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Pope Francis’ environment encyclical: game-changer or dead letter?

Pope Francis' new encyclical titled "Laudato Si (Be Praised), On the Care of Our Common Home", is displayed during the presentation news conference at the Vatican on June 18, 2015. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Max Rossi *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-ENCYCLICAL-FUTURE, originally transmitted on June 18, 2015, and with RNS-POPE-ARRIVE, originally transmitted on Sept. 22, 2015.
Pope Francis' new encyclical titled "Laudato Si (Be Praised), On the Care of Our Common Home", is displayed during the presentation news conference at the Vatican on June 18, 2015. Pope Francis demanded swift action on Thursday to save the planet from environmental ruin, urging world leaders to hear "the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor", plunging the Catholic Church into political controversy over climate change. In the first papal document dedicated to the environment, he calls for "decisive action, here and now," to stop environmental degradation and global warming, squarely backing scientists who say it is mostly man-made. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Max Rossi  *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-ENCYCLICAL-FUTURE, originally transmitted on June 18, 2015.

Pope Francis’ new encyclical, titled “Laudato Si’ (Praise Be): On the Care of Our Common Home,” is displayed during the presentation news conference at the Vatican on Thursday (June 18, 2015). The pope demands swift action to save the planet from environmental ruin, urging world leaders to hear “the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor,” plunging the Catholic Church into political controversy over climate change. In the first papal document dedicated to the environment, he calls for “decisive action, here and now,” to stop environmental degradation and global warming, squarely backing scientists who say it is mostly man-made. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Max Rossi
*Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-ENCYCLICAL-FUTURE, originally transmitted on June 18, 2015.

(RNS) Pope Francis’ landmark document on protecting the environment and battling climate change is finally out after months of anticipation — and anxiety — that in the history of encyclicals is probably rivaled only by Pope Paul VI’s 1968 letter banning artificial birth control.

But will it have an effect?

Francis has made it clear that he wants this encyclical to help launch a new role for the Catholic Church in the fight against global warming, and he also knows it’s an uphill battle, both inside and outside the church’s walls.

Here are four challenges he faces in making his encyclical, “Laudato Si’,” or “Praise Be,” a game-changer, not a dead letter:

1. Mobilizing the international community

Francis has always been looking at the encyclical as a starting point, or perhaps a kick-start, for global climate talks that are ramping up again this year after a series of underwhelming meetings.

  • The Third International Conference on Financing for Development will take place next month in Ethiopia.
  • In September — when Francis will be in New York to address the world body — the U.N. General Assembly is to agree on a new set of Sustainable Development Goals running until 2030.
  • In December comes the next Climate Change Conference, in Paris, when more than 190 nations will try to reach an agreement to limit greenhouse gas emissions.

“We expect the papal encyclical to have a major impact during a very critical year in this (climate negotiation) process,” the U.N.’s top climate official, Christiana Figueres, said earlier this month.

Francis hopes so too. In January, he said the previous Climate Change Conference, in Peru, “was nothing much, it disappointed me. I think there was a lack of courage.”

He told reporters that he wanted the encyclical out now so “that there is some time between the publication of the encyclical and the meeting in Paris” to help bolster the delegates to “be more courageous.”

But as Francis recognizes in the encyclical, real change will require a “bold cultural revolution” in mankind’s thinking. Can such a transformation happen?

Pope Francis speaks during his weekly audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican on June 3, 2015. Photo by Alessandro Di Meo, courtesy of Catholic News Service

Pope Francis speaks during his weekly audience in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican on June 3, 2015. Photo by Alessandro Di Meo, courtesy of Catholic News Service

2. Converting political conservatives in the U.S.

The day before Francis addresses the U.N. in New York, he will become the first pope to address a joint meeting of Congress in Washington — a crowd that will remind him of the headwinds he faces in winning political support in the U.S.

Just this week, GOP presidential candidate Jeb Bush — a Catholic convert who touts his church bona fides as part of his platform — said in no uncertain terms that Francis was wrong on climate change and wrong to tackle the topic, and that “religion ought to be about making us better as people and less about things that end up getting in the political realm.”

Bush has plenty of company among his fellow Republicans and conservative Catholics, who have increasingly ratcheted up their criticisms of Francis, sometimes in  personal and intemperate language.

It’s a stunning turn of events for conservatives who had been used to embracing the popes to support their agenda. But Francis seems undaunted. With this encyclical, the pontiff “is slapping his conservative critics in the face,” as the commentator Damian Thompson wrote in The Spectator.

But will that wake them up? Or just make them angrier?

3. Convincing the U.S. Catholic hierarchy

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is supposed to serve as the main delivery system and lobbying arm for papal teachings. But in the two years since his election, Francis has left many of the hierarchy’s American ranks — which have grown much more politically conservative in recent decades — as discombobulated, and at times disillusioned, as their counterparts in politics.

That could complicate Francis’ hopes of uniting the church in the U.S. to help influence the U.S. government to take the kind of bold action that the pope says is needed, as The New York Times reported earlier this month.

“When the encyclical comes out they’ll all get behind it, but they’re waiting to see what’s in it,” Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, retired archbishop of Washington, told The New York Times in an article detailing the problematic dynamics.

Real support could grow along with the wave of coverage, especially if the bishops see the public — critically, young people — resonating with the pontiff’s message.

Bishop Oscar Cantú of Las Cruces, N.M., a leader on international issues, said he wants the encyclical to be more than “Hints from Heloise” for Catholics, and a number of bishops around the country — led by Cardinal Donald Wuerl and USCCB president Archbishop Joseph Kurtz at a packed press conference in Washington on Thursday morning — began signaling the hierarchy’s long-term support.

4. Rallying American Catholics in the pews

As a Pew Research Center survey earlier this week showed, most self-identified Catholics (71 percent) say they “believe the Earth is warming,” a finding that tracks the public at large.

But there’s a 34-percentage-point gap between Catholic Democrats (85 percent agree) and Republicans (51 percent agree), with independents landing in between at 72 percent. Also, less than half of Catholics (47 percent) believe that warming “is caused by human activity,” as Francis says it is, and only 48 percent believe climate change “is a very serious problem.”

Can Francis move that needle?

“The poll doesn’t tell us if there’s a way the pope can cut through the politics,” Alan Cooperman, director of religion research for Pew, told Religion News Service. “Yet, it may be, as people hear about the encyclical, this could move, this could change.”

The Rev. Thomas Reese, an analyst of church trends at National Catholic Reporter, wrote Thursday that “revolution” is almost too weak a word for what Francis is calling for, and he acknowledges that it may well not come to pass, or at least not without great difficulty.

“We cannot expect the encyclical to miraculously change human attitudes and behavior overnight,” Reese writes. “Rather, the encyclical is the beginning of a process that will go on for years. It requires that each of us get involved for the long haul. This is a marathon, not a sprint.”

Also, Catholics quickly found they could safely ignore Paul VI’s birth control encyclical, and they by and large continue to do so. But global warming will be tougher to overlook if it continues to reshape the Earth’s atmosphere, and that may make Francis look like a prophet as much as a pontiff.


About the author

David Gibson

David Gibson is a national reporter for RNS and an award-winning religion journalist, author and filmmaker. He has written several books on Catholic topics. His latest book is on biblical artifacts: "Finding Jesus: Faith. Fact. Forgery," which was also the basis of a popular CNN series.


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  • Not the pope nor the environmental activists have spoken of what stimulates and contributes most to the gluttony that is turning the earth into a garbage dump–advertising. Ads never say we are demanding–like spoiled brats— anything and everything we want. For the ad moguls wrap it all in the word “need”.
    Where is the “need” for every American to be giant mounds of blubber oozing around the planet. One ascetic Christian I know keeps himself from the deadly sin of gluttony and stimulates him to donate money for food for the starving by putting a photo on his refrigerator of a starving child looking at him and saying “Thy Belly condemns thee.” (some saint said this in the early years of Christianity when Christians regarded asceticism as virtually a doctrine of our faith.”

  • Yes, the pope is spot on with this encyclical. Man has left God, and instead thinks he is his own end. But what does the pope mean by stating the earth is becoming a garbage dump? Well nuclear power plants are producing radioactive waste that is being stored underground, and will take a million years of half lives before it is no longer a danger. Can we turn off our lights, tv’s, cars, etc. after dark and save energy? We are building houses on all the fertile ground, and saying, where have all the farms gone? Why can’t we grow vegetables? Instead, of course, of building on the deserts, and farming on the fertile grounds. We are using all our potable water for toilets, and showers, instead of filtered salt water, or filtered non-potable water. We run city water to houses, well, run a second line for the toilets, etc.. We live miles and miles from our jobs; why not give a tax break for those who choose to live closer? Etc. Etc. Etc.

  • Yes, this is a brand new, unprecedented encyclical from Pope Francis. But for all its good points about responsible stewardship of the Earth, it’s also a brand new, unprecedented MESS that functions as an uncritical, unbalanced $ALE$-PITCH for the hard-line global-warming cult, including its censors and enforcers.

    By failing to listen to and oublicly acknowledge those professional, credentialed scientists on ALL sides of the science story, including scientists who are clearly “supporters” of the global warming movement but who publicly offered a few science-based doubts and dissents and caveats — such as Dr. David Pielke Jr of the University of Colorado, and the multiple-award-winning, over-220-publications climate researcher Dr. Lennart Bengtsson — Pope Francis has FAILED to stay faithful to all sides of the science story on this issue.

    Jeb Bush is correct: Ultimately it would have been better for Pope Francis to have simply “stayed out of it.”

  • Name correction there: Dr. ROGER Pielke Jr., Univ. of Colorado environmental scientist. Here’s a sample of what he said:

    ““It is misleading and just plain incorrect to claim that disasters associated with hurricanes, tornadoes, floods or droughts have increased on climate timescales either in the United States or globally,” Pielke said in his testimony before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. “It is further incorrect to associate the increasing costs of disasters with the emission of greenhouse gases.”

    from The Daily Caller, July 18, 2015.

  • Though Catholics largely ignore Paul VI’s encyclical on birth control, it is a prophetic piece of work. All of the dangers and immorality he addressed in 1968 have come to fruition over the years. It was wrong, and is wrong, for us to ignore this issue that affects the whole world negatively. Ignoring common sense for idealistic self-indulgence will always lead to more social rot.

  • Really? You doubted “the US hierarchy” wasn’t going into paroxysms of praise? For the rest, it’s already been a no-brainer. According to a new Pew poll: 68% of the general public believe that the earth is warming. 55% believe that warming is caused by human activity and 54% believe that warming is a very serious problem. And these numbers are growing. So in the media’s upside down world in reporting on this pope, this somehow equated to massive opposition to the encyclical.

  • Pope Francis is right in this issue and Doc Anthony is dead wrong. Unfortunately, Francis did not go quite far enough. Now he should rescind the Vatican ban on contraception since human overpopulation is what is fueling climate change and its various concomitants. — Edd Doerr (arlinc,org)

  • All the xenoestrogens generated from widespread use of the birth control pill is a major polluter. Also, the number of people is only a problem if you’re concerned with maintaining the status quo of hyperconsumption and voracious wealth. Human beings aren’t the problem – human creativity provides the solutions. Please visit

    There is nothing greener than planning your family naturally.

  • Maybe you should review the encyclical again:
    1.Pro-climate change
    2.Anti-population control
    4.Anti-gender ideology
    Actually I agree with all four, climate change happens all the time, it’s cyclical. And I believe Doc Anthony is dead right. Censoring all sides of the science story is not helpful to this issue.

  • Dead letter. The nation in the world that has moved much of its population from relative poverty to relative wealth is China. In the relatively short time that the Chinese accomplished this they have also obtained a working manned space program, a missile that can penetrate the defenses of and wipe out US aircraft carriers, and they are in competition with the U.S. for having the world’s fastest supercomputer. And they have accomplished all this doing all the things that Laudato Si decries. And they’re not going to stop, nor agree to any international document that calls for putting on the brakes. If the rest of the world puts on the brakes, then China will rule the world.

  • How will Catholics react? With disgust, trepidation and great anxiety for the future of the Roman Catholic Church. This Encyclical is full of schlock science, socialist dogma and calls for draconian changes to the present economic, social and political order. It can only be described as the demented musings of a man who is revealing his true agenda for all the world to see. He is not a religious leader, but a broken-down old socialist who has been given the power to destroy the foundational doctrines of the Faith. I shudder to think what will happen when he puts his sights on the teachings related to human sexuality, marriage and reception of the Holy Eucharist at the next Synod on the Family this Fall.

  • If the UN, the New World Order or whatever will rule the planet nextly decides to enforce switching the current politics of low cost energies (mainly carbon based) to renewable ones, the richest countries certainly will suffer in their standards of life, but they will survive, while the poorest ones, those that are the dearest to the Pope’s heart will disappear forever or come back to the stone age.
    Is this clearly what the Pope wants?
    The global warming the climate pundits are threatening us to become a thermical apocalypse by the end of this century, is already belonging to the past since the temperatures rise has stalled from 1998 to 2015, warming indeed was only 0,04 °C in 16 years.
    These pundits are unable to explain this “pause” and they are unable to predict when the temperatures will resume climbing, or worse (for them) decreasing.
    Then the main conclusion to draw is that their computer models are wrong and that CO2 doesn’t rule the climate, but only at a small level.

  • (Fighting 69th.) You refer to the present economic, social and political system as “order.” Don’t see much “order” in our current system and certainly not the system the Greeks have.

    As to the Catholic’s reaction – do you think they will read this 40,000 plus word document? Having read up to the middle of the second chapter I don’t see the negative side as you present it. And as to the future of the Catholic Church – it’s been through much more than this in the past and has survived even though most Catholics have tried to destroy her from the inside for the last 2 millenniums.
    Wishing you a more positive future,

  • Actually the encyclical is a great work of sound, moral, and completely Catholic theology. The church’s teaching on economic life, labor, and human dignity have been rather consistent for two thousand years. In fact, I’m sorry that you’ve rejected the teachings of the church in favor of a latter-day, American jingoistic conservatism that flies the face of most of what Christ and the church taught.

  • The pope is very right to raise the issue of over consumption and consumerism being an evil and is virtually one of the Seven Deadly Sins: Gluttony. But raising that issue is not unique to the pope. A writer named Vance Packard– who died in 1996– was the first modern major prophet railing against consumerism .
    Packard wrote 3 best-selling books: “The Hidden Persuaders” “THe Status Seekers, and “The Waste Makers.”
    And what is making us into greedy, gluttonous, fat and flabby overeaters and unsatisfied consumers??? A business no one criticizes these days: Advertising. We are tricked or seduced into believing every lustful want is a noble need.
    All 3 Packard’s books should be read side by side with the pope’s encyclical.

  • Pope Francis’ environment encyclical – relevant parts of the text need to be included in our school, college and university curricula. The young people are the ones who are going to inherit the Planet and prepare it further for future generations.

  • It will be interesting for the news media to actually have to read this encyclical, as it is just as much theology, as it is a call to stewardship (in my opinion it is scientifically generic). You will see many ellipses (…) in their quotes as they excise the theological portions. But as with any encyclical, it must be read prayerfully. I thought it interesting to hear today’s readings at Mass (Mark 4:35-41), where Jesus tells the wind to stop, and it listens. That tells us we need to have one foot on this earth, and the other in prayer when reading this encyclical.

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