The Pope has officially spoken: Climate change is real and caused by humans, and it’s impossible to sustain current levels of consumption. In his new encyclical, nearly 200 pages long, Pope Francis argues that climate action is a moral imperative for the 1.2 billion Catholics around the world.
While Pope Francis is continuing his line of radical-for-a-pope activities, he isn’t actually the first Vatican leader to talk about responsibility to the environment as a religious issue. In 1971, Pope Paul VI said that by exploiting nature, humans risked becoming victims of their own degradation. In 1990, Pope John Paul II said greenhouse gases had reached crisis proportions. By 2007, Pope Benedict was taking steps to make the Vatican carbon neutral.
“The Pope’s comments are not made in a vacuum–they will be based on a long tradition of reflecting on and applying Catholic moral teachings to contemporary social problems,” says Archibishop Thomas Wenski of Miami, who has both Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush in his flock.
Some Catholics–like another Republican presidential candidate, Rick Santorum–have already argued that the pope should “leave science to the scientists,” (though Santorum also doesn’t agree with the scientists). But Archibishop Wenski believes that the Pope’s comments will “generally be well received by Catholics.” He also says that it’s logical for the Pope to speak on the issue.
“Anything that touches on the human person–and the flourishing of human persons in society necessarily involves ethics and morality,” Wenski says. “This is why the Pope is weighing in on this issue–not as a scientist or a politician but as a pastor and a moral teacher.” Pope Francis positions climate change as an issue of “creation care,” stemming from Biblical mandates to care for the Garden of Eden.
The encyclical, a letter that popes periodically address to Catholic clergy and laypeople, comes at a time when 71% of American Catholics believe that climate change is happening, but less than 50% see it as a serious problem or that humans are responsible. Even fewer Catholics–or Americans generally–see climate change as a moral or spiritual issue.
Pope Francis may have the power to change that. A study earlier this year found that Americans trust him more than any other single world leader on the issue of climate change.
Wenski believes that the encyclical could have an impact on people beyond Catholics. “This encyclical can give positive direction to all people of good will, including Catholics, so that this issue can transcend the current political polarization in our country,” he says. “The ‘creation care’ is too important to become a food fight between the right and the left.”