Pope Francis Tries to Save the World From Climate Change

The draft text of the pontiff’s much-anticipated encyclical on the environment comes down hard on the side of science.

ROME—It almost sounds like the beginning of a bad joke, but on Thursday a Catholic cardinal, an Orthodox theologian and an atheist scientist will walk into the Vatican synod hall and present Pope Francis’s hotly anticipated encyclical on the environment. The hype around the document has been so fevered that it even spawned a silly spoof movie trailer in which the super pope fights an epic battle to save the planet. And the Vatican City state secrecy that surrounded it only increased the drama.

But on Monday, a leaked version of the encyclical was published prematurely by the Italian weekly magazine L’Espresso, which printed the full text of a 192-page document with six chapters and two new prayers by Pope Francis dedicated to “the communal home that is planet earth.” Upon news of the leak the Vatican spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi, cautioned the Vatican press corps not to report the L’Espresso document, which he said was an earlier draft, and to wait until the official text is released as planned. The leak, another Vatican insider said, was clearly an “act of sabotage” against popular Pope Francis by his enemies.

Laudato Si, as it is called, which is not a title in Latin, but rather in medieval Italian, borrows the first line from a canticle by St. Francis of Assisi in which the pope’s namesake embraced Brother Sun, Sister Moon, Brothers Wind and Air, Sister Water and Sister Mother Earth.

"This encyclical is aimed at everyone,” the pope said during his Sunday angelus this week, in what sounded a little like a commercial break. “Let us pray that everyone can receive its message and grow in responsibility toward the common home that God has given us.”

Because the leaked text is not an official Vatican document, we won’t know for sure until Thursday just how close it is to the final product, but a number of major publications, including The Guardian and The New York Times ignored the Vatican’s pleas for restraint and chose to publish extensive excerpts anyway.

In the draft document, Francis warns of the “grave consequences for all of us” if the “unprecedented destruction of the ecosystem” is not stopped, calling progress in addressing the issue “deplorably scarce.”

He goes on to call for change. “The reduction of greenhouse gases requires honesty, courage and responsibility, especially by the most powerful and the most polluting countries.”

If the leaked draft is at all close to the final encyclical, we can expect that, as predicted, Francis comes down on the side of scientists who have concluded climate change is greatly affected by man-made pollution. It starts with the pope’s warning that the earth “is protesting for the wrong that we are doing to her, because of the irresponsible use and abuse of the goods that God has placed on her.” He argues that people must change their lifestyles and methods of consumption to combat global warming.

Fordham University’s Christiana Peppard is an expert on Catholic environmental ethics and theology who will be the scholar-expert at the official press conference of U.S. Catholic Bishops when the encyclical is officially released. Hours before the leak, she told The Daily Beast that this teaching document is important because of the weight Pope Francis brings to the topic matter. “While he is centralizing the environment as a moral responsibility, he is also upholding traditional Catholic teachings,” she says. “He has a very relatable way of communicating moral ideas.”

Peppard says that while Francis may be echoing many of the ideals his predecessors introduced when it comes to the environment, the very fact that Francis is making the proclamations means those words are reaching a whole new audience. “No one should consider that this will change anything on Catholic teaching,” she told The Daily Beast. “But people who have been robustly critical and skeptical of God-based ethics might be willing to make a little more room for those deep moral traditions at the table of contemporary dialogue.”

No matter what edits made the final cut in the official encyclical—or what, for that matter, motivated the leaking of a religious text—the pope’s emphasis on respect for the environment as a moral issue is what is important. “It will be a combination of that more rarified genre of the encyclical with some real moments of distinctly Francis rhetoric,” Peppard predicted, which, if the draft is any indication, is right on the mark.

That doesn’t mean the pope or Vatican are looking for a particular policy solution, although Peppard believes the timing of its official release is not by coincidence ahead of his crucial September visit to the United States where he will address the United Nations and Congress in addition to his duties at World Meeting of the Families in Philadelphia and a side trip to Cuba. The United Nations will also hold climate talks in Paris in December, and Francis is invited to speak.

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In late April, the Vatican hosted a climate summit of its own, inviting UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon to give a keynote address. At the time, he applauded the pope’s stance on climate change, saying, “Science and religion are not at odds on climate change.”

There is no question that Francis, in capturing people’s hearts, also has their ear. “Part of what is making people interested in this is that the Catholic Church—love it or hate it—and the figure of the pope, work on a different timeline and with a different scope than political election cycles or fiscal quarters,” Peppard told The Daily Beast. “Their metrics of evaluation are different than, say, the number of votes received or the level of profit or GDP. The potentiality of a well-honed moral voice speaking about something people are worried about but don’t know what to do about is part of why there is such interest.”

The hype around the Thursday release of the document has surely been dampened somewhat by the leaking of the draft text, and undoubtedly the focus will shift to just what, if anything, ended up on the cutting room floor when the final edit was made. But the fact that anyone cares what a religious leader says about science is really a testament to the Francis effect and the potential he has to reach the masses. Of course whether any of that will actually help save the planet is an entirely different matter.