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Pope Francis Uses Encyclical To Deliver Moral Message On Climate Change


The words from Pope Francis today are urgent and direct. He released his much-anticipated encyclical on the environment and climate change. Francis says our common home is sick, burdened and laid waste, and he's calling for an active response to a global crisis. The pope is directing this encyclical not just to Catholics, but as he puts it, to every person living on this planet. To talk more about Pope Francis's message, we called on John Carr. He directs Georgetown University's Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life.

JOHN CARR: He sees this as a matter of great importance and thinks it is fundamentally a matter of the common good. And the common good, by definition, belongs to all of it. We either contribute to it or we undermine it.

BLOCK: Pope Francis mentioned several times throughout this encyclical the term integral ecology. What does that mean exactly? What's he getting at there?

CARR: In many ways, while it's 180 pages long - at least my version - the most important word is only three letters long, and is and. And what Pope Francis does more than anything else is connect things which have been separated. Concern for the planet, it's concern for the poorest people on the planet. Concern for social justice - concern for the environment.

BLOCK: So and is that integration in that integral ecology that he's talking about?

CARR: He talks about social ecology, cultural ecology, natural ecology, human ecology. But what it really means is that the web of life is one, that you can't separate our common home, which he calls our planet, to our common destiny and how we treat one another. One of the most powerful things about Pope Francis is he looks at the world in a different way, from the bottom up. That is not the way Washington looks at things. That is not the way business looks at things. So this is, in many ways, a challenge to all of us to look at things in a different way.

BLOCK: It's a fascinating document to read, and part of what's fascinating about it is how granular Pope Francis gets. He's talking about fungi and plankton. He's talking about agro-toxins and energy cooperatives, melting of the polar ice caps. Was that surprising to you?

CARR: Well, he studied as a chemist. He's been a pastor. He's been a school teacher. The most significant thing he's been is somebody who's spent his free time not at the operas, not going to a football game, but in the slums of Buenos Aires. And so he connects that very specific knowledge about what happens in the oceans, what happens in the air, to actually what happens to human beings. And on some ways, that's the most radical thing about this. Somebody said to me, the Church has suddenly become trendy because it's talking about climate change or environment. There is nothing trendy about the Catholic Church. This is very traditional. It began with Genesis, not Earth Day, not Al Gore. It focuses on very old-fashioned virtues like prudence. When you know you're doing damage, stop doing it.

BLOCK: Pope Francis is taking a very clear stand on climate change here. In his words, a very solid scientific consensus shows that most global warming is linked to human activity. He specifically mentions the intensive use of fossil fuels as part of the problem. How controversial will that be, especially among conservatives within the Catholic Church who say, look, the Church should not be preaching policy, that this is an inappropriately political stance for the Pope to be taking?

CARR: People who say that questions of environment, questions of justice, are politics, they don't understand faith. These are core questions. How we treat the weak, how we treat creation. For believers, we show our respect for the creator by our care for creation. So I think everybody ought to take a step back and listen to what he says, read what he says, and then look not just for where it affirms what they believe, but how it challenges them. For example, the Pope clearly puts care for creation and action on climate change at the center of Christian life, and that will challenge and irritate some people. He also clearly places care for the weak and the vulnerable, including unborn children for example, at the center of an environmental ethic, and that'll make other people uncomfortable.

BLOCK: But is Pope Francis taking a more overtly political stand in this encyclical than popes have before on other issues?

CARR: By its length, by its urgency, by its timing, by its language, this is different. In substance, frankly, it's not that different. Pope John Paul II wrote a letter - and I believe it was 1991 - saying environment is a moral issue. What I think is different is, this pope looks at this in a different way and therefore speaks about it in a different way. One of the most important insights of the encyclical - and he turns to it again and again and again - is, he makes so clear that the people who have contributed the least to the problem are suffering the most and they have the least capacity to respond, and there's something fundamentally wrong about that.

BLOCK: John Carr, thanks very much.

CARR: Thank you.

BLOCK: John Carr directs the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life at Georgetown University. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.