Change in Catholicism can be a curious thing, with Pope Francis’ long-awaited encyclical letter on the environment, Laudato Si, the latest illustration – and not merely because a draft version leaked in the Italian press three days early.

To the unprepared, major transitions in the Catholic Church often appear to erupt out of nowhere, following a long period in which the Church has seemed frozen in time. Such was the case, for instance, with the Second Vatican Council in the mid-1960s, which launched Catholicism on a course of modernization and reform.

Looking back, however, one can usually see the ways in which the plates had been shifting for a long time before the earthquake actually happened.

That’s clearly true of Laudato Si (“Praised Be!”), scheduled to be presented Thursday at a Vatican news conference that will feature an Eastern Orthodox cleric and a secular scientific expert on climate change. Dr. Carolyn Woo, president of Catholic Relief Services and former dean of undergraduate business school at Notre Dame, was also invited to be on hand.

Laudato Si seems destined to go down as a major turning point, the moment when environmentalism claimed pride of place on a par with the dignity of human life and economic justice as a cornerstone of Catholic social teaching. It also immediately makes the Catholic Church arguably the leading moral voice in the press to combat global warming and the consequences of climate change.

In truth, however, none of that should be any surprise to those familiar with official Catholic teaching on the environment as it’s evolved over the last half-century.

When the tide began to turn

Not so long ago, the idea of Catholic environmentalism struck some as a contradiction in terms.

In the 1960s and 1970s, it was fashionable among pioneers of the environmental movement to fault the Judeo-Christian tradition for humanity’s savage indifference to the earth. Prof. Lynn White Jr. of the University of California published an influential article in the journal Science in 1967 in which he blamed the Bible for making Westerners feel “superior to nature, contemptuous of it, willing to use it for our slightest whim.”

While acknowledging contrary currents in Christian history such as St. Francis of Assisi, whose famed Canticle of the Sun gave the new encyclical its title, White nonetheless ended with a sweeping indictment: “We shall continue to have a worsening ecological crisis until we reject the Christian axiom that nature has no reason for existence save to serve man.”

If you’re looking for a moment when the tide began to turn, it could be pegged to four years after White’s essay appeared, with the 1971 apostolic letter Octogesima adveniens of Pope Paul VI.

Issued on the 80th anniversary of Rerum Novarum, an 1891 encyclical of Pope Leo XIII now viewed as launching the modern tradition of papal social teaching, Paul VI’s document was the first such text to contain an entire paragraph devoted to the environment.

In it, Paul used language that would have been very much at home in Laudato Si, and Francis cites the letter.

“Man is suddenly becoming aware that by an ill-considered exploitation of nature he risks destroying it and becoming in his turn the victim of this degradation,” Pope Paul wrote. “The Christian must turn to these new perceptions in order to take on responsibility, together with the rest of men, for a destiny which from now on is shared by all.”

One year later, Pope Paul dispatched a letter to an environmental summit in Stockholm in which he wrote, “The care of preserving and improving the natural environment … meets needs that are deeply felt among the men of our times.”

Paul warned against “the advance, often blind and turbulent, of material progress left to its dynamism alone,” insisting that it must be replaced with “respect for the biosphere … which has become ‘one Earth’.”

John Paul II and Benedict XVI

Pope St. John Paul II carried the budding tradition forward in significant ways.

In a 1988 address to the European Commission and Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, John Paul referred to “a safe and healthy natural environment” as a positive human right, on a par with positive rights to health care, education, and a decent standard of living.

John Paul also devoted his 1990 message for the church-sponsored World Day of Peace to “Peace with all Creation.”

“The gradual depletion of the ozone layer and the related ‘greenhouse effect’ has now reached crisis proportions as a consequence of industrial growth, massive urban concentrations and vastly increased energy needs,” the Polish pontiff wrote.

“Industrial waste, the burning of fossil fuels, unrestricted deforestation, the use of certain types of herbicides, coolants and propellants: all of these are known to harm the atmosphere and the environment,” he said.

In 2001, John Paul II located the birthplace of the ecological crisis in the moment when human beings stopped regarding themselves as servants of a Creator-God, and instead set themselves up as “autonomous despots.”

John Paul said the human person, at long last, seems to be “understanding that he must finally stop before the abyss.” Repeatedly he called humanity to “ecological conversion,” repenting for the sins inflicted on nature.

A compendium of Catholic social teaching issued under John Paul II in 2004 largely endorsed the “precautionary principle” to support immediate action to protect the environment, even before scientific data is complete.

Pope Benedict XVI, dubbed the “Green Pope” for his environmental advocacy, has an extensive record of ecologically sensitive words and deeds.

On August 28, 2006, during a Sunday Angelus address at Castel Gandolfo, the pope’s summer residence, Benedict said that “God’s great gift” of creation “is exposed to serious risks from choices and styles of life which can degrade it.”

“Environmental damage makes the existence of the poor of the earth especially unbearable”, he said. “In dialogue with Christians of other confessions, it’s important that we commit ourselves to taking care of creation, without depleting its resources and sharing them in a manner based on solidarity.”

Benedict backed up that rhetoric with action. He approved the installation of a battery of more than 1,000 solar panels atop the Vatican’s main audience hall in order to provide electrical current, light, and heating and cooling via solar energy.

Less than a month later, the Vatican announced that it had signed an agreement to become the first “carbon-neutral” state in Europe. Under an agreement with Planktos/KlimaFa, an international eco-restoration company, a “Vatican Climate Forest” was created in Hungary’s Bükk National Park in order to offset the Vatican’s annual CO2 emissions.

Daring at other levels

While this transformation of papal teaching was unfolding, bishops’ conferences and other Catholic leaders around the world were becoming steadily more daring.

In 2000, for instance, the Catholic bishops of the Pacific Northwest in the United States and Canada issued a pastoral letter arguing for conservation of the Columbia River Watershed.

The core principles included stewardship, respect for nature, and the common good. They promote the idea of creation as the “book of nature,” a source of revelation and theological insight alongside the Bible.

“The watershed, seen through eyes alive with faith, can be a revelation of God’s presence, an occasion of grace and blessing,” they wrote. “There are many signs of the presence of God in this book of nature, signs that complement the understandings of God revealed in the pages of the Bible, both the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures.”

In the Philippines in 2007, a coalition of religious orders and Catholic NGOs noted that a government report predicted as much as 25 percent of the population of Manila could lack access to safe water in the near future. As a result, the group announced plans to “screen” political candidates for positions on environmental issues.

In 2006, the Catholic Conference of Bishops in Brazil along with its Protestant counterpart affirmed a “human right to water” and to a safe environment in a joint statement, and expressed support for community-based alternatives to water privatization.

Protecting the Amazon rainforest from destruction has become virtually a national crusade for the Catholic Church in Brazil.

“The Church is not against development, but it opposes development that deprives populations of their future. We have to nurture respect for nature,” said Archbishop Orani Joao Tempesta of Belem, speaking on behalf of the Brazilian National Bishops’ Council in February 2007.

Another classic Latin American example of this growing eco-streak came in a 2007 document of the continent’s Catholic bishops adopted in Aparecida, Brazil – not coincidentally, authored in part by the future Pope Francis.

An entire section of that document is devoted to the environment, even quoting the 13th century canticle from St. Francis of Assisi from which the title of Laudato Si was taken.

The Aparecida document speaks of a growing awareness of nature as a legacy that humanity received from God, which has to be protected as a space for shared human life. This legacy, the document warns “often proves to be weak and defenceless against economic and technological powers.”

The document expressed gratitude to all who devote themselves to defending life and the environment, and that particular importance has to be given to small farmers “who with generous love very laboriously work the land,” to “sustain their families and provide all with the fruits of the earth.”

It also embraced the view that global warming and climactic shifts are the result of human activity: “The region is affected by the warming of the earth and climate change caused primarily by the unsustainable way of life of industrialized countries,” the document said.

‘Going green’ in practice

Those developments in official teaching have had direct consequences in terms of pastoral practice.

One example is St. Joan of Arc Parish in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The parish formed an “eco-spirituality committee” in 1997, with the stated purpose to “raise awareness and change behavior in all relations with the earth, its creatures and each other.”

When a decision was made in 2000 to remodel the parish center, this group worked with the parish’s Space Use Committee to purse eco-friendly design.

As a result, the new parish center reused or recycled 80 percent of the materials from the old structure. Builders used wood products from sustainable forests, cork flooring from oak tree bark, office chairs made from recycled milk jugs, rubber stairways made from recycled tires, and windowsills made from soybeans, junk mail, and recycled newspapers.

Land surrounding the center has been landscaped with expanded green space, native and drought-resistant plants that require less water, vegetation to encourage wildlife, strategic shading to reduce energy consumption, and salvaged trees.

For another example, consider St. Gabriel of the Sorrowful Virgin Parish in the north end of Toronto. In 2006, the parish completed a $10.5 million renovation of the church, making it, according to the Passionist fathers who staff the parish, the “greenest church in Canada.”

St. Gabriel’s was the first church in Canada to earn silver certification under the country’s Leadership in Energy and Environment Design program, which requires a 40 percent reduction in energy consumption over a standard modern church built to code.

An ecumenical action guide issued around the same time, intended for both Catholic and Protestant congregations called “Greening of the Parish – Making the Congregation a Model for Environmental Justice,” offered a check-list for raising ecological awareness, including:

  • Purchase 100 percent recycled or tree-free stationary, and use it for everything.
  • Set up your own recycling center for office paper and trash.
  • Ride your bicycle, walk or take public transportation as often as possible.
  • Reduce consumption of inks.
  • Reduce your water consumption. (Complete with this tip: “Put a brick or full water bottle in the tank to reduce water use with each flush.”)

A better example of “thinking globally and acting locally” than dropping a brick into the parish toilet is, indeed, difficult to imagine.

The environmental energy taking shape inside Catholicism has been registering on the broader public radar screen.

For example, Sarah McFarland Taylor, a non-Catholic scholar at Northwestern University, published a book in 2007 called Green Sisters, documenting the “pervasiveness and significance of a greening movement” among women’s religious orders.

The book introduces readers to sisters who are sod-busting manicured lawns around their motherhouses to create community-supported organic gardens; building alternative housing structures and hermitages from renewable materials; adopting the green technology of composting toilets, solar panels, fluorescent lighting, and hybrid vehicles; and turning their community properties into land trusts with wildlife sanctuaries.

While Taylor’s book focuses on North America, the movement it describes is global.

An October 2007 piece in the magazine of the Sierra Club titled “Padre Power,” documenting the efforts of Catholic clergy in Latin America to defend the land and the environment against powerful multi-national corporations, also illustrates growing awareness in the secular world that something is stirring inside the Church. Author Marilyn Berlin Snell called it a “liberation ecology movement.”

Embrace not complete

To be sure, this Catholic embrace of the environmental cause is not complete.

There are prominent eco-skeptics in the Catholic fold, and there are also many pro-life Catholics who worry about links between secular environmental advocacy and the push for population control measures such as abortion and contraception.

More basically, Catholicism has a core philosophical difference with some of the more radical elements of the Green movement, insisting that there’s something spiritually and morally unique about human life within the created world.

Those concerns find space in Laudato Si, meaning that like the pontiffs who preceded him, Francis, too, is painting with a distinctively Catholic shade of green.

Laudato Si unquestionably represents a major step forward in Catholic tradition, one likely to have echoes well beyond the confines of the Church. If it’s an earthquake, however, it’s one preceded by a long series of theological and pastoral tremors.