What Makes Pope Francis’ Environmental Activism Different

A forthcoming papal encyclical is already generating excitement, not only for its message, but for its messenger as well

Image by Aleteia Image Department via Flickr

On Monday morning, the Italian magazine L’Espresso leaked a copy of Laudato Si’, Pope Francis’s eagerly awaited encyclical (a non-binding and fallible, but weighty papal teaching) on climate change, its effects on have-nots, and the role of the Catholic Church in supporting a green, sustainable future. A 192-page letter compiled by Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana, this Thursday the document will be sent out to 5,000 bishops and 400,000 priests around the world so that they might share the pope’s thoughts on these weighty topics with the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics. The Vatican, irate over the violation of its press embargo, has stressed that the leaked version may not be the final or authoritative draft, and the just-rushed translations are suspect and likely inferior to the coming official release. But from what we’ve seen so far, it looks like those expectant masses can look forward to some compelling environmental sermons.

While the turns of phrase in the text may be powerful, its basic message (support renewables, recognize climate change’s costs to the poor, etc.) probably won’t cover any truly new ground for the Pope, the Church, or climate change activists at large. In fact, the true power of this document—and the thing sending supporters and detractors into various tizzies—is less the encyclical’s content and more the Pope behind it, his mode of delivery, and the wave of effective advocacy he’s using the encyclical to portend.

A cursory scan of the Italian text’s limited available translations reveals it to be a forceful, lyrical document, bidding Catholics to “enlighten the masters of power and money so that they should not fall prey to the sin of indifference,” amongst other calls to action. Personifying the Earth, it makes pleading moral cases for a beneficial stewardship by man over the planet.

“Today we can’t avoid stating that a true ecological approach must always become a social approach,” the current draft loftily claims, “integrating justice in the debate around the environment, so that we listen to the cry of Earth as much as we listen to the one of the poor.”

But though this encyclical is the most concentrated and authoritative declaration on such issues to date, the Catholic Church has been making strong, progressive statements on the environment for about a quarter century now. The last two popes were especially vocal on issues related to climate change, although often in highly intellectual and abstract ways. In fact as early as 2008, members of the church indicated that we might see environmental degradation as one of the modern seven deadly sins. Pope Francis’s new encyclical refers explicitly to this precedent quite often, painting itself as if it were a document of continuity and clarity rather than novelty or innovative ideas. And those within the Catholic Church have long joined representatives of other faiths in making outright and explicit theological arguments about the need to stem pollution and save the environment, tying a usually dry scientific argument into the language of morality and brining a sense of incumbent duty into their pulpits.

Despite this ample and vocal precedent, ever since Pope Francis announced his intent to produce an encyclical last December, the world has been awaiting it with bated breath.

That’s probably in part because it’s the cornerstone of a year of intense activism, starting off in January with powerful statements about man’s definitive role in climate change, moving through a spring summit on environmental issues, and culminating with a speech before the United Nations General Assembly in September. His world tour will wrap up just before the globe’s leaders convene in Paris from November 30 to December 11 in an attempt to negotiate legally binding treaties that would stabilize greenhouse gas emissions and prevent catastrophic temperature rises—a process which he hopes to influence and help shepherd towards fruition.

But a pope going on a social campaign, encyclical in hand, is not necessarily cause for excitement in and of itself. For every influential encyclical-based campaign, like Pope John Paul II’s march against dictatorships in the 1980s, there’s a resounding dud like Pope Paul VI’s 1968 Humanae Vitae, which attempted (and in much of the world failed) to convince Catholics to reject birth control. Humanae Vitae especially made it clear that it’s pretty easy for Catholics to ignore papal teachings they disagree with, silencing social campaigns into irrelevance. And we might have expected, given the strong base of climate-skeptical Catholics in countries like America, that they might have tried to just ignore Laudate Sii as well (or at least brush it aside with minimal concern)—especially as Pope Francis’s previous pleas and first encyclical on morality seemingly had little effect on the agendas of most Catholic congregations in America.

Yet instead of just ignoring the now-leaked encyclical, opponents of the established messages contained within it have gotten their knickers all in a twist, crawling out of the woodwork to refute the document even before its release. Some have attacked the pope, saying that by accepting climate change as a dangerous reality, he is arrogantly trying to tout himself as a climate science expert. Others (like the Heartland Institute, a prominent Koch-backed anti-encyclical force) have softly tried to suggest that the pope’s intentions are good, but his facts are deeply flawed and his scientific advisors have misguided him. Some even approach the encyclical from a theological stance, picking a fight with the pope on what the Book of Genesis means when it refers to man’s stewardship over the earth and our responsibilities to the environment.

“Though Pope Francis’s heart is surely in the right place,” Heartland Institute president Joseph Bast recently cautioned, “he would do his flock and the world a disservice by putting his moral authority behind the United Nations’ unscientific agenda on the climate.”

“The pope ought to stay with his job,” a more blunt and less charitable U.S. Congressman (and climate change skeptic) James Inhofe later added.

Opponents probably felt that they had to engage aggressively with the document beyond a cursory refutation or rejection because climate change activists (even the secular ones) have painted it as a divine artifact of salvation for the movement. To get a sense of the level of enthusiasm and anticipation, just check out the epic preview trailer created for the document by some Brazilian activists. Many have stressed the document’s potential to speak about climate change to the whole of the Catholic world from a position of authority, using simple but compelling language to transform a dry debate on practical economics and scientific fact into a moral issue. Environmentalists see that the pope’s clout could instigate a potential sea change within his flock, jump-starting conversations the world over and significantly swaying the upcoming Paris talks.

“The expectations for this document are huge,” Neil Thomas, advocacy directory of the Catholic aid agency Cafod, wrote in The Guardian last month after attending the Vatican’s recent summit on climate issues. “Regardless of their faith, every single person who attended the meeting, alongside the general public, is looking to the Pope to drive momentum and create an atmosphere where world leaders will act on climate change, looking beyond national borders and our immediate generation.”

Proponents are certainly at least right about one thing: The encyclical is being delivered by someone in a place of trust and perceived integrity. Previous popes have been far less charismatic, direct, and popular than Pope Francis (whose global approval ratings were 60 percent in 2014, 84 percent amongst European Catholics). Since coming to power in March 2013, the present pope has proven himself a bold man, a savvy negotiator, and a smooth political operator, playing a major role in the ongoing reconciliation between America and Cuba and sneakily recognizing Palestine as a state for the first time in Vatican history—and that’s just within the past half-year.

In a sense, the encyclical was slated to start a beneficial conversation no matter what it held, just because it was so effectively teased by a charismatic salesman-pope and embraced conceptually by so many advocates, even before its release. Long before the leak, ecological Catholic groups reported that they were already getting more requests for information. In the face of this hype, opponents felt compelled to react. And in their reactions they’ve only wound up delivering more and more attention to the document, creating a virtuous (or vicious, depending on your viewpoint) cycle to the hype and generating a self-fulfilling prophecy for the encyclical and its contents.

It helps that we can now see that within the document (or at least its provisional translations) that it’s a text of some artistry and moral fortitude. It’s likely been crafted to be the ultimate global book club read, full of quotable bites and passages crafted to inspire thought and discussion. Take this gem, full of lamentation, personification, and bold assertions, for example:

“We have grown up thinking that we were [the Earth’s] owners and dominators, authorized to loot her. The violence that exists in the human heart, wounded by sin, is also manifest in the symptoms of illness that we see in the Earth, the water, the air and in living things.”

The encyclical really can jump-start climate change talks in the lead-up to the Paris negotiations, as advertised. But while many have sold the text itself as the groundbreaking juice needed to get things moving, the document is merely a jumper cable, conducting the power of an energetic leader and his campaign. What we’re counting on now is less the power of the encyclical than the potency of papal influence—the charismatic magic a man can work from a position of trust to create global conversations, name and shame world leaders, and promote righteous viewpoints. That’s not a bad thing for supporters to put their hopes into; Francis is an exceptionally popular figure with an established track record of moving his global agenda forward.