause it,” says Evan Berry, a professor of philosophy and religion at American University. “Interestingly, those are the most basic concerns of Christian morality. This is Catholicism 101. So the fact that that’s how a Christian leader would think about environmental questions, it’s surprising that that wasn’t on the table many many years.”

It’s there throughout the encyclical — and not just when the Pope calls the Earth’s climate a “common good.” He criticizes “individualism” by name on several occasions. Here’s one example:

Disinterested concern for others, and the rejection of every form of self-centeredness and self-absorption, are essential if we truly wish to care for our brothers and sisters and for the natural environment. These attitudes also attune us to the moral imperative of assessing the impact of our every action and personal decision on the world around us. If we can overcome individualism, we will truly be able to develop a different lifestyle and bring about changes in society.

Or as the Pope puts it later, “We must regain the conviction that we need one another, that we have a shared responsibility for others and the world, and that being good and decent are worth it.”

So clearly, Francis is critiquing individualism — especially at its extremes.

Science and Religion Conflict. At the same time, from the Scopes Trial to the stem cell saga, we are also a country that has traditionally seen major battles between science and religion — and has thus been conditioned to see them as being in conflict. It’s a perception that actually comes from two separate sides — from many religious believers but also from many atheists or non-believers.

While perceptions of conflict are most centrally focused on the teaching of evolution, they extend throughout realms involving reproductive health and even into the environmental arena, where U.S. evangelicals tend to be considerably less accepting of climate change.

Pope Francis is having none of that. Indeed, the encyclical contains a grand statement about the necessarily complementary relationship between science and faith. “Science and religion, with their distinctive approaches to understanding reality, can enter into an intense dialogue fruitful for both,” Francis writes.

“The catechism of the church is very clear on that,” says Patenaude. “Faith and reason are not opposed to one another. They are the two strands of the DNA of Catholic intellectual thought.”

Francis’s encyclical lives up to that merged identity — much in the way Pope Francis himself does, with his chemistry background.

For instance, Francis doesn’t just say humans are causing global warming. He enumerates the greenhouse gases much as a chemist might:  “carbon dioxide, methane, nitrogen oxides and others.” And he also lists numerous non-human or natural factors that influence the climate — “volcanic activity, variations in the earth’s orbit and axis, the solar cycle” — before finally reiterating that it’s mostly human caused.

And the heavy layering of science extends far beyond the climate issue. As the Post has described, the encyclical is full of scientific content on a diversity of environmental issues — sometimes even throwing around highly technical concepts like ocean acidification, “bioaccumulation” and “synthetic agrotoxins.”

So if you’re one of those who insists that science and religion are in conflict — or one of those who stokes that conflict — Francis presents a major challenge. And it’s worth noting that while it isn’t central to this encyclical, Francis has also spoken up in the past in favor of the Big Bang and evolution, two major scientific concepts that have met with considerable religious-driven resistance in the U.S.

So in sum, here we have a leader of one of the world’s dominant churches articulating — and soon, coming to the U.S. to further articulate — a vision in which science and faith are partners in a communal quest to protect the vulnerable from the rampant profit motive and exploitation of the Earth.

For U.S. individualists and science-religion battlers, that is going to be serious cause for contemplation — which, perhaps most of all, is what Francis’s encyclical is asking us for.

Also in Energy & Environment:

Why green spaces are good for your kid’s brain

Alaska’s glaciers are now losing 75 billion tons of ice every year

Google just created a stunning visualization of how the world searches for ‘global warming’

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