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What Does the Encyclical Mean for Climate Change?


Elizabeth McLeod

The Nature Conservancy's Climate Adaptation Scientist

June 2015

Pope Francis arrives in Sri Lanka. Photo © Maithripala Sirisena/Flickr
Pope Francis arrives in Sri Lanka. Photo © Maithripala Sirisena/Flickr

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.

The Detractors

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 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.”

"The growth of the Catholic environmental movement has been generally under the radar, but with the launch of the Encyclical, this is about to change."
- Elizabeth McLeod

A Quiet Revolution

Over the last 25 years, there’s been a quiet revolution within Catholic development agencies, schools and churches. They have been engaging environmental issues because they felt that it was the right thing to do.

The growth of the Catholic environmental movement has been generally under the radar, but with the launch of the Encyclical, this is about to change. The actions taken globally in Catholic Churches, Universities and Development agencies will finally have the authority from the highest level to prioritize environmental concerns in teachings, curricula and activities.

Importantly, Francis is not the first Pope to take a stand on environmental issues. Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI accepted the reality of human-caused climate change and recognized it as a moral issue.

In 1990, Pope John Paul II recognized in his World Day of Peace Message, “The gradual depletion of the ozone layer and the related ‘greenhouse effect’ has now reached crisis proportions.” Pope Benedict, called the “Green Pope” for his environmental efforts, purchased carbon credits to make the Catholic city-state the first carbon neutral country.

In 2001, Catholic Bishops in the United States released a statement on climate change, and Catholic Bishops internationally and the Global Catholic Climate Movement have come together to call for a limit to global temperature rise below 1.5° C. Several national Catholic bishops’ conferences, numerous Catholic NGOs and Catholic scholars and the Catholic Coalition on Climate Change have all called for faithful climate action.

The environmental shifts that have been occurring across Catholic agencies, churches and universities are also reflected in the priorities of individual Catholics. Recent research confirms that Catholics in the United States are more worried about climate change impacts and are more supportive of policy actions than other Christians. 70% of U.S. Catholics think global warming is happening, compared to 57% of non-Catholic Christians, and Catholics are more likely than other Christians to think it is mostly human-caused.

Impacts on Conservation Action

Regardless of the diversity of opinions expressed, one thing is clear: the encyclical is spurring passionate dialogue. But what impact will it have on conservation action?

So far, the signs are positive. CAFOD has said that their supporters have already responded to the Pope’s Encyclical by putting their faith into action by living simply, praying for our world and by lobbying the government to tackle climate change. Jesuit universities are exploring how they can work more closely together to address climate change and social justice. The Jesuits have the largest private education system in the world and are developing and expanding curricula linking environmental science with human values.

The encyclical presents opportunities for international conservation NGOs to respond, exploring partnership opportunities with Catholic universities to incorporate conservation/climate change into curricula and connect conservation field sites with student research. It will also be important to develop outreach and communications that spread and amplify the Pope’s declaration through conservation media outlets.

Bringing together faith-based efforts to protect the environment with secular efforts helps to pivot the conservation narrative from doom and gloom to hope and opportunity. It demonstrates critical convergence across religious and secular lies to address climate change. It also broadens the support for conservation dramatically. If only 5% of the estimated 75 million U.S. Catholics got involved in environmental issues, that would be three times the current membership of The Nature Conservancy.

Originally Posted on Conservancy Talk

June 11, 2015