With only a few months left until the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference, Pope Francis released the very first encyclical on the environment, in hopes of persuading policymakers and the public to take action against climate change. On June 18, Pope Francis published Laudato Si (“Praised Be”), an almost 200-page encyclical warning the public about environmental degradation and what needs to be done to fight it. The title of the document, a quotation from St. Francis of Assisi’s prayer “Canticle of the Sun,” refers to a reading of the Bible that likens humans to be Earth’s partners, rather than its dominators.

In addition to writing about a topic that no Pope has ever written about before, Pope Francis makes some audacious moves with Laudato Si. For instance, instead of addressing the church hierarchy, the usual audience for encyclicals, Pope Francis addresses all 7 billion people on our planet, stating that he would like to “enter into dialogue with all people about our common home." The subtitle of the document, Sulla cura della casa commune (“On the care for our common home”) stresses this need to engage everyone in a discussion about Earth’s finite resources.

What is an Encyclical?
Encyclicals, or “circulated letters,” are the second most important form of papal declaration (only topped by apostolic constitutions). This is technically Pope Francis’s second encyclical as he was tasked with finishing Pope Benedict XVI’s Lumen Fidei (“The Light of Faith”) in June 2013.

The Pope, with his scientific background as a chemist, and with guidance from a handful of scientists and economists, explores all the issues related to climate change—from its causes to its impacts. Within the first few pages, Pope Francis lays out the major environmental problems that are affecting our world, including pollution and climate change, the depletion of natural resources, and the loss of biodiversity. Staying true to his name (Saint Francis is the “Protector of the Poor”), Francis focuses on environmental justice. He voices the concerns of many of the poorer communities in the world, noting that they have had little impact on the warming of the globe, yet have had to endure many of the negative externalities. He hopes that developed countries will stop their self-centered ways of consumption and help poor nations as they seek to adapt to the impacts of climate change.

While Pope Francis encourages individuals to take small actions like “avoiding the use of plastic and paper, reducing water consumption, separating refuse, cooking only what can reasonably be consumed, showing care for other living beings, using public transport or car-pooling, planting trees, [and] turning off unnecessary lights,” he criticizes politicians for not being sufficiently ambitious to tackle global warming. In particular, Francis disagrees with those who believe that “problems of global hunger and poverty will be resolved simply by market growth” and dismisses technological development as the answer to our problems.

The Pope has received some criticism for taking a stand on environmental issues, and Catholics are far from united on whether climate action needs to be taken. Anticipating the Pope’s encyclical, the Pew Research Center published a study on June 16 about how U.S. Catholics view climate change. The study found that Catholics were divided in much the same way as the general public, with a higher number of Catholic Democrats accepting the reality of climate change than Catholic Republicans. It remains to be seen whether Pope Francis's encyclical will change minds.

Pope Francis himself is hopeful that action will be taken: “Yet all is not lost. Human beings, while capable of the worst, are also capable of rising above themselves, choosing again what is good, and making a new start, despite their mental and social conditioning.”


Author: Sharmen Hettipola