Pope Francis joins global battle to "save the planet"Published by MAC on 2015-01-17
Source: Canberra Times (2015-01-14)
In two months time, Pope Francis will publish an encyclical as the first of a three actions, aimed at mobilising the world's Catholics behind the movement against adverse climate change.
Climate-change encyclical may lay ground for UN progress
14 January 2015
This is the year the Catholic Church will join the battle to save the planet; as Bishop Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo, chancellor of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, stated, "2015 could be a decisive year in history".
From the start of his pontificate Pope Francis indicated his intention to publish an encyclical on the environment. Encyclicals are the most authoritative documents a pope can issue, and it has become increasingly clear that global warming will be its central theme.
Previous popes – both John Paul II and Benedict XVI – referred to the environment and climate change in various communications, and committed the Vatican City to being carbon neutral, but this will be the first time a pope will have dedicated an entire encyclical to it.
The forthcoming encyclical could be compared with the first major encyclical on Catholic social teaching, Rerum Novarum, issued by Pope Leo XIII in 1891.
Faced with the emerging labour union movement, Leo's encyclical provided both encouragement for, and an endorsement of Catholic engagement with, unions. It provided a moral legitimation for unions as a response to the widespread exploitation of labour in the workplace.
So too the promised encyclical on the environment will provide both encouragement for, and a call to Catholics to engage with, the environmental movement. It will throw the moral authority of the Catholic Church behind the movement and commit the church to ongoing contributions to the environmental debate.
The focus on climate change may perhaps come as a surprise to Australian Catholics who have been accustomed to the denialism of Cardinal George Pell. While Cardinal Pell's position was not in the Catholic mainstream on this issue, his outspoken stance led many to think that the Church as a whole was in denial on global warming. This encyclical will dispel that misconception.
Pope Francis's stance will be supported by reports from the Pontifical Academy of Science and the Pontifical Academy of Social Science which released an exceptional joint statement in 2014 on the climate issue, in which they noted that "massive fossil fuel use at the heart of the global energy system deeply disrupts the Earth's climate and acidifies the world's oceans. The warming and associated extreme weather will reach unprecedented levels in our children's life times and 40 per cent of the world's poor, who have a minimal role in generating global pollution, are likely to suffer the most."
Undoubtedly, the encyclical will cause concern among more conservative Catholics who will argue that speaking on the science of climate change exceeds Pope Francis's authority, that he is speaking on matters outside his expertise. Still, Francis can rightly claim to be prudently drawing on the best science offered by the two academies whose members include some of the leading scientific and economic minds of the day.
Also, Francis will be drawing on reports from Caritas Internationale, the church's aid agency, which are telling him that the poor are already being affected adversely by climate disruption, with increasing droughts and extreme weather events turning back the progress that decades of assistance have made. Indeed, he will witness this first hand in his upcoming visit to the Philippines, where unprecedented cyclonic activity has had a devastating impact.
The encyclical, however, will only be the first of a three-pronged papal focus on climate change during 2015.
The expected timing of the encyclical is sometime in March, although it could emerge earlier. The pope will then convene an interfaith meeting of religious leaders to produce a joint response to global warming, uniting all faith traditions on the problem. And finally, in September, he has been invited by Ban Ki-moon, Secretary General of the United Nations, to address the general assembly of the UN on the issue.
All this activity will be in the lead up to the Paris meeting of the United Nations Climate Change Conference in November, supporting the chances of building a global and binding agreement on limiting greenhouse gas emissions. The Secretary General clearly hopes the pope's moral authority will sway the outcome.
The impact of this on Australian politics is hard to predict. A number of senior Coalition ministers are Catholic, yet their climate credentials are less than impressive. Tony Abbott's claim that coal is "good for humanity" is the antithesis of the likely papal message. Now his opponents will be able to quote chapter and verse of a papal encyclical calling his policies into question.
Neil Ormerod is Professor of Theology at Australian Catholic University