Father Thomas Rosica, English language assistant to the Holy See Press Office, offered today some clarification and context for Pope Francis’ upcoming encyclical, as the Vatican announced its June 18 release date.

The Basilian priest, who is CEO of Canada’s Salt and Light Catholic Media Foundation, prefaced his comments by saying, “I have not seen the encyclical. I do not have an advance copy of the text.”

His reflections, he added, “simply flow from an attentive reading of teachings on the environment in the works of both Popes Benedict XVI and Pope Francis.  Popes write encyclicals formulated on the foundations of what has already been stated by their predecessors.”

Father Rosica addressed three questions:

1. What is an encyclical?

2. Is this Pope Francis’ first encyclical?

3. Why is an encyclical on the environment necessary at this moment in history?

1. What is an encyclical?

A Papal Encyclical is the name typically given to a letter written by a Pope.  It can be addressed to the bishops and priests of a particular region or of the entire world, to specific groups in the Church or to the entire Catholic faithful. It can also be addressed to all people of good will. The word encyclical comes from the Greek ‘egkyklios’, ‘kyklos’ meaning a circle. It may be considered to be a ‘circular letter’. Encyclicals are used primarily for teaching.  The first encyclical was released by Pope Benedict XIV on December 3, 1740. Since then, the Popes have written over 300 encyclicals.

2. Is this Pope Francis’ first encyclical?

Lumen Fidei (English: “The Light of Faith”) is the name of the first encyclical of Pope Francis, signed on June 29, 2013, on the Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul, and promulgated (published) on July 5, 2013, four months after his election to the papacy. The encyclical focuses its theme on faith, and completes what his predecessor Pope Benedict XVI had previously written about charity and hope, the other two theological virtues, in his encyclicals Deus caritas est (God is love) and Spe Salvi (By hope we were saved.)

Lumen Fidei was a unique document in that it is the work of two Popes.  Francis took the work of Benedict, who before his resignation from the papacy had completed a first draft of the text, and added his own reflections to the document. Pope Francis expressed this collaboration in paragraph 7 of the encyclical: “These considerations on faith — in continuity with all that the Church’s magisterium has pronounced on this theological virtue — are meant to supplement what Benedict XVI had written in his encyclical letters on charity and hope. He himself had almost completed a first draft of an encyclical on faith. For this I am deeply grateful to him, and as his brother in Christ I have taken up his fine work and added a few contributions of my own.”

3. Why is an encyclical on the environment necessary at this moment in history?

Since his election in March 2013, Pope Francis has very frequently shown concern for the environment, following the example of Benedict XVI who was sometimes labeled the first “Green Pope.” Benedict consistently called for the safeguarding of creation, arguing that respect for the human being and nature are one.  Ours is the world that God so loved, the world that was to receive his only Son, Jesus. We must show love and care toward the world, a gift of God’s creation.

-From the beginning of his Petrine Ministry, Pope Francis made it clear that his choice of his papal name after St. Francis of Assisi, patron saint of ecology was indicative of his concern for the environment. In his inaugural Mass homily, he called on everyone to be “protectors of creation, protectors of God’s plan inscribed in nature, protectors of one another and of the environment.”

-On World Environment Day, June 5, 2013, Francis stressed the need to “cultivate and care” for the environment, saying it is part of God’s plan that man “nurture[s] the world with responsibility,” transforming it into a “garden, a habitable place for everyone.”

-In his June 5, 2013 address Francis said: “We are losing the attitude of wonder, contemplation, listening to creation. The implications of living in a horizontal manner is that we have moved away from God, we no longer read His signs.”

-Pope Francis has issued to the Church and the world a profound challenge to rethink the culture of waste and to contemplate seriously and act with conviction against the dynamics of an economy and finance that lack ethics. “Man is not in charge today, money is in charge, money rules.”

-As Benedict had often done, Francis links human ecology with environmental ecology, issuing a strong challenge to rethink the culture of waste and to oppose a lack of ethics in economy and finance. “I would like us all to make a serious commitment to respect and protect creation,” he said, “to be attentive to every person, to counter the culture of waste and disposable [mentality], to promote a culture of solidarity” and of living alongside others, especially on the margins, as opposed to individualism.

-In an address to the diplomatic corps accredited to the Holy See on January 13, 2014, Pope Francis noted the devastation caused by Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines in November 2013 and warned against “greedy exploitation of environmental resources.” He quoted the popular adage: “God always forgives, we sometimes forgive, but when nature – creation – is mistreated, she never forgives.”

-Ecologies that seemingly begin with the program of saving our environment quickly run their logic to the point where the environment takes absolute priority over human beings. When taken to the extreme, many make the erroneous claim that the human person is simply one of a very large number of species, all equally valuable and enjoying the same rights.

-To recover the integrity of creation, we need a renewed Christian culture.

Recalling Pope Benedict’s contribution in ‘Caritas in veritate’

-For Benedict, human ecology is an imperative. Adopting a lifestyle that respects our environment and supports the research and use of clean energies that preserve the patrimony of creation and that are safe for human beings should be given political and economic priority.

-In his encyclical letter Caritas in veritate, and in subsequent writings, Pope Benedict XVI has called for the development of a “human ecology” grounded in the idea of creation as gift. “The human being will be capable of respecting other creatures only if he keeps the full meaning of life in his own heart. Without a clear defense of human life from conception until natural death; without a defense of the family founded on marriage between a man and a woman; without an authentic defense of those excluded and marginalized by society, we will never be able to speak of authentic protection of the environment.”

-Benedict called for a “change in mentality” in order to “quickly arrive at a global lifestyle that respects the covenant between humanity and nature, without which the human family risks disappearing.” He said that “every government must commit themselves to protecting nature and assisting it to carry out its essential role in the survival of humanity.”

-In his 2010 World Day of Peace Message entitled “If You Want to Cultivate Peace, protect creation”, Pope Benedict XVI used the term “human ecology.” Benedict reaffirmed the Catholic understanding of our relationship with the goods of the earth and our call to stewardship of the planet which has been given to us by the Creator as a gift.

-Benedict has called for an “integral human development” which recognizes the centrality of the human person and the primacy of our relationships with one another in family and society. He underscored the truth that creation is a gift, given to human persons by a God of love who entrusts us with responsibility for one another – and therefore for the goods which promote our human flourishing. We all have a responsibility for one another. We need to live together as good stewards of creation, recognizing the need first for a “human ecology”.

-“If you want to cultivate peace, protect creation. The quest for peace by people of good will surely would become easier if all acknowledge the indivisible relationship between God, human beings and the whole of creation. In the light of divine Revelation and in fidelity to the Church’s Tradition, Christians have their own contribution to make.”

-Pope Benedict articulated a Catholic Environmental vision which is pro-life, pro-family, pro-poor, pro-peace, pro-justice and fundamentally relational. We are to receive one another as gifts. We must never use human persons as objects. We should receive creation as a gift, our common home, to be shared with one another, and not as an object of use. Pope Benedict articulated a vision for a «human ecology» which can promote a path to authentic peace.