CHICAGO — With the hotly anticipated papal encyclical on ecology set to be released next week, Catholic organizations are kicking into high gear in order to help get the pope’s message out into the pews.
Here in Chicago, a coalition of Catholic academics, archdiocesan employees, environmental lawyers, and parish leaders has been meeting for several months with one aim: making sure Catholics get on board with Francis’ flavor of environmentalism.
Once the encyclical is released June 18, the group plans to send resources to every pastor in the archdiocese, along with an invitation to preach about the encyclical on a specific Sunday in July.
Parishes will be invited to send Catholics to training days this summer in order to form “green teams” that can educate Catholics about energy efficiency and perhaps even launch community gardens.
Then, after a few months of digesting the pope’s words, local faith leaders will gather for a day of reflection and strategy-setting at the Catholic Theological Union in October.
Despite this enthusiasm, the encyclical is sparking controversy in the Catholic world even before its release. Last month, the Vatican hosted a conference about climate change with UN General Secretary Ban Ki-moon in attendance. In response, a Chicago-based group of climate change skeptics staged a protest event in Rome.
Jude Huntz, who leads the Archdiocese of Chicago’s Office for Peace and Justice, said the coalition hopes to avoid that kind of controversy over the encyclical by “grounding it in the tradition.”
“We’re not expecting Francis to say anything different from what Pope John Paul II said or what Pope Benedict XVI said,” Huntz told Crux. “We see this is a concretizing of what’s been the magisterial teaching on this issue.”
In addition to hosting workshops, the archdiocese is continuing efforts to retrofit some of its vast real estate footprint with updated plumbing to save water, new energy efficient light bulbs, and even solar panels.
The modernization project for the archdiocese’s 2,700 buildings began a couple of years after the city of Chicago started charging nonprofits for water. The city eventually relented, but only if nonprofits agreed to modernize its buildings. The archdiocese jumped on board, but large-scale success requires the buy-in from pastors and parishioners, something leaders here hope the encyclical encourages.
“I believe the encyclical is going to give us even more credibility than we had before. I’m looking forward to it as an additional tool,” Alejandro Castillo, an archdiocesan spokesman, told Crux.
Nationally, Catholic organizations plan to promote the pope’s teaching in the coming weeks and months:
The Catholic Climate Covenant is reaching out to every parish in the United States, about 19,000 in total, with homily tips and bulletin inserts about the encyclical. It’s planning a summer road trip of sorts, working with local bishops and those affected by climate change to get the pope’s message out at the local level. The group plans to visit a half dozen cities, with Des Moines and Miami already scheduled.
Dan Misleh, who leads the group, told Crux the encyclical will highlight two of Catholicism’s main concerns.
“The pope is speaking as pastor of the universal Church, offering a moral message on the need to take care of creation and the poor,” he said. “That’s where the Catholic Church needs to be.”
At the US Conference of Catholic Bishops’ spring meeting in St. Louis Wednesday, Archbishop Joseph Kurtz said that bishops hope to “elevate the conversation above ideological or partisan divides.”
To that end, a group of bishops gathered earlier this week with Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami, who chairs the Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, to discuss ways to promulgate the encyclical.
Social media will undoubtedly play a major role in highlighting the encyclical.
The Ignatian Solidarity Network is promoting a day of prayer Thursday to coincide with the encyclical’s release. It’s launching a Twitter campaign, #Hope4Pope, and it’s provided resources for families, parishes, and dioceses on how “to reduce your community’s and your own carbon footprint.”
“The day of prayer is to demonstrate that the US Church, and specifically those affiliated with Jesuit and Ignatian ministries, a network Francis is close to, support Francis’ voice on this important issue facing our global family, Chris Kerr, Ignatian Solidarity Network’s executive director, told Crux.
Other Catholics are skeptical that the encyclical will be a boon to to environmental movement.
The Rev. Robert A. Sirico, who leads the Michigan-based Acton Institute, said in a video last month that he expects the encyclical to highlight “moral ecology,” the basis for many traditional moral teachings.
Sirico, who noted that papal encyclicals are not infallible teachings, rejected those who said the debate over climate change is finished. “Science is never settled. The nature of science is to have free inquiry,” he said. Catholics, he said, must consider how to balance economic models “that lift people out of poverty” with caring for creation.
In parishes, some pastors plan to preach about the contents of the encyclical.
The Rev. Robert Sanson, senior parochial vicar at St. Peter Parish in North Ridgeville, Ohio, is expecting to use the encyclical as a way to share the Church’s teaching with parishioners who may not be familiar with it.
“I hope to be able to carefully articulate the difference between the Church’s moral position and political posturing that creates so much divisiveness,” he said. “We have to raise the issues of fracking, of capital punishment, of ethical investing, and hope they will create a conversation as Pope Francis has asked us.”
Sister Jean Verber, a member of the Dominican sisters in Racine, Wisconsin, said it will be important for parishes to engage their members so they better understand why and how Pope Francis is calling each person to take better care of the world.
“The pope has a very significant role to play here it all goes well,” she said. “It’s very important that people know this and it’s one of the ways to engage them.”
Material from the Catholic News Service was used in this report.