Sneak Peek at Pope Francis’ Environmental Encyclical

Guest Blog | April 5, 2015 | Energy Justice, Energy Policy, Events


This post is part of the “Prelude to Paris” series highlighting updates and analysis on international climate negotiations in the lead up to the United Nations climate change conference – the 21st Conference of the Parties (COP 21) — to be held in Paris this December. Other posts in the series are available here.

Pope Francis, the Bishop of Rome and chief pastor of the Catholic Church, just finished drafting his encyclical discussing ecology and the environment. Pope Francis has explicitly stated he is writing and releasing the encyclical in anticipation of the United Nations Climate Summit in New York in September, and the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP21) to be held in Paris in December. The encyclical, a nonbinding document sent to all the bishops of the world that is usually a discussion on current events through the lens of Catholic social teaching, is expected to be released this summer. However, much of the mainstream media has apparently missed a pretty clear blueprint for Pope Francis’ encyclical that was published in 2013.

In 2013, the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace published Energy, Justice and Peace: A Reflection on Energy in the Current Context of Development and Environmental Protection. It wasn’t translated into English until late 2014 and must be ordered from the Vatican – so it’s not an easy book to get ahold of (Editors note: I ordered the book back in December and received it well into Lent). The Council is appointed by the pope, and its primary charge is “to engage in action-oriented studies based on both the papal and episcopal social teaching of the Church.” The Council’s work offers a credible sneak peek into Pope Francis’ upcoming encyclical. Listed below are a few major themes from the book.

Energy is Good, but not Amoral

Pope Francis’ encyclical won’t demonize energy usage. The Council states, “Access to energy is a prerequisite for the enjoyment of most human rights.” (pg. 132) But energy usage is not an amoral activity, that is, its not without ethical implications. The Council emphatically stated, “Energy transformations are never ethically neutral activities.” (pg. 19) and “It would be absolutely wrong to assume that energy sources and their use are morally neutral elements…” (pg. 22). 

We have a moral responsibility to care for God’s creation

Based on work by the Council, Pope Francis’ encyclical will likely contain strong language regarding a global moral responsibility to care for God’s Creation. The Council states, “The protection of creation is a moral duty for all.” (pg. 136) This moral duty will likely be tempered based on the ability to act: better-off individuals and countries have a greater moral responsibility than individuals and countries that have limited resources. The Council corroborates this by stating, “…it is not morally acceptable to force the governments of less wealthy countries to accept unfair conditions that are, however, extremely beneficial to those who own technology and capital.” (pg. 106)

Overconsumption is Immoral

Greed and gluttony, two of the seven deadly (capital) sins, underpin an excessive use of energy. The Council notes, “We cannot assume development goals and plan future economic growths, or even hope to maintain a status quo in consumption, without admitting that certain lifestyles are irresponsible and, consequently, without taking courageous and appropriate corrective measures, especially against waste. Even talking to those who live in abundance, Jesus Christ teaches that we should make sure that ‘nothing be wasted’.” (pg. 117)

Pope Francis’ encyclical may highlight our individual, personal responsibilities for reducing or eliminating energy waste. “[L]aws or institutions will probably never prohibit or punish the use of a jeep to go to buy a superfluous item in a store round the corner, perhaps leaving lights and taps on in the temporarily empty house, regardless of the fact that, somewhere else, somebody does not have enough energy or water to live with an ounce of dignity. Only ethical education can prevent similar aberrant behavior.” (pg. 117) “The concern for the dignity and wellbeing of the human person pertains to any reflection on energy, justice and peace. Therefore, we cannot ignore that the problems of energy overconsumption and overexploitation of natural resources can also be mitigated by the action of individuals…” (pg. 131)

International Action is Key to Solving Climate Change

Pope Francis’ encyclical will likely discuss the roles of individuals in dealing with environmental problems, but when dealing with global problems, international action is vitally important. The Council states, “The principle of subsidiarity means…specifying which matters need to be harmonized and managed at the global, national, regional or local level. The policies that include the so-called ‘global commons’…cannot be left to individual states. Emissions of greenhouse gases and energy service represent the archetype of this principle.” (pg. 104)

Even though much work must be done at the international level, local solutions are also important. According to the Council, “…in line with the principle of subsidiarity, adequate local solutions must be promoted and developed where possible.” (pg. 126)

Sustainable Development Requires Renewable Energy

“It is necessary to pursue sustainable development based more on renewable energy sources than on non-renewable energy ones,” states the Council (pg. 128). The Vatican has already installed substantial quantities of solar power; however, solar power is just one of many renewable energy resources. The Council highlights, “A glimmer of hope is, first of all, the research into alternative, renewable forms of energy applicable in different contexts and on different scales: forms of energy that preserve the heritage of creation and minimize risks to humanity. In particular, it is desirable that this research offers ‘effective ways of exploiting the immense potential of solar energy’, along with new methods of utilization of biomasses, biogases, the wind and other natural elements. These methods will contribute to the progressive reduction of the demand for fossil energy and, of course, they will have to be studied and be applicable to various technological and socioeconomic levels.” (pg. 112) Pope Francis’ encyclical may even take an extremely pro-renewable energy message. This past December, Catholic Bishops from around the world called for “an end to the fossil fuel era, phasing out fossil fuel emissions and phasing in 100% renewables with sustainable energy access for all.” Pope Francis’ encyclical will highlight the benefits of renewable energy, but may also highlight important limitations based on cultural, economic and social factors. The Council states, “Let us think of the limit in technology: not everything that is technically feasible is morally acceptable.” (pg. 119)


Throughout Energy, Justice and Peace: A Reflection on Energy in the Current Context of Development and Environmental Protection, the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace highlights interactions between energy, poverty, environmental degradation (including using food as fuel, water waste and deforestation), global financial institutions and market speculation and other themes; however, the underpinning of ethical energy usage perhaps are best summed up in a quote from St. John Paul II:

“Hence, it can be considered ‘a duty of justice and charity to make a resolute and persevering effort to husband energy resources and respect nature, so that not only humanity as a whole today may benefit, but also the generations to come’.” – Quoting John Paul II, Address to participants in the Study Week on <> of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, 14 November 1980. (pg. 139)

Have a Happy Easter!

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