Quite obviously, the big Vatican story this week was the release of Pope Francis’ encyclical letter on the environment, Laudato Si. It was so big, in fact, there were actually two launches – the official presentation in the Vatican’s synod hall on Thursday, and the leaked version that appeared in the Italian media on Monday.
In the main, the text offered few surprises. Francis clearly endorsed the scientific consensus that the planet is warming due in large part to human activity. He ticked off a series of other challenges such as a loss of biodiversity and threats to safe water, and insisted on a strong link between environmental problems and poverty.
“Never have we so hurt and mistreated our common home as we have in the last two hundred years,” he wrote, insisting that humanity can no longer afford “delaying the important decisions and pretending that nothing will happen.”
By now the encyclical has been so widely dissected and commented upon that further analysis of its big-picture assertions seems superfluous. Instead, there’s an intriguing detail to Laudato Si that largely escaped notice in the first round of reaction, yet one that says something critically important about this pope and how he sees his job.
It comes in the footnotes, which in a papal text typically are almost entirely devoted to citations of other popes and official documents such as the Bible or the Church’s catechism.
This time around, however, more than 10 percent of the footnotes – 21 out of 172, to be precise – contain citations of documents from bishops’ conferences around the world. Francis quotes bishops from 15 nations, including South Africa, the Philippines, Bolivia, Germany, the Dominican Republic, Brazil, Japan, Australia, and New Zealand, not to mention both the United States and his own native Argentina.
Francis also cites two regional bodies of bishops – the Latin American Episcopal Conference (CELAM) and the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences (FABC) – both of which represent regions of the world where the perceived consequences of global warming and climate change are most keenly felt.
Marshaling so many references to the teaching of local bishops on environmental issues expresses three important insights about Francis.
1. He’s an astute politician.
Francis knows well that his message in Laudato Si is destined to be politically divisive, perhaps especially his calls for strict limits on the consumption of fossil fuels and the emission of greenhouse gases, not to mention his insistence that the environment can’t be fixed without serious reforms in broader economic “patterns of production and consumption.”
In effect, by pointing to a vast body of teaching and advocacy developed at lower levels of the Church over the last several decades, the pope is saying, “It’s not just me!”
In other words, Francis is making the point that this isn’t a personal hobby horse, but rather a matter of wide and growing concern among Catholics all over the world. Given the size and geographic distribution of Catholicism – more than 1.2 billion adherents in every corner of the planet – that’s a constituency no one can afford to ignore.
2. He’s a loyal son of the developing world.
As such, he sees it as part of his role to make sure voices from south of the equator are heard in global debates.
Although Francis cites a few documents from bishops in wealthy nations, including a 2001 statement on climate change from prelates in the United States, most of his references are drawn from bishops in the global south.
In the encyclical, Francis complains that “many professionals, opinion makers, communications media and centers of power, being located in affluent urban areas, are far removed from the poor, with little direct contact with their problems.”
By citing the pastors of the world’s poor, Francis seemed determined that a similar critique can’t be leveled against his own analysis.
“I believe this is the first papal encyclical to ever quote the bishops’ conferences,” said Argentinian Bishop Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo, president of the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy of Sciences.
“Francis has a great solidarity with bishops from other countries, particularly the poorest ones,” he said.
3. He’s a reformer pope.
And he’s trying to recalibrate the distribution of power inside the Church.
Over the years, there’s been lively debate in Catholicism over how much authority bishops’ conferences actually possess. In general, it pits advocates of strong central government in the Vatican, who tend to minimize the importance of the conferences, against supporters of decentralization and local control, who emphasize the conferences as a firebreak against Roman overbearing.
In 1998, the future Pope Benedict XVI issued a document with John Paul II’s blessing decreeing that bishops’ conferences have no standing to teach authoritatively, on the grounds that “truth is not arrived at by a majority vote.”
From his perch in Argentina, then-Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was among the bishops who felt that things were going too far in the direction of centralization, and that the experience and insight of local pastors needed greater resonance in Rome.
With Laudato Si, Francis effectively has pioneered a new model for the development of official Catholic teaching, one in which the Church’s center takes its peripheries seriously indeed.
Yes, the main message of the pope’s blockbuster environmental treatise is in the text. In this case, however, the footnotes are also a key part of the story.
The promise and peril of Egypt’s Christians
By the time this column appears, I’ll be in Cairo, Egypt, along with my Crux colleague Inés San Martín, seeking to understand the situation facing the country’s important and beleaguered Christian minority.
Life has never been easy for the Copts, who, combining the various Orthodox and Catholic traditions, represent roughly 10 percent of Egypt’s population of 83 million. It’s a Christian presence that stretches all the way back to the apostolic era and predates the arrival of Islam by seven centuries. But it nonetheless is often seen as foreign by the Muslim majority.
Copts have long faced discrimination in education, health, and employment, and are generally frozen out of senior levels of political life, corporations, and the military.
Although former Egyptian ruler Hosni Mubarak prided himself on keeping the country’s Islamic radicals at bay, local church statistics claim that 800 Christians were murdered in Egypt during his 30-year rule, and 200 acts of vandalism were perpetrated against Christian property, with very few arrests and convictions.
Christians played a lead role in the Tahrir Square protests that gave birth to the Arab Spring, but the aftermath has not been kind. Shortly after former President Mohamed Morsi was ousted in July 2013, there was an upsurge in sectarian violence against Coptic Christians in which 65 churches, Christian bookshops, schools, and convents were burned down, looted, or destroyed.
Despite assurances of protection of religious freedom from the new government, such attacks continue today, with the Islamic holy day every Friday as well as Christian holy days such as Christmas and Easter tending to be windows of special vulnerability.
More institutional forms of discrimination also continue to hinder Christian life in the country. Laws adopted under President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi aimed at curbing violent protest, for instance, have sometimes been interpreted to limit Christian assemblies or the ability to broadcast Christian messages in public.
Today, Copts also live in the shadow of the brutal beheadings of 21 of their co-religionists in Libya by ISIS forces in February, a grotesque spectacle captured in a video posted on the Web.
Samuel Tadros, an Egyptian and a senior fellow at Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom, does yeoman’s work documenting the hardships facing Copts, which routinely include beatings, kidnappings, and attacks on churches.
Here’s his grim prediction: “Like the Jews before them, the Christians of the Middle East will be driven out of their homes, but, unlike the Jews, they will not have an Israel to escape to. The most fortunate will take the first planes to the US, Canada, and Australia, but a community of 8 million people cannot possibly emigrate en masse in a short time. The poorer Copts, the ones who face daily persecution, will be left behind.”
Tadros may well be correct about what the future has in store, but there are several reasons why the entire world, and not just its Christians, have a stake in not allowing things to play out that way.
Egypt is a pacesetter nation in the Islamic world. If there’s no space for religious diversity there, there’s little hope for defending it any place else. Conversely, if Egypt can flesh out what a moderate Islamic state looks like in practice, faithful to core Muslim values but open to those who follow another path, the result could have a leavening effect across the Middle East and beyond.
Egypt is a state with which the West, especially the United States, ought to have considerable leverage. Since a 1979 peace deal with Israel, it’s been the second largest recipient of American foreign aid, and the Obama administration recently lifted a hold on transfers of military equipment that had been imposed after the army took power more than two years ago.
It’s never been entirely clear that that largesse translates into much impact on Egyptian policy, but it at least ensures that the country’s thinkers and political class take Western reaction into account.
The Copts represent the largest Christian community anywhere in the Middle East, with deep roots and a proud history.
Egypt was one of the birthplaces of Christian monasticism, and it’s given the church great teachers and thinkers such as Athenagoras, Clement, and Origen. More recently, Copts such as Makram Ebeid Pasha played key roles in the independence movement in the early 20th century, and, as noted above, Copts were in the front lines again in bringing down the Mubarak regime.
If such a storied Christianity community were to disappear, it would have a wide demoralizing effect and could potentially spell the end for Christianity across the Middle East. That may be especially alarming to Christians, but it’s no mere confessional question since the ability to provide a safe haven for religious minorities is a reliable bellwether of a society’s overall approach to human rights.
For all sorts of reasons, therefore, the drama of Egypt’s Copts is a story that needs to be told, and, for the next week, we’ll try to play a part in making that happen.