A Preacher’s Daughter Reads the Pope’s Encyclical

June 24, 2015

In 1989, I was asked to give the “Earth Day” sermon at the Jakarta Community Church.  While there are more than 25 years and an infinite distance between Frances’ sermon and Francis’ encyclical, I was curious to see what the Pope would do with a similar assignment.

Frances’ sermon

In 1989, I was young program officer in the Ford Foundation’s Indonesia office handling the grant portfolios for “Rural Poverty and Resources” and “Human Rights and Social Justice”.  In that role, I was being exposed on a daily basis to the harsh social and environmental consequences of natural resource destruction, in particular the devastation of Indonesia’s forests.  Having just read Bill McKibben’s The End of Nature, I had the zeal of a recent convert to the cause of climate change.  And having paddled the waters of Prince William Sound only a few summers previously, the Exxon Valdez oil spill was personal.

If the text of my 1989 sermon exists digitally, it’s on a long-forgotten floppy disk in a box deep in my basement.  But I recall that after touching on the requisite scriptural references to God’s Creation and referencing St. Francis of Assisi, I made the case for environmentalism as a moral imperative.  I urged my listeners to go beyond greening their individual lifestyles to agitate for the public policy changes necessary to achieve sustainability – including better regulation of oil tankers.

I had no problem invoking religion in the service of politics.  The daughter of a progressive Baptist minister in North Carolina, I had grown up listening to my father preach the social gospel every Sunday.  He preached sermons against the Vietnam War long before such opposition was a mainstream view, and urged action against racial and economic injustice early and often. 

Francis’ encyclical

As summarized in a blog by my CGD colleague Jonah Busch, the Pope’s encyclical on the environment is a sprawling document.  It comments on issues ranging from GMOs to livable cities, drawing on theological precedents as well as secular references such as the 1992 Rio Declaration. 

Given the encyclical’s comprehensive scope, I was thrilled to see forests and especially tropical deforestation mentioned early and often -- unlike in the U.N’s draft Sustainable Development Goals.  Forests are appropriately featured in the context of climate change, and as key to addressing other challenges as well.  The Pope celebrates the intrinsic and instrumental values of tropical forests in relation to conserving biological diversity.  He also invokes a social justice framing of forests as providers of goods and services that are particularly important to poor people.

The encyclical emphasizes the role of consumption in rich countries as a driver of natural resource depletion in poor countries.  Much of the text dwells on the responsibility of individuals to adopt lifestyles that are consistent with concern for the Earth and for the poor.  But Pope Francis does not shy away from prescribing the public policy reforms needed to complement individual behavior change.  He notes the importance of institutions for ensuring the implementation of laws to protect forests, and calls for “global regulatory norms” to impede “unacceptable actions” by powerful countries.

Of particular relevance to the issue of forests and climate change, Pope Francis rejects the sale of carbon credits as an illusory strategy for reducing emissions.  But perhaps those who disagree with his view can take heart from his call for “honest and open debate” on such controversial issues, and convince him that market mechanisms might have a role to play in accelerating the “radical change” that he rightly pronounces is needed.

Future prospects

The defining issue of my father’s ministry was civil rights.  When in 1959 he became the first pastor of a new congregation motivated to address that issue in Chapel Hill, even such a presumably enlightened university town was still segregated.  But social norms and public policy changed, in large part due to the efforts of religious leaders and lay persons in the faith community.  I think the happiest day of my father’s life was attending the inauguration of our nation’s first African-American president, an event he had not dared hope he would live to see.

I’ve always thought that the environmental community should take heart from the experience of the civil rights movement. Even though racial injustice persists, the movement’s successes proved that radical changes in social norms and public policy are indeed possible within the scope of a generation.

My sermon 26 years ago was not well received by all of my fellow church-goers in Jakarta, many of whom were employed by major U.S. oil companies operating in Indonesia.  I’m eager to see how the Pope’s message is received by today’s political leaders whose interests are similarly aligned with those of the fossil fuel industry.

Surely lending the moral authority of Pope Francis to the environmental agenda can only hasten the day that the world’s remaining tropical forests are protected in the interests of climate and development.  I hope I live to see it!


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.