Why the Encyclical Has Lasting Power


You may have heard — last Thursday, Pope Francis issued an environmental encyclical called “Laudato Sii: On the Care for Our Common Home.” In the document, he praised the beauty and love of Sister, Mother Earth and urged us all — Catholics and non-Catholics — to protect her.

I have to admit that I hungrily devoured all 184 pages of the document as soon as I woke up Thursday morning. I read every article I could find, sat in on press conferences, sent quotes to friends, and discussed it with anyone who would listen. But I couldn’t bring myself to write an article about it until today. In the back of my mind, I couldn’t escape a nagging concern that the power of the encyclical and the excitement of the day would fade into our warming air.

This certainly isn’t the first time a celebrity has called for environmental action. (Remember the buzz around “An Inconvenient Truth”?) And there is a long, long tradition (dating back to Genesis depending on who you ask) of religious environmental stewardship. Environmentally-inclined faith leaders and organizations in the United States have worked for action for decades.

But perhaps this time it’s different; perhaps the language, universality, and infallibility of the encyclical will give it lasting power.

The Language Is Haunting

The encyclical has certainly stayed with me as I’ve gone about my days. It’s true that as a long-time environmental activist, I’m more inclined to absorb environmental teachings. But others have also noted its haunting poetic genius.

In his article on Religion Dispatches, Jacob J. Erickson writes, “Not a few have remarked to me about the encyclical’s balance of tragedy and human sin alongside love, hopefulness, joy, and possibility. It seems that the letter is nothing less than a lover letter, an invitation to love God and the creation in which human beings live out their lives in ecological interaction. The rhetoric and prose itself lends Pope Francis’ vision to that very human context of learning appropriate loving communion, joy, and beauty.”

Erickson sums up the overall tone perfectly. In the encyclical, Francis describes the tragedy of our out-dated traditions of waste, overconsumption, and disconnection. To experience the beauty of creation, he urges us to simply open our hearts to love. It’s as if we’re players in “Romeo and Juliet” — to avoid the tragedy all we have to do is abandon our misguided hate and violence.

I only disagree with Erickson’s statement that the encyclical is just “an invitation” to love God. The language is stronger than a mere invitation; it’s an urgent plea to radically shift our consciousness — to rebel against our “throwaway culture.” The Pope’s strong call to action stayed with me over the weekend as I shopped for groceries, changed my 5-month-old baby’s diaper, and wrapped my Father’s Day gifts. I realized how much waste I generate. I longed for independence from the trash can. I wanted a revolution.

A Unifying Force for All Faiths and Spiritualities

I’m not the only one who sees the encyclical as a much-needed morality manifesto. After it was released, faith leaders and organizations across the religious spectrum and around the world eagerly released statements in support of the Pope. It was as if their moment in the sun had arrived — the public was finally paying attention to the morality-based environmentalism they have preached for years.

“We are really excited and thrilled that Pope Francis, who is a very popular pope, has come out with an encyclical talking about the moral implications of climate change. I believe this is potentially the game changer we’ve all been waiting for,” Rev. Canon Sally Bingham, president and founder of Interfaith Power & Light, said in a press conference.

Interfaith Power & Light’s effort began in 1998 as a coalition of Episcopal churches aggregated to purchase renewable energy. But the effort grew rapidly and IPL now engages congregations and people of faith across the country to respond to climate change. It is one of the most well-known players in the field of faith-based environmentalism in the United States and has done a lot to promote and protect climate and clean energy on a national-scale. But there are some in the country who still have not heard their message.

During the press conference, one reporter asked Bingham how she planned to act on the Pope’s message on a national level. She listed the many campaigns and efforts IPL had already launched, but it was clear that this reporter would not have heard of these campaigns and efforts had not Pope Francis released his encyclical. Even though the voice for faith-based environmentalism has been around for decades, its power has been drowned out in American politics by those who attempt to use the Bible to support climate denial and unrestrained consumption.

IPL, the myriad of other faith-based environmental groups like Evangelical Environmental Network, GreenFaith, Coalition for the Environment and Jewish Life, and Green Muslims, and concerned congregations around the world, will work to keep the message of the Pope’s encyclical alive. This is their moral manifesto. They won’t let climate deniers get away with saying fossil fuels are good for the poor and climate science is anti-religion.

Deniers Must Face Papal infallibility

If some religious leaders are basking in the rays of the encyclical, some climate deniers and conservative Catholics are feeling the burn. They argue that the pope should stay out of science and stick to morality. They insist that measures to address climate change and environmental degradation will hurt the poor. They want to focus Catholics on other issues: sex, marriage, and religious freedom. But Pope Francis anticipated their fallacies and preoccupations and presented an air-tight case for action.

In advance of the encyclical’s publication, Pope Francis and the Vatican did their research. They hosted conferences and summits where notable scientists, economists, and scholars presented research about our current situation. Although their lack of credentials precluded an invitation to these events, climate deniers made sure the Pope heard their voice too. No one can say that the encyclical doesn’t have evidence to support it or that the Pope was unaware of one side of the argument.

There is also no argument that the Pope’s decision to take action is unique or baseless. In the encyclical itself, Francis establishes precedent for the document. He cites to the many popes in recent history who have spoken about the environment or taken action as the world teetered on the brink of disaster. If Pope Francis listens to climate deniers and stays out of the conversation, he’ll break this long-standing Catholic tradition.

But in the end, it doesn’t matter whether climate deniers or conservative Catholics accept the thoughtful research and precedent for the encyclical. If you call yourself a Catholic, you must accept papal infallibility. This is a Catholic teaching that the pope “enjoys in virtue of his office, when, as the supreme shepherd and teacher of all the faithful, who confirms his breathren in their faith, he proclaims by a definitive act some doctrine of faith or morals. Therefore his definitions, of themselves, and not from the consent of the Church, are justly held irreformable, for they are pronounced with the assistance of the Holy Spirit, an assistance promised to him in blessed Peter.”

To deny the infallibility of Pope Francis and his encyclical is to deny the holiness of the Catholic Church. Perhaps people of other religions feel comfortable doing this, but if you call yourself a Catholic, as conservative presidential candidates Rick Santorum and Jeb Bush do, you must accept the environmental message of Pope Francis.

Image of Smoke Stack by Kim Seng available on Flickr.

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About the Author

I'm an organic-eating, energy-saving naturalist who composts and tree hugs in her spare time. I have a background in environmental law, lobbying, and field work. I believe in God; however, I do not call myself a Christian or a Jew or a member of any religion. I am merely someone who finds a spiritual connection to all humans and the environment. You can find me on Twitter, Facebook, and .