By Jeff Korgen & Rabbi Lawrence Troster
This summer, Pope Francis will issue a papal encyclical on the environment. In a year of unparalleled importance for climate change because of key UN meetings in Paris this December, his timing couldn’t be better.
The encyclical will not only represent a key step forward on climate and environmental issues within the Catholic community. It will be a document that people of all faiths can use to increase the attention paid to climate change and the environment in their own communities.
Timing Is Everything
Pope Francis himself recently announced that the encyclical will be released in early summer, prior to the Paris talks. For 20 years, world leaders have made these negotiations an exercise in futility, despite consistent leadership from the UN. Scientists widely agree that we need a strong agreement out of Paris to have a prayer of keeping global warming below devastating levels. Pope Francis is doing his best to help create a positive outcome.
What’s an Encyclical?
The two previous popes wrote extensively on environmental concerns. Pope Francis himself has referred to climate change in numerous speeches. But a papal encyclical, one of the highest forms of Catholic teaching, is different. By addressing these concerns in this format, undiluted by other concerns, the Pope makes the topic unavoidable for Catholics globally.
Once the encyclical is released, it will be shared throughout the Roman Catholic Church and incorporated into the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the foundational document for the moral formation of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics. The Church will have a high-status statement that engages the entire Catholic community on climate change, putting the environment squarely on the church’s agenda for the foreseeable future.
Good for Non-Catholics Too
An essential document for Roman Catholics, the encyclical will also be influential for other Christians and people of all faiths and good will. When the encyclical makes headlines, diverse faith leaders globally will want to highlight their own traditions’ eco-teachings.
This is good, because over the past two decades, eco-theologians globally have articulated values deeply consistent with the themes that Pope Francis can be expected to share. With an eye to the Pope’s past speeches and writing, here are several likely themes of the encyclical, with points of connection to other faiths.
- The earth is a gift from God and reflects a divinely ordained beauty and order. This theme is integral to Christianity, Judaism and Islam, which share an understanding of God as a magnificently generous creator.
- Human beings must act as the stewards and protectors of this order. Human power over Creation must be carefully utilized in a constructive way. Judaism, Christianity and Islam offer variations on this theme, rooted in Biblical creation accounts and from passages from the Qur’an. Hinduism and Buddhism, with their traditional teachings on ahimsa (non-violence), consistently emphasize that it is our dharma (duty) to treat the natural world with respect. The moral imperative to protect the earth is strong across all faiths.
- The poor and excluded suffer the worst effects of pollution and climate change. Consistent with the Catholic notion of “the preferential option for the poor,” Pope Francis has repeatedly emphasized the vulnerability of the poor to environmental crises. In line with the teachings of every major religion, he will urge leaders to protect from environment-related devastation those who have been “excluded” from the world economic system.
- Linking nature’s destruction with greed. Pope Francis has consistently criticized the current economic order as a greed-driven, “throw-away” system, in which the rich get richer and the poor poorer. The Pope will likely be clear that he is not anti-capitalist; he’s anti-greed.
- Pollution as Structural Sin. In 1997, Patriarch Bartholomew of the Eastern Orthodox Church became the first major religious leader to call pollution sinful. We expect that Pope Francis will take this a step further, describing nature’s degradation not only the sin of individuals but also the “structural sin” of the society, whose large-scale systems result in harm to both nature and people.
Pope Francis will likely place the environment in the context of traditional Catholic doctrines on the rights and dignity of the human being, including previous teachings on birth control, gay marriage, abortion, euthanasia and the death penalty. There will be a great deal of continuity between the encyclical, what previous popes have said on the environment and what he himself has already stated. What will be new is the depth of support the pope provides on this issue, demonstrating that unchanging spiritual teaching can adapt to address great turning points in human history.
Getting Behind Pope Francis
People around the world will want to celebrate the encyclical’s release. To help channel this enthusiasm, OurVoices, the international, multi-faith climate campaign, will be facilitating an inter-religious response, sharing the perspectives and reactions of people from a wide range of traditions and circumstances.
Growing numbers of people of faith are united behind a strong agreement at the Paris meetings. Pope Francis is adding his voice through the most powerful means at his disposal. Given the critical importance of 2015, all faith leaders should do the same, urging world leaders to commit to halting the destructive trend represented by climate change and creating an authentically prosperous future for all.
Jeffry Odell Korgen & Rabbi Lawrence Troster are engaging Catholic and Jewish communities in OurVoices.net, the international, multi-faith climate campaign. Read more about UPFSI member Rabbi Lawrence Troster here.
By Nick Breeze for the Faith and Science Earth Alliance
As we await the new encyclical being timed for release ahead of the UN climate talks in Paris this coming Autumn, Pope Francis displays incredible leadership qualities that give hope to many within and beyond the boundaries of the Roman Church.
Pope Francis is attracting the attention of the world press for his outspoken and critical rhetoric on two important but related subjects. The first is how humanity is contributing and responding to climate change and the second is the global financial system, which is also the underlying driver of environmental destruction. His message is clear, so clear in fact that he is ruffling feathers and making the words of so many politicians look rather empty. In the US, conservatives are confused. The chief economist from The Heritage Foundation, a right-wing think tank, branded Pope Francis a “complete disaster when it comes to his public policy pronouncements,” They say the Pope is wrong to talk about economics and climate change, and certainly should not be publishing a new encyclical on the environment, aimed specifically to create action on tackling global warming from the grassroots upwards.
Leaders on World Stage
When President Barack Obama visited Pope Francis at the Vatican in March 2014 he acknowledged the Pope as an equal, a “Global Leader” which, with a flock of over 1.2 billion, he most certainly is. One could argue that the relevance of Vatican policy beyond the boundaries of Roman Catholicism is limited. In recent years, the most debated subjects that have come from the Vatican have been gender related and much to do with tackling world poverty. But Pope Francis has expanded this agenda . His discourse is proving to be dynamite. But why?
Firstly, the Pope is discussing an issue that most political leaders simply will not mention with any certainty. President Obama has broken the mould in this respect but he is still hamstrung by losing control of the House of Representatives and the Senate where Republicans hold a majority. In Britain, Prime Minister Cameron speaks a double game on issues like climate change, largely out of fear of upsetting the various lobby groups and financial backers to his party. The vested interests that make most of our western world leaders hesitant simply do not hinder Pope Francis. He speaks out and is heard.
I spoke to one British climate scientist who was asked to attend the Vatican to brief cardinals on the extreme climate impacts that are occurring right now in the Arctic with global ramifications. He said that almost unseen, the Pope himself entered the breakfast briefing and sat quietly at the back listening. I know myself from hearing this same briefing that once heard, it is not something that can be forgotten. It is too serious, with implications that will gravely affect our civilisation and be irreversible for millennia. So with that in mind, I cannot see any reason why the leader of the largest Christian Church in the world would not use every bit of the power vested in him to address the most serious of issues that we face.
COP20 Climate Talks In Lima
At the recent COP20 in Lima, many faith groups joined forces to highlight the seriousness of climate changes that are a great risk to all people and especially those most vulnerable and who are on the front line (who are also most likely to be the poorest).
These discussions often raise the question of the relationship between humanity and the environment. One view that has gained a great deal of philosophical traction is that the natural world is the Creation of God and therefore it must be treated with the respect that is due for anything created by our Lord. For instance, one could consider whether it is right to give so much value to a painting by Rembrandt and in the next breath destroy large swathes of rainforests, which we now know, play an enormous role in sustaining a liveable planet. Humanity has dominated the earth in so many ways but often has had little regard for the natural environment. We now know that to destroy ecology is to destroy ourselves. Therefore, the Creation as we define it, encompasses us and all living creatures.
One person speaking at COP20 was the founder of the Faith and Science Earth Alliance (FSEA), Stuart Scott. The FSEA, based in Jerusalem, is an organisation bridging the gap between faith and science, reaching across all faiths to find a common voice with which to engage and communicate the challenges posed by climate change.
Scott participated in numerous press briefings at the COP and his main subject was the risk of large-scale releases in the Arctic of the super potent greenhouse gas, methane. These threats are now known to be increasing, as the Arctic is warming at such a fast rate, the thawing seabed that traps billions of tonnes of highly pressurised frozen gas is starting to escape. Even a 1% release would dwarf the current concentration of atmospheric methane and cause a spike in global temperatures, significantly accelerating the heating of ice sheets, in turn leading to sea-level rise and a complete collapse of global agriculture. These threats are among many others but they set the scene of what climate change impacts look like if not tackled with the greatest urgency.
Ecology and Economics
Scott’s presentation shares many similarities with what Pope Francis has himself been alluding to; namely that the current economic model, based on continual growth, assumes that the Earth’s raw materials, upon which we base the drivers of economic output, are infinite. Even most teenagers these days know that natural resources such as coal, oil and gas, are not infinite and at the rate of current consumption, are dangerously unsustainable. This is counter to the economic imperatives that our global system is run on. It means that we must consume in order to sustain our economies.
Yet, God’s creation was not designed to be infinitely exploited. As part of the life system on this planet, it is complex, beautiful, responsive and should be respected. The level of intelligence that humanity has been blessed with is being held back by this outdated economic framework.
Scott argues that it is time for change, time for us to add ‘Ecology’ to the economic models so that we get a truer reading of the availability of global resources and the degree to which they can be put to use. It is only in this way that we can endeavour to become truly sustainable and in harmony with God’s creation.
Whatever the Pope and his advisers have to say in the much awaited encyclical due out this summer, it will be significant and timely. The UN climate talks in Paris at the end of the year are likely the last chance we will have to stave off the most destructive climate change impacts. Pope Francis’s stand on climate change makes him a leader above all others; a man of his time with a message that is resonating right through Christianity and far beyond.
We should pray for Pope Francis and those people, such as stuart Scott, who are standing up and speaking the words that those in the halls of power are often reluctant to say. News of the Holy Father’s encyclical has already created angst among many who prefer to profit at the expense of the natural world. However, it will be all of our efforts that will create the momentum for changes much needed to guard the sanctity of God’s Creation, of which we are a part.
Nick Breeze is a writer and filmmaker in the area of climate change and writes for Envisionation and The Ecologist. He is also the Media Director of the FSEA.
Learn more here:
On Wednesday, December 3, 2014, The Faith and Science Earth Alliance held a Faith & Science Climate unity press conference at the UN Conference on Climate Change 2014 in Lima, Peru.
Christian, Jewish, and Muslim clergy and seminary students convened around a shared vision of ecological sustainability at the Faith and Ecology Conference in Jerusalem on Wednesday, October 22nd.
To continue reading the press release please, click here [icon name=adobe-pdf].
aims to convey faith communities’ perspectives and suggestions to influence the general summit’s climate negotiations. The attendants will reflect a balance of gender, religions, geography, strong moral leadership and knowledge, as well as engagement on issues related to climate change.