ANALYSIS

Getting ahead of the spin on the pope’s environmental encyclical

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On Wednesday I was at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota, to talk about Pope Francis’ feverishly anticipated encyclical letter on the environment. In effect, I was asked to deliver some predictions about what to expect.

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As I said that night, the great thing about predicting the future is that in the moment you do it, you can’t possibly be wrong. Futurology is like what Bob Dole once said of the vice presidency: It’s a great gig, because it’s indoor work and there’s no heavy lifting.

The anticipation is nonetheless understandable. As veteran Catholic writer Russell Shaw recently observed, probably no papal document in recent history has been subjected to such intense dissection and reaction before it appears. In some ways the release, now officially set for June 18, may feel almost anti-climactic.

Rather than another set of forecasts about the encyclical’s content, here I’ll offer four predictions about how it’s likely to be spun and miscast in the early round of insta-analysis.

Spin No. 1: The encyclical is a political manifesto
Headlines on Day One are likely to read, “Pope backs strong limits on greenhouse gas emissions.” The impression will be that Francis has issued a political manifesto aligning himself with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, if not Greenpeace.

That take won’t be entirely wrong. Francis is indeed likely to accept the scientific consensus that global warming and climate change are real, and that human activity is the main cause. He’ll almost certainly call on nations to take strong action to address it.

He already said as much to reporters aboard the papal plane from Sri Lanka to the Philippines last January, asserting that it’s “mostly” human beings who have “slapped nature around.” He said he wanted to encyclical to come out this summer so it could influence a UN summit in Paris later this year, calling for “more courageous” choices.

No doubt, there will also be a strong emphasis on poverty, including the argument that the world’s poor often bear the most severe consequences of climatic disruption. That, too, is a point with a political edge.

Nonetheless, the encyclical will not be primarily a political call for action.

Instead, Laudato Sii, the reported title of the encyclical (meaning “Praised Be”), will almost certainly be a work in moral theology. The chief concern will be the common good, asking how someone of conscience should behave both toward others and toward the environment.

As a result, it’s probably inaccurate even to describe this as an encyclical “on the environment,” and certainly not as the pope’s “climate change encyclical.”

It will be a theological meditation taking its point of departure from biblical teaching on God’s creation, in which climate change is an important, but secondary, extrapolation. The pope’s intended audience won’t be political gatherings, at least in the first place, but individual people, among other things calling for simpler and more sustainable lifestyle choices.

The ambition of the document, in other words, won’t be to change the political landscape, but rather individual hearts. The underlying conviction will be that if you re-orient lives and attitudes, the politics will take care of itself.

Spin No. 2: The encyclical is a dramatic break with Catholic tradition
The problem with Francis’ reputation as a maverick is that people are tempted to think absolutely everything he says or does is a novelty. In fact, this encyclical is not a reversal of tradition – it is the tradition.

More recently, St. John Paul II devoted a 1990 message for the World Day of Peace entirely to environmental themes, applauding a growing ecological awareness and asserting that the greenhouse effect “has now reached crisis proportions.”
In 2002, John Paul signed a common ecological declaration with Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, the first among equals of Orthodox prelates, calling on humanity to “repent” for its mistreatment of the environment.

As for Benedict XVI, his statements on ecology were so voluminous he was dubbed the “Green Pope.” In a 2010 message on the subject, he insisted there will be neither justice nor peace without strong environmental commitment.

(I still recall the opening of my story the day those panels went online: “For two millennia, the Catholic Church has claimed to draw on the power of the Son. As of today, however, it’s also drawing on the power of the Sun.”)

Under Benedict, the Pontifical Academy for Sciences released a 2010 report on climate change recommending that world leaders cut carbon dioxide emissions, reduce existing pollution, and prepare for the inevitable impacts of a changing climate.

In other words, Francis isn’t overturning previous popes. He’s carrying their legacy forward.

Spin No. 3: The encyclical represents a reconciliation between religion and science
For a prediction-within-a-prediction, my forecast is that the second most common proper name you’ll hear in coverage of the encyclical is Galileo, as pundits insist that Francis is reversing the Church’s traditional animus for science.

While the Galileo episode reflects real tensions that have arisen periodically, the truth is that few institutions on earth have been greater promoters of scientific inquiry than the Catholic Church.

One could go on cataloging examples, such as the fact that the father of modern genetics was a 19th-century Augustinian monk, but the point should be clear: As long as science doesn’t try to scrub God out of the equation, the Church is actually a big fan.

Bottom line: By embracing the majority opinion in climate research today and harnessing the resources of the Church to do something about it, Pope Francis is not engaging in a kiss-and-make-up exercise with science. Instead, he’s writing another chapter in the story of a long relationship which, over the centuries, has seen more ups than downs.

Spin No. 4: The encyclical confirms Francis as a leftist
Impressions of Francis as a left-wing radical have proven stubbornly resistant to correction, even when he says or does things that clearly cut in a different direction.

For instance, Francis has used language on abortion from which even some of the most outspoken US anti-abortion activists might shrink, calling it “horrific.” He’s defended marriage as a union between a man and a woman, and has denounced what he calls the “ideological colonization” of the developing world by Western powers attempting to compel it to adopt liberal secular values.

There’s also the towering point that he’s been pope for more than two years, and has yet to change a single comma in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, including a firm “no” to female priests.

In a soundbite, he’s not Che Guevara in a cassock.

Basically, Francis appears to see himself as a Latin American pastor who takes Church teaching and tradition for granted, and who tries to bring it to bear on situations of suffering he’s seen with his own eyes.

Attempting to read his agenda, including Laudato Sii, as a boost for any political alignment thus is destined to get him wrong.

(John L. Allen Jr. is associate editor of Crux, specializing in coverage of the Vatican and the Catholic Church and also an associate editor of The Boston Globe, which carries his Sunday column, All Things Catholic.)

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