When elected as the Vicar of Christ on Earth, Pope Francis made a bold statement in selecting the name of a saint known for his care of the environment and love of the poor.
Sometime this summer, he is expected to release his first encyclical and the topic - human ecology - may be just as bold, if not a lot more controversial.
Among the many issues sure to fire up any political debate in the U.S., climate change is one of the hottest. Skeptics are already dismissing the letter as out of the realm of religion and environmentalists are eagerly claiming Pope Francis as their new champion.
No one can predict what will be contained in the encyclical but it’s fairly safe to say it will not be a scientific paper or a political endorsement.
There is one source, however, that probably has a good idea of what to expect. He is Cardinal Peter Turkson, a Ghanaian prelate who serves as president of the Pontifical Council on Justice and Peace – which is responsible for the staff work on the letter.
In a presentation to the Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference last month, the Cardinal offered some thoughts.
First, he said, we are called “to protect and care for both creation and the human person.” Pope Francis laid this out during his first Mass as Pope when he offered St. Joseph’s as a model of protecting Jesus and the world.
Being a protector, said the Pope, “means respecting each of God’s creatures and respecting the environment in which we live. It means protecting people, showing loving concern for each and every person, especially children, the elderly, those in need, who are often the last we think about.”
Pope Francis, said the Cardinal, will also be consistent with his two predecessors.
During his Papacy, Pope Benedict emphasized the statement of St. John Paul II in saying that we must “change our way of life… [to] eliminate the structural causes of global economic dysfunction, and to correct models of growth that seem incapable of guaranteeing respect for the environment and for integral human development.”
The primary objection to Pope Francis’s encyclical will no doubt come from those who say that the climate is not actually changing and that, even if it is, human activity is not causing it.
For Pope Francis, reports Cardinal Turkson, the debate over the cause is not the point. “[T]o care for God’s ongoing work of creation is a duty, irrespective of the causes of climate change,” states the Cardinal.
He cites the book of Genesis, saying God placed humankind in the garden to “till and keep it.” We just may have “tilled” and “kept” too much.
The Cardinal concludes by pointing out that “at the heart of this integral ecology is the call to dialogue and a new solidarity, a changing of human hearts in which the good of the human person, and not the pursuit of profit, is the key value that directs our search for the global, the universal common good.”
This change of heart may be one of the reasons Pope Francis is releasing the encyclical this summer. There are some major worldwide climate conferences scheduled for later this year that he is apparently hoping to influence. He will also be speaking to the United Nations during his fall during his visit to the United States and many expect him to touch on the topic of climate change’s impact on people.
If there is any predictability about Pope Francis, it is that he gets people talking. His letter on human ecology will certainly do that. Somehow, this seems to be exacting what he wants us to do.
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