Have you ever seen an aspiring theologian fist pump like Tiger Woods? You have if you were anywhere near me last Friday when the Vatican confirmed that Pope Francis has begun writing an encyclical addressing environmental challenges and “the ecology of man.”
Rumors of a possible environmental encyclical have been swirling since November, when Pope Francis met with Argentinian environmentalists about water and the controversial natural gas recovery method known as hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”). For those with more experience working on environmental issues from a Catholic perspective, however, hope for an extensive papal treatise on ecology began when Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio became the first pope to take the name Francis after “the poor man of Assisi” whom the Church honors as Patron Saint of Those Who Promote Ecology.
Since my initial excitement over Friday’s announcement, I have begun reflecting more on both what will likely be contained in the document as well as what I hope Francis will include. Based on my experience of working on creation care and climate change from a Catholic perspective, what follows are my own expectations and hopes for what Francis might include in the Church’s first ecological encyclical.
Since Pope John Paul II published his ecologically-groundbreaking 1990 World Day of Peace Message titled Peace with God the Creator, Peace with All of Creation, the Church’s approach to creation care has consistently been defined by several core elements that I expect Francis will include in his encyclical, among them:
- God’s on-going presence in all creation which reflects God’s incarnation.
- Intrinsic goodness of all creation that is independent of humanity.
- Humanity’s role as stewards of creation, invited to use its gifts without exploiting it for superfluous desires.
- Human ecology by which the Church recognizes that the protection and promotion of human life and dignity is inexorably connected to care for all of creation.
- Care and justice for the poor and vulnerable who are disproportionately and unjustly harmed by environmental degradation.
- Universal destination of created goods by which all persons have a right to share in the fruits of creation.
- Respect for private property with the recognition that it is “subordinated to the right to common use” when some people lack basic goods (Laborem Exercens, #14).
- Protection and promotion of the common good to which the climate and natural environment are central.
- Application of the principle of subsidiarity which calls for the lowest possible but highest necessary level of government intervention necessary to protect the common good.
- Intergenerational solidarity that calls us to hand on to posterity a clean and habitable environment.
- Invocation of prudence which the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops describes as “intelligence applied to our actions” and recognizes as “paramount in addressing climate change” (Global Climate Change: A Plea for Dialogue, Prudence, and the Common Good).
- Recognition of anthropogenic climate change as a moral issue and the need for all people of faith and goodwill to address it as such (cf. Catholic Climate Covenant’s Catholic Teachings).
Since his election, Pope Francis has shown a willingness to address contemporary issues by courageously challenging those persons and systems that hinder the in-breaking and growth of God’s Kingdom. Given this, I have more than just a passing hope that Francis might also include the following elements in his ecological encyclical:
- Advocacy for an economic price to be placed on greenhouse gas emissions, especially carbon dioxide.
- Commentary about how current economic systems and investment strategies foster or undermine environmental sustainability and climate stability.
- Condemnation of industry-funded efforts to deny and/or confuse the science of anthropogenic climate change.
- Reflections on contemporary energy issues, especially the transition to renewable energy and the controversial practice of fracking (cf. Catholic Climate Covenant’s On Energy).
In less than one year, the “Francis Effect” has instilled a sense of optimism in many people who had otherwise lost hope for the Church. As the world quickly runs out of time to address some of its most pressing ecological challenges, especially anthropogenic climate change, confirmation that Francis is working on an ecological encyclical is cause for similar hope. In the wake of Francis’ challenges to economic structures that oppress the poorest people in the world, the news of an encyclical on the environment will undoubtedly inspire even more people of faith and goodwill to finally address seriously the world’s most pressing environmental challenges. You may not quite think that this is cause for a celebratory fist pump, but Catholic environmentalists like me are suddenly filled with an energetic optimism that, I imagine, is very similar to sinking a long birdie putt to set up a final round charge in a major golf championship.