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Pope Francis on the popemobile greets crowds in St. Peter's Square
© neneo/Shutterstock
16 April 2015 16:47

Explainer: What we know about the Pope’s encyclical

Sophie Yeo


Sophie Yeo

16.04.2015 | 4:47pm
International policyExplainer: What we know about the Pope’s encyclical

In just under two weeks’ time, Vatican City will welcome an august selection of guests for a one-day conference on climate change.

The meeting, entitled “Protect the earth, dignify humanity: the moral dimensions of climate change and sustainable development”, will take place on the 28 April.

An agenda released by the Vatican on Tuesday lists appearances from UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon and US economist Jeffrey Sachs.

According to the website, the summit has three goals:

  • to raise awareness and build a consensus that the values of sustainable development cohere with the values of the leading religious traditions, with a special focus on the most vulnerable;
  • to elevate the debate on the moral dimensions of protecting the environment in advance of the papal encyclical [explained below];
  • and to help build a global movement across all religions for sustainable development and climate change throughout 2015 and beyond.

The summit marks another intervention from Pope Francis, whose position as a key influencer in the world of climate change will likely be cemented in a couple of months’ time by an encyclical concerning man’s relationship with nature.

The development of this encyclical has been a secretive process, but clues have slowly been filtering out on what it might contain. Carbon Brief looks at what we know so far.


An encyclical is a letter written by the Pope and circulated among Catholic churches across the world. It is one of the highest forms of papal address, and can attempt to reach out beyond the clergy – the 1963 Pacem in Terris encyclical by Pope John XXIII was the first to address the document to “all men of good will”.

The first encyclical was written in 1740, and since then have been used to address a variety of doctrinal and moral issues. Popes use them to have their say on topics which they consider a priority. Around 300 have been written to date, including subjects as disparate as the desirability of peace and the folly of Modernism.


The Pope is the driving force behind the encyclical, but he has not been working alone.

The first draft of the document was prepared by Cardinal Peter Turkson, the Ghanaian Cardinal who is president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, with the help of his team.

The Pope described the process to journalists during his January trip to Sri Lanka and the Philippines:

“With some help, I took it and worked on it, then with a few theologians I made a third draft and sent a copy to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, to the second section of the Secretariat of State, and to the Theologian of the Papal Household to take a look at it, so that I would not say anything ‘silly’!”


Pope Francis said that he would take a week in March to complete the document, which would then be sent out for translation – and if this process goes well, then the encyclical could be released in June or July.

He added that it is important that the document is out far enough in advance of the UN’s climate negotiations, scheduled to take place in Paris this December, so that it can make a “contribution”.

What is it all about?

Only a few of the Pope’s closest advisors are privy to what exactly the encyclical will contain – although Vatican spokesperson Father Federico Lombardi confirmed early on that it would deal with “human ecology”, suggesting a focus on man’s relationship with nature.

A number of more precise hints are filtering in on what approach the encyclical may take.

The Vatican conference later this month, for instance, focuses on the “intrinsic connection between respect for the environment and respect for people – especially the poor, the excluded, victims of human trafficking and modern slavery, children, and future generations”.

Pope Francis himself has already spoken of his concern over the way humans treat the planet, including during his recent trip to the typhoon-hit areas of the Philippines. His prepared remarks said:

“As stewards of God’s creation, we are called to make the earth a beautiful garden for the human family. When we destroy our forests, ravage our soil and pollute our seas, we betray that noble calling.”

The biggest curtain raiser from the Vatican so far came from Cardinal Turkson. During a speech delivered in Ireland in March, he confirmed that the encyclical would address “the relationship between care for creation, integral human development and concern for the poor”, and spelled out Pope Francis’ priorities concerning humans and nature.

Will it address the politically toxic issue of climate science? This is beside the point, said Turkson, while acknowledging that it had been something of a headache for the Pope while writing the encyclical.

“Even the compelling consensus of over 800 scientists of the IPCC will have its critics and its challengers. For Pope Francis, however, this is not the point. For the Christian, to care for God’s ongoing work of creation is a duty, irrespective of the causes of climate changeâ?¦As Pope Francis put it in his morning homily at Santa Marta on 9 February, it is wrong and a distraction to contrast ‘green’ and ‘Christian’.”

Who cares?

There are 1.2 billion Roman Catholics in the world, so that’s automatically a lot of people who could take an interest in what Pope Francis thinks about climate change.

One of them is speaker of the House of Representatives in the US: Republican politician John Boehner. He has arranged for the Pope to address Congress on 24 September. Republican presidential hopeful Marco Rubio is also a Catholic.

For these and many other Republican Catholics in Congress, Francis’ stance on climate change is in stark contrast to their own – despite the Pope’s non-insistence on Christian’s having to believe that climate change is manmade before doing something about it.

Gina McCarthy, head of the US Environmental Protection Agency, which is tasked with overseeing much of President Obama’s carbon cutting plans, has also met with Vatican officials who helped to draft the encyclical.

It is not the first time that the US administration has attempted to tie its policies to the Pope’s authority. In his speech announcing the historic normalisation of relations between the US and Cuba, Obama thanked Francis for helping to broker the deal.

The UN is also listening. As well as the presence of Ban Ki-moon at this month’s conference, the Pope has met with the UN climate chief Christiana Figueres, and will speak at the adoption of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals in New York this September.

Even the King of Tonga has taken the issue of climate change to the desk of the Pope, highlighting the particular plight of the small island states in a tour of Europe earlier this year.

Will it be enough?

Climate pressure group has a campaign underway to persuade the Vatican to get rid of its investments in the fossil fuel industry. While the divestment campaign has gained traction across religious communities – including the World Council of Churches – it has so far failed to make much headway in the Catholic Church.

In his speech in Ireland, furthermore, Cardinal Turkson said that Francis’ environmental vision was “not some narrow agenda for greening the Church or the world”.

The encyclical itself is more likely to provide Catholics and the world with moral guidance rather than practical advice on tackling climate change, yet one thing is certain. The input of Pope Francis has the potential to be one of the most influential interventions into the climate debate between now and the UN climate negotiations in Paris, appealing to people across political and religious spectrums.

Main image: Pope Francis greets crowds in St. Peter’s Square.
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