scorecardresearch Skip to main content

A pope for the environment

Pope Francis waves as he arrives for his weekly general audience, in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican, Wednesday.ASsociated Press

In a long-awaited encyclical released Thursday, Pope Francis was blunt and to the point: Irresponsible abuse of the environment is a “violence of the human heart,” poisoning soil, water, air, and wildlife. In a 192-page letter, Francis endorses prevailing science, which holds that human activity creates greenhouse gases that cause global warming. Fittingly, he called for transformation, “for changes in styles of life, of production and consumption, to combat this warming.” His call should be heeded, and should come as a spur to action to those who sit on the sidelines.

Francis is not the first Catholic patriarch to voice concern for the environment. His predecessor, Pope Benedict, said climate change should be “of grave concern for the entire human family,” and was called the “green pope” for installing solar panels on Vatican facilities. Before Benedict, Pope John Paul II blamed consumerism and waste for the “senseless destruction of the natural environment.”

But most official papal messages on the environment and climate change have been tucked within a wider range of issues, targeted to environmental conferences or issued on fleeting “world days” dedicated to the environment, peace, or food. It has never been the sole focus of an encyclical — the teaching letter considered to be the Catholic Church’s strongest pronouncement on an issue, and meant to be incorporated into the ethos of daily living for the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics. With a population that size, encyclicals are also intended to influence global morality.

The timing could not be more critical, with the Paris climate talks looming. Several nations have sent carbon emission reduction pledges to the United Nations in advance of the summit, including President Obama’s pledge of 28 percent by 2025 for the United States. China, after negotiations with the United States, says its carbon emissions will peak in 2030, and the European Union has pledged a 40 percent reduction by 2030. But two new analyses this month, one done for the Guardian newspaper and another Monday from the International Energy Agency, warned that current and anticipated pledges are not yet enough to hold the earth under a 2-degree Celsius rise in temperature, compared to preindustrial levels.


Pushback from some Catholic officials has already begun, especially in the United States. Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the retired archbishop of Washington, told The New York Times that the environment is not a top priority for American bishops, saying, “They don’t understand the complexities.” But the pope should hold firm.


Climate change, originally fueled by Western industrialization and consumerism, is quickly emerging as an issue of justice. Poor, low-lying countries have few resources to protect themselves from its effects. In January, in an obvious prologue to his encyclical, Francis said man has “slapped nature in the face.” This encyclical is a powerful statement about how to begin addressing the damage.