Pope’s coming encyclical on environment stirring both hope and anxiety

“Pope Francis has developed enough social capital that he will be listened to.”
“Pope Francis has developed enough social capital that he will be listened to.” TNS

Rarely in modern times has a major papal pronouncement received so much attention and debate before it’s even been delivered.

But as Pope Francis prepares to publish an encyclical on the environment, expected this summer, he’s stoked plenty of anticipation and anxiety among Catholics and others over what he’ll say on climate change.

All indications – including recent statements by other arms of the Vatican – are that Francis will embrace the broad scientific consensus that humans are causing global warming through the burning of fossil fuels and that a major shift away from fossil fuels is needed to halt climate change. Scientists have linked climate change to rising sea levels, melting ice packs, spreading deserts, worsening storms, species extinctions and displacements of many people, primarily the poor.

Encyclicals are official teachings that the pope considers of worldwide importance, and they carry a strong weight of authority even though they’re not formally proclaimed as infallible.

Whatever he plans to write, Francis will soon follow it up with a visit to the United States in September. His itinerary includes an address to a joint session of Congress – whose Republican majority leaders have disputed the scientific consensus on climate change.

Some Catholics interviewed also question the climate science and say the poor themselves would suffer from economic dislocation that could follow a drastic shift away from fossil fuels. But other Catholics hope he builds on his predecessors’ track record.

Recent popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI (known as the “green pope”) called for restraint on consumption and care for the earth. But Francis, in a short papacy marked by outreach to the poor and marginalized, has enjoyed meteoric popularity not seen since the early, vigorous days of John Paul’s papacy. Many expect that the clout of the messenger, who took his name from the patron saint of the environment, will amplify his message on climate change.

“Pope Francis has developed enough social capital that he will be listened to,” said Daniel Scheid, a professor of theology at Duquesne University. “I’m very hopeful that the almost unprecedented nature of an encyclical on the environment would awaken some of the people who perhaps have been on the fence or haven’t thought deeply about it, because nobody has brought it to their attention as a moral or religious matter.”

The encyclical, he said, won’t offer technical advice. “But it’s going to say we can’t just ignore the question,” he said. And he can show a “religious respect for science.”

The issue especially resonates in southwestern Pennsylvania, with its history of coal extraction and the current Marcellus Shale gas-drilling boom. Bishop David Zubik said he’s already heard from an executive in a coal-related industry who told the bishop he feels “disrespected” by Francis and that the pope is aiding those trying to take away his livelihood.

Zubik said he couldn’t predict the encyclical’s contents but that since the Bible describes the Earth as a creation of God, the pope is within his purview to speak on environmental care.

“He’s speaking as a pastor. He has a right to do that,” Zubik said. “I’m assuming … what the pope’s going to be basically saying is we’ve got to take a look at how we respect the environment and how (an individual can) recognize, ‘It’s not just mine to deal with.’ Just because I have water pouring out of the spigot in my sink, do I have a right to let it run for 10 minutes without concern about people in the world who don’t have it?”

A wide range of scientific academies say human-caused climate change is real. “Warming of the climate system is unequivocal” and causing changes not seen in thousands of years, says the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a scientific body under the auspices of the United Nations. “The atmosphere and ocean have warmed, the amounts of snow and ice have diminished, sea level has risen, and the concentrations of greenhouse gases have increased.”

The pontifical academies of sciences and social sciences recently echoed such reports and said the impact will fall disproportionately on the poor.

Some Catholics, however, are wary. Kishore Jayabalan, who directs the Rome office of the Michigan-based Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty, which promotes free-market capitalism, said he hopes the pope emphasizes “our freedom and responsibility in caring for God’s creation” and the poor.

But Jayabalan, a self-described “climate change skeptic,” said the church has no expertise on that topic. While Catholics are bound to obey papal teaching on theology and morals, he wrote in an online commentary, they are free to disagree on environmental policy.

“I would hate to see the pope’s moral authority squandered on trendy progressive causes, many of which are in fact deeply anti-Christian in their worldview and anthropology,” he said in an email.

Tom Lopus – a permanent deacon at St. John and Paul Catholic Church in Sewickley, Pa., who has 35 years’ experience as a petroleum engineer, said there’s no dispute that “we should protect God’s people and the Earth and its resources.”

But while he admires the pope, “his earthly advisers are the ones I’m concerned about,” and he’s concerned that oil, gas and coal may be vilified rather than recognized for having dramatically raised standards of living.

“It’s very apparent that some have lost their ability to see what fossil fuels have done over the centuries and the positive role they have played in establishing clean water and a way of life for billions of people,” he said.

“I really want to be part of the solution,” said Lopus, senior vice president for oil and gas at Pardee Resources Co., which oversees properties in fossil fuels and renewable energy. “How do we work together to provide clean air and clean water and good health for God’s people on earth and bring God to his people on Earth?”

John Smetanka, a professor of physics at St. Vincent College in Latrobe, Pa., said the big scientific questions about human-induced climate change are settled. “The question becomes, how do we react to that?”

He said in a recent seminar, students ranked climate change high on their list of concerns for the future.

Developed countries such as the United States have resources to adjust to climate change’s effects, he said. “It’s going to make things harder, but where it really impacts people is going to be in the developing world,” he said. “My hope for this encyclical is that it begins the conversation on how do we combat climate change and at the same time bring the impoverished people of the world up to the standards of living that we’re accustomed to?”

He believes this can be done. “I’m kind of a positive person,” he said. “I feel that science and technology, the creativity of human beings, have allowed us to solve a number of different problems, and I think climate change will be again one of those problems.”