Let’s start at the beginning with the two tweets that launched the whole Francis-fracking-flurry earlier this week:
First, a word of caution about groups using the Holy Father’s global popularity to promote their own causes. Yes, Pope Francis met with Argentinian anti-fracking activists and held tee-shirts with their slogans. It is a strong image given that Argentina is the Holy Father’s homeland, and anti-fracking protests there have grown so strong in recent weeks that “police have cracked down on thousands of demonstrators with tear gas and rubber bullets,” according to the New York Times.
But the activists the Pope met with, Argentine filmmaker and environmental activist Fernando “Pino” Solanas and Juan Pablo Olsson, who directed a documentary that came out earlier this year called La Guerra del Fracking, (The Fracking War), are the ones who appear to be pushing the Pope-Francis-is-a-Fractivist agenda, not the Holy See. Olsson’s tweet was his account’s very first, suggesting that the account may have been created simply to use the Holy Father to promote their cause. Antonio Gustavo Gomez, a member of EJOLT, Environmental Justice Organizations, Liabilities, and Trade, also attended the meeting, and EJOLT put out a statement saying that Pope Francis told the group his next encyclical would focus on nature and environmental pollution. The Holy See, by contrast, has not confirmed these reports.
That said, protecting the environment is a classic papal priority. John Paul II called for a new ecological awareness in his 1990 World Day of Peace address. The environmental crisis, he said, was a moral problem, and required new solidarity between industrialized and developing nations. Pope Benedict XVI continued this same push. His 2009 encyclical Caritas in Veritate, or Charity in Truth, called for the need for agrarian reform, the environment as a stakeholder in modern business, the link between poverty and the lack of care for the environment, and again, the moral need for solidarity between industrialized nations and developing nations.
But, and here’s the key, for both John Paul II and Benedict XVI, ecological justice cannot happen without addressing poverty. John Paul II explained the connection this way in his 1990 speech:
It must also be said that the proper ecological balance will not be found without directly addressing the structural forms of poverty that exist throughout the world. Rural poverty and unjust land distribution in many countries, for example, have led to subsistence farming and to the exhaustion of the soil. Once their land yields no more, many farmers move on to clear new land, thus accelerating uncontrolled deforestation, or they settle in urban centres which lack the infrastructure to receive them. Likewise, some heavily indebted countries are destroying their natural heritage, at the price of irreparable ecological imbalances, in order to develop new products for export. In the face of such situations it would be wrong to assign responsibility to the poor alone for the negative environmental consequences of their actions. Rather, the poor, to whom the earth is entrusted no less than to others, must be enabled to find a way out of their poverty. This will require a courageous reform of structures, as well as new ways of relating among peoples and States.
Benedict continued this same argument in Caritas in Veritate:
Questions linked to the care and preservation of the environment today need to give due consideration to the energy problem. The fact that some States, power groups and companies hoard non-renewable energy resources represents a grave obstacle to development in poor countries. Those countries lack the economic means either to gain access to existing sources of non-renewable energy or to finance research into new alternatives. The stockpiling of natural resources, which in many cases are found in the poor countries themselves, gives rise to exploitation and frequent conflicts between and within nations. These conflicts are often fought on the soil of those same countries, with a heavy toll of death, destruction and further decay. The international community has an urgent duty to find institutional means of regulating the exploitation of non-renewable resources, involving poor countries in the process, in order to plan together for the future.
Pope Francis has already made his concern for the poor paramount. It is widely known that he chose his name after St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of the poor. But it is less known that St. Francis is also the patron saint of ecology. John Paul II named St. Francis the patron saint of ecology in 1979, precisely for this theological connection to poverty.“It is my hope that the inspiration of Saint Francis will help us to keep ever alive a sense of ‘fraternity’ with all those good and beautiful things which Almighty God has created,” Pope John Paul II later explained. “And may he remind us of our serious obligation to respect and watch over them with care, in light of that greater and higher fraternity that exists within the human family.”
It has also been widely reported that Pope Francis’ first solo encyclical is likely to be Beati Pauperes “Blessed are the Poor,” not an encyclical solely about the environment as the fracking activists suggested. It would come as no surprise at all however if the environment were discussed as a portion of the poverty encyclical. That would only enhance the agenda of Francis’ predecessors on the relationship between poverty and creation care.
Posing with environmental activists of any kind—fracking or other—is a way for Pope Francis to show his solidarity with the people ecological injustice largely hurts. That’s the heartbeat of his mission, of his very name and identity. The fracking photos, unless the Holy See decides to say otherwise, most likely aren’t about the Pope coming out against one specific environmental issue. They are about him coming out for the poor.