Bishops briefed on rollout of environmental encyclical at spring meeting

This article appears in the USCCB Spring 2015 feature series. View the full series.

St. Louis — Pope Francis’ coming encyclical on the environment will represent “a significant moment in the life of the church,” Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski said Wednesday during the annual spring meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Wenski and Bishop Oscar Cantu of Las Cruces, N.M., briefed their fellow bishops on the papal document, officially titled “Laudato Si” and set for release a week from Thursday.

Wenski, the chair of the bishops’ Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, said the encyclical’s content -- still unknown, as several bishops noted -- will likely be among the many topics heightened by the pope’s U.S. visit in September.

“Some may be asking why we are talking about a document that we haven't seen. Like you, Bishop Cantu and I don't have an advance copy just yet,” Wenski said.

On Tuesday, the two bishops held a workshop for their fellow bishops on the encyclical in an effort to highlight resources to better communicate its meaning. A separate webinar was held for diocesan communications directors.

During a press conference, Wenski said other planning efforts for the encyclical’s release include suggested homilies that incorporate themes from the encyclical with Scripture readings, bulletin inserts, and regional events. In Miami, he said, they plan to present the encyclical in a wide forum to communicate the message.

Asked about suggestions that pieces of the encyclical can be ignored or fall under the scope of prudential judgment, Wenski said he finds it interesting that some make those arguments without having read the encyclical. He added that the pope is approaching the issue not as a scientist or politician, but as a pastor and teacher. He added he hoped that method would “transcend” partisan categories in the ecological and climate change debates.

“We have lots of hope on what the encyclical will do for the whole issue of creation care and climate change,” he said.

Cantu added he would remind “so-called serious Catholics” that the church’s teaching includes the authority and voice of the magisterium. “Voices are not Hints from Heloise,” he said. “They are indeed the magisterium that was appointed by Jesus Christ.

“Yes, it does fall to the category of prudential judgment, but that requires prayerful discernment and consideration and openness,” he said.

Wenski noted in his speech to the bishops the church’s rich tradition on stewardship of creation. He said both of Francis’ predecessors have addressed the topic in various speeches and messages.

Perhaps addressing questions of whether the church should enter into environmental discussions, the Miami archbishop said the bishops can either engage the issue, bringing “our rich understanding of our role as stewards to the conversation, or we can retreat from the global debate,” leaving others to carry the discussion, such as those who advocate population control.

“But we know that we can't opt out of this conversation,” Wenski said. “We're called to engage in public life and work for the common good. As environmental solutions are sought and ideas implemented, we have a significant responsibility to ensure that these solutions care for creation while resisting a culture of waste, protect the poor and vulnerable, and respect the sanctity and dignity of life. As she does in so many areas, the church can stand in the breach against human desires to debase God's created order and the universe he set in motion.”

Speaking to the global implications of the encyclical, Cantu, chair of the Committee on International Justice and Peace, stressed that in a world of globalization, the welfare of each diocese’s people and the nation “is linked to the health of our world.”

Cantu said Catholics can expect the pope to emphasize a global perspective, one that replaces a “globalization of indifference” with a “global solidarity.”

“There is a deep synergy between local and global needs. The Holy Father in his encyclical will certainly strive to help us to see these connections and to act on them,” he said.

He pointed out the connections between environmental degradation and human health; ecology and human security, referencing the conflicts in Darfur and Sudan largely driven by prolonged droughts that drew divisions between herders and farmers; between ecology and the poor, with developing nations having contributed the least, yet suffering the most, from the impacts of climate change and environmental destruction; and between creation care and agriculture.

“[Pope Francis] has already spoken about the crucial vocation of cultivating and protecting natural resources to feed humanity and to ensure that all may be free from hunger. In this context, the Holy Father is likely to remind us of the universal destination of all goods so that the bounty of the earth meets the needs of all,” he said.

Cantu called the relationship between population control and ecology a false linkage. He said the real issues are consumption, waste and unsustainable practices.

“The solution is not to have fewer people in developing countries, but to have more sustainable practices in both advanced and developing nations,” he said.

The New Mexico bishop predicted Francis’ encyclical “will challenge assumptions on both the left and the right. He will call all of us to a wider vision, a global vision, to the globalization of solidarity.”

[Brian Roewe is an NCR staff writer. His email address is Follow him on Twitter: @BrianRoewe.]

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