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Sunday, April 5, 2015

Catholics prep for Pope Francis to tackle climate in upcoming encyclical

By Marianne Lavelle, The Daily Climate
ARLINGTON, Va.—Dan Misleh, director of the Catholic Climate Covenant, found himself facing a skeptic recently after he outlined the coalition's preparations for Pope Francis' upcoming encyclical on global warming. 

The woman didn't doubt the science. She just wasn't sure of the bishops.

Why wouldn't U.S. bishops record messages on climate change to be played in all churches, just as they often do for annual Lenten fundraising drives, she asked. Why not distribute cards in the pews, urging parishioners to sign pledges to care for creation and the poor, through personal action and advocacy on global warming?

"So what you're asking for," Misleh deadpanned, "are miracles?"

Actually, Misleh expects Pope Francis' message on climate change—anticipated in June or July—to resonate far beyond social justice-oriented Catholics like the ones in his audience that day at an annual symposium by the Peace and Justice Commission of the Diocese of Arlington, Va., in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. 

The climate coalition Misleh leads includes mainstream voices like Catholic Charities USA, the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, and the church leadership itself through the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, as well as progressive religious groups. 

The Catholic Climate Covenant already is laying the groundwork for sermon outlines and news conferences and events in the wake of the pope's encyclical, "to keep it in the public eye for as long as we can," Misleh said. 

A papal encyclical is meant to provide spiritual guidance to the world's 1.1 billion Roman Catholics, but among advocates of climate action hopes are high that this one will resonate far beyond the church. They are hoping the pope's moral authority can help break the intractable global political gridlock over reducing fossil fuel emissions. 

That may be a lot to ask of a message designed to find acceptance in a huge and diverse religious flock. But many have faith that this particular pope—who is timing the letter to influence this year's crucial climate treaty talks in Paris—has the leadership skills to deliver.

"Arguably, Pope Francis is one of the most interesting moral voices on the planet," said Shaun Casey, the special representative on religion and global affairs at the U.S. Department of State, in an interview. "People are listening to him who never paid attention to a Roman Catholic pope, because of his charisma and because of his courage.

"Here you have the leading voice in the largest Christian tradition issuing an explicit call to engagement," Casey said. "I think that's going to have a galvanizing effect on global politics. You cannot ignore a moral issue when a pope of Pope Francis' stature focuses on that. I think it's going to be huge."

Science and faith

Among those eagerly awaiting the pope's message is Veerabhadran Ramanathan, a pioneering atmospheric physicist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC San Diego. Ramanathan, who discovered the super-greenhouse effect of chlorofluorocarbons in 1975, co-authored an essay in Science last fall calling for religious leadership on climate change. 

"Humanity is at a crossroads," the essay said. "Natural and social scientists have done their part in documenting the irreversible environmental damage we have inflicted, and in spelling out specific mitigation actions. The transformational step may well be a massive mobilization of public opinion by the Vatican and other religions for collective action to safeguard the well-being of both humanity and the environment."

In a recent interview, Ramanathan said that he believed religious leaders can provide insight on climate change that neither scientists nor national leaders could command. "Climate change has become sort of a moral and ethical issue," said Ramanathan in a recent interview. 

"We are asking people to change their behavior. I think that religious leaders have much more authority to speak about that than scientists or political leaders."

Although Ramanathan said he has no idea what Pope Francis will say on global warming, he is closer to the process than most, as a member of a little-known but prestigious group of scientists, the Pontifical Academy of the Sciences. 

Members of the non-sectarian Academy of 80 scientists, which includes several Nobel laureates, receive lifetime appointments from the Vatican, but do not take direction from the church. Their mission is to promote progress in science, and to stimulate an interdisciplinary approach.

Ramanathan, who was appointed to his post by Pope John Paul II, took the task to heart last year and convened what he said was an unprecedented joint meeting of both the Academy's natural and social scientists, as well as philosophers and theologians, to focus on sustainable development, climate change and economic justice. 

Participants in the four-day workshop in May 2014 agreed on a statement pointing out the disruption caused by fossil fuel use at the heart of the global energy system, and calling for cooperative, collective action to find a more sustainable engine of development.

At the end of the meeting, Ramanathan said they had an opportunity to brief Pope Francis, a meeting he expected would be short in any case. But because of his busy schedule that day, the pope actually met the group in the parking lot. They were  allowed to say two sentences—the ultimate “elevator” speech. 

“I cheated. I gave three sentences," Ramanathan recalls. "I said this entire gathering is concerned about climate change, and there are 3 billion poor people who had little to do with climate pollution who will suffer its worst effects. Because of that, I said we would like to ask people to be good stewards of the planet."

Pope Francis is expected to build on the statements his predecessors made on the environment, especially Pope John Paul II's plea in his 1990 World Day of Peace speech that Catholics regard the natural world as God's creation: "We cannot continue to use the goods of the Earth as we have in the past," he said. Pope Benedict, who had solar panels put on the Vatican, said in 2010, "If we want justice and peace, we must protect the habitat that sustains us."

Walter Grazer, who served as the director of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' environmental justice program from 1993 to 2007, said it is important to see the pope's upcoming statement in the context of this history. Previous papal teachings on the environment, as well as many statements by the U.S. bishops on climate change, draw on the creation stories of the Catholic tradition, in which humans are stewards of the world of peace and harmony created by God.

"It's both in our scripture, and in our theology; Pope Francis is not going to be coming from outer space," Grazer said. "He has got such a fabulous way of cutting through all the jargon. "He will have a way of saying it that I think will be unique, but he's going to be following up on these themes from Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict."  

Vatican-watchers see signals that Pope Francis plans to offer the strongest papal statement on the environment yet. In a homily he offered last November on All Saints' Day, Pope Francis gave a possible preview of his encyclical when he decried environmental destruction and the culture of waste. 

"We are capable of devastating the Earth far better than the angels," he said. "And this is exactly what we are doing, this is what we do: we destroy creation, we devastate lives, we devastate cultures, we devastate values, we ravage hope.”

How far will the pope go

The pope must steer clear of pronouncements that are seen as overtly political, or he will undercut the support he has so far maintained among conservatives in the church.

In a speech delivered last month at Saint Patrick’s Pontifical University, in Maynooth, Ireland, a Vatican official said Pope Francis’ agenda is not “greening the Church or the world.”

“It is a vision of care and protection that embraces the human person and the human environment in all possible dimensions,” said Cardinal Peter Turkson, who gave the speech and helped Pope Francis with the first draft of his encyclical. 

Cardinal Turkson repeatedly states in the speech that the pope’s foray into environmental matters is biblically – not politically – rooted. 

Samuel Gregg, research director of the conservative Michigan-based Catholic think tank, the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty, said he doubts that the pope will weigh in on the science of climate change or on any particular political course of action. 

"Individual Catholics—lay people, as well as bishops—have a variety of views on the science of climate change, and as citizens, they're quite entitled to hold those views," he said. 

"It's not the church's responsibility, nor does it have the authority to say that Catholics must support this treaty, that treaty, or any treaty.  It doesn't fall into the area of faith and morals. And this is often a distinction not understood outside the Catholic Church, or even by a good number of Catholics themselves."

The Acton Institute counts young clerics and religious people from the developing world among attendees at its annual seminars on the virtues of unfettered free markets.  (A sampling of upcoming Acton University courses: "The Moral Case for Economic Growth," "The Invisible Hand from Adam to Adam Smith," and "The Spiritual Dangers of Doing Good.") 

Kishore Jayabalan, director of Acton's Rome office, already has laid the groundwork for courteous disagreement with Francis. "It is one kind of problem if a Catholic disagrees with papal teaching on the Trinity or abortion; that Catholic’s eternal soul would be considered at risk," he wrote in a recent blog. 

"It is an altogether different kind of problem if a Catholic disagrees with the pope on his diplomatic efforts or environmental views… The Church wisely respects differences of opinion on such matters."

Prepared for opposition 

Catholics who believe the church has an important role to play on climate change are prepared for opposition to the pope's message. 

"Some people are going to gloat: 'The Pope has finally joined the Democratic party,'" Misleh said at the Arlington symposium earlier this year. "Others are going to grumble. They're going to attack the pope: 'He's divisive. He's from Argentina. What do you expect?' Or they're going to try to minimize the importance of an encyclical letter, which is really hard to do if you know what an encyclical letter is."

"I hope a lot more people will say, 'Wow, I didn't even know the church cared about this issue.'" Misleh said. 

Marianne Lavelle is a staff writer for The Daily Climate. Follow her on Twitter @mlavelles. The Daily Climate is an independent, foundation-funded news service covering energy, the environment and climate change. Find us on Twitter @TheDailyClimate or email editor Brian Bienkowski at bbienkowski [at] Find more Daily Climate stories in the TDC Newsroom