VATICAN CITY – Anxiety has so gripped American conservatives over Pope Francis' upcoming encyclical on the environment that you might think a pope had never before blamed fossil fuels for global warming. Or accused energy companies of hoarding the Earth's resources at the expense of the poor. Or urged the rich to consume less and share more.
But several of Francis' immediate predecessors have done just that, inspired by the Bible itself — raising the question of what all the fuss is about. Why would U.S. Republican presidential hopeful Rick Santorum, a devout Catholic who says he loves the pope, urge Francis to "leave science to the scientists" and stop talking about global warming? And why would conservative Catholic commentators attack the Vatican for hosting the U.N. secretary-general at a climate conference?
It turns out that environmental issues are particularly vexing for the Catholic Church, especially in the United States. They carry implications for Big Business and their Catholics supporters, as well as for the world's growing population, which brings up questions of birth control. For the religious right, the Vatican's endorsement of the U.N. agenda on global warming amounts to an endorsement of the U.N. agenda to give women access to contraception and abortion.
How Francis deals with population growth as it affects the environment is one of the key questions that will be answered when the encyclical, entitled "Laudato si (Be Praised), On the Care of our Common Home," is released June 18.
Despite such divisive issues, popes in recent decades have not shied from framing ecological concerns in moral terms, given that in the Bible itself God places mankind in the Garden of Eden with the explicit instructions to not only "till" the ground but to also "keep it."
Recent popes have made clear that human activity is largely to blame for the environmental degradation that is threatening the Earth's ecosystems. They have demanded urgent action by industrialized nations to change their ways and undergo an "ecological conversion" to prevent the poor from paying for the sins of the rich.
Some have even made their points in encyclicals, the most authoritative teaching document a pope can issue.
Take one of St. John Paul II's annual messages for the World Day of Peace:
"The gradual depletion of the ozone layer and the related greenhouse effect has now reached crisis proportions as a consequence of industrial growth, massive urban concentrations and vastly increased energy needs," John Paul wrote. "Industrial waste, the burning of fossil fuels, unrestricted deforestation, the use of certain types of herbicides, coolants and propellant: all of these are known to harm the atmosphere and environment. The resulting meteorological and atmospheric changes range from damage to health to the possible future submersion of low-lying lands."
The year was 1990, a quarter century ago.
Before him there was Pope Paul VI. In his 1967 encyclical, "Populorum Progressio" (Development of Peoples), Paul wrote that while creation is for man to use, the goods of the Earth are meant to be shared by all, not just the rich.
"No one may appropriate surplus goods solely for his own private use when others lack the bare necessities of life," Paul wrote nearly a half-century ago.
And then there was Pope Benedict XVI, dubbed the "green pope" because he took concrete action to back up his strong ecological calls: Under his watch, the Vatican installed photovoltaic cells on the roof of its main auditorium, a solar cooling unit for its main cafeteria and joined a reforestation project aimed at offsetting its CO2 emissions.
"The fact that some states, power groups and energy companies hoard non-renewable energy resources represents a grave obstacle to development in poor countries," Benedict wrote in his 2009 encyclical "Charity in Truth." ''The international community has an urgent duty to find institutional means of regulating the exploitation of non-renewable resources, involving poor countries in the process, in order to plan together for the future."
In that encyclical, the German theologian addressed the population issue by denouncing mandatory birth control policies and noting that even populous countries have emerged from poverty thanks to the talents of their people, not their numbers. At the same time, though, he stressed "responsible procreation" — a theme Francis is likely to take up himself given that he has already said Catholics need not reproduce "like rabbits."
So what is so new about Francis' encyclical?
First, no pope has dedicated an entire encyclical to ecological concerns. And no pope has cited the findings of the U.N. International Panel on Climate Change in a major document, as Francis is expected to do. Francis, history's first Latin American pope, will also be bringing the point of view of the "Global South" to a social teaching document of the church, which is in itself new.
But on the whole, the church's environmental message has been articulated for years, though it has gotten lost in other issues.
"To be honest, we have been talking about this but not with enough emphasis," said the Rev. Agostino Zampini Davies, the Argentine theological adviser to CAFOD, the development agency of the Catholic Church of England and Wales.
Zampini Davies recently made a power-point presentation to the church's global Caritas aid agencies outlining what each pope and bishops' conference has said about the environment for the past half-century, a remarkable compilation that could have saved Francis' ghost-writers time and effort in drafting the encyclical.
Zampini noted that the 2004 Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, a massive undertaking by the Vatican to pull all the church's social teachings in one book, gave scant attention to the environment — "a missed opportunity" Zampini Davies said that Francis is now correcting with an even more authoritative document.
Amid the alarm that Francis will go far beyond what past popes have said, U.S. Cardinal Donald Wuerl recently addressed a conference of business and church leaders on how sustainable actions can drive the economic growth needed to lift people out of poverty
"The teaching of Pope Francis and his efforts to address the environment are in harmony with those of his predecessors," he insisted.
Follow Nicole Winfield at www.twitter.com/nwinfield