News and analysis
May 13, 2015

Environmental Groups Eagerly Anticipate Pope Francis’s Encyclical

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Environmental groups are eagerly anticipating a forthcoming papal teaching on the environment, with some leaders saying that Pope Francis’ credibility could help move the policy needle.

The encyclical, a letter from the Pope to his bishops that communicates important church teachings, is to be released in June. It is Pope Francis’ second encyclical, and the first ever devoted entirely to the environment.

"The buzz around him is about as high as any person in the world," said John Coequyt, director of federal and international climate campaigns at the Sierra Club. "People are excited whether they are Catholic or not."

Pope Francis’ encyclical likely will be an important waypoint for environmentalists who have eagerly awaited someone of his stature to take up their cause, said Cassandra Carmichael, executive director of the National Religious Partnership for the Environment.

"This is like your next water station where you are going to get some refreshment and you are going to get more energy, and all the participants are going to run a little faster until they get to the next water station," said Ms. Carmichael, explaining the momentum lent by Pope Francis.

The encyclical will precede by about three months Pope Francis’ visit to United States — he is scheduled to address Congress on September 24. It also coincides with a watershed year in which U.N. members are designing a new 15-year plan to address development issues, including environmental conservation.

The contents of the encyclical are unknown, but leaders at both faith-based and secular environmental groups said they expect the message and tone will closely match that of Pope Francis’ past comments on climate change and environmental stewardship. In January, in comments to the papal press corps, he said that humans have "exploited" nature and expressed thanks for "so many people who are speaking out about it."

Late last month, the Vatican hosted a meeting with the United Nations on climate change in Rome, out of which came a formal statement that described human-induced climate change as a "reality" and called its mitigation "a moral and religious imperative for humanity."

Opponents Wary

To be sure, not everyone is happy that the Pope is using his bullhorn to talk about rising sea levels and deforestation. For example, the Heartland Institute sent a contingent of "real scientists" to the Vatican’s climate change meeting in Rome last month. The mission, according to the conservative think tank, was to "dissuade Pope Francis from lending his moral authority to the politicized and unscientific climate agenda of the United Nations."

Dan Misleh, executive director of the Catholic Climate Covenant, said there are those within and outside the Catholic Church who are ideologically opposed to the Pope speaking on the topic. There are others who have a vested interest in the status quo, such as fossil fuel companies.

"There will be a lot of pushback on this," Mr. Misleh said.

Still, he and other environmental leaders said that the encyclical will add a moral dimension to international conversations about climate change and its disproportionate effects on the world’s poorest people.

And while many caution against expecting too much too fast, some suggested the encyclical could reverberate in Congress, creating a moral ground upon which members can stand when voting on related legislation.

"If anything needed a fresh conversation in the political world, it is the issue of climate change," said Jeremy Symons, senior director on climate policy at the Environmental Defense Fund. "For some elected officials, this gives them the opportunity to step back and look at the environment and climate change, and our opportunity to do things a little differently."

Powerful Presence

Nine out of 10 U.S. Catholics reported a favorable view of Pope Francis in a survey published in March by the Pew Research Center. His comments on homosexual priests, equal pay for women, and human rights cascade through media outlets around the world. He is one of the most retweeted figures on Twitter.

But Pope Francis may be doing more than stoking conversation. In a survey of 1,003 Catholics conducted last year by Foundations and Donors Interested in Catholic Activities, or FADICA, one in four respondents said they had increased their giving as compared with the previous year. Among those, 77 percent said that their giving had been influenced by the Pope.

The sway of the Argentine Pope was stronger among Hispanic Catholics. Nearly a third said they increased their giving as compared with the previous year, with 85 percent citing Pope Francis as an influence.