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Getting ready for Pope Francis' environmental Rerum Novarum

  • 11 May 2015

Towards the end of the nineteenth century the Catholic Church was facing an unprecedented social crisis, the immiseration of the working classes of Europe.

In the words of the encyclical Rerum Novarum (1891), 'The misery and wretchedness pressing so unjustly on the majority of the working class' cries out for amelioration. In the face of this the Church could not be silent, even if it meant going beyond its normal comfort zone to speak of these 'new things'.

The response of Pope Leo XIII set the agenda for Catholic engagement with and participation in the emerging labour unions of the day. To this day it remains a document honoured within the union movement.

It was a bold experiment in Catholic social teaching, an experiment we are about to see repeated by Pope Francis with his proposed encyclical on the environment, due to be released in June.

While both John Paul II and Benedict XVI made passing reference to environmental issues in various documents – Benedict’s encyclical Caritas in Veritate spoke of the need for protection 'the environment, of resources and of the climate' – Francis will be offering an entire encyclical on environmental issue, with a particular focus on climate change.

In terms of its significance, this encyclical has the potential to do for the environmental movement what Rerum Novarum did for the union movement, provide it with a powerful source of moral and religious legitimacy in the face of those forces which have sought to limit their influence.

Unlike Rerum Novarum, however, which emerged prior to the era of mass communication and the digital age, the forthcoming encyclical, proposed almost two years ago, is already generating significant push-back. The US based conservative Catholic magazine First Things published a scathing blog using intemperate language accusing Pope Francis of using 'demagogic formulations to bully the populace into reflexive climate action with no more substantive guide than theologised propaganda.'

The US think tank, the Heartland Foundation, famous for its denial of links between smoking and lung cancer, held a seminar in Rome last month, where various speakers attacked any suggestion that the Pope would use the encyclical to support claims of human induced climate change. Serial eccentric, Lord Christopher Monckton, verbally attacked the pope, claiming, 'You demean the office that you hold and you demean the church whom it is your sworn duty to protect and defend and advance.'

The fact that all this is occurring some months before the