Five things to look for in the encyclical on environment

This story appears in the Francis: The Environment Encyclical feature series. View the full series.

by Thomas Reese

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Pope Francis' encyclical on the environment is being translated into multiple languages and will be published probably in June. Here are five things to look for in the new encyclical.

The encyclical will accept the scientific consensus that global warming is happening and that it is due to human activity.

The pope has already said he accepts this scientific conclusion, and a recent Vatican summit on the topic concluded, "Human-induced climate change is a scientific reality."

A number of papal critics have already attacked this point of the encyclical, noting that popes are not infallible when it comes to science. This is, of course, true, but it is ironic that the church is being attacked for agreeing with science after centuries of being accused of ignoring science. Galileo must be turning over in his grave.

It is also ironic that this is the first pope in history to have a scientific education. He was trained as a chemist and worked as a chemist before entering the seminary. He has more scientific training than most of his critics.

The encyclical will embrace the environmental movement without endorsing every position it has taken.

For decades, the church and the environmental movement were at odds because environmentalists attacked the church for opposing artificial birth control.

While still supporting programs to control population growth, fewer environmentalists publicly blame the church for high birth rates. They can see that no matter what the church says, Catholics tend to follow their own consciences and reduce the number of births. Education and cultural factors have a greater impact on population rates than church teaching.

As a result, environmentalists and church officials will politely disagree about birth control while working together to save the planet.

This truce is very important because religion is one of the few factors that can motivate people to sacrifice their self-interest for a greater good. People are not going to sacrifice their lifestyles for the polar bears. Religion has a long history of motivating people to sacrifice their personal comfort for a religious goal. The Catholic church also has a long history of encouraging simpler lifestyles.

In addition, the church's blessing of the environmental movement will help it to move to the mainstream. With the Catholic church's support, it cannot be dismissed as simply being a bunch of tree huggers and Gaia worshippers.

The encyclical will insist that environmental issues are not simply political and economic issues — they are moral issues.

If oceans rise and flood islands and coastlands as in Bangladesh, millions of people will become environmental refugees. If the glaciers in the Alps and Himalayas disappear, water supplies will be terminated for farmers and millions of people.

The death toll from environmental causes at the end of this century could eventually dwarf that of the two world wars in the 20th century. If the potential human suffering that will result from climate change is not a moral issue, then nothing is a moral issue.

The encyclical will bring a theological lens to the environmental debate.

Beginning with Genesis, it is clear that the world is God's creation, a gift that must be treasured, not raped and pillaged. The world reflects the grandeur of God; it is an object of contemplation through which we come to understand God. Destroying it is a sacrilege.

The encyclical may even cite Romans 8, "that all creation is groaning in labor pains even until now," as an image of an evolving universe where we need to be on the right side of God's plan.

The encyclical will insist that the burden of climate change or of attempts to deal with climate change should not be borne solely by the poor.

When the U.S. and the rest of the first world have the greatest carbon footprints, it is unconscionable to tell poorer nations that they have to stop cutting down rainforests and stop having babies so we can sustain our first world lifestyle. Everyone has to sacrifice, and those who have benefited most from the carbon-based economy must sacrifice the most.

There are two things we should not expect from the encyclical.

First, there will be few policy recommendations.

The pope is a prophet, not a policy wonk. He reflects on the word of God, looks at the world, and calls for conversion and change, but it is up to environmentalists, economists, business leaders and public officials to come up with the concrete solutions to the environmental crisis we face.

Second, we should not expect miracles from the encyclical.

The entire world will not change after the encyclical is issued. The encyclical is part of a larger conversation that the people of the world must have. The pope has put a spotlight on this discussion and enriched the vocabulary, but it will take lots of discussion and work to turn things around.

The pope's encyclical will be his invitation to all of us to join in this conversation and this work. 

[Jesuit Fr. Thomas Reese is a senior analyst for NCR and author of Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church. His email address is Follow him on Twitter: @ThomasReeseSJ.]

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