Pope Francis will unveil his long-awaited Encyclical on the Environment on Thursday. The two questions on everyone’s mind are what will he say, and how will the global community – Christians and non-Christians alike – respond?
The answer to the first question is easy to find. The Vatican has been strategically planting leaks for some time now. The Pope will speak to the people of the world, not just to Catholics or even just to Christians – of the need to care for the Earth, to care for ‘creation.’ In fact he will go beyond calling it a ‘need’ and will refer to it as a moral imperative, an obligation. We are called, as human beings living on the Earth in community, to care for the planet. For him, that is the true meaning of the Hebrew word that was poorly translated as our having ‘dominion’ over creation. For this Pope it means having an obligation to care for our Earth Mother, as opposed to exploiting her.
His Holiness’ argument is not as theological as you might expect. It’s very pragmatic: without the Earth, without ‘creation’ – nothing else matters. In his words, “If we destroy creation, creation will destroy us.”
It’s not a ‘scientific’ argument. It’s a moral and spiritual argument. The Pope, who is something of a ‘scientist’ himself (though earlier reports of his having a ‘masters degree in chemistry‘ were a bit overblown) will argue that the scientific ‘debate’ is over. The science is clear. Human activity has been lacking any commitment to caring for the planet, and our exploitation has resulted in almost irreversible damage. We must start acting now, he will argue. And our response must be global.
Additionally, this champion of the poor, this former bishop of Argentina, will argue that climate change and global warming are already having an disproportionate effect on the poor, and that the exploitation of the earth by the rich has come at the expense of the disenfranchised lower class. The planet is our only ‘natural resource,’ he will argue, and it belongs to each of us equally. Taking the oil and the coal and other minerals and resources from the planet without giving anything back is tantamount to the rich stealing from the poor. And again, being totally pragmatic, he will suggest that this can only lead to uprisings and violence and war as the disparity between the haves and the have-nots increases.
Pope Francis will call for an ethical and economic revolution to prevent catastrophic climate change and growing inequality.
This Pope preaches the Gospel of Jesus the Christ – the message that we are called to love our neighbor. (And who is our closer neighbor than the Earth herself?) He will argue the obvious, that our neighbors include the poor, the ones to whom Jesus argued we have a special obligation. ‘What Would Jesus Do? ‘ is the question he will be answering loudly and clearly.
And what will the reaction to this totally Christ-like message be?
That is equally predictable.
The Vatican has made it clear in recent days that this encyclical is a message for all people – not just Catholics, not just Christians, not even just to ‘believers.’ It is a message for all of humanity.
And how will ‘humanity’ respond?
Pope Francis has four primary audiences: Catholics, of course – all 1.2 billion of them! Then the Christians of all persuasions. And after that the third group – politicians, particularly US conservative Christian politicians – who he will urge to take political action now. And finally the many on the planet who adhere to other faith traditions or consider themselves to be ‘non-believers.’ This Pope understands that global warming or climate change – whatever name you choose to give it – is a global problem that requires a universal global response. Caring for the Earth is everyone’s responsibility, to his mind.
So that means the Pope is speaking to all seven billion people on the globe!
How they respond may well determine the future of the planet. OK, maybe that’s a bit of a stretch, but not much.
First the Catholics. There will be as much disagreement among the Catholics of the world as with any other group. Expect the conservative bishops and cardinals to have reservations. Caring for the Earth borders on worshiping the Earth as a deity in many of their minds. And then there is the money – the Catholic Church is invested – literally – in fossil fuels.
Next you have the non-Catholic Christians, including the so-called ‘fundamentalists.’ Exploiting the earth in the name of exercising ‘dominion’ over the earth is ingrained in that audience
It is worth noting. however, that there is a large ‘liberal’ element within the Christian church, particularly within the Catholic Church, that believes Jesus was, himself, a ‘liberal,’ and that the environmental teachings the Pope will espouse are, in fact, the authentic teachings of Jesus the Christ.
Next, and this may well be the most fun group to observe over the next few days, weeks and months, are the so-called ‘Christian’ legislators in the U.S. Congress. They are going to go bananas! In fact many of them have already begun pushing back on what the Pope may say in his encyclical. U.S. Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum, a Catholic and climate change skeptic, has said the Church would be “better off leaving science to the scientists.” (the rebuttal being that the Pope is more of a scientist than he is!)
And the real kicker will come in September when the Pope, at the invitation of Catholic John Boehner, addresses a joint session of Congress. Expect them to get an ecclesiastical tongue lashing!
Never before, church leaders say, has a papal encyclical been anticipated so eagerly by so many.
With Pope Francis expected to make the case that climate change, unchecked development, and over consumption are exacerbating the suffering of the poor, advocates for both the environment and the poor are thrilled.
It’s going to be fun to watch, and without exaggerating it may well be globally-transformational.
The one thing the environmental movement has lacked has been a truly global leader. It may have found one in Pope Francis.