This summer, Pope Francis is expected to publish an encyclical on the dire effects of environmental degradation—especially on the poor—and urge the world to take action on moral grounds.

By Stevenson Swanson

One of the highlights of Pope Francis’ five-day visit to the Philippines in January was an open-air Mass in Tacloban, a city of more than 200,000 people that had been devastated by Typhoon Haiyan in November 2013. He told the crowd of several hundred thousand gathered at the airport that he came to Tacloban because he wanted to express his closeness to “our brothers and sisters who endured suffering, loss, and devastation.”

He did not talk about the environment or climate change, issues that are important to him and have been sources of much speculation since he announced they would be the subject of an encyclical—reserved for a pope’s most important teachings—later this year. Then again, he did not really need to mention them.

After all, his trip to the city had been moved up and shortened because of an approaching storm, and the Mass was held in a drenching downpour with high winds. Like everyone else there that day, the pope wore a poncho.

“The environment was front and center,” said Henry Schwalbenberg, PhD, director of Fordham’s master’s degree program in international political economy and development (IPED), who was there with some of his students. “He was trying to help people deal with the suffering in their lives that was caused by an environmental event—in the middle of a tropical storm.

“The organizers offered him the choice of saying Mass in a tent, but he refused the indoor option. I think the rain and the storm were right on for what he wanted.”

Slapping Nature in the Face

Weather is not the same thing as climate. Single weather events such as Typhoon Haiyan or Hurricane Sandy, which wreaked havoc on the U.S. East Coast in 2012, cannot definitively be attributed to climate change. But scientists who study climate patterns over longer periods of time predict that extreme weather will increase in the future as a consequence of the rising levels of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in Earth’s atmosphere. Climate-change skeptics still dispute that, but atmospheric greenhouse gases are undoubtedly rising. And the pope has made it clear who he thinks is responsible for the increase.

“Mostly, in great part, it is man who has slapped nature in the face,” he said in a press conference during his flight to the Philippines. “We have in a sense taken over nature.”

It is perhaps not surprising that the man who took the name Francis when he was elected pope—after Francis of Assisi, patron saint of the environment—would make environmental issues a priority of his papacy.

“He’s changed the tone of the conversation within the church and gotten the attention of people who might not have paid attention to this issue,” said Paolo Galizzi, a clinical professor at Fordham Law School who specializes in international environmental law and human rights.

But what in the pope’s background and training accounts for this dedication? And what can be expected when his encyclical is issued, probably in the early summer?

One place to look for the source of the pope’s dedication to environmental issues is in his training as a Jesuit, according to Chris Lowney, FCRH ’81, GSAS ’81, author of Pope Francis: Why He Leads the Way He Leads (Loyola Press, 2013). Lowney notes that one of the spiritual exercises that originated with Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Jesuit order, is to “find God in all things.”

“I can easily see how the pope’s Jesuit formation reinforces the idea that we are stewards of God’s creation and that God is somehow present in all of creation,” said Lowney, a former Jesuit seminarian and investment banker who now chairs the board of Catholic Health Initiatives. “So, therefore, we have a duty to look after it responsibly.”

Christiana Peppard, PhD, assistant professor of theology, science, and ethics at Fordham, agrees that Francis’ devotion to nature has a theological basis, but it also has an ethical component based on who’s responsible for environmental problems—and who suffers most from the impact of those problems.

“Climate change, which is driven predominantly by highly developed states like the U.S., tends to disproportionately affect the poor,” said Peppard, author of Just Water: Theology, Ethics, and the Global Water Crisis (Orbis Books, 2014). “And they didn’t cause the problem in the first place.”

Last January at Barangay Anibong in Tacloban, residents used the side of a grounded ship to welcome the pope's message on climate change. (Noel Celis/AFP/Getty Images)
Last January at Barangay Anibong in Tacloban, residents used the side of a grounded ship to welcome the pope’s message on climate change. (Noel Celis/AFP/Getty Images)

The Inequality of Climate Change

Although in recent years China has become the world’s largest emitter of carbon dioxide, the bulk of the greenhouse gases that have accumulated in the atmosphere were the product of the industrialized nations of Europe and, especially, America. Yet many of the countries that will be hit hardest by the effects of climate change are developing nations where large swaths of the population live in poorly built housing and the infrastructure to resist or respond to disasters is rudimentary at best.

“If you are living on a dollar a day or less, it’s very difficult to deal with everyday realities such as feeding your family, let alone things like flooding that’s caused by climate change,” said Galizzi.

Josh Kyller sees this challenge play out daily in his work as the emergency coordinator for Catholic Relief Services on the Philippine islands of Leyte and Samar, where he oversees a staff of about 300 people working to help residents rebuild their lives. He recites the grim statistics of Haiyan’s destructive power in the area: Thousands perished, and 10 million people were displaced.

The outpouring of international relief and Filipinos’ eagerness to rebuild has led to significant progress in the recovery, but Kyller and his staff are still helping 100,000 households in efforts to rebuild homes, provide clean water and proper sewage, and reduce exposure to future disasters.

“Tacloban is a kind of boom town,” said Kyller, a 2011 graduate of Fordham’s IPED program, who was with Schwalbenberg and his students at the pope’s Mass in January. “But there’s still a long road ahead.”

Concern for the poor and vulnerable has been a constant theme in Pope Francis’ life. But his positions are not that different from those of his immediate papal predecessors, John Paul II and Benedict XVI, who wrote extensively about poverty and economic justice, according to Peppard, although Americans may not associate them as strongly with such issues because of the U.S. church’s focus on the pontiffs’ positions on reproduction and other social issues.

“Pope Francis’ teachings are not new. They’re being articulated anew by him,” she said. “But no one has written an encyclical focused on the environment. That is new.”

Schwalbenberg said that the pope is likely to link environmental degradation and economic justice in a way his predecessors did not. “I think Francis’ emphasis will be to wed the environment very tightly to a preferential treatment for the poor.”

As for the expertise that will underpin the encyclical, Francis is likely to draw on the information presented at a four-day workshop on sustainability issues that was held at the Vatican last May and brought together several dozen scientists, theologians, philosophers, and economists, including four Nobel laureates. He is expected to issue his encyclical in June or July because he wants to increase the odds that it will make an impact on the next round of international climate negotiations, which will take place in Paris in November.

The Pope’s Political Critics

Although the exact contents of the papal letter are not known, that has not stopped what Peppard calls preemptive criticism of the encyclical, prompted at least in part by the pope’s occasionally sharp remarks about what he has called “unfettered free-market capitalism.”

Last fall, for example, he addressed a global group of grassroots organizers, saying that an economic system centered only on money would “plunder nature” to sustain “frenetic” levels of consumption. “Climate change, the loss of biodiversity, deforestation are already showing their devastating effects … from which you, the humble, suffer the most.”

Taken as a whole, his critics say, Francis’ views amount to socialism at best, communism at worst. In their view, the free market, far from being the source of inequality, is the great engine that will pull the world’s poor out of misery.

“Pope Francis—and I say this as a Catholic—is a complete disaster when it comes to his public policy pronouncements,” Stephen Moore, chief economist of the Heritage Foundation, has written. “On the economy, and even more so on the environment, the pope has allied himself with the far left and has embraced an ideology that would make people poorer and less free.”

The encyclical and Francis’ addresses to the United Nations and U.S. Congress, both of which are set to take place in September, are unlikely to persuade conservative critics such as Moore or deeply entrenched climate-change skeptics such as Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), who last February brandished a snowball in the Senate chamber to dramatize the cold winter in the nation’s capital, decrying what he called the “hysteria” about global warming.

“If the overwhelming science hasn’t been able to persuade you, I am not sure what else can happen to convince you that climate is a problem,” said Galizzi. “Having said that, the encyclical has the potential to reach people who don’t pay attention to these issues.”

Schwalbenberg agrees. He cites the example of a Connecticut businessman he knows, whom he describes as “a very devout Catholic” who’s not interested in the environment. “But because the pope is talking about it, he’s going to think about it.”

An Expansive View of Life

Theologically, the encyclical could also be a way to redefine what constitutes a “life” issue for the Catholic Church.

“It will be an opportunity to see that there’s more at stake in Catholic ethics in the 21st century than reproduction, abortion, and euthanasia,” Peppard said. “If the church is concerned about life, that need not be a selective lens.”

But what about results, such as a firm commitment by the nations of the world to reduce greenhouse emissions when they meet in Paris?

Given the complexities of getting so many countries, with their varying national interests, to agree on anything, the odds may not be in Francis’ favor. On the other hand, he is a singular figure, the leader of a worldwide institution with 1.2 billion members but no national interests to defend, no reelection campaign to wage.

“He has won great credibility by his example of humility and his reputation as a truth-teller who speaks plainly. So few politicians nowadays can speak with that same credibility,” said Lowney. “He would seem as well-positioned as anyone to win a hearing for the issue of how we steward the Earth.”

—Stevenson Swanson is a freelance journalist who has written about religion, the United Nations, and the environment, among other topics.