Douglas Roche


January 26, 2015

A sure sign that Pope Francis' forthcoming encyclical on climate change will capture world attention is that it is being attacked even before publication.

The pope's new encyclical will be published in time to influence the UN's major meetings next fall on reducing global warming and launching a new round of sustainable development goals.

The pope also intends to convene a meeting of leaders of the major religions to call for political action to save the planet from the crippling effects of carbon emissions. And also the pope himself will make a major address at the UN General Assembly in September.

All this is too much for Peter Foster, a business columnist for the National Post, who castigated the pope for projecting an anti-capitalist message into the political minefield of global warming.

"What the poor need is more capitalist investment and fossil-fuelled growth, not more moral posturing and destructive aid," Foster wrote. He wants the pope to stick to the internal subjects of Catholicism.

That Francis stands on a body of Catholic social teaching enunciated by several popes dating back to the 19th century doesn't seem to matter. Foster sees the pope's involvement in the number one world issue as likely "to further roil and divide an already tottering institution."

Actually, addressing his call for environmental justice to all of humanity, just as Pope John XXIII reached out to the world community with his 1963 encyclical, Peace on Earth, will do more to increase the "relevance" of the Church than any number of messages on the usual administrative matters.

A foretaste of what the new encyclical will contain is seen in the recent statement of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences and Social Sciences on our common responsibilities for sustaining nature and humanity.

This remarkable document links the degradation of the earth to "abject inequalities" between the rich and poor: "Market forces alone, bereft of ethics and collective action, cannot solve the intertwined crises of poverty, exclusion and the environment."


The academy scorned the fact that 50 per cent of the available energy in the world is accessed by just one billion people, yet three billion people, who have no access to clean energy, are forced to heat, cook and light their homes in environmentally damaging ways. The poorest bear the burden of ecological damage by industrial-scale agricultural practices that are transforming landscapes around the world.

Then the academy got to the heart of the matter: "The greatest challenge lies in the spheres of human values. The main obstacles to achieving sustainability and human inclusion are inequality, unfairness, corruption and human trafficking. . . .

"We need to change our convictions and attitudes and combat the globalization of indifference with its culture of waste and idolatry of money."

What the academy is saying is that the arguments over climate change are not just a debate about science. The paramount issue is human security. The challenge of climate change is not just economic and political, it is fundamentally an ethical call to a more equitable use of the world's resources.

It is more than caring for the well-being of the Earth, important as that is. It is caring for people, especially those deprived of elementary social justice by the voraciousness of the rich and powerful.

Entering this arena of public debate, Pope Francis is carrying on the tradition of several of his predecessors, not least Pope Paul VI, who said, "Development is the new name for peace."


The deeply conservative elements of society do not like to hear the social justice call. It interferes with their conviction that capitalism and the least-fettered market possible produce the most wealth. The fair distribution of that wealth is of far less concern to them than unlimited production.

Catholic social teaching, which usually afflicts the comfortable, has always shown a suffering world that emphasizing the common good of all humanity uplifts everyone.

The climate change deniers, those few who are left, will dismiss Pope Francis as being out of his depth. Those who understand that our world is out of harmony with the planet's capacity for sustainable development will feel more empowered to act for change.

As the chancellor of the academy, Argentinian Bishop Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo, one of Francis' friends, put it: "The problem of climate change has become a major social and moral problem, and mentalities can only be changed on moral and religious grounds."

Pope Francis' new encyclical will deal with far more than global warming. It will challenge scientists and politicians alike to preserve a shared planet.