Pope Francis greets the crowd during his general audience at St. Peter’s Square on June 11 in Vatican City. (Vincenzo Pinto/AFP/Getty Images)

This opinion piece is by John Gehring, Catholic program director at Faith in Public Life, an advocacy group in Washington.

Pope Francis will release the first encyclical in the history of the Catholic Church specifically devoted to ecology and environmental justice Thursday. Encyclical anticipation has been building for months far beyond the usual venues of heady theological journals and religious press.

The frequent squabbling over a religious document that has not yet seen the light of day underscores both the insatiable appetite for all things Pope Francis and the charged politics of climate change. Not since 1968, when Pope Paul VI affirmed the church’s ban on artificial birth control, has a papal encyclical felt like a momentous political and cultural event.

What to watch for

Ahead of the highly anticipated church document, the Vatican made the unusual decision to release the publication date in advance and even confirmed the title Laudato Si (Praised Be), a quotation from the 13th century Canticle of the Creatures from St. Francis of Assisi that praises the gifts of God’s creation with references to “Brother Sun” and “Sister Moon.”

From the moment Pope Francis became the first pontiff in history to take his name from the saint most known for his devotion to the natural world, the pope signaled that care for the environment would be a centerpiece of his papacy. “This is our sin: exploiting the Earth and not allowing her to give us what she has made within her,” the pope said in a speech to students last summer. Human beings have “slapped nature in the face,” the always quotable pontiff told reporters when asked about the causes of climate change.

Expect the encyclical to include a discussion about the connection between global inequality – what Pope Francis has called “an economy of exclusion” – and environmental devastation. “An economic system centered on the god of money,” Francis reminds us, “also needs to plunder nature to sustain the frenetic rhythm of consumption that is inherent to it.”

Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, was a key adviser to Pope Francis on the encyclical and wrote the first draft. “The threats that arise from global inequality and the destruction of the environment are interrelated, and they are the greatest threats we face as a human family today,” Turkson said in a March speech widely viewed as a curtain-raiser on the encyclical.

While the Vatican has timed the release of the encyclical to influence global debates leading up to a major U.N. meeting on climate change at the end of the year in Paris, the pope will ask for something more profound than policy changes or technical solutions. Francis sees a world in which humanity has a broken relationship with the Earth, and will call us to fundamentally rethink the way we interact with each other and our fragile ecosystem.

“Integral ecology,” as the church describes it, is rooted in respect for our inescapable interdependence and a commitment to the common good. This is a stark challenge to the radical individualism embedded in our American DNA. On a recent flight back from Bosnia, the pope confirmed that the encyclical will also address what he called the “cancer” of consumerism – a subject those of us in affluent nations usually prefer to avoid. 

How ‘care for creation’ fits under orthodox church teaching

Pope Francis is not going rogue. He is building on church teaching most recently articulated by his two predecessors, John Paul II and Benedict XVI. These two popes, favorites of many conservative Catholics, raised climate change as a moral issue and called for action.

More than 25 years ago, Pope John Paul II warned that the “greenhouse effect” had reached “crisis proportions.” Pope Benedict XVI, dubbed the “Green Pope” by some observers, urged international leaders to wake up to the reality of ecological damage.

“Can we remain indifferent before the problems associated with such realities as climate change, desertification, the deterioration and loss of productivity in vast agricultural areas, the pollution of rivers and aquifers?” Benedict asked in 2010.

Why the sound and fury over this encyclical if past popes also spoke up on climate change? From the beginning of his papacy, Pope Francis has caused heartburn for theological and political conservatives used to defining the terms of Catholic identity and shaping the church’s political voice.

“The right wing of the church,” Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia acknowledged in an interview early in Francis’s papacy, “generally have not been really happy about his election.” Far from tossing doctrine out the window, Pope Francis is emphasizing traditional church teaching that recognizes that a consistent ethic of life must also include concern for how war, poverty, environmental degradation and extreme inequality impact human dignity.

The pontiff has energized most Catholics fed up with the narrow agenda of culture-war Catholicism. It’s also deeply unsettling to some U.S. Catholic activists, pundits and GOP politicians who enjoyed a free pass in recent years.

The first pope from the global south is putting serious church muscle behind issues of economic and environmental justice in ways that challenge those who benefit the most from the status quo. It’s the poor and vulnerable in developing nations that suffer disproportionately from climate change. This is not simply an abstract or intellectual issue for a global church. Catholic Relief Services and other Catholic organizations are on the front lines serving climate refugees, advocating for sustainable development and walking the walk in ways that put the Gospel into practice.

The most compelling moral leader in the world is making comfortable people uncomfortable, challenging our indifference and leading with a clear vision. Are we ready to follow?

John Gehring is the author of the forthcoming “The Francis Effect: A Radical Pope’s Challenge to the American Catholic Church” (Rowman & Littlefield, August 2015).

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