The Pope’s environmental encyclical promises to shake up the climate debate

The long-awaited papal encyclical on the environment could have a significant influence on conservative politics around the world, says Neil Ormerod, professor of theology at Australian Catholic University.

pope francis popemobile
Pope Francis greets visitors in Vatican City. A leaked papal document calls for lifestyle changes and less consumption to prevent environmental destruction. Image: neneo /

The long-awaited papal encyclical on the environment could have a significant influence on conservative politics around the world.

The prominence of Catholics in conservative parties is part of a growing trend within Australia and the United States of Catholics shifting to the political right as they move out of the working class and into the middle and upper classes.

For instance in Australia, around half of Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s cabinet are Catholic, including Abbott, agriculture minister Barnaby Joyce, and communications minister Malcolm Turnbull.

Never before in the history of Catholicism has a papal document attracted as much attention, even before it has been released. The document, entitled Lautado Sii (Praised be), is to be released this Thursday, with a leaked draft already having appeared in the press.

The reason for this interest is the strong indication that Pope Francis will be taking a definite stand on what for some remains a controversial issue, the question of human-induced climate change. On present indications, and consistent with previous papal comments, the document will place climate change within the larger framework of a global economic system that promotes overconsumption. Meanwhile, the poor not only lack the basics needed for life, but will carry the main burden of the effects of climate change.

This controversy is likely to be keenly felt in Australia, with the Abbott government at best lukewarm on the issue of climate change, and at worst actively hostile to taking meaningful steps to combat it.

The church and the environment

Papal documents such as this are not new. For more than 100 years, various popes have been issuing teachings on matters, not strictly theological, but to do with major social and political issues.

The tradition began with the papal encyclical Rerum Novarum, issued by Pope Leo XIII in 1891, written to address “the misery and wretchedness pressing so unjustly on the majority of the working class.” This document set the agenda for Catholic engagement with and participation in the emerging labour unions of the day.

Since then these documents have addressed issues such as global poverty, trade injustice, nuclear disarmament, the evils of communism and liberal capitalism and so on. Collectively these teachings constitute a key element of Catholic social teaching.

With the growing awareness and urgency of the need to address environmental issues, it should come as no surprise that the current pope, Pope Francis, will be issuing the first encyclical dedicated to the environment.

Francis’ predecessors, John Paul II and Benedict XVI both issued statements of varying significance on environmental issues. John Paul II spoke of “the catastrophe toward which [our world is] moving.” More specifically Benedict XVI spoke at the United Nations of “the urgent issue of climate change”.

In issuing an encyclical on the environment, Francis is bringing the full weight of his authority behind the environmental concerns and climate change in particular.

In issuing an encyclical on the environment, Francis is bringing the full weight of his authority behind the environmental concerns and climate change in particular.

Critics will point out, of course, that the pope has no authority in scientific matters, which is true. But like any prudent person he is relying on the best scientific advice available to him.

The Pontifical Academy of Science, which includes non-believers such as Stephen Hawking, has issued various statements and documents on climate change, in its capacity to provide authoritative advice on scientific and technological matters to the pope.

The pope has also been listening to the voices of Caritas Internationalis, the Church’s leading overseas aid agency, telling him that decades of development work with the world’s poorest is being undone by the effects of climate change. Those least responsible for climate change are paying the highest price in terms of its effects.

Will it change the climate debate?

Internationally the prospect of a papal encyclical on climate change is being greeted with hopeful expectation by the environmental movement, and with equal trepidation by right wing climate sceptics funded by the fossil fuel industry.

The Heartland Foundation, a US think tank famous for its denial of links between smoking and lung cancer, held a seminar in Rome on April 27, at which various speakers attacked any suggestion that the Pope would use the encyclical to support claims of human induced climate change.

British climate denier Christopher Monckton verbally attacked the Pope, claiming, “You demean the office that you hold and you demean the church whom it is your sworn duty to protect and defend and advance.” We can expect the quantity and harshness of these complaints to increase markedly with the release of the encyclical.

But at another seminar held the following day in Rome, organised by the Pontifical Academies of Sciences and Social Sciences, Secretary General of the United Nations Ban Ki-Moon praised the moral leadership being demonstrated by Pope Francis, hoping that this leadership will prove influential, if not decisive, in the upcoming Paris climate talks in November this year.

Despite the many scandals facing the Church, Pope Francis has enormous popular appeal and he will be handing the environmental movement a big stick with which to hit the present government’s climate credentials on the head.

As Pope he carries a unique moral authority and people are listening to him in an unprecedented manner.

While some Australian Catholics may be taken aback by the strength of his position, given the climate denialism of Cardinal George Pell, his call will be heard and people will take notice. Whether it will be as influential as hoped by Ban Ki-Moon is yet to be seen.

The Conversation

Neil Ormerod is Professor of Theology at Australian Catholic University. This article was originally published on The Conversation.

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