Forecasting Pope Francis on climate change

Environment | The pontiff’s not-yet-released encyclical on the environment has already stirred debate among Catholics. Here’s what it might say.
by Daniel James Devine
Posted 6/15/15, 07:20 am

Two of the honored guests inside the walled gardens of the Vatican in Rome this April weren’t the typical people you’d expect to see feted at the global seat of Roman Catholicism.

Ban Ki-moon, the secretary-general of the United Nations, has promoted abortion around the world. Jeffrey Sachs, a UN advisor, is a major advocate of population control.

The Roman Catholic Church teaches abortion is a sin and that artificial contraception disrupts God’s design for marital sexuality.

Yet Ban and Sachs were part of a UN delegation invited to speak at the Pontifical Academy of Sciences headquarters April 28 at a meeting discussing climate change.

Out of the summit came a joint statement, with academy members and Sachs as co-authors, calling on policymakers to “reduce worldwide carbon dioxide emissions without delay, using all means possible to meet ambitious international targets for reducing global warming and ensuring the long-term stability of the climate system.”

The meeting came in advance of a papal teaching on the environment Pope Francis plans to circulate to bishops later this week—a form of teaching known as an encyclical. The Catholic Church does not have an official position on climate change: Although Pope John Paul II spoke of the “greenhouse effect,” Francis will be the first to publish an encyclical dedicated to the environment.

No one doubts Francis—who chose to be named after St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of animals and ecology—will stress the importance of caring for the Earth in his encyclical. What’s uncertain is how strongly he’ll emphasize carbon dioxide emissions and global warming—issues that remain in dispute among some scientists and Catholics.

Given the pope’s influence over the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics, his official opinion on climate change could add weight and urgency to international efforts, led by the UN, to produce a climate change treaty. Clergy, political leaders, scientists, and laymen await the papal document, some hoping it will make a strong case for reducing emissions, and others hoping it will call for environmental stewardship without endorsing a particular approach. Many are already speculating which way Francis will go.

“I think—at least I hope—he’ll be very careful not to baptize a scientific theory,” said John Cavadini, director of the Institute for Church Life at the University of Notre Dame in Notre Dame, Ind. “He’s not writing as a scientist, so the more that he appears to endorse a specific scientific theory, the more controversial his encyclical will be.”

It has stirred up controversy already. The day before the Vatican climate summit, another delegation of scientists and policy advisors—led by the Chicago-based Heartland Institute—held a press conference down the street from the Vatican at the Hotel Columbus to offer a different perspective of climate change policy. Many signed their names to an “Open Letter to Pope Francis” that asserted, “we believe it is both unwise and unjust to adopt policies requiring reduced use of fossil fuels for energy. Such policies would condemn hundreds of millions of our fellow human beings to ongoing poverty.”

One of the speakers at Hotel Columbus was Thomas Sheahen, director of the Catholic-aligned Institute for Theological Encounter with Science and Technology, headquartered in St. Louis. Sheahen said computer climate models, taken together, show a global warming trend less extreme than predicted in previous years, with mankind’s activities raising temperatures as little as 1 degree Celsius. “If the temperature only varies by a degree, it’s no sweat,” he told me.

Sheahen, who signed the open letter, believes Francis’ encyclical will not take a position on the scientific issue of carbon dioxide and temperature, but focus on the importance of stewardship, and how the wealthy should defer to the poor in matters of environmental impact. “I think global warming will be almost at the footnote level,” he said.

But recent visitors to Vatican City and statements by Pope Francis give credence to the possibility he may take a stronger line on carbon emissions. In addition to the UN representatives, Gina McCarthy, administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, visited Vatican officials this year, telling the press she wanted to assure Pope Francis that President Barack Obama was “aligned with him” on climate change.

And during an interview around the same time, Pope Francis told reporters he wanted to released his encyclical several months ahead of the next UN climate summit (scheduled for Paris in December), “so that [the encyclical] can make a contribution. … Let’s hope that in Paris the delegates will be more courageous and will move forward with this.”

Francis also stated last year: “On climate change, there is a clear, definitive and ineluctable ethical imperative to act. … The establishment of an international climate change treaty is a grave ethical and moral responsibility.”

The pontiff has titled his upcoming encyclical "Laudato si” (“Be Praised”), a line taken from a hymn by St. Francis. The hymn, “Canticle of the Sun,” praises God for “sister water,” “brother fire,” and “mother earth.”

Pope Francis was born in Buenos Aires, the capital of Argentina, and was an archbishop there before being elected Bishop of Rome. He would have been familiar with the plight of the country’s poor, who comprised nearly half the population of Buenos Aires in 1989.

Francis has made statements taken to be critical of capitalism, once declaring, “Inequality is the root of social ills.”

Observers agree the pope’s encyclical will emphasize the plight of the world’s poor. He might make a case that leaders in church and society should resist unbridled capitalism—use of the world’s resources without regard to impact on the environment or the less fortunate.

Climate treaty advocates likely would jump on such reasoning as support for a global deal to reduce carbon emissions in wealthy, Western nations, whether or not the encyclical specifically mentions emissions.

“The pope cares about the poor, there’s no doubt about it,” said Joseph D’Aleo, a meteorologist at WeatherBELL Analytics who is Catholic and also signed the open letter. “Unfortunately what the UN wants to do is very counter to the poor.”

D’Aleo said government policies to restrict the use of fossil fuels can hurt the world’s poor by limiting access to cheap energy, which he said lengthens lifespans by powering refrigerators and providing clean cooking fuel. “If he’s listening to the wrong people, he’s not getting the truth.”

Even if the pope takes a hard line on global warming, that doesn’t mean his religious subjects will necessarily fall in line. An encyclical is not considered infallible, and the pope’s views regarding scientific or political matters are not necessarily taken as binding.

“The more he speaks out of pastoral concerns, within the range of pastoral issues, the less controversial it will be,” Cavadini said. “I think he’s probably well advised to steer away from endorsement of a specific policy, treaty, or theory, while at the same time raising consciousness about the importance of environmental issues. … The degradation of the environment affects us all.”

But J. Matthew Ashley, a theology professor at Notre Dame, believes Pope Francis will defer to the majority scientific view regarding climate change: “I expect that he’ll say something to the effect that the science is solvent enough now that it would be irresponsible of the human race not to act on it.”

The authority of the encyclical can’t be minimized simply because it touches on science, Ashley added. “When the pope says that this is a serious moral issue that is at the heart of faith, then that’s a doctrinal statement.”

Groups like the Global Catholic Climate Movement and the Catholic Climate Covenant have already leveraged the anticipated encyclical to promote “environmental justice.”

“Whether it’s protecting a child in Chicago from asthma or a child in Quito from a mudslide, fighting climate change is a way to love the people God loves,” the website of the Catholic Climate Covenant states. The group is backed by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

“I expect the bishops will be very supportive of [the encyclical],” Ashley said. “There will be controversy, but that’s been a part of the Catholic Church’s social teaching almost from the very beginning.”

The Vatican said it would release the encyclical Thursday.

Daniel James Devine

Daniel is managing editor of WORLD Magazine and leads WORLD's investigative unit, the Caleb Team. He is a World Journalism Institute graduate or a former science and technology reporter. Daniel resides in Indiana. Follow him on Twitter @DanJamDevine.

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