The coming of the Pope’s encyclical on the environment is making headlines around the world, fueling hope, speculation and even doubt.
An encyclical is a letter written by the Pope to address complex social and moral issues with reference to the Bible and Catholic tradition and doctrines; it is the highest level of teaching document in the Catholic Church. This is the first encyclical ever on the environment.
Pope Francis acknowledges that climate change is human-induced. He calls on Catholics to “care for creation not only as responsible citizens, but as followers of Christ,” saying “a Christian who does not protect creation, who does not let it grow, is a Christian who does not care about the work of God.”
Why Does the Encyclical Matter?
Many welcome the encyclical and see it as a catalyst for building global support for climate change, launched at a strategic time to influence key climate events (UN Climate Summit; Paris COP21) held later this year.
Yale’s Forum on Religion and Ecology recently held a panel to explore the importance of the encyclical. Panelists suggested that the encyclical will increase awareness of the linkages between environmental degradation and human well-being and justice. They also suggested that it will represent a historic shift in how humans view nature, from a focus on human domination and exploitation to a focus on the intrinsic value inherent in all non-living and living beings.
Others discussed the importance of the encyclical beyond Catholics, suggesting that it will speak to leaders and laity in many faith traditions and will deepen the moral awakening to ecology and justice as one issue (eco-justice) and generate a broader response among other faith leaders.
Many hope that the Pope’s position on climate change and his September address to Congress will influence climate skeptics (notably Marco Rubio and John Boehner, among others) to change their stance. Neil Thorns, from CAFOD, a Catholic aid agency, said they have seen thousands of their supporters commit to making sure their Members of Parliament know climate change is affecting the poorest communities.
Not surprisingly, not everyone is welcoming the encyclical with open arms.
Some reject the idea that climate change is a moral issue. Rachel Lu wrote in Crisis magazine, “As a political conservative, I care somewhat about political issues such as this. But as a Catholic (which is much more important), I mainly care about fundamental Church teachings on faith and morals. Climate change is only very distantly relevant to any of these, so nothing the Holy Father says about it is likely to muddy doctrinal waters to any great extent. The deposit of faith is safe.”
Dennis Prager of RealClearPolitics.com stated that the Pope’s statements on the environment include “radical left-wing language’ and it is “clear that the pope has been so influenced by leftism that he appears to know only the propaganda, not the science.”
Others have accused the Pope of “apocalyptic alarmism” (in reference to the Pope’s statement: “If we destroy Creation, Creation will destroy us.”). One commentary went so far as to suggest that Pope Francis “serves an environmentalist mindset that, unlike the traditional ethos of conservation, views man as a parasite (Western man in Francis’ marxisant variant) and understands wealth in pre-modern terms as a zero-sum game.”