5 key questions about the Pope and climate change

Story highlights

  • Pope Francis will release a widely anticipated statement on the environment on Thursday
  • Already, some climate change skeptics are attacking the statement, called an encyclical

(CNN)It's the latest summer blockbuster: A spiritual superhero armed with a pen and a prayer gears for battle against the forces of evil -- energy executives. The future of the planet hangs in the balance.

At least, that's the premise behind a tongue-in-cheek trailer released ahead of Pope Francis' widely anticipated statement on the environment this week.
Made by a Brazilian environmental group, the trailer is playfully hyperbolic. (With Terminator-like intensity, the white-robed hero growls, "It's time to take out the trash.") But it nicely captures the hot air swirling around Francis' encyclical, due to be published Thursday.
Green groups eagerly await it, climate change skeptics can't wait to rebut it, and GOP politicians approach it at their peril.
On Monday, a leaked draft of the encyclical was published online by the Italian magazine L'Espresso. The Vatican said the document is only a draft and the rules of the embargo remain in place.
Leaked documents or not, Francis remains enormously popular, and when he talks, world leaders -- and the media -- listen. This Pope doesn't speak in sound bites; he speaks in headlines.
With that in mind, here are answers to five key questions to help you cut through the hype about the Pope and climate change:

1. What is an encyclical, and why are they important?

Derived from the Greek word for "circle," a papal encyclical is a letter from the pope to Catholic clergy and laypeople around the world. Often, the letters clarify Catholic doctrine, reiterate points of dogma and address contemporary issues through the light of church teachings.
Pope Francis, though, has said he hopes his letter will reach a wider audience, including world leaders meeting for several key environmental summits this year.
Encyclicals aren't considered infallible (few papal documents are), but scholars say they are surpassed in importance only by papal bulls, which define dogma.
In other words, Pope Francis won't be offering "Hints from Heloise," said Bishop Oscar Cantu of Las Cruces, New Mexico, referring to a popular advice column. Cantu said the world's 1.2 billion Catholics should approach the encyclical with reverence and respect.
Many of the more than 300 published papal encyclicals concern spiritual matters like faith and charity. But since the late 1800s, popes also have written about labor rights ("Rerum Novarum"), nuclear disarmament ("Pacem in Terris") and economics ("Populorum Progressio").
"There is no area of morality in which the papal writ does not run," says Robert George, a Catholic intellectual and professor of jurisprudence at Princeton University.
Pope Francis' upcoming encyclical will be the first, though, to focus exclusively on creation care, the Christian idea that God gave humans the Earth to cultivate, not conquer. (It's also the first entirely written by Francis. He co-wrote "Lumen Fidei" with Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI.)
In a nod to his namesake, St. Francis, the Pope has titled his upcoming encyclical "Laudato Si." The archaic Italian phrase, which means "Be praised," is borrowed from the patron saint of ecology's 13th-century song, "Canticle of the Sun."
"Be praised, my Lord, through all your creatures," the song says.

2. Since when do popes preach about the environment?

Since at least 1971, when Greenpeace was first setting sail and Al Gore was a cub reporter working the night shift at a newspaper in Tennessee.
In an apostolic letter that some Catholics call prophetic, Pope Paul VI wrote in May of that year:
"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."
Since then, popes have rung the environmental alarm with increasing urgency.
In 1990, Saint John Paul II dedicated his World Day of Peace message to looming climate catastrophes, warning that the depletion of the ozone layer and growth of greenhouse gases had reached "crisis proportions."
"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," John Paul declared.
Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, who succeeded John Paul, lamented the rise of "environmental refugees" forced to flee their homes by rising sea levels, parched fields and barren hunting grounds.
"The Church has a responsibility towards creation," Benedict wrote in a 2009 encyclical that also covered other forms of Christian charity, "and she must assert this responsibility in the public sphere."
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"In so doing, she must defend not only earth, water and air as gifts of creation that belong to everyone. She must above all protect mankind from self-destruction."
Benedict practiced what he preached, taking steps to make the Vatican carbon-neutral. But his legacy as the "green pope" may soon be superseded.
"Pope Francis will probably now be known as the 'greener pope,'" joked Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami at a news conference last week in St. Louis for the U.S. bishops' semiannual gathering.

3. Any hints about what Pope Francis might say?

The Vatican hasn't divulged many details about the encyclical, but Francis hasn't exactly hidden his hand.
From the first days of his papacy, Francis has preached about the importance of the environment, not only as a scientific concern but also a moral one. In his first homily as pontiff, Francis called six times during the short sermon for humans to protect creation.
Vatican advisers say "Laudato Si" will not be a white paper delving deeply into policy prescriptions. But neither will Francis ignore the opinion of most scientists about how human activities contribute to climate change.
In an address to fellow Catholic bishops in St. Louis last week, Wenski, the U.S. bishops' point man on environmental issues, outlined several themes the Pope is likely to address in detail.
Among the buzzwords, Wenski said, are "integral ecology," the idea that caring for fellow humans is intimately connected to our treatment of the environment.
In other words, global warming isn't only about polar bears and temperature charts, the archbishop said. It's about the poorest and most vulnerable people on our planet, who contribute the least to climate change but bear the brunt of its impact.
Wenski also hinted that Francis will likely lament consumerism's "throwaway culture" that not only adds to landfills but also uses people and discards them like outdated iPhones.
"The Pope and we bishops are not scientists, but we are pastors -- and insofar as climate change affects human beings," the archbishop said, "it is a moral issue."
At a background session, a Vatican source familiar with the encyclical said that Francis is likely to call for change all along the economic chain, from manufacturers to distributors to consumers.
A good tweet about "Laudato Si," the source said, would be "'Gated communities are over.' Not because someone is pushing down the gate, but because people are saying we cannot go on living like this."

4. Why are some people already attacking the encyclical?

In April, the Heartland Institute, a conservative group bankrolled by businessmen, mounted a campaign to convince Pope Francis that global warming "is not a crisis."
At a conference outside Vatican walls, Heartland held a "pre-buttal" press conference to counter the Pope's encyclical. (Inside the Vatican, church officials and United Nations leaders were preparing a joint declaration decrying the effects of global warming.)
"The Holy Father is being misled by 'experts' at the United Nations who have proven unworthy of his trust," Heartland Institute President Joseph Bast said in a statement. Francis would "do his flock and the world a disservice" by putting his moral authority behind the U.N.'s climate agenda, Bast continued.
The head of the Vatican's Academy of Sciences dismissed the attacks, saying they came only from the "Tea Party and those who derive their income from oil."
More recently, Catholic politician Rick Santorum, who is running for the GOP presidential nomination, urged the Pope to "leave science to the scientists." And Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, a leading climate change skeptic, said, "The Pope ought to stay with his job, and we'll stay with ours."
The climate change fight got has gotten so nasty that Our Sunday Visitor, a weekly Catholic newspaper based in Indiana, issued a red card to conservative Catholics in an editorial this May.
"There's been an enormous amount of spin already applied to the encyclical, and a lot of it is driven by political concerns," Greg Erlandson, Our Sunday Visitor's publisher, said in an interview.
"Some people think it will be too harsh on capitalism or buy too strongly into the climate change argument, and all these fears are being run through a political filter."
Part of the conservative anxiety is driven by a "climate change" within the Catholic Church itself, said Christopher Bellitto, an expert on church history at Kean University in New Jersey.
Conservatives who once trusted John Paul and Benedict to hold the line on Catholic tradition now fear that Francis will take the church in new and uncharted waters.

5. Will the encyclical make a big difference?

With several key international accords on the horizon, Francis has timed "Laudato Si" for maximum public impact.
In July, the United Nations is hosting a conference in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on financial development. In September, the U.N. General Assembly is expected to discuss sustainable development goals. (Francis will address the assembly on September 25.) And at a meeting in Paris in December, nations will submit their plans to limit greenhouse gas emissions.
"It is important that there is some time between the publication of the encyclical and the meeting in Paris, because it is (intended) to be a contribution to that," the Pope said this January.
But Francis' biggest challenge could be convincing ordinary people that climate change is a moral issue. Less than 10% of Americans now believe so, according to a poll conducted by Yale University and George Mason University.
Anthony Leiserowitz, the director of Yale's Project on Climate Change Communication, said if anyone can change that, it's Francis. More Americans trust him than almost any other world or U.S. leader as a source of information on global warming, according to a recent survey.
Of course, Francis' flock is wider than the United States, and with the encyclical, which will be published in five languages, he hopes to reach as wide an audience as possible.
On Thursday, when the Vatican releases "Laudato Si," the panel at the news conference will include an atheist scientist, an Orthodox priest and a Catholic cardinal from Ghana, a sign that Francis wants his encyclical to be perceived as international, interfaith and interdisciplinary, drawing from both religion and science.
"We need unity to protect creation," Francis said on Friday.