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For Heaven’s Sake

News2-GT1539-PopeCan the Pope’s encyclical on the environment change hearts and minds?

“The earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth.” That isn’t from a climatologist, or even former Vice President Al Gore.

It’s from Pope Francis’ recent encyclical on the environment. Released in June, the open letter to clergy is a thrilling read. Straight-talking and earnest, this latest addition to the canon of Roman Catholic literature has managed to spell out the critical dangers facing the planet while appealing to the global community, regardless of faith, to act.

The transformative power of the pope’s words has begun sinking in around Santa Cruz County, with the announcement that the Progressive Christian Forum will hold an event on Thursday, Oct. 1 to discuss the pope’s words and the message behind them.  

“The group has decided to focus its attention on climate change from a moral, religious, spiritual perspective,” event organizer Robert Strayer tells GT via email. “This Community Forum builds on the pope’s encyclical and his visit to the United States. So, we are hoping to leverage the pope’s message to stimulate a conversation locally about this issue.”

The event will be at 7:30 p.m., Oct. 1 at Resurrection Catholic Church in Aptos.

Panelists include experts like Andrew Szasz, the chair of UCSC’s Environmental Studies Department, who is also the co-editor and contributor to the recent report, How the World’s Religions are Responding to Climate Change.

Pope Francis has called on the global community to see that where one suffers, we all do, and that the way we live our lives impacts future generations.

“The greatest tragedy in history will be if we do not do something to solve this problem (of climate change),” says Jeffrey Kiehl, former head of climate change Research Section of the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NOAA) and considered one of the top climate scientists in the world.

Kiehl, who will also be speaking at the event, adds that if humans continue burning fossil fuels at this rate, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will triple, compared to what it was before we started burning fossil fuels. That amount of carbon dioxide has not been seen in the earth’s atmosphere in 30 million years.

The pope is not one to mince words when it comes to the climate or anything else. This is the same pope who famously said, “Who am I to judge?” when asked about gay clergy. When it comes to environmental degradation and climate change, the pontiff knows exactly who to blame: us.

Reading at times like a laundry list of the Earth’s ills, the encyclical touches on most, if not all, pressing environmental problems we face today: climate change, deforestation, overfishing, loss of biodiversity, lack of clean and sustainable water sources, exploitation of delicate ecosystems, pollution of the marine environment, and destruction of the coral reefs.

Pope Francis, who in September became the first pope ever to address the U.S. Congress, has been heralded in liberal and progressive circles. The more conservative wing of America’s Catholic community, meanwhile, has shown disdain for his criticism of capitalism and what they consider his overreach into political issues.

Pope Francis would be the first to say, though, that he is not “liberal,” and that his teachings are no different from that of his predecessors and Church doctrine.

Francis is by no means the first to pontificate about the environment and humanity’s responsibility to the planet. He recounts in his encyclical that in 1971, Pope Paul VI spoke to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations about the potential for an “ecological catastrophe under the effective explosion of industrial civilization.” He stressed “the urgent need for a radical change in the conduct of humanity.”

Pope Francis’ predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, also spoke about the danger climate change poses to the planet and its people. The Association of American Catholic Bishops were so alarmed that they stepped into action, establishing an army of 24 climate ambassadors to develop presentations based on the pope’s teachings and share them with Catholic congregations throughout the country.

Szasz, during his research into various religions’ responses to climate change, spoke with one of the ambassadors, a practicing Catholic and atmospheric scientist. Szasz says the reception the climate ambassador got from the priests he approached was mixed. Some priests welcomed the presentation, while others denied him the opportunity to present. “What I learned is whatever the Pope says is important, but how it filters down into the grassroots of the churches [is] uncertain,” Szasz says.

Szasz also found there was a divide in the American Catholic community over concerns about climate change. Of those surveyed, 43 percent of Hispanic Catholics said they were “very concerned” about climate change, compared to 17 percent of white Catholics.

The distinction is compelling, given the changing face of the church. Hispanics account for 71 percent of the growth of the Catholic population in the United States since 1960, according to a report released last year. That increasing diversity is not yet reflected in church leadership. Hispanic Catholic congregations continue to grow, but only 10 percent of active bishops in the United States—and 7.5 percent of priests—identify as Hispanic or Latino, according to the New York Times.

The first pope from Latin America, Francis was born in Argentina and served in the church during times of tremendous economic and social upheaval in that country. Compared to his predecessors, he also has displayed greater acceptance of “liberation theology,” an interpretation of Christian doctrine that puts the poor at its center and believes the church has a duty to act on issues of social justice.

If only in terms of his messaging, Francis has also made waves on climate change. Kiehl, the former NOAA scientist, stresses that this is a topic that cannot be ignored.

“This is the ethical dimension of this issue,” Kiehl says. “We cannot make this decision for future generations. We cannot condemn them to live in that sort of environment.”

The Community Forum on Pope Francis Encyclical and Visit will be at 7:30 p.m on Thursday, Oct. 1, at Resurrection Catholic Church, located at 7600 Soquel Drive in Aptos. Panelists include Jeffrey Kiehl, Andrew Szasz and Brother Keith Warner, a Franciscan friar with a Ph.D. in environmental studies. Admission is free.


ALLOW HIM TO BE FRANK Pope Francis, the fourth most powerful person in the world according to Forbes, talks to President Barack Obama, the second. The two have been supporters of fighting climate change.

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