The eco-encyclical: Prepare to receive and share it

The following article was written by Bill Patenaude for Catholic Ecology. It is re-posted here with his permission.

It could very well be that as you read this sentence more people are talking about Pope Francis’s planned eco-encyclical than are discussing his first one on faith—or for that matter his first apostolic exhortation, or any encyclical issued by any pope. And that has some at the Vatican concerned.

Given that so many people are wondering what the pontiff will say about the environment and when he will say it, I was thankful to be granted a few moments to speak with Fr. Michael Czerny, S.J., assistant to Peter Cardinal Turkson, the president of the Pontifical Council for Peace and Justice. This council is involved not just with assembling material for the encyclical but also insuring that it lives on in the life of the Church.

The timing

Most questions I get are about when the encyclical will be issued. (We Catholic ecologists are an impatient lot, are we not?) Of course, Fr. Czerny wasn’t able to say. But he did confirm some of what we’ve been hearing elsewhere: the encyclical is well under development and we should expect a release sometime in 2015.

But when exactly? Dates I am watching are April 22nd (Earth Day), July 14th (the Feast of St. Tekakwitha Kateri), October 4th (the Feast of St. Francis), or sometime during Pope Francis’s apostolic visit in January to the Philippines—a nation seeingextraordinary ecological engagement by the Catholic Church. Then again, Francis could issue his encyclical anytime when he and his staff can get it done, translated, and out the door.

Wanted: A long-term response

For Fr. Czerny the more important timing consideration is not the date of the encyclical’s release but the 72 hours afterwards—and the day, months, and years after that.

It will be in those first hours that the global media will pounce. And then they will filter and loudly set the narrative about the encyclical. And that narrative—communicated mostly by secular headlines—may be all that is heard by most of the world and even most of the world’s Catholics.

“[Journalists] won’t have long to read through the entire text” before they have to have something to say, Fr. Czerny said.

Of course this constraint comes thanks to a media machine that must feed a novelty-hungry audience—a world that expects fresh, entertaining news delivered at the speed of light. And so what the Holy Father says in his encyclical will be immeasurably more expansive and nuanced than what many will read in their newspapers or see on cable television.

“So the question becomes, what can we do to prepare for it? What can we do—what can our parishes, our dioceses, our schools, our universities do—to be ready to piggy back on that initial burst of energy when it’s released? What can we do to receive and share it?”

Fr. Czerny added that he wants to see the encyclical read, digested, studied, and implemented “for the long term.” He worries that the pontiff’s ecological encyclical will have little lasting effect on the lives of the faithful, even if right now there is intense interest.

Referring to Pope Francis’s first apostolic exhortation, Fr. Czerny said that “one wonders if Evangelii Gaudium is still read or how it’s being implemented.” He noted that when the Vatican issued that encyclical “there was a big media hit and reaction,” and yet he said that it would be interesting to know the extent to which today’s parishes and pastors and lay people might be allowing it to challenge and transform them.

The content

Fr. Czerny said that he hopes people waiting for the environmental encyclical are familiar with what Pope Francis, his predecessors, and many bishops have previously written, preached, and done.

“We must encourage people to listen to what’s already been said” so that we can better prepare for the encyclical. Fr. Czerny hinted that for those paying attention all along, there may be little in the eco-encyclical that’s entirely surprising.

I asked him about Pope Francis’s theme of “a culture of waste,” which he’s often returned to when speaking of ecology and human life. I also asked to what extent the encyclical would refer to Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s and Saint John Paul II’s ecological teachings.

Of course Fr. Czerny has to be cautious about discussing the content of a papal encyclical that has not been released.

But after speaking with him, my guess is that you probably shouldn’t be surprised if the encyclical continues the theme of “the culture of waste,” which refers both to throwing away people (like the poor and the unborn) as well as food and other resources. And you might wish to brush up on B16’s and SJPII’s foundational statements, on which Pope Francis will build—which, of course, is the way the Successors of St. Peter carry the Church forward through history.

Recent signals

Previous posts [like this one and this one] have presented clues as to what Pope Francis’s encyclical would say—what tone it would have and what it would stress. Last week, the pope gave us more insights.

During Fr. Czerny’s time this past week at the Faith, Food, and the Environment symposium, he spoke frequently of Pope Francis’s October 28th comments to a gathering of the poor of the world—fittingly, on the Feast of St. Jude, the patron of hopeless causes. The address—the longest to date by Francis—has been dubbed a “mini social encyclical.” It touched on housing, land, work, the environment, and violence. Thus it is a harbinger of what the eco-encyciclal will sound like and how it will comfort the afflicted and exhort everyone else. (You’ll note the pairing ofeconomic and ecological realities in the pontiff’s words, which is why I use “eco” as a descriptor of the encyclical. It signifies both.)

In his closing key-note comments on Thursday evening, Fr. Czerny read at length (and with genuine emotion) from this address. What follows is some of what he read.

And when you encounter these words of Pope Francis, keep in mind Fr. Czerny’s questions: How will we prepare our parishes and ourselves to receive, share, and live what Pope Francis has to say.

At the beginning of creation, God created man, custodian of His work, charging him to cultivate and protect it. I see that there are dozens of farm workers here and I want to congratulate you for protecting the earth, for cultivating it and for doing it in community. I am concerned about the eradication of so many brother farm workers who suffer uprootedness, and not because of wars or natural disasters. 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. This painful separation, which is not only physical, but existential and spiritual, because there is a relation with the land that is putting the rural community and its peculiar way of life in notorious decline and even in risk of extinction.


During this meeting, you have also talked about Peace and Ecology. It is logical: there cannot be land, there cannot be a roof, there cannot be work if we do not have peace and if we destroy the planet. These are such important topics that the nations and their grass-roots organizations cannot fail to debate. They cannot stay only in the hands of political leaders. All the peoples of the earth, all men and women of good will, we must raise our voice in defense of these two precious gifts: peace and nature – Sister Mother Earth, as Saint Francis of Assisi called her.

A short time ago I said, and I repeat it, we are living the Third World War but in quotas. There are economic systems that must make war to survive. Then arms are manufactured and sold and with that, the balance sheets of the economies that sacrifice man at the feet of the idol of money, obviously are healed. And no thought is given to hungry children in refugee camps; no thought is given to forced displacements; no thought is given to destroyed homes; not thought is given now to so many destroyed lives. How much suffering, how much destruction, how much grief there is. Today, dear sisters and brothers, the cry for peace rises in all parts of the earth, in all nations, in every heart and in Popular Movements: No more war!

An economic system centered on the god of money also needs to plunder nature, to plunder nature to sustain the frenetic rhythm of consumption that is inherent to it. Climate change, the loss of bio-diversity, deforestation are already showing their devastating effects in the great cataclysms we witness, and you are the ones who suffer most, the humble, those who live near coasts in precarious dwellings or who are so vulnerable economically that, in face of a natural disaster, lose everything. Brothers and sisters: creation is not a property, which we can dispose of at will; much less so is it the property of a some, of a few: creation is a gift, it is a present, a wonderful gift that God has given us to take care of and to use for the benefit of all, always with respect and gratitude. Perhaps you know that I am preparing an encyclical on Ecology: be sure that your concerns will be present in it. I thank you, I take the opportunity to thank you for the letter I received from the members of the Rural Way, the Federation of Cardboard Dwellers and so many other brothers in this respect.

We talk of the earth, of work, of a roof … we talk about working for peace and taking care of nature. However, instead of that, why do we get used to seeing how fitting work is destroyed, how so many families are dismissed, how rural workers are expelled, how war is engaged in and nature is abused. Why has man, the human person been taken out of this system, out of the center and been replaced by something else. Why is idolatrous worship rendered to money. Why has indifference been globalized! Indifference has been globalized: why should I care what happens to others so long as I can defend my own? Why has the world forgotten God who is Father; it has become an orphan because it left God to one side.

Some of you said: this system can no longer be endured. We must change it; we must put human dignity again at the center and on that pillar build the alternative social structures we need. It must be done with courage, but also with intelligence, with tenacity but without fanaticism, with passion but without violence. And among us all, addressing the conflicts without being trapped in them, always seeking to resolve the tensions to reach a higher plane of unity, peace and justice. We, Christians, have something very lovely, a guide of action, we could say a revolutionary program. I earnestly recommend that you read it, that you read the Beatitudes that are in chapter 5 of Saint Matthew and 6 of Saint Luke (cf. Matthew 5:3 and Luke 6:20) and that you read the passage of Matthew 25. I said it to the young people at Rio de Janeiro, with those two things you have the plan of action.