The Papal Encyclical on the Environment Will Influence More than Just Catholics

On Thursday, Pope Francis will deliver a highly anticipated religious letter traditionally intended for Catholic Bishops and the Church’s followers. The Pope’s message, however, is expected to draw the ears of many outside the faith and is slated to be the preeminent moral call and grounding for global climate action, elevating climate change to the single most important moral issue of our time.

The religious letter, otherwise known as a Papal encyclical, is a highly regarded Church document which serves to address a topic of significance and can be used to end theological debate on a particular issue.  If early leaks of the document end up looking like the final draft, it will be clear that Pope Francis means to take direct aim at climate deniers and encourage robust action to confront the problem head one.

“The attitudes hindering the paths toward a solution, even amongst the believers, go from negating the problem to indifference, to an easy resignation, or to a blind faith in technical solutions”

In the past, previous Popes including Pope Pius XII, Pope Paul VI, and John Paul II have used encyclicals to protest wars ranging from the Soviet invasion of Hungary to Vietnam and the Iraq War. This time the encyclical will tackle a different war, the war on our environment—and by association human survival. The Pope is expected to draw connections among unsustainable overconsumption, exploitation of the Earth’s resources, poverty, inequality, and social justice, framing it as a singular moral issue for the more than 1 billion Catholics worldwide —  the majority of whom live in countries predicted to suffer the worst of climate change despite contributing least to the problem.

The timing of the Catholic doctrine is deliberate. World leaders gear up for global climate deal talks in December and the Pope’s visit to the United States and UN for the Sustainable Development Goals Summit is slated for September.

Meanwhile, with many observers perceiving the United States’ ongoing domestic debates on the veracity of climate science and its stifling effect on U.S. political will in committing to emission cuts being one of the more challenging obstacles to a global climate deal, supporters are hoping for divine intervention. And Pope Francis’ encyclical may just be it.

With Pope Francis being named the most trusted faith leader when it comes to climate change among all American Christians, even non-Catholics, and his propensity for influencing key diplomatic and peace deals, climate activists and scientists are hoping his words will mean the difference.

Despite American public opinion polls hovering around a 70% acceptance of man-made climate change, with American Catholics consistently coming in above the national average, and a recent poll suggesting that the majority of American Republicans, traditionally seen as climate deniers, now support action to curb carbon emissions, the U.S. Congress, appears to be in direct opposition to the American public. It remains to be one of the only remaining global governing institutions not to accept the link between human activity and climate change.

This is, of course, a result of a few key, extremely vehement climate-denying politicians that remain loyal to fossil fuel companies and the campaign dollars they contribute. Many of these same politicians have worked hard to align religious doctrine with virtues of unregulated capitalism in order to appeal to their base. The argument often cites the Story of Genesis’ biblical lines of humankind’s dominion over animals and the Earth, despite near 60% of American Christians espousing a stewardship mindset.

Efforts by U.S. conservative leaders to promote what Pope Francis calls “an economic system centered on the god of money” as a God-given right has been a compelling message for those American Christians that maintain climate denial.

And for the minority of Americans that hold to climate change denial, the issue does not appear to be about access to information, education or income, but is most strongly correlated to a high level of religious affiliation. It is too early to tell if the Pope’s words, and the authority they wield for the religious peoples of the world, will be enough to sway democratically-elected leaders in reaching a deal, but this is not the only intent of the encyclical. It also, and more importantly, draws attention to individual responsibility, framing it as a moral imperative for all to do what they can to not feed or accept a system that exploits an environment that we all rely on for survival.

This call may be the most important one of all.