What Can We Expect in Pope Francis’s Upcoming Encyclical on the Environment?

By Carolyn Burstein
Mar 20, 2015

Ever since Pope Francis indicated that he would write an encyclical on the issue of the ecology/environment, expected to be completed in the summer of 2015, people around the world have been speculating about its contents.

Until recently, we have had only a few glimpses into what that might be. We certainly have Francis’s own public statements, of which there have been many, previous encyclicals on the environment by St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, statements by groups such as the USCCB, and the example of St. Francis of Assisi.

Now we can add those of two significant additional sources:

  • Cardinal Peter Turkson, the Ghanaian prelate and President of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, whose Council wrote the first draft of the encyclical and has issued several reports on global destruction of the environment over the past several years
  • Leonardo Boff, the former Brazilian Franciscan priest, whose 1997 book, Cry of the Earth, Cry of the Poorfocused on the close connection between social justice and care for the environment.

Isn’t it interesting that a key environmental document will find its roots in thoughts of those from three largely-marginalized countries of the world (at least in the perspective of major world powers) – Ghana, Brazil and Argentina?

Cardinal Turkson’s March 3 lecture at St. Patrick’s Pontifical University in Maynooth, Ireland, is a primary signal of much of what we can expect from Francis’s upcoming encyclical. He titled it “Integral Ecology and the Horizon of Hope: Concern for the Poor and for Creation in the Ministry of Pope Francis.”

As one would expect from previous statements of this pope, Francis sees the issues of global inequality and the destruction of the environment as inter-related. Noting the precarious state of our planet as well as of people in poverty around the world, Turkson maintains that Francis will bring the perspective of Catholic Social Teaching to these significant issues. Under the rubric of “integral ecology,”

Four Major Principles

Cardinal Turkson notes four major principles that explore the relationship between care for creation, human development, and concern for people who are poor as reflected in the ministry and teaching of Pope Francis:

  1. The call to everyone to be protectors, a call that is integral and all-embracing. It is a vision of care and protection that embraces both the environment and the human person in all possible dimensions. Turkson quotes liberally from the writings of St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI to demonstrate the continuity of papal teaching regarding this issue over the past 30 years. The focuses of the two popes were different, but both, in encyclicals and in statements on various occasions consistently talked about the moral duty of Catholics to care for creation. One of the strongest statements by a pope was Benedict’s address to the Reichstag, Berlin, in 2011, when he said: “The importance of ecology is no longer disputed. We must listen to the language of nature and we must answer accordingly.” Each of the two predecessors of Pope Francis wrote prolifically about environmental issues, but neither devoted an entire encyclical to ecology nor made the inter-connections that are anticipated in Francis’s letter.
  2. Care for creation is a virtue in its own right. Even climate change skeptics who contest the findings of the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have a profound obligation to care for creation, to develop and live an integral theology as the basis for human development and peace in the world. As Pope Francis said in his homily on February 9, “a Christian who doesn’t safeguard creation, who doesn’t make it flourish, is a Christian who isn’t concerned with God’s work, that work born of God’s love for us.” Turkson states that this second principle, based on the second creation account of the Book of Genesis, involves humankind in caring for the earth in a way that ensures its continued fruitfulness for future generations. Therefore, justice, in this context, is a relational term. We actually have a threefold relationship: with our Creator, with our neighbor, and with the natural environment in which we live. So when Pope Francis says, as he often has in the past, that we cannot save the environment without also addressing the profound injustices in the distribution of the goods of the earth, he is pointing to the fact that being a protector of creation, of people who are poor, is the sine qua non of being a Christian.
  3. Care for what we cherish and revere. Turkson acknowledges that scientific and economic understanding, international agreements, political regulations and even targets may be necessary tools for addressing poverty and climate change, but he indicates that Francis is more concerned that what are really needed are a moral conversion, a real commitment, and a change of heart, if the tools are to be effective. There have been numerous attempts in the past few years to implement international agreements on development goals, carbon emission targets and climate change limits, with little effect. One example, among many, is the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), most of which remain unfulfilled as global inequality continues to widen. The MDGs are to be updated to 2030 at the December 2015 Conference in Paris. While we see that international agreements are important, they are not sufficient to sustain change in human behavior. That is why Francis’s emphasis on the model of St. Francis of Assisi and on Catholic Social Teaching in this regard will be so meaningful. Michael Peppard, a Fordham University theologian, explained this third principle in the March 10 issue of Commonweal: “The twin problems of inequality and climate change cannot be addressed merely through secular institutions… The Catholic tradition, as a truly global community engaged in the quest for justice, is well positioned to bring about this conversion of heart through integral ecology.
  4. The call to dialogue and a new global solidarity. Undoubtedly, Pope Francis will emphasize that it is this change occurring in human hearts in which the good of the human person, and not the pursuit of profit, is the key value that directs our search for the universal common good. Michael Peppard seems right on target when he observes that these themes have been a constant in Francis’s pontificate. Even in his very first homily back in March 2013 he spoke about the need for care of people in poverty, the care for creation, and the horizon of hope.

The Importance of the Encyclical

If Turkson’s lecture this month is a harbinger of the encyclical we can expect from Pope Francis this summer, then we will have in one place the nexus binding his pontificate into a unified whole. Francis has endeared himself to many throughout the world for continually referring to solidarity with people in poverty and living this principle in his own life. At the same time, he has consistently linked ecological decline to the anguish of those who are poor and vulnerable. And he has frequently connected care for people in poverty and care for creation with Catholic Social Teaching.

The timing of the encyclical — summer 2015 — is significant because it is midway between the Lima Accord achieved in December 2014 and its finalization in Paris in December 2015. It was in Lima that, for the first time, 195 member-nations in the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change agreed to make commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The mid-November 2014 deal that President Obama made with China to reduce its greenhouse gases gave needed momentum to the Lima talks. Francis’s encyclical on the environment should be published by July 2015 and one hopes that it will serve as a similar impetus to nations in Paris.

Francis will also be addressing the U. S. Congress in September 2015, and one certainly anticipates that global inequality and care for the earth will be primary issues for discussion and will serve as an energizing challenge to this country in its response to both issues.

While we hope that Francis’s efforts carry even more momentum for Paris than Obama’s did for Lima, theNational Catholic Reporter editorial staff maintained in early January that in Paris it will be a long, hard fight against vested interests in the fossil fuel industry and those who wish to protect the economic status quo.

On March 3, Vatican Radio cited the words of the British scientist, Sir David King who currently serves as the UK’s special representative on climate change. Asked about the role of Pope Francis on the issue of climate change, King said, “Pope Francis has already had an impact and in the run-up to the meeting in Paris I think his impact is almost immeasurable.”

Protecting Creation, People in Poverty, and Future Generations

Clive Hamilton, an Australian Professor of Public Ethics, reminds us that on several occasions, Francis has spoken of the way humans have greedily exploited the environment and contrasted that with the imperative to care for it responsibly in order to protect the interests of people in poverty and future generations. Francis has called for a new model of development, one that will respect the environment rather than degrade it, one not based only on self-interest. Hamilton wonders whether Francis is moving towards a position in which the earth becomes sacramental, indicating a channel for God’s grace. This belief is certainly not pantheistic nor does it seem likely that Francis will embrace Leonardo Boff’s belief that ultimately God is present in the world in the form of “energy” that is the Holy Spirit.

What is more likely is that Pope Francis will, with Boff, eschew the compulsion many humans have to turn always to a technological response on the principle that “if we can do it, we must do it.” The practical implication of the latter belief is that Francis will probably oppose those advocates of geoengineering who propose spraying the upper atmosphere with a layer of sulfate particles in order to reduce the amount of solar radiation reaching the earth, if cutting greenhouse gas emissions proves impossible to attain.

Pope Francis would tend to see such an illustration of geoengineering as an abdication of our responsibility to care for creation as well as an expression of human hubris that is tantamount to “domination of creation” rather than the loving care he calls for. What is more interesting is whether he will be forced to support geoengineering in this instance because of the dilemma of how climate change will affect people in poverty. All indications are that those with the least ability to adapt will be affected first and worst in any climate change scenario.

An Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report clearly states that people who are socially, economically and institutionally marginalized are especially vulnerable to climate change. Poor rural communities, in particular, and those with limited access to land, modern agricultural inputs, infrastructure and education will be disproportionately affected.

John Abraham, writing in The Guardian in early January, noted that he had asked Michael Naughton, Professor of Catholic Studies at the University of St. Thomas in England, to give Francis’s perspective on the connection between care for people in poverty and care for creation. Naughton said, “Francis will no doubt, in his punchy and prophetic tone, draw our attention to a market system that too often treats the environment like a commodity in what he describes as a ‘throw-away’ culture. As he is never tired of repeating, the poor suffer the most from our ecological crisis. He will confront this ‘logic of the market’ with a ‘logic of gift’ that views the earth to be shared with all of humanity — a gift in need of great care and attention.”

It was clear that his environmental encyclical was foremost in his thoughts when Pope Francis visited the Philippines in January. A wide swath of the central Philippines was destroyed by a very powerful tropical cyclone, fed by warming of the ocean, in November 2013. While meeting survivors, the pope clearly showed not only his compassion, but also his understanding that the issues of climate change and human development are intertwined.

In a celebration of Sunday Mass in Manila where 6 million people gathered to hear the pope’s words, he said that God “created the world as a beautiful garden and asked us to care for it. Through sin, man has disfigured that natural beauty. Through sin, man has also destroyed the unity and beauty of our human family, creating social structures that perpetuate poverty, ignorance and corruption.” This statement is a good example of the interrelatedness of global inequality and care for creation, referred to above by Cardinal Turkson.

Eco-theologians globally of diverse faiths have drawn inspiration from Pope Francis’s efforts. Rabbi Lawrence Troster and Jeff Korgen write in their blog for the “Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions” that many faith leaders have articulated values deeply consistent with the themes that will probably be shared by Francis this coming summer and that they would do well to support his encyclical. Among the themes Troster and Korgen list are ones noted above, such as:

  • The earth is a gift from God and reflects divinely ordained beauty and order.
  • Human beings must act as the stewards and protectors of this order.
  • Those who are poor and excluded suffer the worst effects of pollution and climate change.
  • Nature’s destruction derives from a mentality of greed.
  • Harm to others caused by pollution is a structural sin.


It is clear that we have been entrusted by God to care for creation in all its variety, not just for our use but because of its intrinsic worth. We are mere custodians or stewards of God’s gifts to us and believe we must protect them for the future and willingly share them with the less fortunate among us. This belief means that everyone, especially members of the human family who are poor and vulnerable, deserve access to the gifts of creation that are necessary for life and human dignity. We decry human exploitation and the greed from which this behavior emanates. If we are sincere in our beliefs, we look forward to Pope Francis’s upcoming encyclical and will work hard in our respective jurisdictions to influence others to understand the implications of “integral ecology” and to act upon it.

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