In a highly anticipated encyclical on the environment, Pope Francis this week condemned widespread disengagement with the issue of global warming, using both scientific and theological arguments, and creating an opportunity for leaders from all faiths to address what their religion teaches about caring for creation.
The encyclical, titled "Laudato Si (Praised Be), On the Care of Our Common Home," is directed at Catholics around the world, but its political and religious implications could be felt far beyond Catholic circles.
The encyclical enters a heated political climate, and people who engage with the pope's words should be careful to read it on its own terms, said Susannah Tuttle, director of North Carolina Interfaith Power & Light, an organization that works to put faith into action to improve the environment by reducing the carbon footprint of congregations and lobbying policymakers.
"This is a holistic document," she said. "We have to give it a little room and space to breathe."
Tuttle, along with other leaders of faith-based environmental groups, called the encyclical — the official version of which is expected Thursday after an early version in Italian leaked Monday — an opportunity to ask all people of faith to consider what religion teaches about the environment, expanding a dialogue that has existed for decades.
The Pope's arguments aren't revolutionary, theologically speaking, because "the environmental movement has deep religious roots," Tuttle said. "But there is a certain awesomeness about Pope Francis that can engage folks from all communities of faith."
She added, "It has been challenging to get pastors and state leaders to talk about (environmental) issues. I hope this can change that."
Tuttle said the "call to care for creation" is central to many of the world's religions, citing biblical teachings that instruct humans to be stewards of the earth. Interfaith Power & Light counts Methodists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Muslims, Hindus, Baptists, Quakers, Catholics and a variety of other people of faith among its membership.
And yet surveys have repeatedly shown that believers don't feel particularly called by their religious practice to be active in the environmental movement.
A new study from Pew Research Center, released Tuesday, found that 48 percent of Catholics, 39 percent of Protestants and 56 percent of religiously unaffiliated Americans "say global warming is a very serious problem." Although support has grown since Pew asked the same question in 2013, only among the unaffiliated does a majority see it as a serious problem.
This relatively low engagement with the issue persists in spite of the fact that dozens of faith-based environmental groups have been active for more than a decade, and that people of faith initiated the environmental movement in the U.S., as Deseret News National reported this week.
Mark Stoll, an associate professor of history and director of environmental studies at Texas Tech University, said in the article that religion is likely divorced from the environmental movement in many people's minds because climate change is a highly politicized issue in the U.S.
In Pew's study, 21 percent of Republicans said global warming is a "very serious problem" compared with 67 percent of Democrats. And religious people, the data show, are much more likely to identify as Republicans.
However, environmental group leaders are optimistic the encyclical will be a turning point in efforts to get everyday believers involved in climate change initiatives, because it emphasizes a faithful response to climate change rather than a political one.
"Pope Francis makes (the issue) more accessible to people," said Lonnie Ellis, associate director of the Catholic Climate Covenant.
"He's bringing it home for people," he added. "It's not about parts per million or charts and graphs. It's about our sisters and brothers around the world."
And because the encyclical is being covered widely by the media, it opens a door for pastors to preach about the environment, which can be difficult to address given the politics that surround it, said the Rev. Mitch Hescox, president and CEO of the Evangelical Environmental Network.
In November, Public Religion Research Institute reported only 36 percent of Americans who regularly attend religious services hear their clergy leader address climate change "often" or "sometimes," including only 20 percent of white Catholics.
"This brings the dialogue to the surface again, helping people feel free to talk about (the environment) whether they're evangelical or mainline Protestant or Catholic," he said. By focusing on a moral framework to motivate care for creation, the pope takes some of the politics out of the discussion, he said.
The people's pope
Beyond his emphasis on the moral reasons to address climate change, the pope benefits the environmental movement simply by being himself: an incredibly popular public figure who was named Time's Person of the Year in 2013, the Rev. Hescox said.
"Most people recognize him as a Christian leader," which means his fan base extends far beyond the Catholic Church, he said.
Pew's survey found that 86 percent of Catholics, 69 percent of white mainline Protestants, 51 percent of white evangelical Protestants and 58 percent of religiously unaffiliated Americans have a "favorable view" of Pope Francis.
However, the pope's popularity also complicates the encyclical's release, especially when people fail to acknowledge its grounding in Catholic tradition and misrepresent the pope's work as politically motivated, Tuttle noted.
"We all sort of feel like we own the pope now, but he's (the Catholics') pope," she said. "He didn't write the encyclical so that he could speak in front of the United Nations."
Instead, he drew on the work of previous popes, mining Catholic teachings to motivate people to be more mindful about their relationship to their environment.
"From a Catholic perspective, (the encyclical) is something he's channeling from God," Tuttle said.
Ellis echoed her, noting that the work "is first and foremost a faith document."
"Faith has social consequences and it has political consequences," and those will come with the encyclical, he said. "But we first root (the pope's words) in faith and spirituality."
Interfaith partnerships will be essential when faith-based environmental groups respond to the encyclical, because Catholics can add context to the theological and social claims made by the pope, said the Rev. Brian Sauder, executive director of Faith in Place, an interfaith environmental group based in Illinois.
"The key (in interfaith work) is to be comfortable with each other and to learn from each other how to be stronger in our own faith traditions," he said.
Catholics can describe how the encyclical affects them spiritually, motivating people of other faiths to look at their religious texts for teachings about caring for creation.
"We can inspire each other to take better care of our common home," he said.
Looking toward the future
The Rev. Sauder and Tuttle said their organizations will encourage Catholic partners to play a leading role in discussions about the pope's message.
"We want to highlight what some parishes have already done and lift those stories up, as well as engage with more parishes," he said, noting that dozens of their Catholic partners have "green teams," or groups dedicated to addressing climate change from within the church by raising money to make community buildings more energy-efficient or recruiting congregants to lobby local and state lawmakers to pass environmentally friendly policies.
Faith in Place will also produce resources to guide people's engagement with the encyclical, which is too long and complex to allow for casual reading.
Ellis said he expected the impact of the pope's message to happen in stages. The encyclical's initial release will inspire hundreds of headlines and commentaries, but it will take longer for Catholic priests to decide how best to engage with the document in their parishes.
"Priests will have to read and reflect for a couple weeks (before they're) able to preach on it," he said.
Although the encyclical is cause for rejoicing for everyone involved in interfaith environmental initiatives, there is still much work to be done before the faith community will be active enough in sustainability efforts to make a real difference in climate change, the Rev. Sauder noted.
As Deseret News National reported last year, few denominations have shown growth in environmental concern over the last two decades, in spite of high-profile commitments from leaders to "go green."
The pope's encyclical can only make a lasting impact if pastors commit to addressing the environment from the pulpit more frequently, and if faith-based environmental groups capitalize on press coverage to teach more believers about their work, the Rev. Sauder said.
"It's wonderful to look at the groundwork (for a faith-based response) we've laid and see it amplified" through the pope's message, he said. "But at the end of the day, protecting the environment will happen from the pews."
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