Today, Pope Francis I has released his first encyclical, Laudato si (Praised be), widely anticipated for its focus on climate change and the links to human poverty and economic development. The world religious leader started off his official pronouncement by quoting the Canticle of Creatures, a favorite hymn composed by St. Francis of Assisi and repeated below at the end of this artice. Franciscan theology deeply underlies the tone and content of the Pope’s speech.
The Pope’s text calls strongly for swift action by Catholics and non-Catholics alike on the climate challenge. He sees it as largely human-made and declares a moral imperative for all to protect both the planet and the world’s poor. He calls directly for the world to phase out fossil fuels and increase renewable energy use. Citing the Catholic doctrine that every life is sacred and cannot be sacrificed (even to save the planet), he extends the theory of a well-known Italian Catholic writer that action on climate change could lead to population control.
Like many other creative environmental thinkers, the Pope speaks of the essential yet largely forgotten interconnectedness of human beings to the earth and all of its creatures, including other people. Placing this modern sin in the context of theology, he urges both individual citizens and governments to eradicate the current “culture of waste.”
This is also the first time a Roman Catholic pontiff has ever provided specific ecological guidance to the 1.2 billion people in his flock. Thanks to their numbers and the omnipresent, instantaneous glare of digital news stories, it’s probably fair to state that over half the human inhabitants of the world have already received it also. Ban Ki-moon, the United Nations secretary-general, has said that the Pope’s message “will convey to the world that protecting our environment is an urgent moral imperative and a sacred duty for all people of faith and people of conscience.”
Says Andrew Steer, president and CEO of the World Resources Institute:
“The pope’s message brings moral clarity that the world’s leaders must come together to address this urgent human challenge. This message adds to the global drumbeat of support for urgent climate action. Top scientists, economists, business leaders and the pope can’t all be wrong. The pope’s message builds on 3,000 years of religious thought on the importance of being good stewards of the planet. From the Garden of Eden, through King David and the prophet Ezekiel, the message has been the same: we abuse nature at our peril.”
“We all share a great responsibility to protect the planet and support the world’s vulnerable people. The great injustice is that the poor suffer the worst effects of pollution, waste, and environmental degradation. A growing body of evidence affirms that smart climate action is consistent with a more equitable and economically vibrant future. Taking climate action will create a safer and more prosperous world for all people.”
This is by no means the Pope’s first venture into the environment and theology. His first homily in 2013 discussed the need to protect the earth and all of creation from environmental degradation. CleanTechnica has covered this Pope’s involvement in climate change since the papal conclave that elected him. As I pointed out on the occasion of his trip to the Philippines, an island nation recently inundated several times in waves of extreme weather, Francis yoked together the environment, climate change, and world poverty. Since then, at a late-April Vatican summit on climate change and poverty, Cardinal Peter Turkson, Pope Francis’s go-to man for peace and justice issues and the reported codrafter of the encyclical, called for a moral awakening of politicians and people of faith:
“In our recklessness, we are traversing some of the planet’s most fundamental natural boundaries. And the lesson from the Garden of Eden still rings true today: pride, hubris, self-centredness are always perilous, indeed destructive. The very technology that has brought great reward is now poised to bring great ruin.”
At the Vatican’s Caritas Internationalis charity in Mid-May, the Pope warned the rich and powerful that God will judge them on whether they feed the poor and care for the Earth.
Many different faith groups, scientists, environmental organizations, and political minds agree with the Pope’s perspectives, including Greek Orthodox Metropolitan of Pergamon John Zizioulas, who issued unprecedented support and spoke at the press conference earlier today. The Orthodox Church, the Church of England, the UN’s standing conference on climate change, and many other religious and secular leaders have issued statements of support for the encyclical.
About the only people on earth opposed to the Pope’s message have fostered and still nourish the barely century-old fossil fuel and petrochemical hegemony, led by fabulously wealthy ultra-conservatives like billionaire Charles Koch and front groups such as the Heartland Institute. These profit-driven (or profit-crazed) denialists recently lobbied the Vatican with misinformation about climate science and a claim that instead of being polluters of earth’s atmosphere, land, and water, those who discovered and marketed petroleum are virtual saints who have bettered the world for all—by enslaving people to polluting machines.
Some, like US Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum, said to be a devout Catholic, insist that climate change is not a church issue and that the pope should stay out of climate science—even though he happens to have graduate credentials in the field. Jeb Bush, another Republican candidate who is also Catholic, started out quite critical of the pope. His current answer is to call for a consensus approach placing emphasis on technological solutions like slow-developing and yet-unproven carbon capture schemes.
Many of these critics claim the Pope’s “intrusion” to be unprecedented. For instance, Maureen Mullarkey (not to be confused with Joe Biden’s “Malarkey”) writes in a conservative journal called First Things:
“Francis sullies his office by using demagogic formulations to bully the populace into reflexive climate action with no more substantive guide than theologized propaganda.”
Said Christopher Monckton, former adviser to UK prime minister Margaret Thatcher and a rabid climate denialist, to the Catholic Holy Father:
“You demean the office that you hold and you demean the church whom it is your sworn duty to protect and defend and advance.”
In fact, papal disputes with politicians and emperors have characterized this Christian religion throughout its two thousand years. Most recently, as John L. Allen of Crux has pointed out:
“In the 1980s, Pope John Paul II became the scourge of dictators the world over, lending succor to people’s power movements that brought down governments in southeast Asia, Latin America, the Warsaw Bloc, and the Soviet Union.”
John Paul’s involvement helped to dethrone corrupt Philippine president Ferdinand Marcos and validate Poland’s nascent Solidarity movement, whose 1989 triumph was “a key domino in the events that ultimately destroyed the Soviet Union.” In only two short years, Pope Francis has effected a rapprochement between the US and Cuba to untangle a poisonous relationship that condemned the previous 50 years to pointless ideological posturing.
Expect the Pope to address climate change again before the US Congress in September.
A coda from the Pope’s message today:
“When we can see God reflected in all that exists, our hearts are moved to praise the Lord for all his creatures and to worship him in union with them. This sentiment finds magnificent expression in the hymn of Saint Francis of Assisi:
Praised be you, my Lord, with all your creatures,
especially Sir Brother Sun,
who is the day
and through whom you give us light.
And he is beautiful and radiant
with great splendour;
and bears a likeness of you, Most High.
Praised be you, my Lord,
through Sister Moon and the stars,
in heaven you formed them clear
and precious and beautiful.
Praised be you, my Lord,
through Brother Wind,
and through the air, cloudy and serene,
and every kind of weather
through whom you give sustenance
to your creatures.
Praised be you, my Lord, through Sister Water,
who is very useful and humble
and precious and chaste.
Praised be you, my Lord, through Brother Fire,
through whom you light the night,
and he is beautiful and playful
and robust and strong”.
Catechism of the Catholic Church, 340.65