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Looking down over Piazza San Pietro in Vatican City
18 June 2015 15:00

The story of the papal encyclical, as told by the media

Sophie Yeo


Sophie Yeo

18.06.2015 | 3:00pm
International policyThe story of the papal encyclical, as told by the media

After months of speculation and expectation, the Pope has released an encyclical about climate change and our species’ relationship with its natural environment.

An encyclical is the highest form of communication that the Pope can issue. Today’s wide-ranging missive covers everything from batteries to deforestation, and from carbon credits to ecological debt.

This week, the 184-page document has dominated climate-related media coverage. Carbon Brief looks at how the Vatican’s input into the global climate conversation was received.

Media frenzy

Media reaction intensified in the moments after the Vatican dropped the encyclical into the public domain at midday today in Rome. However, journalists’ prepping had no doubt been aided by the leaked Italian version, which emerged in Italian magazine L’Espresso on Monday.

The Washington Post rounded up reaction, ranging from “over-the-top enthusiasm” to “harsh dismissal”, from figures such as German environment minister Barbara Hendricks and snowball-throwing climate sceptic US senator Jim Inhofe.

The BBC focused on the encyclical’s call for the “end of fossil fuels”. The Guardian looked at its concern for the poor. The Daily Mail included comments from those opposed to the pro-renewables stance of the encyclical.

There was a discernible effort to fit the Pope’s message around unique, if niche, interests.

“‘Dear Texas,’ Pope Francis might as well have called his encyclical,” said Texan paper San Antonio Express News. The Washington Times believed that the Pope had “blasted the Obama administration”, despite there being no mention of Obama, or any other politician, by name in the text. “He is too polite to mention readers of The Guardian but we know what he means,” said The Telegraph.

Business-focused publications looked at the effect the encyclical could have on the corporate world. Business Green said that the encyclical amounts to a “clarion call to businesses and society to step up efforts to tackle climate change”. Its message will be “considered pretty seriously by at least 1.2bn consumers – the world’s Catholic population”, said GreenBiz. Reuters focused on the Pope’s dislike of carbon credits.

The Guardian, The Telegraph and RTCC deemed the launch worthy of a live blog, where they captured the action and reaction as it unfolded.

Former BP chief Lord Browne tipped his hat to the Pope in Gay Star News. He said: “I am sure that many Gay Star News readers disagree with the Pope on matters to do with sexuality. But I must confess that his call to action on climate change is right.”

Others focused on the politics of the document. The Conversation said its significance lies in how it “explicitly advocates that people turn to the political process when it comes to important decisions about the future of the planet”.

Its influence in the political sphere was played out even ahead of the launch today. Comments by Catholic presidential hopeful Jeb Bush, who said that he does not “get economic policy from my bishops or my cardinals or my pope”, were widely reported ahead of the launch, including by Politico, The New York Times, and The Guardian. TIME said Bush’s views were “hogwash”.

In Australia, the Sydney Morning Herald said that the encyclical was unlikely to escape the attention of domestic politicians: both prime minister Tony Abbott and opposition leader Bill Shorten are Catholics.

Pope -espresso -front -page

The front page of l’Espresso. Credit: l’Espresso.


Encyclical fever set in before the Vatican had formally released the document.

L’Espresso, which published the leaked draft on Monday, described the arduous process involved in moulding the document into its final shape, including the secret pulping of an earlier copy because of the changes made.

The leak precipitated a sudden scramble to translate the document from Italian into English by journalists hungry to get their first peek at its contents, and enabled a pre-launch round of commentary.

The Washington Post said the draft “reveals Francis as part policy wonk, part lyricist”. In The New York Times, Andy Revkin warned of the limitations of the encyclical in changing the climate debate, since “Francis remains a man, not a Superman”.

An article in the academic journal Science pointed out that the Pope, who studied chemistry, has “opted to incorporate specifics on science and action”.

Peter Stanford at The Telegraph said that the encyclical does not offer much in the way of novelty, but “it is Pope Francis who is surely the new and unpredictable factor”, arguing that it is the popularity of Francis personally that could make the document reverberate across the developed and developing worlds.

Martin Sandbu in The Financial Times questioned the logic of the Pope’s critical attitude towards technology, while George Monbiot in The Guardian said that the encyclical will reinforce the point that there are spiritual as well as financial reasons to protect the planet. ThinkProgress explored the debate over whether man has a God-given duty to extract fossil fuels.

In the US, Fox staged a debate entitled, “Did the Pope go too far on global warming?”.

Intrigue at the Vatican

Meanwhile, the decision to leak the document became a story in its own right.

The Telegraph was among the many papers reporting the Vatican’s condemnation of the leak as a “heinous act” and an “act of sabotage”.

The Guardian reported on the Vatican’s withdrawal of press accreditation to the journalist, Sandro Magister, who revealed the draft, and the ensuing debate among the media about whether to publish details of the leak.

Magister told Associated Press that it was his editor’s decision to publish the document. AP described a “whodunit” hunt inside the Vatican for the culprit responsible for the actual leak.

There was a flurry of suggestions that the leak was indicative of tensions within the Vatican, and hostility from some quarters towards Pope Francis’ agenda of reform.

The New York Times printed a series of experts’ views, taken from newspapers and blogs, on why Vatican insiders may want to undermine the Pope. It said it is “no coincidence” that the draft encyclical ended up with Magister, who is a strident critic of the largely popular figure. It added that the leak could have been intended to weaken the impact of the encyclical.

Italian daily La Stampa pointed out that the historic document had achieved another landmark, in managing to be the first encyclical to be attacked even before it was released.

Main image: Looking down over Piazza San Pietro in Vatican City.
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