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By Peter Novecosky, OSB
Abbot Peter Novokosky
Pope finishes new encyclical

A church document that has not yet been released is being hyped, in much the same way as a new movie or book would be. Pope Francis has finished an encyclical on the environment and it is expected to be released in June. It is now being translated.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told an international gathering at the Vatican April 28 that there are moral dimensions to climate change and sustainable development. He said he came to the Vatican because he “needs the moral and spiritual support of religious leaders.”

Ban and UN experts are promoting a united global response to climate change. They believe policies, regulations, new technologies and cost incentives are not going to be enough to get industrialized nations to radically reduce their carbon footprint.

Ban said change will depend on wealthy nations and communities shifting away from an economy based on overconsumption and exclusion: “To transform our economies we must first transform our thinking and our values.”

Ban has invited the pope to address the UN General Assembly in New York Sept. 25 and he is calling on religious leaders to work with governments and science on climate change. A UN climate change summit will be held in Paris in December.

While this encyclical will be the first document ever devoted entirely to the environment, the Catholic Church has a long tradition of teaching on this topic. Dan Misleh, executive director of the Catholic Climate Covenant, said, “Let us remember that what Pope Francis will offer in the encyclical is not new teaching, but a new application of that old teaching.”

Pope Benedict XVI is known as “the green pope.” In his first social encyclical, Charity in Truth (2009), he summarized the church’s teaching on the environment: “The church has a responsibility toward creation and she must assert this responsibility in the public sphere. In so doing, she must defend not only earth, water and air as gifts of creation that belong to everyone. She must above all protect mankind from self-destruction.”

He is repeating what was written more than a century earlier by Pope Leo XIII in his groundbreaking 1891 social encyclical Rerum Novarum: “God has granted the earth to mankind in general, not in the sense that all without distinction can deal with it as they like, but rather that no part of it was assigned to any one in particular, and that the limits of private possession have been left to be fixed by man’s own industry, and by the laws of individual races. Moreover, the earth, even though apportioned among private owners, ceases not thereby to minister to the needs of all, inasmuch as there is not one who does not sustain life from what the land produces.”

Recent popes have applied this teaching to the changed circumstances of today’s world. In addition, many conferences of bishops have issued statements on the environment. Among them is a document issued by the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops in 2013 entitled Building a New Culture — Central Themes in Recent Church Teaching on the Environment, which outlines eight central themes.

In an earlier pastoral letter in 2003, the conference said in You Love All that Exists: “All serious solutions to the ecological crisis demand that human beings change our thinking, relationships and behaviours in order to recognize the interconnectedness of all creation. . . . While beginning to listen to the experiences of the marginalized in society, we must also be attentive to the cry of the creation that surrounds and sustains them. Whereas we once began by developing critical analysis of economic, political and social structures that cause human suffering, we must now also bring the additional riches of ecological justice to bear on such realities.”

While environmentalists are looking forward to this encyclical, there are also those who doubt. Last week’s PM article by Gerald Schmitz analyzed some of these movements.

Church groups are gearing up to prepare materials for parishes to discuss and digest. In the western world, the pope will certainly challenge the lifestyle to which we have become accustomed.