On February 12, 2020, with a letter to “all persons of good will,” Pope Francis sought to reclaim the mantle of global environmental leadership he established in mid-2015. That’s when he the released of the first-ever papal encyclical (Catholic teaching document of the highest order) on environmental protection and climate change — Laudato Si, On Care for Our Common Home.
My story for Mongay here picks up that thread with Dear Amazon, a papal letter in response to the first-ever Vatican meeting in October 2019 to focus on a specific region of the planet — Amazonia. While topics at the so-called synod focused largely on environmental protection and the rights of the indigenous peoples who live in those jungles, the mainstream coverage of Francis’ letter focused almost solely on his decision to not allow priests to marry who agree to serve in the dramatically underserved Amazon regions spread across eight countries.
This left an opening for me to write a kind of exclusive about the pope’s environmental and social justice message, which makes up the vast majority of Dear Amazon. The story idea was pitched to me by my inimitable editor Glenn Scherer. I was glad for the opportunity.
At the close of the UN Climate Summit in December 2018 in Poland, United General Secretary Antonio Guterres was so discouraged by the lackluster outcome that he told world leaders that he would admonish them to increase their urgency and ambition for climate mitigation during Climate Week in New York City (Sept. 23-27, 2019).
Guterres is not alone. Swedish teen Greta Thunberg, in her inimitable way, has inspired millions of school-age children around the world to organize and rally to demand that world leaders treat global warming at the existential crisis that more and more scientists are finding it is.
Add to that an emerging group of faith leaders — the Interfaith Rainforest Iniative (IRI) — that aims to use its moral clout and power in numbers to pressure national leaders to enact policies to slow, reverse and stop deforestation in five tropical countries, as my latest Mongabay story describes.
This kind of religious political lobbying comes with challenges and obstacles, as I explain. But here’s the goal:
“This isn’t about churches planting trees,” said Joe Corcoran, IRI program manager with UNEP, the United Nations Environment Programme. “We want to say clearly and definitively to world leaders: religious leaders take this issue of forests and climate very seriously, and they are going to be holding public officials accountable to make sure these issues are addressed.”
Indigenous people from the jungles of Peru line up in Puerto Maldonado to see Pope Francis. Photo by Luis Fernandez
My story here about the visit of Pope Francis to the Peruvian Amazon city of Puerto Maldonado was historic in every sense. It was the pope’s first visit to Amazonia, a region of South America the size of the continental United States. While he spoke largely about conservation of the Amazon’s great and important ecosystems, he mostly gave voice and inspiration to the forgotten, oppressed and shoved-aside peoples who live in those far-off places — the rightful owners of the land, the indigenous tribes of multiple nationalities.
Pope Francis clearly called on the Catholic Church of South America to live up to and live out the promise of his encyclical, Laudato Si, On Care for Our Common Home, and called on the tribes for their guidance. This is a critical time for church leaders to step up, as my story discusses.
The pope greeting the people in the streets of Puerto Maldonado. Photo by Luis Fernandez
Two years after Pope Francis launched Laudato Si, the Vatican’s plea to save the earth, Trump rejected its tenets and the Paris Agreement. But people of all faiths are unified globally to beat climate change. Here’s my story in Mongabay. Thanks to editor Glenn Scherer for assigning this follow-up to a series of related stories I wrote from Rome, Peru and Paris in 2015-16.
From my Mongabay.com interview with Cardinal Peter Turkson, who oversaw the writing of Laudato Si, and who may well succeed Francis as pope: “[A]t the time Pope Francis took over, the church had a lot of very serious challenges. It’s not that they’ve all gone away. Pedophilia [among priests] was at its raging height. Ok? And a whole lot of accusations and all of that. The church Pope Francis inherited had a lot of bruises. It’s not that the bruises are gone. But his own sense of leadership, simplicity, authenticity, credibility have helped to shove a whole of this bad stuff into the background.”
Thus, he said, climate change can take center stage. The full story is here. The Q&A comes from an hour-long interview I had with him exclusively at his Vatican reception room. I took the photo above months earlier during the press conference at the Vatican in mid-June when Laudato Si was released.
Cardinal Peter Turkson, (right) the pope’s point person on the papal encyclical. Photo by Justin CatanosoYou
You take your opportunities where you can get them. I have been in email contact with Marcus Wandinger (left, above), a member of the Holy See Delegation to COP 21, for two days. This morning, he put me in a position to meet the cardinal Pope Francis put in charge of researching and writing Laudato Si, On Care of Our Common Home, the widely influential papal encyclical on environmental protection. I managed to wrangle a 15-minute interview. It will factor into a larger story I will write for mongabay.com, but here’s an excerpt.
Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana told me about how the Vatican and Catholic delegates have been fanning out around the world to educate bishops, seminaries and parish priests on the encyclical, and how to teach it to their followers. Asked where he is getting push back, he didn’t hesitate: “Your country, the United States.
“The U.S. has many places that are stubborn. When we talk about social responsibility, they think about Socialism. That’s unfortunate. This is about doing good work. The pope believes faith without works is worthless. We must we live it, and it must play out so that we can show others what we do. That’s how the Jesuits teach it. It’s not Communism or Socialism or anything like that. It is caring for our common home. But that’s a hard message to get across in some American parishes.”
This Monday afternoon, Dec. 7, 2016, on the first day of the final week of the 21st UN climate summit, I slipped into a press conference just as Ban Ki-moon, the UN general secretary, was answering a question of great interest to me — the intersection of faith and climate change. Here’s what he said:
“I am very grateful to Pope Francis for his clear moral leadership on this issue with the document he released in June (the papal encyclical Laudato Si, On Care for Our Common Home). I have spoken with him about this and greatly appreciate his efforts in support of the environment.
“It’s important to realize that climate change has nothing to do with religion. It has everything to do with humanity. We have to show some wisdom. Not just wisdom, but common sense. We have to live harmoniously with nature. Nature does not negotiate with human beings. We have to adjust to nature. That’s our only choice.
“We have to do what science tells us. Climate change is caused by human behavior. It only follows that humans have to change their behavior. As you know, we don’t hear many skeptics any longer. Even so, faith leaders have a role to play in convincing the remaining skeptics that climate change is real, and with faith leaders, we must all act and work as one.
“We have only one planet. There is no Plan B because there is no planet B.”
I was a staff writer for the News & Record of Greensboro from April 1987 to April 1998 — 11 years. When I decided to take the job as executive editor of a new weekly newspaper in town, The Business Journal, I was asked to leave the paper immediately, even though I was prepared to give at least four weeks notice. Today, Nov. 29, 2015, I have my first byline in my old daily newspaper in 17 years. It’s a commentary on the UN climate summit in Paris, France, which I will cover for mongabay.com.