The Pope Believes in Climate Change (and One Group of Catholics Is Glad to Hear It)

Pope Francis's controversial climate encyclical might tick off American Catholics from Princeton professors to the GOP, but it's right in line with his congregation in Latin America.


Laudato Si, Pope Francis’s landmark encyclical on ecological justice, may or may not be the most highly anticipated papal document of all time. But it’s certainly the only one to have inspired a Hollywood-style trailer. Styled as the teaser for a summer blockbuster, the video, released by the Brazilian climate action group Observatório do Clima exactly a week before encyclical, features a kickboxing ninja warrior pope who takes on coal and oil magnates with the help of Jesus, his ringside trainer. “In this epic battle of climate crisis,” intones the voice-over, “we can’t let him fight alone.”

And indeed, the encyclical — a teaching letter to the world’s 1.4 billion Catholics — on the theme of the environment and the poor makes the pope arguably the highest-profile actor in a global effort to combat ecological devastation. The encyclical is embargoed until June 18, but a draft leaked by an Italian publication on Monday didn’t pull any punches. In the encyclical, Francis does not hedge his conclusion that climate change is real and man-made, and he throws in a critique of capitalism’s exploitation of nature for good measure.

Though the encyclical has promised to bring controversy, that full-throated defenses of it, like the spoof trailer, have been levied from places such as Brazil, is no coincidence.

Francis — who took his name from Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of ecology — is the first Latin American pope and the first from the “global south,” referring to the developing countries of the Southern Hemisphere, where concern over climate change is much more urgently felt than in Europe and the United States. While Francis’s emphasis on internal church reforms in the wake of sex abuse and financial scandals, as well as his overriding focus on the poor, has already marked his papacy as historic, the choice of ecology and justice for his first encyclical is the first major step toward shifting the church’s balance of power toward the developing world.

Of course, despite all the hoopla that has accompanied the encyclical’s release, the environment is not a new area of interest for the Roman Catholic Church. In the aftermath of the energy crisis, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops released an influential 1981 document that called on Americans to accept “an appropriate share of responsibility for the welfare of creation.” Pope John Paul II added his voice in 1990, referring to concern over greenhouse gases as a moral issue. Benedict XVI was dubbed the “Green Pope” for his efforts to raise international awareness of environmental destruction. Both are quoted frequently throughout the text of this latest document.

At the same time, neither of Francis’s immediate predecessors explicitly mentioned climate change. And as with so many aspects of his papacy, it’s the urgency and priority that Francis has given this issue that stands apart. The timing — releasing the encyclical in the lead-up to his fall address to the U.N. General Assembly and the Paris climate summit in November — is an unusually savvy move by the Vatican, which is not in the habit of scheduling encyclicals around outside events.

Churches that govern for over a millennium aren’t known for their timeliness, but with Laudato Si, which means “praised be” in English, Francis is very consciously entering a live debate — a step that has clearly ruffled the feathers of the church’s more conservative adherents. Almost as soon as the topic of the encyclical was announced more than a year ago, critics sought to undercut its importance, arguing that papal infallibility does not extend to matters of science. Stephen Moore, an American Catholic economist, warned in a January op-ed that Francis was part of a “radical green movement that is at its core anti-Christian, anti-human being and anti-progress.” Princeton Professor Robert George piled on, writing in the Catholic journal First Things that, “Pope Francis does not know whether, or to what extent, the climate changes (in various directions) of the past several decades are anthropogenic — and God is not going to tell him.”

With his characteristically blunt talk, Francis can indeed sound like a radical when he speaks about nature. “It is man who has slapped nature in the face,” he told reporters on a trip this past January to meet with survivors in the Philippines of the 2013 Typhoon Haiyan. And he sent economic conservatives running for the barricades last fall when he addressed a meeting of Latin American and Asian peasants. “An economic system centered on the god of money needs to plunder nature to sustain the frenetic rhythm of consumption that is inherent to it,” said Francis. “I think a question that we are not asking ourselves is: Isn’t humanity committing suicide with this indiscriminate and tyrannical use of nature?”

But that kind of frank language about capitalism and the environment no longer marks someone as a militant tree-hugger. Nor is it just Francis being Francis. The way this pope talks about the relationship between human life and creation reflects the Latin world’s more urgent preoccupation with the consequences of environmental change.

This encyclical, despite the fervor it has incited in its critics, will be broadly welcomed in the developing countries that represent the future of Catholicism — many of which have been hit hard in recent years by flooding and other natural disasters that have accompanied more extreme weather patterns. These countries are the least equipped to endure crop damage and shortages that can result from drought or floods, and they are dangerously exposed to the risks of rising sea levels.

Within the developing world, Latin American nations have taken the lead in advocacy and action on climate change — Costa Rica is on its way to being carbon neutral by 2021, and Brazil has demonstrated stunning success in reducing emissions from deforestation. That concern is reflected in the findings of the most recent release of the World Values Survey (2010 to 2014), an academic survey conducted in nearly 100 countries using a common questionnaire. The survey asked respondents whether it was more important to protect the environment, even if doing so slowed down economies, or to make economic growth and job creation the top priority, at the expense of the environment. The only countries in which a majority of Catholics believed the environment was more important than economic growth were Latin American. (As a means of comparison, only 39 percent of American Catholics held that view).

Even in the United States, Hispanic Catholics are far more likely than white Catholics to be distressed about the climate. A 2014 Public Religion Research Institute poll found that 73 percent of Hispanic Catholics are somewhat or very concerned about climate change, while only 41 percent of white Catholics feel the same way. Hispanic Catholics are also far more likely to believe that humans are at fault, and they are more than twice as likely as white Catholics to predict that they will be personally harmed a great deal by climate change.

Pope Francis has surrounded himself with other leaders from developing nations, and that has been particularly true for his work on climate change. He named Bishop Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo of Argentina as chancellor of the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy of Sciences. And Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana oversaw the drafting of the encyclical and delivered a speech earlier this spring that was viewed as a preview of the document. “The threats that arise from global inequality and the destruction of the environment are inter-related,” Turkson said, “and they are the greatest threats we face as a human family today.”

Cardinal Oscar Rodríguez Maradiaga of Honduras, who is widely seen as the pope’s closest advisor, has taken on the role of responding to critics who have preemptively attacked the encyclical. “The ideology surrounding environmental issues is too tied to a capitalism that doesn’t want to stop ruining the environment because they don’t want to give up their profits,” he said at a Vatican press conference last month.

Francis’s decision to wade into the fray on climate change can also be seen as an outgrowth of his position as the first Jesuit pope. “He’s acting [in] a way that is very Ignatian,” says Christiana Peppard, a Fordham professor who specializes in Catholic social teaching and environmental ethics. “In a way that’s different from Benedict, Francis is really clear that his past experiences have shaped his understanding of theology, and more importantly, his role as bishop of Rome.”

In this case, Francis’s time in the streets, among the poor of Buenos Aires — and more recently, Rome’s homeless — taught him about the ways in which environmental degradation disproportionately impacts those with the least resources. “He [has] seen what it looks like when people are excluded from equitable distribution of resources,” says Peppard. “And he’s willing to say, therefore, I’m going to write an encyclical that deals with poverty and the environment.”

It’s no secret that these are not the priorities at the top of many conservative Catholic lists. Like many political conservatives, particularly in the United States, conservative Catholics have resisted the idea that climate change is man-made. And heading into a GOP primary battle that features several Republican Catholics — Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, and Rick Santorum among them — they would prefer not to have climate change edging out sexual ethics as the most visible “Catholic” issue. (Just this week, Bush responded to the encyclical’s imminent release by opining that religion should stay out of politics. “I don’t get economic policy from my bishops or my cardinals or my pope,” Bush said.)

Nor are the U.S. bishops completely on board with the direction in which Francis is leading the global church. At their annual meeting last week, the bishops considered a list of proposed future priorities: family and marriage, religious freedom, evangelism, and abortion and euthanasia. There was no mention in their document of the poor, no mention of the environment.

The disconnect between this pope and the West that is highlighted by the new encyclical could be a preview of the church’s immediate future. No one knows how long Francis’s papacy will last — he has indicated a desire to follow Benedict’s lead and resign after several years, and he is a 78-year-old with only one lung. But in a stunningly short amount of time, Francis has set up a challenge from the global south to those who have ruled the church since its inception. He may not be a kickboxing ninja, but Francis is taking the fight directly to those who benefit from the status quo.

Photo credit: Franco Origlia/Getty Images

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