The New Encyclical on the Environment

Pope Francis is working hard at a new encyclical on the environment and seems likely to publish it shortly. For reasons not entirely clear, it’s being given a big build-up. The leaks from Rome raise some questions – but also some hopes.

The hope lies in the fact that the Vatican seems to be consulting widely and may incorporate some of the pointed feedback in the final text.

The questions are two-fold: Church documents almost always get misread by the media – i.e., by the main transmitters of information for most people, even for most Catholics – and not always for ideological reasons. Journalists are just more comfortable translating Catholic teaching into familiar political categories of left and right. Religious categories are too foreign, or beside the point, for the majority of them.

This encyclical will, doubtless, be portrayed as anti-capitalist and liberal in its environmental policies. There’s some justification for that view in what I’ve seen so far. To begin with, passages in the draft – only a draft for now – speak of the climate as a “collective good.”

This is odd language for a Catholic text because it echoes a very bad strain in twentieth-century social history. (Those of us of a certain age may perhaps be forgiven for having come to think almost everything we ever heard called a “collective” as more or less unreal, or a failure, when not outright tyranny.)

Catholicism has a much better articulated concept: “the common good,” which avoids both collectivism and individualism.

But other excerpts speak of the state as the primary guarantor of the common good. This, too, seems to ignore recent history, a flagrant history, when regimes claiming to represent the interests of all humanity became some of the most brutal and bloody ever seen.

Catholic social thought hinges on four basic principles: the common good, solidarity, subsidiarity, and human dignity. The last two – you might argue all four – guard against injustice by the state towards persons, civil society, and other spaces of freedom and truth.

You don’t have to be a libertarian or a proponent of the night-watchman state to think that relying on governments – which in democratic countries means politicians and those who influence them – to do the right thing, absent counterbalancing forces, is asking for trouble. Big trouble. All components of society have a role in promoting the common good.

A Catholic may see a proper state role in environmental policies. But we don’t write the state a blank check in such matters any more than we think that unbridled capitalism (that mythical camelopard of much religious social commentary) will solve all problems. The Soviet Union and Communist China suppressed private enterprise and directed entire economies – and were/are some of the worst polluters in recent history.

"Mulberry Tree" by Vincent Van Gogh (1889)
“Mulberry Tree” by Vincent Van Gogh (1889)

Besides political and economic static, there appear to be scientific problems in the text. One passage I’ve seen speaks of “sustainable development,” a shibboleth in some environmental circles. That term, like many others in this arena, is essentially useless because it can mean anything: depending on the parameters you chose, almost any human activity can be categorizes as “unsustainable,” from using fossil fuels to having babies.

Further, the very notion of sustainability implies that earth’s ecosphere is stable and that there’s a “balance of nature,” which we ought to conserve. Neither is true, except over short time periods and distances.

If you want a glimpse of real “climate change,” try the Ice Ages. They’re the norm – the kind of “interglacial” period we’ve been in for about 11,000 years is a relative exception, and has been for a couple million years. In North America, it’s been more common for Canada and about half of the United States to be covered in mile-thick ice. That’s the Earth that God created long before we came on the scene.

The notion of a “balance” in nature is an old and Romantic view, not upheld by modern science. The best books on this subject are by scientist and ecologist Daniel Botkin: Discordant Harmonies and the sequel The Moon in the Nautilus Shell, both of which argue that one reason we fail at environmental tasks we could properly be carrying out is that we misperceive nature.

In my own book, The Virgin and the Dynamo, I wrote about how religious people generally talk about not the nature God actually created, but the one they think he created. Nature, at least as we experience it now, is not the Garden of Eden. It challenged us in the past and still does today. It takes extraordinary wisdom to know how to balance care for that dynamic Creation with human need – which Francis has been warning us is still great in much of the world. Let’s hope the new encyclical reflects all these truths.

Environmental questions involve everything – the sun and other extraterrestrial influences, earth’s complex masses and forces and life forms, and human activity. Which is what makes them a proper subject for religious commentary, properly done.

The problem, of course, is that it’s rarely done properly, which is to say, by leaving aside the technical scientific questions and thorny policy proposals, about which religious authorities have little expertise – and experts themselves disagree, as they do on every other subject.

The Church is on its own firm ground when it focuses on broader principles that should govern creatures like ourselves who can make rational choices, even in the absence of full knowledge about what can or should be done.

Even more importantly, the Church – as Benedict XVI has suggested – might help us recover a different sense of what nature actually is: neither an ideal realm nor mere material for our use, which would not only be a good thing for the natural environment, but also for humanity.

The encyclical is still a work in progress. We’ll soon see if there is something useful and fresh to say about this thorny subject, already much debated in both the secular world and the Church.

Robert Royal

Robert Royal

Dr. Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing, and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent book is A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century, published by Ignatius Press. The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West, is now available in paperback from Encounter Books.

  • Mannfredd

    Is there any subject more boring than the environment?

    • Tom Springer

      Arcane arguments over whether or not priests should say Mass in Latin would top the list of boring subjects for me. Since all human life relies on clean water, breathable air and about four inches of good top soil, the environment seems like a topic of vested interest for all who plan on being around longer than the next three minutes or so.

    • Everyone is talking about the weather but no one does a thing about it …

  • The climate change is both great danger and great opportunity. We aren’t going to be able to affect it no matter what we do, so embrace the opportunity for farmers and ship builders.

  • Noah_Vaile

    Apart from avoiding local pollution, which is an ethical and private concern for the most part, we (human beings) have zero effect on the “environment” as a whole. (Read “climate change.”)
    With that said, governments, whether “hideous dictatorships” or “benevolent republics” have demonstrated little or no ability to ever do “the right thing” in almost any situation. The former is motivated directly by its own desires. The latter indirectly corrupted by the individual members of the (elected?) power elite.

  • Louise

    When I heard of this I thought for sure he would include a discussion of human ecology, the human environment, which he has touched on before. Anything of that sort, to your knowledge?

  • Nancy Janzen

    When is it going to come out on the website?

  • Excellent perspective. I’ll await and see how the Holy Father presents his argument but I fail to see why he should be pursuing nuanced environmentalism. I can understand the moral imperative for Christians to be good stewards of God’s creation, but getting into global warming and such is entering the political sphere. If he doesn’t allow for cost/benefit analyses that all concientious people and governments must perform then he is pursuing a political agenda.

  • Howard Kainz

    Stephen Moore in the Washington Times today quotes the Pope: “The monopolizing of lands, deforestation, the appropriation of water, inadequate agro-toxics are some of the evils that tear man from the land of his birth. Climate change, the loss of biodiversity and deforestation are already showing their devastating effects in the great cataclysms we witness.” It sounds like the Pope could do an op-ed for the New York Times.

  • BXVI

    His supposed theme of “sticking to the kerygma” didn’t last very long, did it? I have to admit I really didn’t expect that it would. So, his first encyclical will be on the biggest pet issue of the progressive political left. I expect this encyclical to be more about economics, with the basic theme being that the rich nations of the West are taking more than their fair share of the world’s resources while emperiling the planet and subjecting poor nations to the downside of “climate change.” Shame on the rich Western nations! Pope Benedict was also an environmentalist, and very concerned about the issue of climate change, but he was smart enough not to wade into this highly politicized issue with an encyclical, especially when the “science” is definitely not settled.

  • ericdenman

    I wholeheartedly agree with Mr. Royal that the media exploits papal commentary to its own ends. So why is the pope jumping into the environmental issue, a subject on which he has no special expertise, adding more grist to the mill?

  • EWaughOk

    Here’s another fine mess Pope Laurel, err …, Bergoglio will get the Roman Catholic Church into …

    Pray it won’t be too egregious!

  • Fred Arbanus

    “Church documents almost always get misread by the media ……” Bvll Sh^t. The Vatican and the spin controll in the Vatican tells everyone who is critical that they are reading the document the wrong way. Sorry …. we are not falling for that stuff anymore.

  • Fred Arbanus

    Its clear that TCT is part of the Vatican proaganda machine

  • LawProf61

    I’m still reserving judgment about this Pope, but it’s not comforting to see the contortions conservative Catholics twist themselves into, to rationalize just about everything he says:
    “He’s incautious.”
    “He’s inexperienced with the media.”
    “The press distorts what he says.”

    Why would an educated and savvy man (as Francis clearly is), use words like “collective,” write an encyclical about the environment, call for a synod to address divorce and remarriage, deemphacize issues like abortion?

    It’s distressingly evocative of what some were saying when Barack Obama was first running for office:
    “He’s really a centrist”
    “His words are being taken out of context”
    “Everyone reads into it what they want to hear.”

    6 years into his presidency, it is abundantly clear (to most of us) who and what Obama is. And it was clear to some of us much earlier – those who listened to why he actually SAID, who he admired, what he espoused.

    I wonder whether the same will be said of Pope Francis when all is said and done.

    • OldGeezer

      I agree. I hate to say this but this Pope does not seem to have the self discipline that his 2 predecessors did. His comments seem to be without forethought and very frequently require a mopping up effort after the fact. I’m ever hopeful but remain unimpressed.

    • ABBonnet


      Well, after 2 years, anyone should have had enough time to establish a track record. And indeed, the present Pontifex has one … and, for the most part, it’s a shabby mess of misstatements in interviews or shot-from-the-hip press conferences, demotions of Benedict XVI’s conservative appointments, promotion of those who were at odds with Benedict and St John Paul II, Papal clericalism while renouncing clericalism in others, extraordinary canonical measures used against traditional religious orders, selective dismissal of doctrine as inessential to the Roman Catholic faith, support for heretical points-of-view so glaring a layman writing in the New York Times could point them out. At this juncture, in my opinion, reserving judgment would be a sign of imprudence. The present Pontifex is a whole lot of bad news.

      As for his intelligence, it’s a commonplace to observe that smarts do not equal competence, (or even less, moral virtue). But I agree, the Pontifex’s words are not to be taken as simply faux pas, but rather, indicative of flawed attitudes toward the Roman Catholic faith running deeply through his 1960s-70s Jesuit formation. He is a genuine representative of that decayed and passé Spirit-of-Vatican-II generation.

  • goomba

    Global warming is the great hoax of this age of Biblical proportions; this pope has no science training to comprehend how wrong his opinions are. When one spends his life steeped in South American style social justice ideology, you are ripe for falling for leftist nonsense. The very idea that man can “fix” global climate ( if it needs fixing at all) is the sin of pride bordering on blasphemy.

    Bye-the-bye it will get to 20 degrees below ZERO this week in Chicago. Maybe God didn’t get a dose of the GW Kool-aid.

  • LAM

    On December 17, Boff, who switched from liberation theology to environmental-theology, confirmed to ANSA News Agency that he had sent at the Pope’s request, material for the next encyclical to him. On the 28th December, in dispute with Vittorio Messori, he expressed himself in We are Church his Support for Pope Francis against a nostalgic writer, with these words: “An open Church as Francis of Rome wants, is extremely important. It is necessary to be open to the irruptions of the Spirit called by some theologians “the imagination of God” for reasons of its creativity and novelty, in society, in the world, in the history of peoples, in individuals, in the Churches and also in the Catholic Church. Without the Holy Spirit, the Church becomes a heavy institution, tedious, with no creativity and, at a certain point, has nothing to say to the world except the same doctrines upon doctrines, without stirring the hope and joy of living.”

  • Craig

    I believe that the Pope should be devoting his attention to the spiritual wellbeing of his flock
    We are experiencing unprecedented attack on Christians especially in the Middle East and in the USA we have seen a continuous erosion of tolerance to the free expression our own religious traditions and expressions. How about an encyclical on our First Amendment rights? The idea that the Church is weighing in one this manufactured crisis, which by the way, has not a shred of independently collaborated scientific studies to show that mankind is the driving force of our global climate. To think that CO2 is contributing to the demise of the Planet is lunacy! Please encourage the Holy Father to help us all try to find our spiritual compass and leave the Global Warming hysteria to the progressive loons!!

  • LAM

    Fr. Boff seems to be going after doctrine in a big way. It appears that to the liberation theologians, doctrine is the enemy…..the oppressor.

  • NewbieJames

    There is no such virtue as “solidarity”. This was invented out of thin air to get around subsidiarity.

    • Greg

      I suppose next you will argue that when Jesus said, “Whatsoever you do unto the least of these, you do unto Me” he was addled.

      I am much more worried that people have forgotten subsidiarity than solidarity, but even I have to admit that the whole point of the Incarnation is solidarity.

  • accelerator

    I don’t see any reason to even remotely care what the Vatican thinks about climate change. I would say we should regard its writings on the subject the way most Catholic theologians today regard and explain away huge chinks of Scripture — as unreliable, problematic, and entirely colored by the belief systems of particular religious communities.

  • Tom Williams

    Reading Robert Royal is like reading the Book of Revelations and understanding all the symbolism.
    My take away from his article is to be very discerning about what is being passed off today as an official position of The Church…even if it is coming from The Vatican. There are wolves in sheep clothing undermining The Truth of Jesus being True God and True Man. There seems to be, as another observer of what is happening in The Church puts it “it is an old heresy dressed up in a different costume” but essential trying to achieve the same results ” the lessening of who Jesus is.”

  • aed939

    Another Catholic view of the environment views carbon as an essential element of life. So more CO2 in the carbon cycle is life promoting, and any move to restrict carbon is akin to family planning and population control.

  • ForChristAlone

    The ecology of the world, including human ecology, always must begin in the womb. Unless life in the womb is sustainable, the sustainability of the environment outside the womb is meaningless.

  • Nonya

    One thought: We should watch the English translation and make sure that it actually reflects the Holy Father’s own words/connotations of the original language. It seems to me not unlikely that some left-leaning translator could put “collective” where “common” mind have been used–we should make sure before proceeding. (Not saying this author wouldn’t, just bringing up this point. Things can be not just lost, but sometimes, we have seen, added, in translation…

  • Robert Royal

    Nonya, I read the excerpts in Italian and Spanish. No possibility of “translation error” since nothing’s been translated yet.

  • JohnnyVoxx

    I think we can safely say the Church is in Apostasy and has been since Vatican II. She has been made a creature of the New World Order. I suppose I have to thank “Pope Francis” for making that clearer and clearer by the day so the last hopes and illusions may be vanquished. We must demand the Church renounce the heresies of Vatican II, re-instate the True Mass, re-instate the sacraments as they existed prior to 1968 and, in general, become Catholic once again.