A Planetary Pope: When Francis speaks on the environment

Squabbles over Catholic teachings are not unusual, yet this summer brings a twist: Pope Francis’ encyclical on ecology has garnered anticipatory praise as well as skepticism. The fervent speculation about a papal document before its publication seems to be something new under the sun. “These days, we do not have a very good relationship with Creation, do we?” mused Pope Francis during his first day on the job. It is no accident that the pontiff adopted the name of St. Francis, who became patron saint of ecologists in 1979.

The upcoming ecology encyclical is already of great interest, but it will not be uniformly easy to receive. Partly this is due to the genre. An encyclical is an authoritative form of magisterial communication that has been used consistently by pontiffs over the past 125 years to diagnose, evaluate and adjudicate matters pertaining to faith and life in the contemporary world. Laced with theological and philosophical references from the New Testament to Nietzsche, informed by consultation with a range of experts and most often addressed to “all people of good will,” encyclicals have a distinctly Catholic voice and status. They almost always refer back to other encyclicals; they are footnoted.

Difficulties of genre notwithstanding, The New York Times and The Washington Post are among the publications that have depicted the shape of a document that has not yet been released. Opinions have been launched by interested millennials, First Things columnists, The Atlantic and websites funded by the fossil-fuel industry. Academic forums have speculated on the “historic” dimensions of this forthcoming Vatican document. Why the fervor?

As a professor of theology, science and ethics, I see several interrelated factors at play: the encyclical’s potential planetary impact, its likely ecological-economic content and the question of papal prowess.

Climate Conjectures

The Catholic Church has always claimed universality, but the era of the Planetary Pope is something new—and not just because of his focus on ecology. Pope Francis (a.k.a @Pontifex) maintains a digital presence in ways that his predecessors did (or could) not. Through 140-character tweets, spontaneous selfies with teens or offhanded remarks on the papal jet, Pope Francis is felt to be accessible to the public.

The distributive implications of Francis’ pastoral digital persona are huge: lightning-fast multiple retweets, not to mention cable news media coverage and other forms of information sharing. The Internet’s borderless, instantaneous qualities mean that @Pontifex’s renderings of the church universal can reach readers and interpreters across the planet with unprecedented rapidity. Global onlookers are no longer just passive recipients; they are distributors and commentators upon papal teachings.

Given the Internet’s participatory nature, the buzz around the encyclical indicates its timeliness. People want to hear what Francis has to say on the environment, in a distinctly Catholic voice. This too is something new under the sun, for never before has an encyclical taken the environment and ecological relationships as its primary focus.

Ecology is the study of how living things and their environments—physical, chemical, biological—interact. It is in this sense fundamentally about relationships. Ecology, conservation biology and environmental science have drawn on evolutionary and biological data about flora and fauna, as well as geology and environmental chemistry, to depict the shape and rates of global environmental degradation. Ecology is now a crucial perspective for understanding the shifting conditions of earth and its many inhabitants, including our own ingenious and efficacious species. Grounded in science, the facts present quandaries for human moral values.

While Pope Francis has a special charism for poverty and the environment, he is not inventing it ex nihilo: he is amplifying the unified message of his papal predecessors. The Second Vatican Council’s “Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World” exhorted Catholics and their leaders to “read the signs of the times”—including matters that affected the day-to-day lives of Catholics worldwide. As economic globalization accelerated specific models of development, Pope Paul VI coined the term “integral development” in his encyclical, “The Progress of Peoples” (1967). This term signifies that economic development alone is not a sufficient measure of well-being. The needs of the whole person, in the person’s context and society, matter too. Pope Emeritus Benedict’s encyclical “Truth in Charity” (2009) affirmed that claim—adding a full section on rights, duties and the environment.

Pope Francis’ encyclical will build upon this edifice, but what will be its precise architecture? Two recent addresses by Cardinal Peter Turkson, president of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, offer the most suggestive content. He said that “the earth needs to be protected; humanity needs to be dignified.” The solutions include “course correction” from industrial excess, stratified development and fossil fuel consumption. Even more explicitly: “the current economic-developmental model is out of balance.... We need to shift away from an unthinking infatuation with GDP and a single-minded zeal for accumulation. We need to learn to work together toward sustainable development, in a framework that links economic prosperity with both social inclusion and protection of the natural world.”

Predictable Partisans

Some critics balk at such claims, cleaving to the assumption that the church’s domain is the esoteric over the earthly or that the pope, a religious figure, is necessarily a “complete disaster” on policy and economic relationships. Several such commentators have notoriously depicted the pope himself as leftist, liberal, ideological and untrustworthy, with his logic usurped by a dangerous “religion” of environmentalism. These are attention-grabbing rhetorical moves. They are also silly, uncharitable and false claims.

Other conjecturers seem to hope that church teachings on ecology will signal a sexual revolution in Rome. But the promulgation of this encyclical will not involve reconsidering reproductive regulations. There are two reasons for this. First, Catholic teachings on contraception are deeply held; second, environmental decline is not merely an issue of population (sheer numbers of people). It is also significantly about rates and types of resource consumption, which vary considerably among nations.

For conjecture on what is truly likely to be in the encyclical, Cardinal Turkson’s two speeches are good sources, as is the vast body of Catholic social teaching on the nexus of development, poverty and environment. (One could start with the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, Chapter 10; or Benedict XVI’s encyclical “Truth in Charity,” Chapter 4.) Or consult reliable expositors of Catholic environmental doctrine, like William Patenaude—a theological writer and environmental regulator in Rhode Island—who can demonstrate how Catholic environmental concern is part of the consistent ethic of life that percolates through the last three papacies. As Cardinal Turkson remarked in late April: “From conception to the moment of death, the life of every person is integrated with and sustained by the awesome panoply of natural processes. This calls for a reciprocal response on the part of humanity—to nourish and sustain the earth, the garden, that in turn nourishes and sustains us.”

Francis’ encyclical seems poised to offer what the theologian Stephen Pope of Boston College has called a “chastened anthropocentrism,” a stance that upholds human dignity and moral worth while also recognizing fundamental human dependency upon earth processes, and making normative claims based upon science, Scripture and tradition. Pope Francis is not tilling new ground; he is honoring the well-planted conceptual harvest and sharing it widely.

Ecology signals attention to scientific developments, as well as to forms of human relationships. Might the pope decry the very political and economic structures that have made global wealth possible or the high-consuming ways of life held so dear by U.S.-based political lobbies?

The likely answer is yes. Pope Francis made waves with his apostolic exhortation in 2013, which criticized “unfettered market capitalism” and global inequities. But, as usual, his words were aligned with teachings from Benedict XVI and St. John Paul II—both of whom warned about the excesses of market capitalism disconnected from “integral development.”

Of course, recent months have demonstrated that upholding prior papal teachings will not protect Pope Francis from partisan critique. In January, the chief economist of the Heritage Foundation tried to argue that attempted adjustments to the global economic status quo would make humanity poorer and less free. In April, the Cornwall Alliance (funded significantly by fossil fuel interests) claimed that fossil fuels are not a problem, that climate science is inconclusive and that carbon dioxide is good for plants.

Doleful, partisan pronouncements like these serve only to entrench, not to challenge, U.S. partisan politics. Such punditry misses the carbon-sequestering forest for the trees.

A Timely Intervention

There is good reason for conjecture that climate change will stand as a “sign of the times,” complete with strong ethical imperatives, in the forthcoming encyclical. This likelihood has been met with great hope and enthusiasm in some corners, and great anxiety and fear in others. In the United States the most vociferous advance rebuttals of Pope Francis’ ecology encyclical have been about climate change and fossil fuel consumption.

Yet again, the longitudinal evidence clearly demonstrates the longstanding concern of popes over climate change and industrial societies’ consumption of fossil fuels. St. John Paul II, for example, remarked in 1990 that widespread damage related to industrial processes requires that “the entire human community—individuals, states, and international bodies—take seriously the responsibility that is theirs.” Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI claimed that people cannot ignore “the energy problem,” and he asked rhetorically: “Can we remain indifferent before the problems associated with such realities as climate change?” It is a small step for Pope Francis—but a major event for global political economy—to articulate such claims in an encyclical.

And there is a willing audience. Groups like the Global Catholic Climate Movement, a globally-distributed consortium, and the Catholic Climate Covenant, which has a formal working relationship with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, take papal teachings as guides to moral discernment and collective action on matters of climate change. (As noted above, other advocacy groups proclaim precisely the opposite and even recommend political action, pleading with Pope Francis to “advise the world’s leaders to reject” any “policies requiring reduced use of fossil fuels for energy.”)

One interesting upshot is that people who are convinced that climate change presents moral responsibilities—as well as those who would like to say it does not exist—all seem to think that Pope Francis’ encyclical and his visit to the United States in the fall could have real impact on international diplomacy and national energy policies. What will happen when Pope Francis addresses Congress, meets with the president of the United States and speaks before the United Nations? Will he appear in these venues as head of the church or as a head of state or in his own unique combination of both? Will his address be characterized by exhortation, presentation, deliberation, condemnation? No one knows, but the flow of widespread speculation continues.

Here again, Cardinal Turkson’s remarks at the Vatican in April provide the most reliable preview of how Pope Francis may interpret moral responsibility in the context of climate change: “The wealthiest countries, the ones who have benefitted most from fossil fuels, are morally obligated to push forward and find solutions to climate-related change and so protect the environment and human life. They are obliged both to reduce their own carbon emissions and to help protect poorer countries from the disasters caused or exacerbated by the excesses of industrialization.”

Science, Religion and the Pope

Ecology and environmental ethics are contemporary installments of the Catholic Church’s engagement with science. We have moved past the Copernican revolution, when church officials condemned heliocentrism and put Galileo under house arrest. The church’s worry is no longer about the rotation of the planets but rather the planetary impacts of humanity’s consumptive excesses. It is a new version of the ancient question: Around whom does the earth revolve?

Francis’ anticipated encyclical, with all its unknowns and speculative attractions and ruffling of partisan feathers, is also an opportunity to advance global conversations about how scientific facts relate to moral values. But does the pope have any special competency to judge the validity of various forms of environmental data?

Some pundits remark that the pope’s teaching authority does not make him an expert on science: Robert P. George wrote in First Things that “all he will have to go on is what everybody else has to go on, namely, the analyses offered by scientific specialists who have studied the matter.” (Indeed, though one hopes that, as a trained chemist, Pope Francis does have at least a passing familiarity with the scientific method.)

Having learned some lessons after the Copernican revolution, the Vatican agrees: “The church is not an expert on science, technology, or economics.” This is why it convenes advisory bodies, like the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. (As St. John Paul II remarked to that august body: “In order to mark out the limits of their own proper fields, theologians...need to be well informed regarding the results of the latest scientific research.”)

Industrialized humanity is faced with an opportunity for discernment and solidarity regarding the relationship between scientific facts and moral values. There are strong implications for public policy, as well as for structures of political economy. Presumably Francis will articulate some specific examples, but the encyclical will also likely invite its diverse readers to join in the project of reading the “signs of the times.”

It would be a profound shame—indeed, an epic failure of goodwill and humility—if the moral message proffered by the pope were to be squandered on the weary terrain of U.S. political infighting. Partisanship on these planetary matters is for the birds.

What is really at stake in the collective response to the pope’s encyclical is not, ultimately, whether our treasured notions of theology, science, reality or development can accommodate moral imperatives. The real question is whether we are brave enough and willing to try.

Correction: May 18, 2015

A previous version of this article stated incorrectly that Pope Francis' apostolic exhortation "Evangelii Gaudium" was published in 2014. It was published on Nov. 24, 2013.

Alex Finta
2 years 2 months ago
Prof Peppard seems to think the Church has “learned some lessons after the Copernican Revolution.” Unfortunately, neither the Church nor Prof Peppard seem to realize that a Pontifical Academy of Sciences that listens to only one side of a scientific debate is unlikely to offer a sound basis for an encyclical dealing with a controversial topic. At the very least, the PAS ought to be aware that meteorological satellite data (including radiosonde balloon measurements) tell us there has been no “global warming” for more than 18 years. This casts serious doubt on the climate models that the world has spent billions of dollars on, which greatly exaggerate predictions of warming. Likewise, none of the predictions of “climate change” made on the basis of these models have been observed – NONE. Antarctic sea ice is at record levels, Arctic sea ice is normal (in spite of predictions of an ice free Summer Arctic), hurricane activity around the US is at record low levels, going back to at least 1900, tornadic activity is at record low levels, sea level continues to rise at it's long-standing rate (7 inches/century), Boston set a new record for snowfall, ice cover on the Great Lakes is at record levels.....Is Prof Peppard completely unaware of these contradictions to the global warming/climate change hypothesis? The first question to be asked here is how much warming can be expected if we continue to add CO2 to the atmosphere. The question is phrased by climate scientists as: how much warming will result if we double the atmospheric CO2 (which would take at least two centuries)? The latest estimate: 1.3 C (2.3 F). Have Prof Peppard, or Cardinal Turkson, or the Pope even thought to ask this question? I don't think the Church has learned any lessons after the Copernican Revolution. The ignominy heaped on the Pope and ignorant anti-scientific theologians like Peppard will be far worse this time around – especially from the 1.3 billion people with no electricity in the Third World.
Chuck Kotlarz
2 years 1 month ago
If Roman Catholic priest Georges Lemaitre could propose in 1927 the Big Bang theory of the origin of the Universe, Pope Francis is perhaps more than capable of credible comment on the environment.
Luis Gutierrez
2 years 2 months ago
My impression is that the encyclical will not be about scientific debates on "climate change," even though that is what the secular press is currently focusing on. Rather, the encyclical will be about *human ecology* and about abuse of nature by humans. I hope it will include some consideration about human abuse of other humans, which is highly correlated with human abuse of nature. One form of human abuse that is critical in both the social and ecological dimensions is the patriarchal culture of male hegemony. Needless to say, mentioning the gender solidarity issue is hardly possible without admitting that the Church herself is staunchly patriarchal, a fact with increasingly recognizable bad consequences (for both women and men) in all dimensions of human life. It is a visceral issue, even though the ordination of women would not change anything in the deposit of faith; it is just a matter of discarding the patriarchal scaffolding inherited from the Old Testament. How a healthier human ecology can be proposed, without touching this angle of the issues, is beyond me. Hoping for some guidance from Pope Francis. It seems reasonable to hope that the ecological crisis might be an opportunity for the Church to look at herself as a bad example of patriarchal ideology. A planetary Pope surely is concerned about the planetary Church as a communion of persons, male and female.
2 years 2 months ago
This discussion will probably get all twisted and bent out of shape by the global warmers and anti-global warmers. There's plenty of room for debate as to an effect or outcome from increased CO2 in the atmosphere. But the pope's likely emphasis on "human ecology" is where something more local not global transpires. Borrowing from the wisdom of Speaker Tip O'Neill who said all politics is local we might do well to speak more of the local ecology not the global ecology. I'm not so naive as to think that one doesn't affect the other but the immediate needs are for more ethical and moral use and care for the natural world as the place and space of human activity. A California drought may be due in part to global shifts in weather patterns but it is also due to a poorly conceived economy and lifestyle on the part of millions of Californians and those of us who deliciously eat and drink of their produce. The air pollution of one region may travel high and wide but often as not the respiratory illnesses that result are discovered close to home not far away. Hopefully we can all discuss this with an eye to having the "dominion" over nature which the Creator envisaged and not a powerlessness which is the result of our abuse or ignorance.
2 years 2 months ago
Appreciate the summary of the themes that may be touched upon. If in fact all these themes outlined are in the encyclical it will be a good document for us to discuss and be challenged by.
Chuck Wells
2 years 2 months ago
With all the debate over climate change, evolution, etc. many believers think that the role of the Church is to battle with science over what is true about the natural world. In reality, the Church has a much higher role to play - in part, that is what to do with the information we have, and what direction to take. It's clear that the world sorely needs direction here and I'm looking forward to seeing this encyclical. "Have no fear of natural science; it brings us nearer to God." -Albert Schweitzer, 1934
Ray Tapajna
2 years 2 months ago
The debate about the environment leaves out the dramatic amount of pollution free trade brings. Only about 15 of the largest cargo ships pollute the world more than all the automobiles in the world. A few years ago, Home Depot gave away free energy saving light bulbs. It takes 8000 miles of long haul shipping and extra packaging for these bulbs to get to the market from dirty factories in China where mercury is on the shop floor. The waste material goes into dumps like with many other products made in China. On top of this of this, our ports poison the areas surrounding them. The long haul trucks that take over at the ports do the same for miles due to the heavy concentration of them. No proof is needed to prove the health hazards involved. As advocates for workers dignity, local economies and the real free enterprise system, we also explore the latent response of religion and philosophy to the global economy that is an economic cancer in more ways than one. See http://tapsearch.com/ray-tapajna-journals and note http://tapsearch.com/dirty-energy-saving
Andrew Eppink
2 years 2 months ago
"The debate about the environment leaves out the dramatic amount of pollution free trade brings. Only about 15 of the largest cargo ships pollute the world more than all the automobiles in the world." That needs to be qualified. Vessels emit large volumes of SO2 because of the bunker they burn and other pollutants as well but are far, far lower in net CO2 emissions than the car population, as I would think should be obvious. In your view, indeed in Peppard's view as well, how is material economic progress to be effected absent industrialization and all it entails, good and bad? Pursuing a naive, destructive, essentially anti economic progress paradigm is obviously catastrophically destructive, leading obviously and ultimately to a situation where the materially poor will not only remain poor but become inevitably worse off yet. Stupidly replacing fossil fuels with diffuse and hugely expensive renewables (think $400/MWhr electric energy prices upcoming) is hugely globally economically destructive as also should be obvious. CO2 (plants love it) is a trace gas currently at some 0.040% concentration likely having a comparably tiny effects, both good and bad on the atmosphere and environment, this in spite of the positive (and negative?) feedbacks purported to be associated with changes in its concentration. Indeed the CO2 concentration is so minuscule that absent purported positive feedbacks no model works. None otherwise predicts a CO2 forced ambient temperature rise. Indeed its concentration is so small that no functional relationship whatever between its concentration and atmospheric temperatures has been or is likely to be found. Studies are entirely empirical, subject to wide latitude in interpretation. Indeed the current global warming controversy is nearly entirely political - fodder for the moron masses. What else is new? The emphasis should be on non negligible fusion research (as opposed to the current grudging relatively minuscule effort), breeder reactors, advanced NG combined cycle units, ultrasupercritical coal burners, best practices fracking and all the rest of it. Not colossally expensive irrational hamster wheel effective renewables which are dead in the water absent huge taxpayer slushfunding, far too diffuse to significantly dent world power requirements, in addition to which they can't dent baseload at all in the absence of gridscale storage schemes not on the horizon (tho nothing whatever against non slushfunded renewables). Finally, significant renewables incursion, say much greater than 20% or so will play h___ with grid load/frequency control. Destroying the world economy in the name of chasing this latest harebrained chicken little hysteria is beyond crazy. Normal technological progress will take care of whatever problems arise. Pope Francis, of all people, should certainly explicitly understand the ramifications of the situation with his chemistry Masters. The knowledge doesn't wear off that fast.
Chuck Kotlarz
2 years 1 month ago
In 2015, over 3,000 megawatts, or nearly forty percent, of MidAmerican Energy’s total owned generation capacity will come from wind-powered generation from 1,715 wind turbines. For reference, the Navajo Generating Station, the largest coal fired plant west of the Mississippi, supplies 2250 megawatts. The Department of Energy projects 35 percent of US electricity from wind power by 2050. The International Energy Agency projects by 2050 solar could be the world's biggest single source of electricity.
Chuck Kotlarz
2 years 1 month ago
Coal mining can be a dangerous occupation. In the US, over 100,000 coal miners lost their lives in mining accidents in the twentieth century. According to the International Labor Organization, mining employs around 1% of the global labor force and accounts for 8% of fatal accidents.
Chuck Kotlarz
2 years 1 month ago
“Having learned some lessons after the Copernican revolution…” perhaps uniquely positions the church to pass key learnings on to climate change deniers. Deniers believe that the pursuit of self-interest is always good and that government (perhaps even the Pope and democracy itself) is always the problem, never the solution. Any obstacle to unrestricted pursuit of self-interest directly challenges the libertarian worldview. The 1980 libertarian platform, on which billionaire David Koch ran for vice president, includes “abolition of the Environmental Protection Agency”.

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