The Pope's upcoming encyclical on the environment is anticipated with excitement by climate change campaigners and dread by some conservatives. But beyond the immediate political impact, a more enduring implication could lie in the theological shift it might represent, writes Clive Hamilton in ABC Online.
Pope Francis has made no secret of his conviction that human-induced climate change, along with other forms of environmental degradation, represents a grave threat to humanity's future.
At times, he even speaks in quasi-apocalyptic terms: "Let us not allow omens of destruction and death to accompany the advance of this world!"
His forthcoming "ecological encyclical" - expected around the middle of this year - is shaping up as a decisive intervention. We can surmise that he hopes it will help turn the world away from a path of self-destruction.
I want here to try to anticipate the message and the meaning of the encyclical by considering what appear to be the principal influences feeding into its preparation - namely, Francis' own public statements, previous encyclicals on the environment, the science as expressed by the Pontifical Academy of Science, the example of Saint Francis of Assisi and the eco-theology of Brazilian theologian, Leonardo Boff.
The encyclical is anticipated with excitement by climate change campaigners and dread by some Catholic conservatives. But beyond the immediate political impact, a more enduring implication could lie in the theological shift it may represent.
After two decades of rising environmental concern around the world, John Paul's 1991 encyclical, Centesimus annus, can be read as designed to keep the Church relevant to the times. The core of the theological question is the relationship between humans and the natural world, and St John Paul II cleaved to theological tradition in representing nature as separate from man and to be used, albeit more prudently, as his instrument. Thus: "It is through work that man, using his intelligence and exercising his freedom, succeeds in dominating the earth and making it a fitting home."
Eighteen years later, in Caritas in Veritate Benedict shifted Church teaching more firmly in the direction of environmental protection while weakening the language of domination. In a pregnant turn of phrase, Benedict described the laws governing the natural world as a "grammar ... which sets forth ends and criteria for its wise use."
He reaffirmed that the natural world is "God's gift" to humankind, and rejected the drift towards the "total technical domination over nature" that is manifest in practice and still defended by some theologically. Nevertheless, neutralizing any accusation of "neo-paganism," Benedict retained an essentially anthropocentric theology of man in nature that deprives the natural world of any value in itself.