Vatican strategy promotes Pope Francis as catalyst on climate change

The Vatican has embarked on a campaign to position Pope Francis as an unifying voice on climate change ahead of several major appearances in the coming months.

A sign of the strategy bearing fruit came at Tuesday’s conference in Rome at the Pontifical Academy of Sciences on climate change — which the pope did not attend — when UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said of Francis, “I count on his moral voice, his moral leadership.”

The pope’s long-anticipated encyclical on climate change is being translated into several languages for release in June, according to press reports. 

An encyclical is a papal letter to the world’s bishops, a teaching document meant to filter down to dioceses and pews, fortifying Catholic thought on moral issues in lives of the faithful.

The forthcoming letter will be long, deeply detailed and comprehensive in its focus on the land, air, earth and water, according to a well-placed source familiar with the document but unable to speak publicly. 

Another preview of Francis’s language lies in the summary report, “Climate Change and The Common Good,” posted Wednesday by the Pontifical Academy officials, drafted with the assistance of scientific consultants and using bold language:

Widening inequalities of wealth and income, the worldwide disruption of the physical climate system and the loss of millions of species that sustain life are the grossest manifestations of unsustainability. The continued extraction of coal, oil and gas following the “business-as-usual mode” will soon create grave existential risks for the poorest three billion, and generations yet unborn. Climate change resulting largely from unsustainable consumption by about 15 percent of the world’s population has become a dominant moral and ethical issue for society.

With the fossil fuel industries facing a financial challenge to change “business- as-usual,” critics of climate science at the conference gave their own preview of response to the pope’s long-anticipated ecology letter. 

“This is nothing short of an ‘Unholy Alliance’ between the Vatican and man-made climate fear promoters,” said Marc Morano, publisher of ClimateDepot, quoted in a libertarian online outlet The New American.

Nevertheless, an international consensus is emerging as an unwanted future bears down.

 “Climate change is a hot topic in Asia because of seasonal weather changes that affected farmers everywhere, and because of the pervasive presence of smog in and around major cities, which affects global warming,” Jesuit Father Michael Kelly, executive director of Asian Catholic news service UCAN, told GroundTruth from Bangkok.

“Secretary Moon is from Korea and spoke for many in Asia when he welcomed the forthcoming encyclical as a significant contribution to global understanding of something that impacts us all,” Fr. Kelly said. 

Congresses, parliaments and policy experts across the globe are bracing for the impact of the encyclical. Meanwhile the pope —more popular than any other political leader in the world — is becoming a catalytic figure on the issue, using his popularity as a form of political capital.

A March speech at St. Patrick’s College in Maynooth, Ireland by Ghanaian Cardinal Peter Turkson cited a schedule of key events for the church on the issue in the coming months. Turkson helped draft parts of the papal encyclical as president of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council on Justice and Peace.

In the speech, Turkson said, “So when Pope Francis says that destroying the environment is a grave sin; when he says that it is not large families that cause poverty but an economic culture that puts money and profit ahead of people; when he says that we cannot save the environment without also addressing the profound injustices in the distribution of the good of the earth…he is not making some political comment about the relative merits of capitalism and communism. He is rather restating ancient Biblical teaching.”

Turkson cast the encyclical on “integral ecology” as a touchstone of sorts for the church’s role at upcoming events:

  • The Third International Conference on Financing for Development in Addis Ababa, Tanzania (July)
  • The launch of a UN General Assembly agenda for agreement on new sustainable environmental goals (September)
  • The UN Climate Change Conference in Paris on government plans to reduce global warming (late November and early December)

Pope Francis will also address both houses of the US Congress and the UN General Assembly on his mid-September trip to America.

“The pope has significant impact as a moral authority because he gets the debate onto the framing it needs, a moral issue that gets us away from arguing over the science,” Joseph Romm, an authority on climate science and Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress Action Fund, told GroundTruth.

“This is a very big deal,” he said. “The Vatican has put a lot of effort into understanding climate science. It has a group of scientists advising it. How ironic that we live in a time where the Catholic Church as an institution is more knowledgeable and willing to accept evidence than these groups who simply deny climate science.”

Just how much the Vatican, or Francis, can push the envelope in Washington is an open question. Catholics account for more than 30 percent of the US House of Representatives, the largest single faith group. Republicans hold the majority in both houses and are staunch foes of the Obama administration, particularly on environmental policies. 

House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, a Catholic from the suburbs of New Orleans, uses an industry-friendly script. He said in 2011, “There is dispute over this claim that man is the cause of global warming.”

Will the pope’s heightened role have any effect on Catholics in Congress?

“On their votes in the short term, no,” said John Barry, author of “Rising Tide,” an acclaimed history of the 1927 Mississippi flood, and an architect of litigation against Louisiana oil companies to repair sinking wetlands. 

“But it could move the needle on medium-term thinking,” Barry told GroundTruth. “I doubt that we’ll see much change in legislation. They’re pretty locked into their positions. Scalise is as wedded to the oil industry as anyone in Louisiana. Plenty of Catholics rationalize positions on birth control and abortion” that run counter to church teaching.

But Lonnie Ellis, associate director of Catholic Climate Covenant, a Washington, DC group of 14 organizations that promote church teaching on climate change, sees a noticeable shift.

“I’m not going to name any names, but strategists for both parties have contacted us saying, we want to know what’s coming our way. This is starting a new conversation with Republicans more interested than we’ve seen before, realizing that this is a place where we can engage about moral values and our families.”

Ellis sees the pope’s stature “not as a scientist or politician, giving moral guidance on how we should relate to our sisters and brothers, whether in California’s drought, sea level rise in Bangladesh and southern Florida, or in Norfolk, Virginia, where sea rise has the Navy concerned about their installations… We’re getting so many more requests to talk to parishes and dioceses than we can keep up with. It picked it up around first of the year, with more media attention to the pope.”

The Greek Orthodox church leader Bartholomew I, the Ecumenical Patriarch and Archbishop of Constantinople, “was first to proclaim ecological degradation a sin, and now we have Pope Francis saying the same thing,” Marquette University theology professor Jame Schaefer told GroundTruth.

Schaefer pointed to Francis’s early outreach to Bartholomew as an ecumenical act with a shared spiritual reference point on “an imperiled earth.”

The pope’s rhetoric on the ecological threat, she said, “has an international sweep with roots in the Book of Genesis.” 

In a research essay just posted for the Yale Forum on Religion and Ecology, Schaefer writes, “When en route to the Philippines after visiting Sri Lanka, a reporter asked for his views on global climate change. He responded that ‘we have exploited nature too much’ and attributed changes in the global climate ‘to a large extent’ to ‘man that slaps nature’s face continually.’”

Francis continued, “We have taken somewhat possession of nature, of sister earth, of Mother Earth. I remember … what an old peasant once said to me: “God forgives always, we … forgive sometimes, nature never forgives.” If you slap her on the face, she does so in turn.”

Schaefer views the pope as “acting at many levels, organizing the world’s religions to move to their own constituencies, especially in preparation for the climate summit in France.”

GroundTruth religion writer Jason Berry is the author of “Render unto Rome: The Secret Life of Money in the Catholic Church.”