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.
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.”
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.