Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment has not yet been published, but it is already being criticized, even attacked by forces within and outside the Catholic Church.
That fact alone bears testimony to its relevance and importance. It also reveals the concern—even fear—among powerful and influential sectors that it could strongly affect the U.N. Conference on Climate Change in Paris, with consequences in the social, political and economic fields.
The point was forcefully brought home to me on April 28, when the Vatican hosted a conference titled “The Moral Dimensions of Climate Change and Sustainable Development.” The previous day, a delegation from the Heartland Institute arrived in Rome with the declared aim of publicly rebutting the thesis that climate change is largely due to human activity, a conclusion strongly supported by science, shared by Pope Francis and likely to feature in the encyclical.
Observing the Heartland Institute’s initiative and reading articles by some American Catholic lay intellectuals who seek to downplay the encyclical’s magisterial impact, I felt as if I were watching a replay of what happened in 2003, on the eve of the Iraq war.
Then too, powerful forces in the United States, including leading Catholic lay intellectuals, publicly challenged or opposed the Holy See’s effort, under St. John Paul II, to prevent the Iraq war. Some came to Rome to convince Vatican officials and the public of the fallacy of the Holy See’s strategy.
History has confirmed that the Holy environment has not yet been See’s position was not only right but published, but it is already being also prophetic.
The forces in the United States that are criticizing the probable content or downplaying the morally binding import of the encyclical may be divided into two blocs: the first is tied to economic interests; the second consists of Catholic thinkers linked to conservative American political thought.
One can identify three groups in the first bloc: individuals and corporations tied to the oil, gas and coal industries who perceive a threat to their profits; economic libertarians who believe that government intervention in the economy is destructive to economic growth and human freedom; and those who fear that the United States and Europe will be penalized by any international agreements on the environment, while China and other developing nations will not.
These three groups—and the media associated with them—argue that the Argentine pope, though a good man, is naïve about economic issues. Furthermore, they use pseudoscience to deny that climate change is mainly man-made and to inject confusion into the discussion.
The second bloc consists of Catholic thinkers and writers who argue that while Catholics are bound by the moral principles of any encyclical, they are not bound by the contingent findings of fact in the text that rely upon scientific data or analysis. Thus they effectively relativize any encyclical so that it will not have substantial binding power on any of the central questions that face humanity regarding the environment.
The encyclical is expected in June. Though its contents are not yet known, the pope’s many public statements over the past two years indicate that it is likely to highlight the moral imperative to care for all creation and call for courageous political decisions to address climate change, eliminate poverty and hunger, and build an economy that puts the human person and the common good, not profit, at the center. It is also likely to call for the “globalization of solidarity,” innovative, sustainable technological and economic solutions and, of course, moral conversion.
“The church is not an expert on science, technology, or economics,” but it “is an expert on humanity—on the true calling of the human person to act with justice and charity,” Cardinal Peter Turkson, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, stated at the Vatican conference, in a talk that offered insight into the encyclical, which he helped draft.
“For this reason, she reads ‘the signs of the times’ at key moments in history,” he said. The church did so in the 19th and 20th centuries regarding the injustices arising from industrialization, the challenge of global development and the threat from nuclear arms during the Cold War.
So too today, he said, “The church must speak out on the great challenge of our time—the challenge of sustainable development” and the need for all of us “to make the right choices, the moral choices.” That is what Pope Francis’ encyclical will do.