The launch of a new papal doctrine isn't exactly an Apple unveiling. But Pope Francis is no ordinary Bishop of Rome, and climate change is no ordinary theological problem.
As early as June, the Vatican is expected to release its encyclical letter on "human ecology," a document meant to guide religious thought about the environment among the world's bishops, pastors, and Catholic churchgoers. Encyclicals are high-level teachings. They are less policy fiats than elevations of papal utterances and writings that have been marinating for some time.
The Holy See offered a teaser this week. The Pontifical Academy of Sciences, the Vatican's research arm, hosted a one-day conference that brought together more than 150 accomplished scientists and spiritual leaders from more than a dozen faiths. Everyone wanted to talk about the threats of climate change, the horrors of poverty, and what the two together may concoct in the future. But, other than the few high-ranking Vatican officials present, no one has seen the final document.
Among climate activists, fossil-energy advocates, and the journalists who love them, the encyclical is the most anticipated and, for the moment, the most secretive document on the planet. Nothing will shut down a conversation with Vatican officials faster than a question about what's in it. The letter itself is finished; inside the Vatican, theologians and translators are working together to render it into various languages, a piece of linguistic footwork as challenging as writing the encyclical itself.
Why all this attention to a scientific-religious workshop about a document nobody's seen? Here are five guesses.
It's the pope! On climate change!
Global warming, as participants in policy debates will tell you, can get boring. The United Nations climate negotiations, which have now occurred annually for a fifth century, I mean a fifth of a century, are evolving. We hope they are evolving toward less bitterness and despair and more trust, goodwill, and wins for everyone involved. We'll see. The entrance of a new voice is welcome, particularly if it speaks for 1.2 billion people living around the world. (The Holy See is an official observer of the negotiations.)
He polls well
Pope Francis may be the most influential person in the world without nuclear weaponry. The Pew Research Center on Religion and Public Life reported in March that 7 out of 10 Americans view him "favorably." Among Catholics, his favorability rating stands at 90 percent. In the U.S., he's an extremely respected leader, all the more so since there's so little competition.
Washington on the Tiber
The encyclical is expected to insert the pope into an American political problem and loosen the conventional pairing of climate skepticism with conservatism and religious devotion. There remains a curious discrepancy between how uncontroversial climate change is on earth and how controversial it is in Washington. A powerful statement from the pontiff on the threat of climate change and its impact on the poor could shake up the conventional stupidity on the Hill a bit. Just wait till September, when Pope Francis will address Congress in person.
Liberals get a package deal
Washington, climate change, the pope—there is more going on here than could ever be unpacked in a single post. Yes, per point three above, and much other news media coverage, Republicans don't like the idea of addressing climate change head-on. Less discussed is the curiosity of liberal climate activists unabashedly throwing their arms around an environmental push that, to the Church, is one with its positions on reproductive rights and marriage equality. The Church says it wants to protect human dignity in every form, from conception to death, including the environment we inhabit—our "human ecology." Little remarked amid the climate change coverage this week is the Vatican's reluctance to accept France's appointment of a gay man as its ambassador.
Actual people are actually suffering, and their suffering is likely to grow, especially among the world's poor. That's what brought the world's faith and scientific leaders together this week at the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. "We're here today because sustainable development is far off course," Jeffrey Sachs, director of Columbia University's Earth Institute and an organizer of the Vatican event, told the gathering. "And we're here today because sustainable development is utterly feasible. We have the technological means. We have the modes of economic reorganization to succeed."
It's a critical mass of will that's missing, and that may get a holy shot in the arm this summer.