Seldom have those media representatives, academics, “talking heads,” and other communicators responsible for addressing environmental issues delved so intently into the seemingly foreign domain of religious coverage.

Nor have those most familiar with the liturgy – or, rarer still, with papal encyclicals – so often garnered attention from the “greens” and their life-long “brown” adversaries.

But the continually growing speculation about what Pope Francis will, will not, might, or could say in an upcoming encyclical on environment and climate change is rewriting the record books. It all has Catholic, other-religious, and secular outsiders abuzz and reading tea leaves. And that applies in particular to those following the ebbs and flows of climate change science and policy.

Given all that’s been said and written about the expected June or July release of Pope Francis’s encyclical, the eventual document itself, once made public, may contain no more surprises than did Hillary Clinton’s tweet saying she is running. But it’s for sure going to be lengthier … and deeper. And its every nuance, every commission and omission, every adverb and every dangling participle, colon, and semicolon are sure to be as thoroughly scrutinized as a Supreme Court ruling. Word for word, as they say.

Aggressive tackling of issue foreseen

While the signals at this point presage an aggressive and assertive papal commitment to taking the climate change challenge every bit as seriously as the established science does, few are those who actually have laid eyes on the message itself. Crystal-ballers and tea-leaf aficionados rule here.

That said, few prognosticators at this point are betting that the “convinced” and “concerned” wings of American public opinion on climate change are likely to be greatly disappointed. And fewer still see the encyclical itself providing much comfort for those singing the usual science-denying memes.

The hints and clues on what may be forthcoming are several. There’s the widely cited March 5 “Trocaire 2015 Lenten Lecture” at Saint Patrick’s Pontifical University in Maynooth, Ireland, by Cardinal Peter Turkson. He is the leader of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, and is widely identified as principal drafter of the Pope’s upcoming encyclical.

As reported by the National Catholic Reporter, the Ghanaian Cardinal Turkson pointed to 2015 as “a critical year for humanity,” a reference to the United Nations climate change conference scheduled for December.

The coming months “are crucial, then, for decisions about international development, human flourishing, and care for the common home we call planet Earth,” Turkson said. He said Pope Francis “has echoed the sense of crisis that many in the scientific and development communities convey” about the state of the planet and its impoverished populations. Turkson was quoted as saying Pope Francis, in the upcoming encyclical, hopes to spread the “warmth of hope … in the midst of those he has called the ‘Herods,’ the ‘omens of destruction and death’ that so often accompany ‘the advance of this world.’”

Relying on ‘ancient biblical teaching’…

While acknowledging some differences among advocacy interests concerning causes of climate change, Turkson, the Associated Press reported, said that “what is not contested is that our planet is getting warmer,” and he pointed to “ancient biblical teaching” spelling out the responsibilities of Christians to act to address the associated problems.

“For the Christian, to care for God’s ongoing work of creation is a duty, irrespective of the causes of climate change,” Turkson said then. “To care for creation, to develop and live an integral ecology as the basis for development and peace in the world, is a fundamental Christian duty.” AP reported Turkson as saying the [ycc-tweetable-text tweetable=”false”] Pope is “compelled by the scientific evidence for climate change” [/ycc-tweetable-text] and compelled by “a truth revealed” in Genesis 2:15 on a sacred duty to till and keep the planet.

“He is not making some political comment about the relative merits of capitalism and communism,” Turkson continued. “He is rather restating ancient biblical teaching …. He is pointing to the ominous signs in nature that suggest that humanity may now have tilled too much and kept too little.”

… Yet seen as unprecedented, far-reaching

While perhaps the most definitive and in-depth “hint” of the papal encyclical now said to be nearing the final stages of preparation, Cardinal Turkson’s remarks are not the only ones providing comfort to those hoping for a strong boost from the Pope leading up to the year-end Paris meeting. Washington Post religion reporter Michelle Boorstein wrote in late April that “most pope-watchers think Francis will raise urgent concerns about global warming and highlight human impact on climate change.” She attributed to “church historians” the sense that the expected encyclical “represents the first time in memory that such an important papal writing is being timed by a pope to influence a civil process.”  She wrote too that the [ycc-tweetable-text align=”left”] Pope may well emphasize the issue “as a core Catholic social justice concern, up there with topics such as poverty and abortion” [/ycc-tweetable-text] (but, apparently, with no reference to birth control or over-population).

Considered “among the most authoritative teachings of the church,” Borstein wrote, the encyclical and its potential to influence remain a question mark, both for Catholics and non-Catholics. She noted that American Catholics for years now have shown a willingness to “blow off” mandates on contraception and other issues.

American Catholics a sympathetic audience?

At the same time, in addressing American Catholics – about one-quarter of all U.S. adults – Pope Francis may well find a somewhat sympathetic audience. Survey work done by researchers at Yale University and George Mason University in the fall of 2014 found that American Catholics “are more convinced that global warming is happening, are more worried, and are more supportive of policy action than other Christians.”* That research reported that:

  • A solid majority of Catholics think global warming is happening (70 percent), vs 57 percent of non-Catholic Christians who agree;
  • Catholics are more likely than other Christians to think it is mostly human caused (48 percent versus 35 percent respectively);
  • Catholics are “much more worried” about global warming than other Christians (64 percent versus 46 percent); and
  • Nearly half of Catholics, 46 percent, understand that “most scientists think global warming is happening, compared to only 37 percent of other Christians” – a “key measure” and a “gateway belief” that influences other key beliefs about climate change.

It was all more than enough to prompt a late-April rush of international greenhouse-emitting air travel to Rome by U.S.-based interest groups long characterized, accurately or otherwise, as climate “skeptics” or “contrarians.” The Chicago-based Heartland Institute, Washington, D.C. blogger Marc Morano, of Climate Depot fame and infamy, and even the feisty Cornwall Alliance were among those heading Rome-ward in hopes of dissuading Pope Francis from his apparent path. Signs that they’ve succeeded are nonexistent.

The buildup in advance of the coming release of the encyclical is sure to be followed by extensive commentary and analysis on Pope Francis’s visit to New York City, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C., where he has been invited to address the U.S. Congress. Adding to the buzz is that the invitation to the Pope to speak came from Speaker of the House, and Catholic, John Boehner, who may experience what New York Times reporters characterize as “some uncomfortable moments” concerning his own skeptical views on climate science.

*Editor’s Note: A principal in that research for Yale University is also the publisher of Yale Climate Connections.

The Pope’s ‘Integral Ecology’ Emphasis

Integral to understanding what is thought to be Pope Francis’s approach in the upcoming encyclical are his own teachings on ‘integral ecology.’ Describing Pope Francis’s ministry and teaching, Cardinal Turkson provided a four-point outline:

  • A call for all people to be protectors is integral and all-embracing;
  • Care for creation and for humanity are virtues in their own right;
  • We all will, and must, care for things we cherish and revere; and
  • ‘A new global solidarity’ and a need for dialog are essential in searching for the common good.

“Clearly this is not some narrow agenda for the greening [of] the Church or the world,” Turkson said. “It is a vision of care and protection that embraces the human person and the human environment in all possible dimensions.”

Photo credit: Associated Press.

Bud Ward was editor of Yale Climate Connections from 2007-2022. He started his environmental journalism career in 1974. He later served as assistant director of the U.S. Congress's National Commission...