As the world celebrates Earth Day on Wednesday, Pope Francis is planning to use one of the highest forms of papal expression — an encyclical — to promote climate action to save the planet as a moral and religious imperative.
In recent weeks, Vatican officials have outlined what the document will say and are choreographing its release — perhaps as early as June — for maximum global impact beyond the Roman Catholic Church’s 1.2 billion members.
Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami, who chairs a panel dealing with environmental issues for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said the encyclical has “gone to the translators, so it’s at the end of its birthing process.”
First on the promotional agenda is an April 28 Vatican conference where United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon will be a keynote speaker. The goal is to advance the morality argument that is a theme of the encyclical.
Then on successive days beginning Sept. 23, the pope will visit the White House, address a joint session of Congress — the first pontiff to do so — and address the U.N. General Assembly at the beginning of a summit on sustainable development.
“The timing of the encyclical is significant,” Cardinal Peter Turkson told a university audience in Ireland last month. “2015 is a critical year for humanity. … The coming 10 months are crucial.”
The Ghanian cardinal, who heads the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace and who helped draft the encyclical, said all events lead to Paris in December, when nations will gather to debate how to slow or reduce global warming. He described the core message of the encyclical as “human ecology,” arguing that global economic inequality — a theme Francis has frequently raised — is inextricably linked to climate change.
The encyclical will urge that saving the environment is saving humanity, particularly the poorest, who are disproportionately impacted by global warming, Turkson said.
Francis hopes the document will “shape the discussion in Paris,” Wenski said.
Climate change activists are ecstatic. “He, along with the Dali Lama and a few rock stars, are the most popular people on the planet right now,” said Mary Evelyn Tucker, director of the Forum on Religion and Ecology at Yale University. “He has moral authority and efficacy.”
Skeptics are apprehensive. Pope Francis has fallen into “apocalyptic alarmism,” Maureen Mullarkey wrote in the conservative Catholic publication First Things in January. He is, she said, “bending theology to premature (and) intemperate policy endorsements.”
Climate scientists frustrated that their warnings are not stirring appropriate public concern about dangers to the planet see the encyclical, which will be passed down through Catholic university teaching and parish ministries, as achieving greater penetration than ever in raising awareness. “I think it has the potential to be seismic,” said Thomas Lovejoy, professor in the environmental science and policy department at George Mason University.
The document will land as a record number of Catholics declare or consider presidential runs for 2016: Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Bobby Jindal, Chris Christie and Rick Santorum, all whom either disagree with Francis’ views in part or entirely.
The White House, which supports steps to combat global warming, praised the pope’s stance. White House spokesman Frank Benenati said last week that “we welcome the pope’s attention and immeasurable influence to this global issue.”
Francis will “be a voice on this issue, which will … take into account the science,” said Wenski. “But he’ll be a voice of a pastor, a voice that will talk about the poor having first claim on our conscience in matters pertaining to the common good and (how) policies made about climate change will affect the common good.”