ROME — Vatican officials announced Tuesday that Pope Francis’ much-anticipated encyclical letter on the environment is now finalized and is being translated into various languages, with an expected release date sometime in June.
The announcement came during a Rome summit on climate change co-sponsored by the Vatican and the United Nations, headlined by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace.
An encyclical letter is considered the most important, and most developed, form of papal teaching. This will be the first-ever encyclical entirely devoted to environmental themes.
“This meeting is to support the encyclical of the pope,” said Bishop Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo, an Argentinian who heads the Pontifical Academy for Sciences and is a key Francis confidante.
“The pope said this morning that it’s finished,” Sanchez Sorondo told the Rome gathering.
Ban said he can’t wait for the document to appear, and praised the pontiff for framing climate change as a “moral imperative.”
The UN leader said the encyclical is one of three factors that could turn 2015 into a critical year in the fight against climate change and global warming. The other two, he said, are the signing of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals this September, and an international summit in Paris in December designed to achieve a global climate agreement.
At the invitation of Ban, Francis will open the UN Special General Assembly on Sept. 25, with more than 193 heads of state scheduled to be in attendance.
“We have an unprecedented opportunity to articulate — and create — a more sustainable future and a life of dignity for all,” Ban said.
Titled “Protect the earth, protect humanity,” Tuesday’s one-day conference is designed to produce a joint statement on “the moral and religious imperative of dealing with climate change in the context of sustainable development.”
Addressing the interdisciplinary assembly of scientists as well as religious and business leaders, Ban said that “mitigating climate change and adapting to its effects” are necessary to eradicate extreme poverty, reduce inequality, and secure equitable, sustainable economic development.
Turkson said “the problems are vast, and the solutions long-running.” Those solutions, he said, cannot be merely technical nor commitments merely contractual. Instead, they must be “grounded and oriented by morality” and “measured in terms of human flourishing and well-being.”
Turkson referred to Pope Francis’ condemnation of a “throwaway culture,” including new forms of slavery, and the globalization of indifference.
“These issues are poisonous,” he said, “for they thwart human purpose, choke human potential, and affront human dignity.”
Ban said he hopes the forthcoming papal encyclical will convey that protecting the environment is a “sacred duty for all people of faith and people of conscience.”
“Let the world know that there is no divide whatsoever between religion and science on the issue of climate change,” he said.
At the same time Turkson and Ban were projecting a spirit of common cause, a rival event in Rome organized by the Chicago-based Heartland Institute, a leading forum for climate change skeptics, asserted that the UN is not a good partner for the Vatican because it supports population control measures such as abortion, sterilization, and contraception.
Asked during a news conference about those matters, Ban defined them as an “ideological issue” that was not part of the Vatican conference.
Turkson told Crux that “when the UN talks about population control, it won’t be in alliance with the Church,” but said that doesn’t preclude the possibility of partnerships on other fronts.
The cardinal said he’s sometimes approached by people telling him that he entered the seminary to save souls, not to “meddle” with political or scientific issues.
“But I have bishops in the Pacific Islands telling me the land where they used to farm is now underwater,” he said, asking, “Is this not of interest to the Church?”
Turkson said that even though the Church can’t confirm or deny scientific findings, it cannot remain indifferent seeing how “these developments [of climate change] are affecting human life.”
Famed economist Jeffery Sachs, a UN advisor for the Sustainable Development Goals, told the Rome conference that 2015 is perhaps “the last chance” to reach a climate agreement.
Speaking to Crux, Sachs said he was excited to see scientists and religious and business leaders come together.
“It’s clear that the will is very strong,” he said. “There’s a mutual commitment for the moral message to the world on the need for decisive action.”
Throughout the conference, scientists from different fields urged religious leaders to create awareness about the moral and humanitarian dimensions of environmental protection.
Botanist Peter Raven, for instance, said, “We hope the religious leaders will help us to care for one another in ways we haven’t yet begun to understand.”
Leaders from Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and various Christian denominations argued that science must acknowledge the role of religion in shaping society.
Sri Sugunendra Theertha Swamiji, a Hindu guru, argued that the main reason for today’s crisis is the “non-importance” of religion in daily life.
“Human beings are becoming terrorists against nature,” Swamiji said. “Without concern for spiritual values, there will be no solution to this problem.”
According to Maria Voce, head of the Church’s Focolare lay movement, the conference demonstrated a new consciousness in civil society about the need to forge partnerships.
“No individual has the solution for the dramatic situation humanity is going through,” she told Crux. Maria Voce is often described as the most powerful woman in the Catholic Church because of her access to the pope and senior Vatican decision-makers.
“Humanity has the ability to leave this crisis behind, but only through a synergy of its diverse components, since each one has something to say and to bring to the table,” she said.
On the pope’s encyclical, Sanchez Sorondo said it’s divided into two parts:
- What Christianity calls “revelation,” which he defined as the idea that man is the steward of creation
- The natural sciences, combing faith and reason — in this case, scientific and philosophical reasoning