In the most widely anticipated and publicized papal encyclical to date, Pope Francis has urged Catholics as well as all of humanity to make creation care a priority.
The encyclical is wide ranging, speaking boldly throughout about the imperative that Christians have to take care of God’s creation and noting the frequent moral failure of humanity to do so.
Christian leaders and organizations have spoken and written about the biblical call to take care of creation for decades.
For example, EthicsDaily.com has made it a priority to provide resources on the environment and creation care, as has Catholic Climate Covenant, Mennonite Creation Care Network and the United Methodist Church Caretakers of God’s Creation initiative, to name only a few.
Yet, what Francis brings to the issue is both global visibility and unprecedented gravitas.
Some have suggested that the pope’s influence might help change the course of climate discussion, environmental protection (creation care) engagement.
There has been a buzz for months leading up to the document’s release, with speculation about what would be included, how the issue would be framed, what the results would be.
Its release was a leading topic on my Twitter feed last Thursday and has been covered in every major news source. A few headlines provide insight on how the document has been interpreted, received:
“Pope Francis, in Sweeping Encyclical, Calls for Swift Action on Climate Change,” read the New York Times, while the Washington Post framed it as, “Release of encyclical reveals pope’s deep dive into climate science.”
The Guardian emphasized the pope’s focus on climate change’s impact on the poor: “Pope’s climate change encyclical tells rich nations: ‘Pay your debt to the poor.'” The Telegraph focused on the sections on energy sources: “Pope calls for end to fossil fuels – as it happened.”
Headlines are designed to capture attention, seeking to entice a reader to click a link and read an article.
The titles above don’t necessarily mislead, but they don’t tell the whole story. They focus on specific emphases within the 82-page document, which can skew perspectives about the overall tone, approach and content of the publication.
Reports about global events are the primary means by which we obtain daily news.
Yet news is not neutral, and, therefore, our opinion is shaped by how the coverage we view or read frames the issues.
Sometimes this is unavoidable (we cannot be on hand for every event or speech, for example), but the encyclical is available online in multiple languages via the Vatican.
While news articles and opinion pieces about the document should be read, Christians must not rely exclusively on second-hand information. A PDF of the English edition is available here.
After reading quickly through much of the encyclical, five observations came to mind.
1. The pope does not mince words, stating his position clearly from the beginning.
“Our common home is like a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us,” Francis began his teaching document, citing the canticle of his namesake, Francis of Assisi.
“This sister now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her. We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will,” Francis bluntly stated after this brief introduction.
2. The encyclical is informed strongly by the biblical witness, substantiated by previous papal statements, Christian tradition, Catholic social teaching and science.
Biblical references appear throughout the document, connecting the failure of humans to exercise dominion properly over creation with sinfulness.
Francis emphasized humanity’s connection to creation, citing the Lenten reminder from Genesis 2:7 – “we ourselves are dust.”
Statements by Catholic bishops and previous encyclicals by Popes John XXIII, Paul VI, John Paul II and Benedict XVI were cited, emphasizing their urging of global Catholics to prioritize environmental concern and to recognize the negative consequences of failing to do so.
“These statements of the Popes echo the reflections of numerous scientists, philosophers, theologians and civic groups, all of which have enriched the Church’s thinking on these questions,” Francis wrote.
3. This teaching document seeks to find common ground on climate change to encourage collaboration for the common good.
The pope expressed appreciation for, and the desire to collaborate with, people “outside the Catholic Church, other Churches and Christian communities – and other religions as well – [who] have expressed deep concern and offered valuable reflections on issues which all of us find disturbing.”
He quotes, at length, Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I, of the Eastern Orthodox Church, “with whom,” Francis said, “we share the hope of full ecclesial communion.”
Bartholomew praised the encyclical, noting the positive impact of the papal focus on the earth as “our common home.”
“Above any doctrinal differences that may characterize the various Christian confessions and beyond any religious disagreements that may separate the various faith communities, the earth unites us in a unique and extraordinary manner,” he said.
This reiterates the pope’s emphasis that “the urgent challenge to protect our common home includes a concern to bring the whole human family together to seek a sustainable and integral development.”
4. The encyclical addresses more than climate change and creation care.
While the environment is a central focus, the pontiff emphasizes the interconnectedness of all aspects of life by addressing additional topics.
There is discussion of labor and work, economics and governance, technology and scientific discovery, treatment of the poor (with regards to the environment but also more generally), and the sanctity of life, to name a few.
In chapter 4, titled “Integral Ecology,” he discusses not only humanity’s relationship with creation, but also with economics, society, culture and daily life.
These reflections urge the pursuit of the common good, which, the pope said, is about “respect for the human person,” “the overall welfare of society” and “social peace.”
5. It is a pastoral document that, like any good sermon, “comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable.”
It avoids academic jargon and partisan politics, which often derail discussions, choosing to speak plainly and passionately about the issues.
He doesn’t “pull his punches” but neither is he intentionally provocative. Francis, therefore, offers religious, social and political leaders a model for how to effectively engage this and other issues facing our global community.
I experienced both comfort and affliction in reading the pope’s words – being encouraged by his boldness in proclaiming the necessity of creation care to address climate change and afflicted by that same courageous speech that caused me to recognize the ways that I contribute to the problem.
The extensive coverage of the encyclical indicates the breadth of its impact, which will likely continue to reverberate for some time.
I hope it proves to be a watershed moment for environmental discussions and initiatives, not only within the Catholic Church but also throughout the Christian faith tradition, and, even more broadly, the global conversations about taking care of “our common home.”
The encyclical offers this possibility. But it must be read before it can be applied.
Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of articles offering Baptist responses to the papal encyclical on the environment.