Vatican officials confirmed this week that Pope Francis’ much-anticipated encyclical letter on the environment is finished and ready for translation, and should be released in June. An “encyclical” is the most developed form of papal teaching, and this will be the very first such document ever devoted entirely to the environment.

To set the table, the Vatican co-hosted a summit on climate change in Rome this week along with the United Nations, with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon as the headliner. The Heartland Institute, a leading American forum for climate change and global warming skeptics, organized a rump event in Rome, but those voices were pointedly not invited inside the Vatican and UN conference.

The near-universal expectation is that Francis’s encyclical will lend the moral authority of the Catholic Church to calls for stronger environmental protection, including limits on greenhouse gas emissions as part of the anti-climate change push.

Francis has already tipped his hand about the document’s contents in multiple ways.

He’s said he wanted the document out by mid-2015 so it would influence a UN climate change summit set for Paris in December. The pontiff said he hopes the nations gathered at the event will make “courageous” choices – clearly implying that he doesn’t believe efforts to date have been especially courageous.

In January, he went on record saying he believes climate change is largely man-made, going so far as to fault humanity for “slapping around” the natural world. Francis is also fond of saying, whenever talk turns to the environment, that “God always forgives, man sometimes forgives, but nature never forgives.”

Although it’s not out yet, the encyclical is already generating significant criticism. Some is coming from secular skeptics on global warming and climate change, but presumably more worrying for the pope is blowback from within the Church.

One such voice was heard this week in a piece by Riccardo Cascioli for La nuova Bussola Quotidiana, a widely read Italian Catholic web site. Cascioli’s concluding line is, “The road the church is heading down is precisely this: To quietly approve population control while talking about something else.”

The heart of Cascioli’s case is not just that the United Nations is, in some ways, an odd partner for the Catholic Church, since some UN agencies over the years have engaged in titanic battles with the Church over issues such as whether condoms should be part of anti-AIDS efforts in the developing world.

It’s also that environmentalism and population control are intrinsically linked – at least in their present forms, he believes, you simply can’t have one without the other.

For those not familiar with Cascioli’s work, he’s a former Vatican Radio employee who co-authored a two-volume work titled Lies of the Environmentalists in 2004 and 2006. Among other things, the book argued that radical eco-activists deny the unique spiritual status of human beings in a way incompatible with Christian orthodoxy.

To date, Cascioli’s main concern has been with secular environmentalism. Now, however, he believes those forces are infiltrating the Church at its highest level.

“Up to this point, the Holy See has always represented the final and inviolable obstacle in defense of human dignity against a globalist ideology,” he wrote this week. With the pope’s new encyclical, he said, the moment may be at hand when “the Catholic Church is swept into the ecological chorus … sustaining its official doctrine on the climate.”

The logical consequence, Cascioli believes, will be for the Catholic Church to lower its guard against abortion, contraception, and other population control measures, because the “ecological chorus” is convinced the main threat to sustainable development and environmental harmony is human over-population.

“It’s the usual story,” he writes. “To eliminate poverty, all you have to do is to physically eliminate the poor.”

In opposition to that, Cascioli cites traditional Catholic doctrine that “every human life is sacred and cannot be sacrificed for any motive,” adding his own coda: “Not even to save the planet.” He doesn’t believe you have to control population growth in order to clean up the environment.

Cascioli’s core point is that you can’t buy only part of the secular environmental agenda. If Catholicism officially embraces the crusade against climate change, he warns, the momentum will carry the Church to places it will regret going.

Whatever one makes of Cascioli’s point, it would be a mistake to conclude he’s the only one who feels this way. He speaks for a powerful constituency in the Church, including Catholics most committed to pro-life causes.

As a result, the aftermath of the pope’s forthcoming encyclical won’t play out only in forums where environmental matters are explicitly on the agenda. It will be felt in plenty of other arenas too, perhaps including the pontiff’s trip to the United States in September and the Synod of Bishops on the family in October.

Reframing the Vatican’s financial reform

“Reform” is one of those buzzwords, like “hope,” which everyone claims to believe in. The hard part is defining what it means, and that seems to be the stage we’re at with the much-ballyhooed financial glasnost in the Vatican promised by Pope Francis.

It’s hard to exaggerate how much is at stake. Perhaps even more than sex, money over the years has been a catastrophic source of scandal and disillusionment for the Catholic Church. If Francis gets this right, it could set a new standard for the Church at all levels.

There’s currently a battle underway over the process, often framed as pitting a new clean-hands team against an old guard opposed to change.

Some Vatican insiders, however, believe that frame is both inaccurate and an obstacle to real reform. Understanding where the parties stand is critical to assessing the situation properly.

In February 2014, Francis tapped Australian Cardinal George Pell to promote transparency and accountability from his perch at a new Secretariat for the Economy. Pell’s allies include German Cardinal Reinhard Marx, who heads a new Council for the Economy; Maltese economist Joseph Zahra, senior lay member of that council; and Jean-Baptiste de Franssu, a French businessman who’s president of the board of the Vatican bank.

That lineup has made its presence felt, in part by generating anxiety.

Some reaction has been frivolous, including press reports charging Pell with over-spending at a Roman tailor. Some has been serious, including leaked minutes of a Vatican meeting in which French Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, who’s close to Francis, called what was then seen as Pell’s growing power a “phase of Sovietization.”

One might wonder if such grumbling reflects ulterior motives, and there may be instances of that, especially at lower levels. God knows that if the likes of Monsignor Nunzio Scarano — the former Vatican accountant arrested in 2013 on charges of cash smuggling and money laundering – are still around, they probably aren’t members of the George Pell fan club.

Yet far more consequential is a principled undercurrent of concern about the methods and performance of Pell and his crew, not their aims.

To varying degrees, it’s voiced by figures such as Italian Cardinal Francesco Coccopalmerio, basically the Vatican’s attorney general; his deputy, Spanish Bishop Juan Ignacio Arrieta; Tauran, a member of a council of cardinals overseeing the Vatican bank; Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the secretary of state, and retired Cardinal Attilio Nicora, an expert on Church finances.

Those figures aren’t a “camp,” much less organized opposition. In one way or another, however, they have reservations about how reform is being implemented.

For one thing, critics say Pell operates out of a “Great Man” model, where systems are shaped for a specific leader – in this case, him. That won’t work in the Vatican, they insist, where laws must hold up under all kinds of administrations.

A story making the rounds holds that another cardinal once got a letter from Pell issuing orders and offered a classic riposte: “Your Eminence, I only recognize one pope, and his name is Francis, not George.”

Skeptics accuse Pell of using the media to score points, and say his team has delivered underwhelming results – for instance, citing doubts about what’s happening at the Vatican bank under de Franssu. They also complain that Pell vowed to eliminate cronyism, yet mostly hires friends, creating a “credibility gap.”

Fundamentally, their argument is that if reform is to succeed, it must include real limits on power and must reflect the Vatican’s unique features rather than corporate or diocesan models. Pell’s critics say they’re fighting for that kind of change, not defending the status quo.

For his part, Pell insists that he’s not interested in power but results, and that his new legal framework ensures robust checks and balances. He also says that despite scattered resistance, he’s found strong support in most quarters.

Broadly speaking, Francis has backed Pell, yet some see his support waning as the pontiff adopts a more nuanced view of the older Vatican bureaucracy.

Some insiders believe Francis has approved leaks at key moments questioning Pell’s statements, and that the last point in the pope’s blistering Christmas address to Vatican officials, condemning a lust for power “in the name of justice and transparency,” was at least partly directed at Pell.

Pell’s friends would dispute those claims. What they unquestionably capture, however, is the tension in the air.

Even granting that both parties make legitimate points, reconciling them may prove a dicey proposition.

Pell is a tough customer, committed to getting things done as perhaps his final service to the Church. However, the same traits can make him disinclined to meet critics halfway.

For their part, the critics sometimes presume superior wisdom simply because they’ve been around so long. It’s also hard to know how much of their beef is about substance, and how much is culture shock over a 6’3” Aussie bruiser shaking things up.

Perhaps, however, if the tension can be reframed not as “good guys v. bad guys”, but rather as differences among people who share the same basic ends, then Francis can craft a creative synthesis.

Ultimately, doing so isn’t about smoothing ruffled feathers. It’s about making sure the Church’s money actually goes to serving the poor, defending human dignity, bringing people to the faith, and all the other noble reasons for which untold millions of ordinary Catholics around the world provide it.

Facing global threats may help US religious freedom debates

This week, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, created in 1998 to monitor violations of religious freedom worldwide and to make policy recommendations, issued its 2015 annual report.

For anyone paying attention to world affairs lately, it will be no surprise to hear that the news isn’t good.

The report cites a growing wave of “violence masquerading as religious devotion,” in particular atrocities committed by ISIS in Iraq and Syria against Yazidis and Christians as well as Shi’ite and Sunni Muslims.

“Yazidis and Christians have born the worst brunt of the persecution,” the report concludes. “From summary executions to forced conversions, rape to sexual enslavement, abducted children to destroyed houses of worship, attacks on these communities are part of a systematic effort to erase their presence from the Middle East.”

However, it’s clear the problem isn’t restricted to the Middle East or the Islamic world. The commission’s proposed list of “countries of particular concern,” meaning where things are the worst, includes China, Burma, North Korea and Vietnam, and its “tier two” states, meaning where things are pretty bad, include Cuba, India, Laos and Russia.

“The horrors of the past year speak volumes about how and why religious freedom and the protection of vulnerable religious communities matter,” it says. It calls for a three-pronged response, including emergency assistance for the suffering, promoting the recognition of religious freedom as a fundamental human right, and addressing the root causes of violence in poverty and corruption.

At the big-picture level, perhaps the most intriguing element of the report is its argument that promoting religious freedom in far-away places isn’t just a matter of human rights, or moral obligation; it’s also an anti-terrorism and domestic security priority.

The report quotes Catholic Archbishop Jean-Benjamin Sleiman of Baghdad, Iraq, in August 2014: “Unless there is peace … I do not think Europe will be calm. This does not stop at territorial boundaries.”

The document says Sleiman has been proved eerily prophetic.

“Five months later, in January 2015, the same forces of violent religious extremism plaguing the archbishop’s country struck the Hyper Cacher supermarket and the Charlie Hebdo newspaper in Paris,” it says.

“All nations should care about abuses beyond their borders,” the report argues, “because what goes on in other nations rarely remains there. Standing for the persecuted against the forces of violent religious extremism is not just a moral imperative; it is a practical necessity for any country seeking to protect its security and that of its citizens.”

Of course, the report is partially aimed at American politicians, and therefore must make a case that what’s happening in places far from their home precincts ought to matter anyway. In that sense, linking concern for religious freedom abroad to national security at home is probably a good card to play.

For religious believers in the United States, however, there’s actually another argument about domestic implications, not made in the report, which may carry even more weight: Raising consciousness on what’s happening overseas can be a powerful tool in our own religious freedom debates.

Take, for instance, the standoff between religious groups and the Obama administration over requirements to cover contraception as part of health care reform. Polling reveals that many Americans believe contraception should be part of a basic health care package, and some may be tempted to view requests by religious groups for exemptions in terms of privilege or special treatment.

For another example, the Archdiocese of Washington claimed victory Thursday when the US House of Representatives voted to overturn a District of Columbia law that forbids businesses from discriminating or retaliating against workers who access in-vitro fertilization, use birth control, have premarital sex, or seek an abortion (the issue now goes to the Senate). The archdiocese believes the law “would force religious institutions and other organizations to hire or retain employees who publicly act in defiance of the mission of their employer.” No doubt, some will see the archdiocese’s victory in terms of maintaining its own power.

A decade before Indiana and Arkansas adopted their controversial laws, Israeli-American journalist Jeffrey Goldberg called the then-nascent concern over religious freedom in the United States “an issue manufactured in the mile-square section of Washington that produces the most priceless of political commodities: the wedge issue.”

The politics of religious freedom, he noted, tend to pit secular human rights activists against religious groups, and within the Christian fold they tend to divide more liberal mainline Protestants against Evangelicals and Catholics.

In other words, the domestic religious freedom argument in America tends to function as another front in the wars of the culture.

However, few Americans would see pleas for help from Yazidis, Christians, and moderate Muslims suffering at the hands of ISIS in those terms. No one would accuse them of flexing muscle to preserve privilege, because they have no privilege left to defend.

The worsening situation abroad puts the case for religious freedom in its strongest possible form, and the more Americans are engaged in helping victims of persecution abroad, the more likely they are to be sensitive to defending religious freedom here, too.

In other words, the global threat isn’t necessarily a distraction from domestic concerns. Instead, it may just be the best possible way of overcoming the present polarization in thinking about them.

A clarification on ‘luxury issues’

After last week’s “All Things Catholic” column, I was surprised by how many people seemed to interpret what I wrote as meaning that the defense of marriage and the family, or the wars of culture generally, are a “luxury issue,” a term I used to refer to preoccupations of affluent cultures.

Instead, I meant that term specifically in regard to a controversy surrounding Catholic Relief Services, the overseas development arm of the US bishops, about whether it’s appropriate to have a non-Catholic employee in a technical post who’s in a same-sex marriage.

While it’s certainly legitimate to think about how a Catholic organization ought to reflect Church teaching in its hiring practices, my point was that in many other parts of the world, such questions would seem far less urgent than the life-and-death threats facing persecuted Christians, and that the latter deserve at least the same attention.

That, at least, was what was in my head, whether or not it came across in what I wrote.

By way of explanation, I spent much of that week talking to Christians in the firing line, including a bishop from Kenya whom I met in Rome and a Syrian archbishop. Really, all I wanted to say was that I wish their suffering aroused the same passion as some of the things we in the American media spend our time covering.

In retrospect, perhaps I should have just said that.

By the way, for a powerful version of the case that defending marriage and defending persecuted Christians do not have to come at one another’s expense, see a terrific guest piece on Crux this Thursday by Helen Alvaré prompted by my column.