Posted June 1, 2015
Encyclical on environment sparks hope among academics, activists
Printed in The National Catholic Reporter
The encyclical on the environment, which Pope Francis is expected
to release in June or July, is stimulating a great deal of discussion and hope
in academia and the environmental movement.
The pope wants to make the
environment one of the signature issues of his papacy. As he explained to
reporters three days after his election, one reason he took the name Francis was
that St. Francis of Assisi is "the man who loves and protects
Conservationists are hoping that the encyclical's attitude toward
animals, especially wildlife, will reflect the spirit of St. Francis, according
to Lonnie Ellis, associate director of Catholic Climate Covenant.
encyclical is widely expected to give support to those who attribute climate
change to human activity since the pope has already said he accepts this
Although popes are clearly not infallible when it
comes to science, Francis is the first pope to have a modern scientific
training: He was educated as a chemist and worked as one in Argentina before he
entered the seminary.
Christiana Peppard of Fordham University said she hopes
the encyclical will affirm that "contemporary science is a marvelous way of
knowing the world and that it represents a collective, collaborative way of
discerning important realities about the Earth that we share, and thus that
there is zero justification for skepticism of climate change among
"The climate crisis is an issue of unparalleled urgency," says
Dan DiLeo of the Catholic Climate Covenant. "Scientists generally agree that
there is a closing window of opportunity within which to avoid runaway and
largely irreversible human-forced climate change."
But the encyclical will,
of course, need to be about more than science.
Immaculate Heart of Mary Sr.
Nancy Sylvester has worked for a number of years on climate change concerns. One
thing she has learned is that "data alone will not convert people. We need to
'feel' differently about Earth. Doing what Pope Francis does so well, I'd like
to see him frame the issue in a pastoral way."
This pastoral approach would
speak "to a new relationship to Earth that sees all beings as partners and
interconnected," she continued. "To stress not stewardship but our
responsibility with all of life to work together for not only our survival, but
our flourishing as a planetary community. To bring new metaphors and symbols to
how we think and feel about who we are on this our Earth home."
encyclical also needs a theological foundation.
Walter Grazer said he hopes
the pope "will place our concern for the environment within the theological
framework of the Trinity, Genesis and the prophetic tradition." Grazer, a
consultant on religion and environment, is a former manager of the Environmental
Justice Program at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
wonder why the church is getting into this issue, and it would be helpful for
them to know that our ecological concern flows from our theology. Catholics see
"the Trinity as relational and social," Grazer said, and "all of creation and
life reflects this relational and social notion -- so all creatures are
intimately linked and share kinship."
But, he said, "while Popes John Paul II
and Benedict XVI strongly called for a respect for the integrity of nature, it
was always qualified by references of nature ultimately in service to
"I hope the encyclical will stress that nature and the rest of
creation has an integrity of its own as a creation of God," he said. "This does
not mean a diminishment of the unique and special place of humans in creation or
a hands-off approach, but rather a call for an even greater respect and intimacy
with nature and a less instrumental notion."
This is a major concern of Dan
Scheid of Duquesne University. "The one thing I would most like to see is for
Francis to describe a vision of the common good that is non-anthropocentric and
that sees caring for the environment not only as a concern for the poor and for
future generations, but also because human flourishing is only possible as part
of a flourishing planet and cosmos," he said. "I would like to see 'human
ecology' and 'natural ecology' unified back into what many religious orders
describe as a concern for the 'integrity of creation.' "
Scheid would like
the encyclical "to move beyond dominion and stewardship models and closer to
'partnership' models of ecological theology that celebrate the commonalities
between humans and nonhumans." And "since mercy has been a prominent theme of
his, I would love it if he expressed the call to be merciful to the Earth and to
Mercy Sr. Margaret Farley of Yale University agreed that the
encyclical needs to offer a new perspective on the relationship between humans
"From relations primarily of utility, domination, exploitation,
nature-human relations may instead be based on the intrinsic value inherent in
each, and in all non-living, living, non-human, and human beings," she said.
"The relationship is one of interdependence, participation and, for humans, the
possibility of conscious gratitude and awe."
What is said about the
environment also needs to be connected to Catholic social teaching about the
common good, solidarity, and concern for the poor. Farley notes that this
teaching has helped people recognize that "ethical claims for justice and care"
apply "not only in one's own group but in relation to all peoples, including
Gaudium et Spes of the Second Vatican Council is a good
place to start for the new encyclical, said Dolores Christie of John Carroll
University. "There is good stuff in the tradition, but it needs to be applied
explicitly to critical contemporary issues. A ravaged Earth is not
DiLeo argued, "Ecological degradation compromises the Catholic
commitment to protect and defend human life and dignity, especially of the poor
According to Peppard, "an ethical-theological treatment of
shared, vital environmental goods, like freshwater," would be helpful. It should
articulate "responsibility across geographic space and chronology (including
duties to future generations)."
Vince Miller of the University of Dayton
said, "Just as Catholic social doctrine teaches that no person exists without
society, we need to also learn that our species does not exist without the rest
According to Tobias Winright of St. Louis University, "how
climate change and related environmental issues connect with other important
concerns, including war and peace, economics, and health care," needs to be
articulated in the encyclical.
Ron Pagnucco of the College of St. Benedict
and St. John's University agreed on the importance of discussing the
environment, conflict and peace, since environmental degradation is a "threat
The relationship between the environment and the economy is
especially important, noted Catholic Climate Covenant's Ellis.
"Environmentalists are looking to the pope for continued linkages to poverty and
impact of degradation on the poor," he said.
Jesuit Fr. James Keenan of
Boston College would also "like to see the sustainability issues related to
climate change woven into issues related to economic
Environmental problems are also connected to racism, said Alex
Mikulich of Loyola University New Orleans. And M. Shawn Copeland of Boston
College notes that "it would be important to consider the connection between the
desire to dominate the earth/cosmos and domination of women."
One of the
reasons environmentalists are embracing religion is because it is one of the few
things that can motivate people to sacrifice their own self-interest for the
sake of others.
David Cloutier of Mount St. Mary's University calls for a
"forthright confrontation with so-called lifestyle choices."
"It's all the
choices we make that cause the per capita carbon footprint of the average
American to be roughly twice that of most European countries, and that cause the
insanity of California lawns and water-thirsty agriculture," he said. "I'm all
for better laws and structures, but until we stop expecting strawberries in
February, spacious living quarters, and large SUVs, I'm not sure how those
Likewise, Scheid said he hopes for Francis to deliver "a
critique of consumerism and a 'scrap culture' or 'throwaway culture' that uses
and then discards as trash people, especially the poor; created goods; and the
Earth as a whole. I hope he ties the preferential option for the poor and
solidarity with ecological concerns."
Grazer said he hopes the pope "will
call upon the larger and more wealthy nations to lead and make the sacrifices
needed to make urgent progress regarding climate change, and in particular,
helping the most vulnerable people and nations mitigate and adapt to climate
The pope "needs to call for much greater leadership on the part of
wealthier nations and also for sufficient changes in personal and corporate
lifestyle, moving away from consumerism," Grazer said.
But Miller of Dayton
University stressed that structural change, not just individual choices, is
essential. "Our moral and Christian obligation is not simply to change our
consumption as individuals, but to collectively build a
culture/society/civilization that is sustainable," he said.
It requires "a
broadening of moral responsibility to care for creation from individual choice
to the larger, structural policy responses that are required to address the
environmental crises we face," he said. "Yes, greed is a problem, but
environmental despoliation is cooked into the system we have built."
agreed that "market processes are not morally trustworthy guides to long-term
flourishing of the physical bases on which all life depends" because the markets
are oriented "towards short-term profit and economic growth without a
recognition of natural capital as a substrate of those developments."
people and governments respond to the encyclical will be critical.
theology of the encyclical is important," said Marian Diaz of Loyola University
Chicago, "but the implementation or the lack thereof matters more."
encyclical is being prepared in advance of the Paris talks on climate change, to
be held Nov. 30-Dec. 11.
"It would be good for Pope Francis to set a higher
standard and urge nations to be bolder in adopting a broader and more meaningful
agreement," Grazer said. "It would be good if he called for full funding for the
Green Climate Fund. That would help send a message that the poor of the world
will not be left to handle climate impacts on their own. They did not cause the
problem, but they do end up paying the price."
Winwright noted that since few
people read encyclicals, the teaching of "our vocation to serve and protect
creation" needs to be tied to "the one practice that most of us regularly
participate in: the Eucharist, which is the source and summit of Christian life
in this world."
Keenan said he hopes the pope will specifically "appeal to
institutions, including Catholic ones, to look to their own internal practices
and policies and to their investments to see whether they promote economic
equity and environmental sustainability."
Lisa Cahill of Boston College and
Peppard said they hope the pope encourages ecumenical and interreligious
cooperation and learning on the environment.
Jesuit Fr. John Langan of
Georgetown University said that since "environmental issues, like politics in
general, is intensely local," after the encyclical is issued, "business leaders
[should] be positively involved in discussions of the issues."
"This is one
way of preventing the dismissal of environmental proposals," Langan said. The
lack of such local discussions, he said, "limited the effectiveness of 'Economic
Justice for All,' " the 1986 pastoral letter issued by the U.S. bishops'
The encyclical has already triggered "reflection and conversation
about our natural world and climate change among Americans of many faiths," said
Jeremy Symons, senior director for climate policy at the Environmental Defense
Fund. "It's a welcome conversation, because protecting the natural world and
caring for our children's future are matters that touch all parts of our
Edwin Chen of the Natural Resources Defense Council said that when
the encyclical comes out, it "will elevate the church's powerful voice on the
moral imperative of advancing justice, defending human dignity and protecting
the poor and the most vulnerable among us."
"It is our duty to do all we can
to secure a peaceful and safe planet for this and all future generations," Chen
said. "We expect his message will resonate in every corner of the world."
will have to wait and see if the encyclical fulfills the expectations of
academics and activists. They are eagerly waiting for it and will have lots to
say about it.