This afternoon I was interviewed by journalist Sarah Posner of Religion Dispatches for a piece she is doing for Al Jazeera America on what faith-rooted environmental activists anticipate from Pope Francis’ upcoming encyclical on climate crisis. “Laudato Sii: Sulla Cura Della Casa Comune” (“Blessed are You: Concerning the Care of our Common Home)” will be published online June 16th in five languages, anticipating the pope’s meeting with President Obama and his address to Congress and the UN General Assembly in September, as well as December’s 21st U.N. conference on climate change in Paris. Here are three hopeful aspects of the encyclical I spoke with Sarah about.
This encyclical, Francis’ second, will confirm the scientific consensus about the urgent disaster of climate change. It is being enthusiastically received by many scientists for being able to get “a message across to a segment of society that the scientific community could never do,” as Jeff Kiehl of the National Center for Atmospheric Research put it in yesterday’s USA Today. Similarly, NASA climatologist Gavin Schmidt believes “the pope’s encyclical is probably going to have a bigger impact than the Paris negotiations.” To underline the Vatican’s commitment to climate science, the message will be introduced by a Catholic cardinal, a Christian Orthodox church leader and a climate scientist identified as an atheist. While Francis’ approach will (and already has) drawn the ire of the secular and religious right (including Catholics like John Boehner), it should significantly change the public conversation, and will be a great help to those of us trying to move churches beyond ambivalence.
Francis’ approach to the issue through the lens of social justice will strengthen those working on climate crisis as a deepening expression of racism and inequality. This pope is already outspoken about the unacceptability of global poverty and wealth concentration; Ghanaian cardinal Peter Turkson, president of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace who will launch the encyclical, emphasized to The Guardian last Saturday that “much of the world remains in poverty, despite abundant resources, while a privileged global elite controls the bulk of the world’s wealth and consumes the bulk of its resources.” This way of framing the environmental crisis will help us with the often difficult task of overcoming the balkanization between ecological and social justice sectors, and encourage those working at intersectionality. It will also doubly piss off the religious right.
The leadership by Francis is animating broader and deeper ecumenical and interfaith efforts to speak and act into this crisis. Rabbi Arthur Waskow of the Shalom Center in Philadelphia responded to the Pope’s initiative by drafting and circulating a “Rabbinic Letter on the Climate Crisis,” which more than 340 rabbis have signed. Waskow also points out that June 18 is the first day of Ramadan, wondering whether this reflects a “deep ecumenism” on Francis’ part, and pointing out that “leading American Muslim organizations and teachers have this year called for ‘Green Ramadan,’ focusing on acting with care for all Creation.” And this encyclical will surely spur the widespread “creation care” movement that has been building among North American churches to deepen its work.
For those of us on the ground organizing and educating among faith communities, Francis’ encyclical is a ray of moral imagination amidst the darkness of political and cultural gridlock around climate catastrophe. I recommend we all pay attention both to the content of and the reactions to this historic message.