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Political fallout predicted from papal letter on climate change

| Sunday, March 8, 2015, 10:40 p.m.
Pope Francis greets the crowd as he arrives in St Peter's Square for the 60th anniversary of the Comunione e Liberazione (Communion and Liberation) Catholic movement on Saturday, March 7, 2015, at the Vatican.
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Pope Francis greets the crowd as he arrives in St Peter's Square for the 60th anniversary of the Comunione e Liberazione (Communion and Liberation) Catholic movement on Saturday, March 7, 2015, at the Vatican.

Alfred Cipriani considers Pope Francis “the right pope for the right time” but believes his much-anticipated papal letter on the environment will stray into an area better left to others.

“My problem with him talking about the environment is I don't think he has the whole story,” said Cipriani, 64, of Greensburg, who attends St. Bartholomew's Catholic Church in the village of Crabtree. “I don't think it will have any impact on the people in the pews.”

Pope Francis, who plans to release a letter that he hopes will sway negotiators to make “courageous” decisions at a climate change conference, has taken every opportunity to decry deforestation, global warming and “the greedy exploitation” of environmental resources.

The pope's letter — or encyclical — to bishops is part of his plan to encourage negotiators at a United Nations climate change conference in November to take steps to protect the planet.

The pope has said publicly that he expects to complete the encyclical — a document typically reserved for the most important papal teachings — by the end of March. It would be translated and distributed in June or July to bishops overseeing the Roman Catholic Church's 1.2 billion members.

Francis, 76, who is known as a pope who speakes “heart to heart,” talks passionately about the stripping of forests in his native South America and his belief that man has exploited nature.

Experts say the encyclical could result in fallout that extends into the political arena, angering conservatives and emboldening environmentalists.

Francis' letter will have a powerful impact on political stages, said Daniel P. Scheid, assistant professor of theology at Duquesne University, who has written extensively about the “greening” of the papacy.

Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI raised environmental concerns, but “this will be a more authoritative document ... a moral voice saying, ‘This is a great ethical concern, and we need action now,' ” said Scheid, author of the upcoming book “Cosmic Common Good: Religious Grounds for Ecological Ethics.”

Francis is likely to continue to touch on themes begun by his predecessors, placing greater emphasis on the problems of the poor and “our culture of waste,” he said.

“I think you can see already the number of people both excited and worried,” Scheid said.

Conservatives in the church are balking at the letter, saying it's not an arena into which popes should venture.

Liberal Catholics contend the environment is an issue that everyone — Catholic or not — should care about.

Concern about climate change is greatest in Latin America, Europe, the Asia/Pacific region, Canada, Tunisia and Lebanon, according to a 2014 Pew Research Center study.

Just four in 10 Americans said climate change poses a serious threat, making the United States the least concerned of the 39 countries Pew surveyed.

A majority of Pennsylvanians favor a state-crafted plan to curb carbon pollution, according to a bipartisan poll by the National Resources Defense Council.

It is unusual for the topic of an encyclical to be announced and discussed so extensively before its release, said Lucia A. Silecchia, law professor at the Catholic University of America in Washington and one of nine Americans who attended a 2007 Vatican conference on climate change and development.

The Internet is brimming with political, theological and academic analyses of what the pope might say, in large part because of hints he gives about the encyclical's contents.

“No one knows right now what the encyclical will say; yet there has already been much commentary on it,” Silecchia said.

That's all part of what Catholics are learning about Francis, who was named pope two years ago when Benedict XVI resigned, Pittsburgh Bishop David Zubik said.

“With Pope Benedict's second and third letters, there was a little bit of a hint of what he was going to write — a sneak peak,” Zubik said. “Pope Francis gives a lot of advance notice of what he's doing.”

The encyclical is being written by a pope “who knows how to make a sound bite” and won't mimic the “abstract language” of previous pontiffs, said the Rev. Thomas J. Reese, senior analyst at the National Catholic Reporter.

“He's not going to be afraid to say capitalism is helping global warming. ... He's going to say a lot of things that will be challenging to people in the U.S.,” Reese predicted.

Could the popular pope with a chemistry degree make a difference on climate change?

Yes, experts said.

The “firepower” of the pope's words “will elevate the reputation of the environmental movement,” said Bill Patenaude, special lecturer in theology at Providence College and a 26-year employee of the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management.

“It shows the relevance of the church. ... The world is so interested in what Pope Francis is saying,” he said.

“This issue is not going away. It is becoming a part of the life of the church.”

Reese agreed.

“This is going to be a big deal,” he said. “This is no longer a bunch of hippies and tree huggers dancing in the woods.”

Craig Smith is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-380-5646 or csmith@tribweb.com.

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