Pope Francis to issue decree on faith, climate
LOUISVILLE, Ky. — When the Rev. Gary Padgett plans to speak on the politically charged issue of climate change to a Catholic congregation, he undertakes a delicate process.
He said he avoids "talking points," keeps language ambiguous and tries to show how care for what he describes as God's creation is relevant to people's lives and faith. "I am thinking how am I going to craft my message so that it can be heard," said Padgett, the former Ascension parish priest who now heads the St. James and
St. Brigid parishes in the Highlands. "If they are polarized, it's hard for them to come into church and hear that."
Catholic pastors like Padgett, other leaders and parishioners in Louisville and around the world who are concerned about climate change will soon be getting some guidance.
Pope Francis is planning to inject a major dose of ethics and morality into the problem of a warming planet, and how humanity should respond to scientists' warnings of costly, deadly climate disruption in the decades and centuries ahead.
This summer he's planning to release a papal encyclical, a letter to the 3,000 Catholic bishops, that officials expect will offer guidance on how Catholic theology views the relationship between humans and God's creation.
Experts said it is the most significant type of communication any pope can make. It would also be the first encyclical to address the environment and climate change.
The impact may be felt far beyond the Catholic Church and its 1.2 billion followers because of the pope's huge audience, popularity and gravitas.
"It has the potential to be a real game changer," said Norman Wirzba, professor of theology, ecology and rural life at Duke University.
Other popes have raised the alarm about the environment and even climate change.
But an encyclical carries much more weight. And while Francis' letter has not leaked out yet, Vatican officials have been outspoken about their concern for how humans are damaging the planet, identifying fossil fuels such as coal that emit climate pollution as an urgent concern.
It's prompted a backlash from some camps, including some conservative religious circles and the libertarian, free-market Chicago-based
Heartland Institute, which denies mainstream climate science.
"The Holy Father is being misled by 'experts' at the
United Nations who have proven unworthy of his trust," said Heartland Institute President Joseph Bast in a recent statement. "Though Pope Francis' heart is surely in the right place, he would do his flock and the world a disservice by putting his moral authority behind the United Nations' unscientific agenda on the climate."
The pope's advisers, however, see an urgent threat.
"The scientific community is telling us there isn't much time," said the Rev. Michael F. Czerny, a Jesuit priest and counselor to
Cardinal Peter Turkson, who is the leader of the peace and justice arm of the Vatican that has been developing the document.
Czerny was in Louisville recently for the Festival of Faiths. "If we have been slow, we have to catch up, or at least not miss the train entirely," he said in an interview.
Czerny noted the landmark 1992 United Nations Earth Summit and a resulting treaty with its objective of stabilizing greenhouse gases.
"Its recommendations have largely been ignored," Czerny added.
ADDRESS TO CONGRESS
Czerny said he does not know exactly what the pope's communication will say.
But he noted the pope in January said he wanted the letter to be useful to diplomats who are working on a new climate change treaty that seeks to blunt dangerous climate change, leading up to a U.N. summit in Paris later this year. In that same news conference, the pope said people "have exploited nature too much."
The pope also is scheduled this fall to speak before a joint meeting of Congress — a first for any pope.
Congress has been unable to agree on any sweeping climate protection legislation.
The pope's words could reach Congress on different terms, Wirzba said.
With "faith and morality," Wirzba said, "immediately there is common ground, when you talk about children and grandchildren."
Rob Steurer, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader
Mitch McConnell, declined to comment for this story.
Archdiocese of Louisville, Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz said the encyclical will likely prompt discussion, action and an "institutional response." The archdiocese serves 200,000 Catholics in 111 parishes in 24 counties in central Kentucky.
"I suspect our Holy Father is going to try to pinpoint what is distinctive about Catholic theology and what Catholic theology can bring to the environment," Kurtz said.
Kurtz said he anticipates it will explore something called "integral ecology," which was discussed earlier this year in a speech by Cardinal Turkson.
In the speech in
Ireland, Turkson said integral ecology provides "the basis for authentic and sustainable approaches to human development."
Kurtz said it involves human ecology and natural ecology, bringing them together as one. The pope has also talked a lot about the problem of a "throw-away culture," Kurtz added, "where we disrespect people and we disrespect things, and we tend to turn in on ourselves."
Within the faith, he said the pope's words will cause some Catholics and parishes to look at their own contributions to global warming, and consider ways to reduce their carbon footprints.
The pope's letter will also factor into the work of the
U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said Kurtz, the president of that group, the official organization of the Catholic hierarchy in the United States.
"This is going to have a mighty effect when we take positions on specific pieces of legislation" in Congress, he added.
The biggest asset the pope brings to the table is a very large base of popularity, said
University of Louisville political science assistant professor David Buckley, whose expertise includes religion, science and politics.
The pope has the potential to bridge a gap between white evangelicals and the religiously unaffiliated, "one of the most conservative sectors of the electorate and one of the most liberal sectors of the electorate," Buckley said.
Polling also shows that Catholics in the United States are likely to be receptive of a papal statement on climate change, he added.
But a key question, Buckley said, is whether religious concern for the environment gets translated into political action, and that's where real differences can emerge, especially with white evangelicals who are skeptical of government power.
"Evangelicals are going to be very suspicious," said the Rev.
Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville.
He said he agrees with a Christian imperative to care for creation and be stewards of the Earth. But he said he is leery of "conversations about climate change as anti-human, that human beings are a blight on the planet. Human beings are not a blight on the planet.
"It will be interesting to see the balance the pope strikes."