Panel contemplates why the papal encyclical on the environment will matter

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

New Haven, Conn. — As anticipation builds in progressive Catholic circles about the forthcoming papal encyclical on the environment, Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim, co-directors of the Yale Forum on Religion and Ecology, are busy contemplating its potential impact on stakeholders outside of the Catholic church, including environmental scientists, lawmakers, and leaders of world religions.

To explore the possibilities, Tucker and Grim gathered a panel of experts across various disciplines to discuss "Pope Francis and the Environment: Why his new climate encyclical matters" last week at Yale University.

"This encyclical is by no means the first word the Catholic church has spoken on the environment," Teresa Berger, professor of Catholic theology at Yale Divinity School, reminded the audience in her introductory statement. "But it has not been spoken of before in an encyclical."

The church's previous teachings seem to have borne some fruit in the consciences of Catholics in the United States. Peter Crane, dean of the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, said that 70 percent of U.S. Catholics believe that global warming is happening versus 57 percent of non-Catholic Christians. Catholics also express higher support for climate change policies than other Christians.

Crane also noted that the timing of the encyclical is of crucial significance to the global discussion of the environmental crisis. It will appear just months before the pope addresses the United Nations during his visit to the U.S. in late September and, even more importantly, before a U.N. climate change conference, to be held in early December in Paris.

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Crane said the encyclical does not come in isolation, but is part of a process of putting the pieces back together after the 2009 U.N. climate conference in Copenhagen "did not live up to what we hoped it might."

The encyclical, he said, will "give new prominence to the ethical and moral dimensions of environmental degradation," moving it beyond the usual focus on science, technology and economics.

Speaking to the ethical dimensions of the forthcoming document, Margaret Farley, Gilbert L. Stark Professor Emerita of Christian Ethics at Yale Divinity School, told the audience that encyclicals do not necessarily teach absolute doctrine, but rather offer an articulation of religious and moral understandings and aim to clarify religious beliefs and ethical issues.

While not every reader may want to act in accordance with the encyclical's teaching, Farley said, "attention will be paid to what is offered. Dialogue may ensue. New experiences of moral claims will awaken within us." It also has the potential to be a significant contribution to the church's 125-year-old tradition of Catholic social teaching, she said.

The encyclical may even impact the way in which the hierarchy views the environmental degradation caused by overpopulation, as well as "women's burdens which escalate with the devastation of resources of water and food."

Though Farley refrained from saying that a change in the Catholic church's teaching on contraception would be key to addressing overpopulation, she did note that the encyclical could go a long way to understanding and remedying these kinds of challenges facing women and families.

"If it fails to do so, the crisis before us may only increase," she concluded.

More than two-thirds of the world's population lives in Asia, which is where Tucker has spent much of her career as an expert in world religions and ecology. She said watching the rapid changes in industrial development in China and India over the past 40 years has motivated her passion for environmental justice.

"There are over 2 billion people yearning for the fruits of modernization, but the cost has been immense: pollution of water, air and soil," she said. "The health of our planet is gravely stressed, especially our ecosystems."

Tucker said she believes the encyclical "will awaken an even broader religious response among world's traditions," including Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism and Confucianism.

Pope Francis, she said, will "urge leaders to join him in speaking out about the human suffering being caused by climate change, especially for the poor. This will encourage religious leaders to address these issues in the language of their own traditions."

In places like the Himalayas, religious leaders are already taking significant action to address climate change, said Dekila Chungyalpa, a visiting fellow at the School of Forestry and Environmental Science.

Seven major rivers are sourced from the Himalayas, including the Ganges, Indus, Yangtze and Yellow. As a result, its inhabitants are keenly aware of the impact that climate change is already having on flooding, wildlife, and tree-line shifting.

Unlike in the U.S., where there is still significant doubt and disbelief about climate change, Chungyalpa says that in the Himalayas, there is "too much awareness."

"In most places I've worked around the world, people believe it is climate change that is causing these problems," she said.

This often leads to what she called "a state of paralysis" because people do not know who should be responsible for the crisis. In order to empower communities, Chungyalpa has been educating Buddhist monks and nuns in monasteries throughout the Himalayas with information about global warming and environmental science.

Some of these monasteries have 5,000 monks and nuns, which creates a massive carbon footprint, she said.

As a result of Chungyalpa's project, 55 monasteries are now participating in this "eco-monastic" movement. And their moral leadership, she said, has had a ripple effect: When monasteries in Nepal decided to put solar panels on top of their temples, neighboring shops and restaurants did the same.

The encyclical, she said, is important because it widens the community of support around fighting climate change. This is a "moment of convergence" among religious leaders, she noted: "We're seeing a chorus of voices coming together around the world."

One place we haven't seen voices come together to confront climate change is in the U.S. Congress. Douglas Kysar, a law professor at Yale Law School, said he hopes Pope Francis' encyclical will help our elected officials seriously consider our obligation to planetary stewardship, particularly the pope's idea of an "integral economy that encompasses the concerns of economic justice, true human development, and global solidarity."

Policies meant to address climate change have failed, Kysar said, because "the process has been held hostage by this country, which has found its own political process held hostage by economic interests."

Quoting Pope Francis, Kysar said an economic system centered on the value of money "needs to plunder nature." The current system, the pope has said, "destroys creation and ravages hope."*

For the struggle against global warming to be effective, therefore, we need both a transformed economic system and a transformation of human consciousness.

"This encyclical will hope to diagnose and minister to those underlying pathologies," Kysar concluded. "So that if we do indeed heal the planet, we may also have a humanity worthy of inheriting it."

The full video of the panel discussion is available on the website of the Yale Forum on Religion and Ecology.

*This column has been updated to more accurately reflect the source of the quote.

[Jamie L. Manson is NCR books editor. She received her Master of Divinity degree from Yale Divinity School, where she studied Catholic theology and sexual ethics. Her email address is jmanson@ncronline.org.]

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