Unprecedented ‘buzz’ for Pope Francis’ encyclical on warming

By Jean Chemnick | 06/17/2015 01:07 PM EDT

Encyclicals, or papal letters, typically pass from the pope to his bishops around the world to little fanfare.

Not so for "Praise Be," the encyclical that will come out tomorrow amid an avalanche of press conferences, floor speeches and action days around the country aimed at driving home its message that human-caused emissions are driving climate change that is threatening the natural world and the poor.

"There’s never been this much buzz around an encyclical being released," said Patrick Carolan, executive director of Franciscan Action Network. Even Catholics usually don’t know when an encyclical is released, he noted, though bishops are instructed to incorporate the authoritative document into their spiritual teachings.


Now, the Climate Action Campaign, Citizen’s Climate Lobby and Sierra Club are engaged on the encyclical or planning events to call attention to its message that developed countries should work to rein in emissions — something they’ve been saying for years.

"I’m addicted to encyclicals. I think there should be a 12-step program for people like me. I write from them; I teach from them," joked John Carr, director of the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought at Georgetown University. "Now, suddenly, I have a lot of company."

Carolan and Carr say tomorrow’s release is getting a brighter-than-usual spotlight in part because it deals with an issue of intense interest to people from many walks of life — including secular environmental groups and those of other faiths who would not usually concern themselves with Catholic Church teachings. And it is also attributable in part to Pope Francis’ own charisma and popularity, which extends well beyond the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics.

"I think it’s because this pope has such charisma about him, that it’s going to reach not just Catholics but all people around the world," said Carolan.

Some Catholic public figures are preparing to elevate the 198-page document, which was leaked in draft form earlier in the week to the dismay of the Vatican. Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) published an op-ed yesterday in The Boston Globe arguing that the United States should heed the pope’s call to lead on climate change ahead of this year’s high-stakes round of U.N. climate talks in Paris. He used the occasion to target those who continue to doubt the science.

"Climate change deniers may be the Doubting Thomases of the 21st century, but there is no doubting the science anymore when national academies of sciences across the globe, including the Vatican’s, all agree that burning fossil fuels is changing the Earth’s climate," he wrote.

Vice President Joe Biden said yesterday during a speech that the papal letter appeared to show a growing consensus that action on climate is urgent. The president and other congressional champions of climate action have declined to comment until the document, which was transmitted yesterday to bishops and a few other parties, is formally released.

Meanwhile, conservative opponents of climate change policies are already readying their rebuttal.

An email memo from Arch Coal obtained by Greenwire through Greenpeace shows the coal company counseling Republican lawmakers to play up concerns about the way efforts to rein in emissions might affect the world’s poor — especially the 3.5 billion who lack adequate access to electricity.

The memo calls on policymakers and other leaders, including the pope, to boost "new advances in fossil fuel energy technologies" as a means of addressing this need.

And while most Catholic conservatives have shied away from mentioning the encyclical, a few have claimed the pope is wading into waters he shouldn’t.

Presidential candidate and former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), who is Catholic, said earlier this month in a Fox News interview that politicians are more qualified to discuss climate change because they are more accountable to voters. The pope should "leave science to scientists," he said.

But Carr said the pushback against the encyclical is raising its profile still further. And Carolan said politicians of any stripe take on the pope "at their own peril."

"This is a very popular pope," he said. Most Catholic political figures will find themselves doing "a very careful dance," he said, praising the pope’s sincerity and motives while "sticking to their guns" on policy.

But Steve Valk of the Citizen’s Climate Lobby said it might give some Republicans who have been cautious about speaking on climate change cover to break their silence. Valk’s group, which has worked on policy with center-right organizations including the R Street Institute and RepublicEn, is holding a day of action later this month to tout its support for a carbon tax swap — a climate policy some conservative economists have backed but that has enjoyed scant support among current Republican politicians.

"You could call it divine intervention, I guess," Valk joked, adding that the letter "kind of increases the pressure for Congress to take some action."

On the other hand, tomorrow’s message is also unlikely to be universally pleasing to progressive environmentalists. It is expected to make reference to protecting all of creation, including unborn human life. And it does emphasize protection of the poor in a way that may not track with all environmental doctrines.

"Given a choice between the redwoods and migrant farm workers, where are the members of Greenpeace?" wondered Carr.

But those familiar with Francis’ philosophy say it is hardly surprising that a man who adopted the name of St. Francis of Assisi would devote his first encyclical to stewardship of the poor and of creation. The letter’s title, "Praise Be," is even a reference to "The Canticle of the Sun," a poem by the saint about the need to protect creation, they note.

"Be praised, my Lord, through Brothers Wind and Air, and clouds and storms, and all the weather, through which you give your creatures sustenance," wrote Francis’ canonized namesake.

Reporter Manuel Quiñones contributed.