Context for the Encyclical: Continuity of Teaching
Pope Francis’ encyclical on ecology follows and expands on Catholic teaching about care for God’s creation. This teaching has a foundation in the Bible’s call to stewardship of the natural world. Both Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and St. John Paul II, the two prior pontiffs, spoke frequently about ecology, and both addressed climate change directly. And Pope Francis will not be the first pope to appeal to national leaders to address climate issues through the UN process.
Pope Benedict warned about climate change in his own encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, and quoted it in a letter to the UN ahead of its 2009 summit, saying “the protection of the environment, and the safeguarding of resources and of the climate, oblige all leaders to act jointly, respecting the law and promoting solidarity with the weakest regions of the world.” In 2010 he pointedly asked “Can we remain indifferent before the problems associated with such realities as climate change, desertification, the deterioration and loss of productivity in vast agricultural areas, the pollution of rivers and aquifers, the loss of biodiversity … and the growing phenomenon of ‘environmental refugees’?” Benedict’s statements built on the ecological statements of St. John Paul II, who said in 1990 that “the gradual depletion of the ozone layer and the related ‘greenhouse effect’ has now reached crisis proportions as a consequence of industrial growth.”
What is an Encyclical?
An encyclical is an exceptionally high-level teaching document issued by a pope. Encyclical letters have been addressed to Catholics or, in recent decades, to “all people of goodwill.” Pope Francis said, “This encyclical is aimed at everyone. Let us pray that everyone can receive its message and grow in responsibility toward the common home that God has entrusted to us.” Although Pope Francis follows his predecessors in speaking about ecology and climate change, this is the first time a papal teaching of such high authority has been exclusively devoted to ecology. Through this encyclical, Pope Francis is fulfilling his role as a pastor to teach Catholics about the moral obligation to care for God’s creation and care for the poor who are most impacted by climate disruptions.
Teachings on Prioritizing the Poor
A central aspect of Church teaching on climate change relates to how the poor are impacted by both climate disruption and mitigation efforts. The final statement from the Pontifical Academy of Sciences’ Climate Change and the Common Good event offers insight into how the values of the Catholic Church, including the preferential commitment to the poor, are applied to climate change. The statement was very critical of the idea that fossil fuels are a sustainable solution to poverty. It stated that “fossil fuel exploitation has also taken a huge toll on human wellbeing. The air pollution caused by the unsustainable consumption of natural capital causes about 7 million premature deaths each year.” The statement asserted that society must find a way to meet energy needs of the poor without contributing to climate disruption, which hurts the poor most. It stated that the Church could play a positive role “by mobilizing public opinion and public funds to meet the energy needs of the poorest 3 billion in a way that does not contribute to global warming.”
The Scientific Advisers to the Vatican
Pope Francis, like his predecessors Benedict XVI and John Paul II, rests his confidence in the scientific consensus on climate change in consultation with the Vatican’s own distinguished panel of leading scientific advisers. The Pontifical Academy of Sciences includes 80 of the world’s top scientists, who hail from 36 countries. The academy’s members have won 48 Nobel Prizes to date. The academy has commissioned extensive recent research on climate change, issuing a 2011 paper called Fate of Mountain Glaciers in the Anthropocene. It also convened 3 significant gatherings on this issue in 2014 (Sustainable Humanity, Sustainable Nature: Our Responsibility) and 2015 (Climate Change and the Common Good). The latter gathering’s final statement declared that “human-induced climate change is a scientific reality” and “its decisive mitigation is a moral and religious imperative for humanity.”
Links & Resources:
- Catholic Climate Covenant (Website)
- Clear Path Foundation – includes videos about Church teaching on care for creation (Website)
- 2014 EPA Letter from Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami to then EPA Administrator, Gina McCarthy
- A Statement by the Committee on Social Development and World Peace United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (1981)