Leaked encyclical text puts climate change on humans

A man and woman walk near the Atlantic Ocean on Race Point Beach in Provincetown, Mass., June 3. (CNS/Gregory A. Shemitz)
This article appears in the Francis: The Environment Encyclical feature series. View the full series.

Rome — Pope Francis' landmark encyclical on ecological issues will say the "major part" of global climate change is due to human activity and will call for radical changes to the world's political and economic systems to address the issue, according to a leaked version of the text.

The Vatican condemned the leak, saying it broke earlier rules preventing the release of the text before its official launch Thursday. Vatican spokesman Jesuit Fr. Federico Lombardi said in a statement that the text, an Italian-language version of the document, was a draft and not the final version of the text.

Although the version of the encyclical published by the Italian news magazine l'Espresso is unauthorized, the document explores many themes previously linked to the encyclical, a number of them controversial, including the loss of the planet's biodiversity and continuing inequity between the global North and the global South.

The document also shows a notable reorientation of the church's understanding of the human person from a being that dominates to one that responsibly serves creation.

By Tuesday, most major newspapers in the United States and Italy had published lengthy reports or excerpts from the document. Reporting for this article is based on an NCR translation of the document posted by l'Espresso.

This week, we celebrate the first anniversary of the launch of our podcast, NCR in Conversation. Catch the latest episode here.

The encyclical is titled "Laudato Si', On the care of the common home." The title, translated into English as either "Be praised" or "Praised be," is taken from St. Francis of Assisi's 13th-century prayer "The Canticle of the Creatures."

An initial read of the leaked document, which is 192 pages with the index, presents an encyclical with a far-ranging scope. The document has six chapters and ends with two prayers, including the prayer cited in the title.

The leaked text first points to earlier church writings on ecology and then gives what it calls the "very consistent scientific consensus" over climate change and other degradation of the environment before going into deeper implications for both the church and the global international system.

Before addressing scientific matters, Francis first acknowledges work done in ecology by his predecessors since St. Pope John XXIII and also quotes at length Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew.

'Urgent invitation' to address issues

In the leaked text, the pope writes that he is addressing his letter as "an urgent invitation to renew the dialogue on the way in which we are constructing the future of the planet." Before continuing into scientific matters, the pope states: "The climate is a common good, of all and for all."

"There exists a very consistent scientific consensus that indicates that we are in the presence of a worrying warming of the climate system," he continues.

"Humanity is called to take conscience of the necessity of changes in lifestyles, of production and of consumption, to combat this warming, or at least the human causes that produce it or accelerate it," he states.

"It is true that there are other factors (those of volcanoes, of variations of orbit and the Earth's axis, the solar cycle), but numerous scientific studies indicate that the major part of the global warming in the last decades is due to a great concentration of greenhouse gas ... emitted overall at the cause of human activity," the pope writes in the leaked document.

Later in that section, the pope states: "Climate change is a global problem with grave environmental, social, economic, and political implications and constitutes one of the principle current challenges for humanity. The heaviest impacts will probably fall in the next decades on developing countries."

Francis then addresses a number of other issues of environmental degradation, including emerging scarcity of water for some populations of the world and a loss of biodiversity because of the extinction of species.

The pope first states clearly: "Access to drinkable and secure water is an essential, fundamental and universal human right because it determines the survival of persons."

On the issue of biodiversity, he is likewise blunt: "Because of us, thousands of species can no longer give glory to God with their existence, nor can they communicate to us their message."

"We do not have the right" to do this, he writes in the leaked text.

Francis also criticizes modern urban construction that does not take into account energy efficiency.

"Many cities have grand inefficient structures that consume in excess water and energy," he writes. "It is not suited to live on this planet always more submersed in concrete, asphalt, glass and metal, removed from physical contact with nature."

Global inequity, humans not as dominators

Turning to issues of planetary inequity, the pope says that issues of inequity can no longer be addressed at the individual level.

"Inequity does not strike only individuals, but whole countries, and it obliges us to think of an ethic of international relations," he writes in the leaked document.

"There is in fact a true 'ecological debt,' overall between the North and the South, connected to commercial imbalances with consequences in the ecological sphere, surely like the disproportionate use of natural resources historically done by some countries," he states.

Making a cry for global unity, he states: "We need to strengthen the awareness that we are one human family. There are not political or social borders or barriers that can be permitted to isolate us, and it is for this there is no space for the globalization of indifference."

The leaked document then turns the lens inward to church teaching, devoting a whole chapter to exploring the Judeo-Christian understanding of how God meant for humans to use the earth.

Francis bluntly states that the pervasive understanding that God gave humans power of dominion or destruction over the earth "is not a correct interpretation of the Bible."

He continues: "Even if it is true that sometimes Christians have interpreted the Scriptures in a wrong way, today we must refuse with force that from the fact of being created in the image of God and given the mandate to subject the Earth that we may deduce an absolute dominion over other creatures."

"While we can make a responsible use of things, we are called to recognize that the other living beings have their own worth in front of God ... because the Lord joys in his works," the pope writes.

Call for new global processes

Later in the leaked draft, the pope calls for new global structures and processes for determining uses of the world's goods. He also calls for more transparency in a global decision-making process to include a greater diversity of voices, particularly the world's poorest.

At one point, Francis asks: "What kind of world do we want to give to those that come after us, to children that are growing up now?"

"We might leave to the next generations too many ruins, deserts, and dirtiness," he states. "The rhythm of consumption, of wastefulness, and of alteration of the environment has overcome the possibilities of the planet."

The pope in the leaked document also ties the environmental crisis to what he calls a pervasive "technocratic paradigm" that isolates individual problems from more connected understandings of unhealthy global trends.

In that area, the pope also clearly speaks out against abortion and scientific experiments on human embryos.

Later, Francis states that use of fossil fuels "must be substituted progressively and without delay."

"Reduction of greenhouse gas requires honesty, courage, and responsibility, overall on the part of the most powerful and most polluting nations," he continues later in the leaked text.

"We believers cannot not pray to God for positive developments in current discussions, in a way that future generations will not suffer the consequences of imprudent hesitation."

Addressing one possible solution to bringing down greenhouse gas emissions -- the idea of marketplaces where countries or companies could sell and buy credits to regulate their outputs of gas -- Francis says that solution is not enough.

Such credits, he states in the leaked draft, "can give place to a new form of speculation and might not serve to reduce the global emission of pollution gas."

"This system looks to be a quick and easy solution, with the appearance of a certain commitment to the environment, that however does not imply by fact a radical change to the heights of the circumstances," the pope writes.

Commenting later on the global international system, Francis says it has shown "impotence to assume responsibility" for the environmental crisis. The pope suggests local movements "can make the difference."

"It is there in fact that can grow a greater responsibility, a strong communitarian sense, a special capacity to care and a more creative generosity, a profound love for our earth, like surely the thought of that which we leave to our children and grandchildren," he states.

The pope concludes the leaked text with a reflection on our earthly and heavenly homes: "God, who calls us to generous dedication and to give all, offers us the strength and the light which we need to go ahead."

"[God] does not abandon us, does not leave us alone, because he is united definitively with our Earth, and his love brings us always to find new paths," he states, ending with a modern translation of the phrase in St. Francis's prayer: "To him be praise!"

Francis signed the document on May 24, the Catholic feast day of Pentecost.

At the beginning of the draft, the pope also reflects on the choice of his papal name, saying St. Francis "shows us ... that integral ecology requires openness towards categories that transcend the language of exact science or biology and connects us with the human essence."

"Like it happens when we fall in love with someone, every time that Francis looked at the sun, the moon, the smallest animals, his reaction was to sing, sharing in the glory of all the other creatures," the pope writes in the leaked text. "He entered into communication with all of creation."

"His reaction was much more than an intellectual appreciation or an economic calculus, because for him every creature was a sister, united to him with vines of affection."

[Joshua J. McElwee is NCR Vatican correspondent. His email address is jmcelwee@ncronline.org. Follow him on Twitter: @joshjmac.]

Just $5 a month supports NCR's independent Catholic journalism.

We are committed to keeping our online journalism open and available to as many readers as possible. To do that, we need your help. Join NCR Forward, our new membership program.


Looking for comments?

We've suspended comments on NCRonline.org for a while. If you missed that announcement, learn more about our decision here.