Pope’s message on climate change marks a radical departure for Vatican


Donal Dorr

The encyclical on ecology is the first fully comprehensive treatment of environmental issues issued by the Vatican – one that locates humans as an integral part of nature and calls for what Pope Francis calls “an integral ecology”.

It is a very radical document and original both in its content and in its style. It shows that Francis is willing to enter into dialogue both with scientists and with politicians – and to challenge them to adopt a broad perspective on human welfare.

It shows that he has the courage to be controversial and challenging, while maintaining a respectful and irenic posture.

In his comprehensive and scientifically grounded account of environmental problems – one that will gladden the heart of environmentalists – Francis makes it quite clear he accepts the consensus of scientists that human activity is the main cause of our current ecological problems.

He issues a strong challenge to those who deny or play down the severity of our ecological problems – and this confrontational approach on the issue is quite new in papal documents.

He adds an important element to official Catholic social teaching when he says bluntly: “We know that technology based on the use of highly polluting fossil fuels – especially coal, but also oil, and, to a lesser degree, gas – needs to be progressively replaced without delay.”

Calling for courageous and radical action by governments, he does not hesitate to say that the outcome of the Rio conference in 2010 was “ineffectual”.

Francis has a gift for finding memorable phrases. In one striking statement he says that we “must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor”.

Elsewhere he says: “Access to safe drinkable water is a basic and universal human right, since it is essential to human survival and, as such, is a condition for the exercise of other human rights.”

From the time he became pope two years ago, Francis has been saying that concern for the environment is inseparable from concern for those on the margins of society, since it is the poor who are first and hardest hit by damage to the environment.

Genetic modification

There is an even stronger emphasis on that point in this document – and Francis gives real-life examples in support of this point. For instance, towards the end of the document he puts forward a treatment of genetic modification that is far more nuanced than that adopted previously by the Vatican.

Instead of focusing on just the technical aspects he relies on experience “from the ground” in pointing out that, when genetically modified seeds are used, poor people are the ones who lose out.

“In many places, following the introduction of these crops, productive land is concentrated in the hands of a few owners . . . In various countries, we see an expansion of oligopolies for the production of cereals and other products needed for their cultivation. This dependency would be aggravated were the production of infertile seeds to be considered; the effect would be to force farmers to purchase them from larger producers.”

One of the strongest and most controversial statements in the encyclical comes when Francis says: “A true ‘ecological debt’ exists, particularly between the global north and south.”

What he means is that we in the wealthy “developed” countries, having used up more than our fair share of the resources of the Earth, are now morally obliged to compensate and help the poorer countries that entered later into the race for development.

In a striking statement, he adds that while the richer countries use the financial debt of poor countries as a way to control the poor, they refuse to take account of the “ecological debt” that they owe to the poor countries.

Later in the document he says: “The time has come to accept decreased growth in some parts of the world, in order to provide resources for other places to experience healthy growth.”

Francis is willing to adopt a very controversial position when he puts forward quite a strong criticism of the system of “carbon credits” that is widely used at present. He maintains that this arrangement, which appears at first sight to be an easy way for rich countries to avoid having to reduce their carbon emissions, is really a way of refusing to face the difficulty. It can give rise to speculation and actually enable rich countries and sectors of society to increase their carbon emissions.


One of the more valuable and original elements in the encyclical is Francis’s challenge to the technological mindset that leads people to think that everything in the world can be manipulated and controlled. He maintains that, as a result, humans no longer treat other aspects of creation in a friendly way, but approach them in an aggressive manner. This in turn leads on to the false idea that we can have limitless growth and that we can assume that there is an unlimited amount of energy and resources available to us.

All in all, this encyclical makes a valuable contribution not only to Catholic social teaching, but also to the political and economic dialogue on the ecology.

Donal Dorr is a theologian who has written extensively on issues of justice and ecology



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