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Laudato si: U of T's Stephen Scharper explains Pope Francis' climate change encyclical

(photo by Mazur/catholicnews.org.uk via Flickr)

As the world reacts to Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment released last Thursday, U of T News turns to Stephen Scharper, associate professor of environment with the Department of Anthropology, University of Toronto Mississauga, for more insight into what it means and why it is being described by some as a lecture for the ages.

What is an encyclical?
Literally, an encyclical is a “circular letter” from a reigning pope to the cardinals, bishops and priests of the Church. It carries more magisterial heft than a papal statement, homily, or interview for it usually has been reviewed carefully by theologians and Vatican advisors and builds on previous church teachings and careful deliberation by the pontiff. In the case of this present encyclical, Laudato Si (Praise Be), Pope Francis has addressed the encyclical to not only Church leaders, but to “every living person on the planet.” Written in Latin, encyclicals are named by their opening words. e.g., Rerum Novarum, Humane Vitae, etc.

Why has this encyclical caused such a stir?
First of all, it is the first encyclical to tackle climate change, and to take aim at those who have “manipulated” facts and scientific evidence to obscure the reality of human-caused climate change though fossil fuel emissions. Pope Francis, who holds a graduate degree in chemistry, affirms the validity of climate science in the encyclical, and details the deforestation, loss of coral reefs, ocean rise, etc., that are part of our present ecological challenge. For climate change deniers, this is perturbing.

Second, it is the first encyclical to focus on ecology, and many Christians particularly since the Renaissance and the rise of modernity have accented the domination of the human over nature as a Christian calling. Pope Francis is critical of this trend. He assails the “irrational confidence in progress and human abilities” that have marked the modern era, and the ethos of a “throwaway culture.”

Do you believe the Pope’s message will have an effect on conservative critics and industrialists in Canada and the rest of the world who accuse the environmentalists of being alarmists?
I think it is important to note that not all conservative critics are extremists. For those who are open-minded and sincerely interested in issues of ecology and poverty, this encyclical could I think help alter or at least nuance their thinking.

There are some, however, who are ideologically set in certain mind grooves, for a variety of reasons, and will not be moved by the pope’s words. Given the popularity and credibility of Pope Francis, however, they may have to recast their critiques. In other words, they may have to be more muted and measured in some of their critiques.

But I think it is important to point out that this is an appeal for inclusive dialogue; it is not simply a pugnacious debate between “sides.” It is rather a critical conversation the pope wants to help foster, and the hope is that the media and respondents see it as such, and not simply as a political climate fight. It is an invitation to rethink our entire relationship, social, economic, ecological, and moral, with a planet and many impoverished persons in crisis.

What makes Pope Francis so different from his predecessors?
One distinctive quality is his courage. He is not afraid to speak his mind plainly and candidly. One recalls his “who am I to judge?” comment regarding gay seminarians, and his comments about dogs going to heaven. Another is humility. By eschewing the papal palace, washing the feet of a Muslim woman on Holy Thursday, adopting the defense of refugees and the impoverished, he is a living example of one who, at the zenith of church power, strives to live a life of humble holiness. That gives him “street cred” as it were with many people. A third quality is his joy, love of life, and exuberant love of people. He seems to truly love to be with people, and to care for all persons, especially the vulnerable. He is a unique blend of prophetic insight, humility, and genuine love of neighbour. 

(Professor Scharper is moderating a panel discussion on Laudato Si on Tuesday, June 23 at Victoria College at 6:30 p.m. For tickets and more information go to faith-and-our-climate.eventbrite.ca. To read more about Stephen Scharper's views on Laudato Si, read his opinion piece in the Toronto Star here

Jelena Damjanovic is a writer with University of Toronto Communications.