Since becoming pontiff in March 2013, Pope Francis has commented on many of the world's most contested political issues, from income inequality to abortion, earning him a selection as Time's 2013 Person of the Year and a cover story in Rolling Stone. Now, the leader of a billion Catholics worldwide is said to be preparing to enter the debate on climate change.
Observers expect a papal encyclical could come in early 2015, perhaps by Easter. That's well ahead of a United Nations summit in Paris scheduled for December, where nearly 200 heads of state will attempt to hammer out a deal that could head off catastrophic climate change.
An encyclical is "one of the strongest statements a pope can make on an issue," Patrick Carolan, executive director of the Washington-based Franciscan Action Network, told VICE News. He noted that Catholic environmental groups are already talking about how to use the pope's statement to rally parishioners around the cause.
"We would view an encyclical as a call to action, not just as a theological document — a call to move forward and bring about the change that we need," Carolan said. "People are already organizing to reach out to the 1.2 billion Catholics and other people of faith. We feel this will be a defining moment to get people moving forward on this issue."
'The pope's not shy, as we've seen, about calling people out, and he won't play nicey-nice with Congress.'
The Franciscan Action Network is a network of groups affiliated with the Catholic order of St. Francis of Assisi, patron saint of animals and ecology, whom Carolan characterizes as the original environmentalist. He said that word of the planned document has circulated widely in anticipation of it, but there's no public timetable for its release.
"We know that a lot of work has already gone into it," Carolan said. "This is not something that he'll sit down at his laptop and type it out in two hours."
James Martin, a Jesuit priest and editor-at-large of the Catholic magazine America, told VICE News that work on the encyclical is "mainly rumors" at this point, but acknowledged that such a statement "could be highly significant."
"This pope, by virtue of his place in the world, has a very strong moral voice," he said. Because climate change is still an emerging phenomenon and less of a hot-button social issue, Francis's views may gain more of a foothold than the church's positions on other matters of controversy.
"It's not related to anything having to do with sexuality or women's ordination or topics which for the most part people have made up their minds on," Martin said.
Carolan thinks the upcoming document will be deeply rooted in the moral precepts of the church, including humanity's role as stewards of the environment and the teachings of Jesus to care for the poor and downtrodden. They are expected to bear the brunt of changes to Earth's climate, including increasingly intense storms and droughts that will imperil agriculture and food security.
Bishop Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo, the chancellor of the Vatican's Pontifical Academy of Sciences, offered a glimpse of the church's thinking in November. Speaking to the London-based Catholic aid group CAFOD, the bishop said Francis "has a unique role as a religious leader" to address an issue "that can no longer be postponed."
"The problem of climate change has become a major social and moral problem, and mentalities can only be changed on moral and religious grounds," Sanchez said. "Therefore, our academics supported the pope's initiative to publish an encyclical or another such important document on climate and social inclusion to influence next year's crucial decisions."
The projected warming of the planet caused by man-made carbon emissions, mostly from the burning of fossil fuels like coal, oil, and gas, seems to grow more controversial politically even as the vast majority of scientific researchers recognize that it is a serious problem. Among the loudest skeptics are leaders of the US Congress, where Carolan said Francis may be invited to speak in September.
"There are a lot of congressional leaders who are Catholic, and they're not going to like what he has to say," Carolan told VICE News. "The pope's not shy, as we've seen, about calling people out, and he won't play nicey-nice with Congress. He'll challenge the leadership."
Francis himself has been increasingly outspoken about environmental issues for the past year.
"Custody of Creation is custody of God's gift to us, and it is also a way of saying thank you to God," he remarked in May. Humanity needs to "safeguard Creation, because if we destroy Creation, Creation will destroy us."
This past December, as UN delegates gathered for a climate conference in the Peruvian capital of Lima, the pontiff tweeted:
Ecology is essential for the survival of mankind; it is a moral issue which affects all of us.
— Pope Francis (@Pontifex)December 11, 2014
Two of Pope Francis's recent predecessors, Paul VI and John Paul II, also issued statements on the environment. John Paul II warned about the dangers of carbon dioxide-driven warming as early as 1990. Sanchez said in November that a Vatican review of published science confirms "that essentially all documents published now accept as a scientific truth that climate change is due to human activity."
Martin pointed to the bishop's comments as "a reminder that faith and reason are not in contradiction."
"It shouldn't surprise people any longer that the church is supportive of the latest science," he told VICE News. When Francis weighs in on climate change, he said, he thinks it will make it much more difficult for Catholic lawmakers to ignore the issue.
"If it is an encyclical, that is one of the highest forms of church teaching," he said. "It will be harder for people to say this doesn't matter, as a Catholic. They will be in the same place as people who say, 'I don't need to take care of the poor.' "
Of course, the church has taken staunch positions against abortion, contraception, war, and the death penalty that many American Catholics ignore. But Carolan said this statement is likely to be a call to action that he hopes will rally the world's billion-plus Roman Catholics to press their leaders for change.
"Part of what we're doing is talking about how we can work to get people out of the pews and into the streets," Carolan said.
Follow Matt Smith on Twitter: @mattsmithatl