Pope Francis’ climate change encyclical expected to make global impact

May 30, 2015
By Ed Stannard
New Haven Register

Pope Francis’ much anticipated encyclical about climate change will make a major impact throughout the Roman Catholic Church and beyond, propelled by the severity of the issue and the pope’s personal popularity, say religious and environmental leaders in Connecticut.

According to Mary Evelyn Tucker, who teaches in Yale’s schools of Forestry and Environmental Studies, Divinity and Law, “This is the most important thing that will happen in our lifetime on the environment.” Tucker, a Catholic, coordinates the Forum on Religion and Ecology at Yale with her husband, John Grim.

“It’s important because this is the moment when the moral and ethical issues of the environmental movement will be visible” and taken seriously in a religious sense, Tucker said. “Science and policy are necessary but not sufficient to solve these problems” of climate change and the related issues of sustainable development and environmental justice, she said.

“We need to see these issues as moral,” she said; global warming threatens God’s creation, which is sacred.

“The pope’s encyclical puts this on another level of moral import,” Tucker said.

Release of the encyclical is the first of three events anticipated by environmentalists in and outside the churches. Next will be the pope’s speech at the United Nations in September. Then, on Nov. 30, the 12-day-long U.N. Climate Change Conference, known as COP-21, will open in Paris, involving almost 200 nations.

The Rev. James Manship, pastor of St. Rose of Lima Church in New Haven, said his mostly Latino congregation knows well how pollution and climate change affects their families in nations such as Guatemala and Ecuador, where Chinese mineral mining creates poisonous runoff into drinking water.

“I think there’s going to be a little bit for everybody in this encyclical,” Manship said. “Climate affects everybody and I think it’s going to affect a lot of folks and their family members back home.”

Manship said Pope Francis, who is from Argentina, is listened to closely by his Hispanic parishioners. “Anything that the pope has been saying, he’s really been getting us in the church to think in a much clearer … way about living out our faith.”

Teresa Berger, professor of Catholic theology and liturgical studies at Yale Divinity School, said the world is in an “ecological crisis” and that the pope’s message, expected in June or July, will offer “some guideposts and challenges in terms of how to respond to this crisis.”

While no one knows exactly what the encyclical will say, Berger said “there are some informed guesses to be made because some of the people with whom he has been in conversation on the subject have spoken about the overarching themes.” She said Francis’ message is likely to be directed at both developed and developing nations and will address “the tension between legitimate desires for better standards of living and the issue of sustainability.”

She said three things are coming together: “a charismatic pope … with a huge appeal, an environmental crisis that demands everybody’s attention” and “the fact that he is taking charge … at a time when other institutions are grappling with this important issue.”

However in a church of 1.2 billion followers, there are those “who are a bit worried about the position the pope will take,” Berger said. “Not everybody … is enthusiastic about this.”

This month, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican secretary of state, called for a development model that combines economic growth with low-carbon, energy-efficient technology, according to The Associated Press.

“When the future of the planet is at stake, there are no political frontiers, barriers or walls behind which we can hide to protect ourselves from the effects of environmental and social degradation,” Parolin said at a conference of business and church leaders. “There is no room for the globalization of indifference, the economy of exclusion or the throwaway culture so often denounced by Pope Francis.”

Parolin continued, “We can foster economic growth and mitigate climate risk at the same time. In fact, this is the only way to achieve long-term, sustained economic growth, and through it to alleviate poverty for the millions of souls that need, demand and deserve it.”

Deacon Art Miller, executive director of the Office of Black Catholic Ministries in the Archdiocese of Hartford, said the poor are most vulnerable because “those who live in impoverished environments more often than not live in places where there is more pollution.”

But he said the issue is “deeper than that. … There are no walls against polluted air. What happens everywhere affects everywhere.

“I’m worried about the community, both the poor who are underserved but [also] the Earth” and everyone who lives on the planet, Miller said.


Environmentalists outside the Catholic Church are looking forward to Francis’ encyclical, as well.

“There’s been quite a bit of buzz about it,” said Pam Arifian, a member of the United Church of Christ and director of the Environmental Justice Center at Silver Lake Conference Center in Sharon.

“The UCC has taken a stand a long time ago about understanding the human contribution to climate change and understanding our response as people of faith to mitigating and solving the problem,” Arifian said.

Reducing carbon emissions, the major cause of global warming, is a matter not only of saving the climate but of justice, Arifian said. Often it is the poor and those in the inner city who live closest to aging, carbon-emitting power plants and are denied access to clean air and water. “Those who suffer the most are the ones who are on the front lines and (in) the lower-income communities, who can’t just pick up and move,” she said.

At a conference at Yale in April, Dean Peter Crane of the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies made the connection between climate change and environmental justice. “The encyclical will re-emphasize that the world’s most vulnerable people shoulder the greatest environmental burdens — and that it is the health and daily lives of the poor that are, and will be, most impacted by environmental degradation,” he said. Crane added, “The encyclical will give new prominence to the ethical and moral dimensions of environmental degradation — including climate change.”

Terri Eickel, director of the Inter-Religious Eco-Justice Network in Connecticut, said she believes the encyclical will have a major impact. Francis is “not afraid to speak very boldly and very plainly,” she said.

Eickel, a member of First Baptist Church in West Hartford, said the environment is a moral issue that is based in Scripture. She cited John 3:16, which begins, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son,” and Psalm 24, “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it.” She noted that the verses refer to the whole world, not just people.

“They are both holistic and all-encompassing,” Eickel said. “They make a point to not just say ‘mankind.’ We as people have become so accustomed to see ourselves as the pinnacle of everything.” On the other hand, we are stewards who are given responsibility to care for the Earth, she said.

Eickel also said she believes the pope’s ability to communicate, including in social media, will help bring wide attention to climate change, especially among younger people, for whom the environment is a primary issue. “If we are not addressing an issue like climate change, which is so important to young people today … they look at us as religious communities and wonder where our moral relevance is,” she said.

“The man has credibility at this point, so when he speaks clearly about an issue like this, I think people are going to listen,” Eickel said.

This is not the first statement by a pope on the environment, but it’s expected to have the largest impact because of the problem has become critical and because of Francis’ wide popularity.

Pope Paul VI was the first to address the issue in 1972 in a statement to the Stockholm Conference on the Environment called “A Hospitable Earth for Future Generations.”