The encyclical’s footnotes say a lot about this pope

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by John Allen

Quite obviously, the big Vatican story this week was the release of Pope Francis’ encyclical letter on the environment, Laudato Si. It was so big, in fact, there were actually two launches – the official presentation in the Vatican’s synod hall on Thursday, and the leaked version that appeared in the Italian media on Monday.

In the main, the text offered few surprises. Francis clearly endorsed the scientific consensus that the planet is warming due in large part to human activity. He ticked off a series of other challenges such as a loss of biodiversity and threats to safe water, and insisted on a strong link between environmental problems and poverty.

“Never have we so hurt and mistreated our common home as we have in the last two hundred years,” he wrote, insisting that humanity can no longer afford “delaying the important decisions and pretending that nothing will happen.”

By now the encyclical has been so widely dissected and commented upon that further analysis of its big-picture assertions seems superfluous. Instead, there’s an intriguing detail to Laudato Si that largely escaped notice in the first round of reaction, yet one that says something critically important about this pope and how he sees his job.

It comes in the footnotes, which in a papal text typically are almost entirely devoted to citations of other popes and official documents such as the Bible or the Church’s catechism.

This time around, however, more than 10 percent of the footnotes – 21 out of 172, to be precise – contain citations of documents from bishops’ conferences around the world. Francis quotes bishops from 15 nations, including South Africa, the Philippines, Bolivia, Germany, the Dominican Republic, Brazil, Japan, Australia, and New Zealand, not to mention both the United States and his own native Argentina.

Francis also cites two regional bodies of bishops – the Latin American Episcopal Conference (CELAM) and the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences (FABC) – both of which represent regions of the world where the perceived consequences of global warming and climate change are most keenly felt.

Marshaling so many references to the teaching of local bishops on environmental issues expresses three important insights about Francis.

1. He’s an astute politician.
Francis knows well that his message in Laudato Si is destined to be politically divisive, perhaps especially his calls for strict limits on the consumption of fossil fuels and the emission of greenhouse gases, not to mention his insistence that the environment can’t be fixed without serious reforms in broader economic “patterns of production and consumption.”

In effect, by pointing to a vast body of teaching and advocacy developed at lower levels of the Church over the last several decades, the pope is saying, “It’s not just me!”

In other words, Francis is making the point that this isn’t a personal hobby horse, but rather a matter of wide and growing concern among Catholics all over the world. Given the size and geographic distribution of Catholicism – more than 1.2 billion adherents in every corner of the planet – that’s a constituency no one can afford to ignore.

2. He’s a loyal son of the developing world.
As such, he sees it as part of his role to make sure voices from south of the equator are heard in global debates.

Although Francis cites a few documents from bishops in wealthy nations, including a 2001 statement on climate change from prelates in the United States, most of his references are drawn from bishops in the global south.

In the encyclical, Francis complains that “many professionals, opinion makers, communications media and centers of power, being located in affluent urban areas, are far removed from the poor, with little direct contact with their problems.”

By citing the pastors of the world’s poor, Francis seemed determined that a similar critique can’t be leveled against his own analysis.

“I believe this is the first papal encyclical to ever quote the bishops’ conferences,” said Argentinian Bishop Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo, president of the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy of Sciences.

“Francis has a great solidarity with bishops from other countries, particularly the poorest ones,” he said.

3. He’s a reformer pope.
And he’s trying to recalibrate the distribution of power inside the Church.

Over the years, there’s been lively debate in Catholicism over how much authority bishops’ conferences actually possess. In general, it pits advocates of strong central government in the Vatican, who tend to minimize the importance of the conferences, against supporters of decentralization and local control, who emphasize the conferences as a firebreak against Roman overbearing.

In 1998, the future Pope Benedict XVI issued a document with John Paul II’s blessing decreeing that bishops’ conferences have no standing to teach authoritatively, on the grounds that “truth is not arrived at by a majority vote.”

From his perch in Argentina, then-Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was among the bishops who felt that things were going too far in the direction of centralization, and that the experience and insight of local pastors needed greater resonance in Rome.

With Laudato Si, Francis effectively has pioneered a new model for the development of official Catholic teaching, one in which the Church’s center takes its peripheries seriously indeed.

Yes, the main message of the pope’s blockbuster environmental treatise is in the text. In this case, however, the footnotes are also a key part of the story.

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