By the end of this month, Pope Francis will release the most widely anticipated document to date at the crossroads of religion and ecology.
The pope has long been an outspoken advocate for climate action and ecological commitment as essential to Christian practice. Soon, he will raise the stakes with his forthcoming encyclical on environmental issues, writing from an historic level of authority on the connection between Catholic social teaching and environmental stewardship. As Cardinal Peter Turkson described at a seminary lecture in Ireland, this document will focus on “human ecology” and “explore the relationship between care for creation, integral human development and concern for the poor.” Given Francis’ history, a large portion of the encyclical is expected to concern the impact of climate change on the world’s poor.
As fellow members of the wider church, this in an encyclical is an excitement for those in the Protestant branch of the faith. Even from a secular perspective, this document matters. The Pope’s encyclical will be preached in parishes from Boston to Buenos Aires. It will change how nearly a fifth the world’s population – 1.2 billion Catholics –understand climate change as enmeshed in the lived values of faith, drawing unprecedented attention to climate change as a moral issue.
Given Francis' popularity ("pope-ularity"), the words of this encyclical might just resonate across the moral imagination of religious traditions worldwide, bringing resolutions, actions, awareness and commitment from a diversity of religious institutions in the wake of the encyclical. Just imagine! Such a rising tide could mean that 2015 will become known as the year the world’s conscience awoke to climate change!
Every reaction has an equal and opposite reaction, however. No encyclical in memory has received such opposition prior to its publication. ExxonMobil recently deployed a lobbyist to the Vatican to clarify a few points about climate change. The Heartland Institute, the conservative think-tank that publishes the NIPCC reports in opposition to the UN’s IPCC reports – hosted a conference in Rome on how climate action violates Catholic teaching.
Indeed, many of the leading climate deniers in the U.S. congress are conservative Catholics, and – now thinking optimistically – the papal encyclical may provide an opportunity for these members of congress to jettison a viewpoint that is increasingly dissonant with the lived reality of constituents whose lives and livelihoods are taking a hit from a less stable and more extreme climate. Yet the document is far more than an ideological escape hatch.
Precisely what is so exciting about the encyclical is that it transcends political squabbling to meaningfully articulate how traditional faith teachings inform contemporary social action. The pope’s statement will clarify what gets frequently muddled: the reality that climate change is ultimately a collective race against physics for intergenerational equity, rather than a political issue. The encyclical will bring together Sunday piety and daily experience in a way that – given the pope’s mixed pastoral and prophetic approaches – will likely comfort Catholics on a desertifying continent responsible for less than 3% the world’s emissions, and prove a wake-up call for the global 1%.
All this excitement around the Catholic response to climate change begs the question of a Protestant response. Staying informed on the papal encyclical is an important act of ecumenism, particularly here in Massachusetts, where some 45% of the population identifies as Catholic. And while the language of the encyclical will be couched in technical Catholic terminology, the document can inspire inward reflection on the con connection between our own faith and climate change.
As the UCC, we prize quirkiness and insist on our congregational focus. So, what better response could there be than for our congregations to write their own “encyclicals”?
Consider if your congregation were to draw up a statement on the relationship between faith and climate change, ecology and poverty. Which of Jesus’ teachings and biblical passages would you draw upon? What would your congregation discern as the primary motivator for faithful action in a climate-changing world? And how might your congregation develop a culture of mutual respect and vulnerability in the process?
See the page for Pope Francis’ Encyclical on Climate Witness, with links to resources oriented towards Protestants trying to understand the encyclical, as well as the Forum On Religion & Ecology at Yale, which is stocked with an abundance of updates as the encyclical approaches.
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