For all the controversy the new encyclical from Pope Francis is sure to generate about climate change, the deeper message is one that should resonate with producers.

A just-released papal encyclical is unlike anything the Catholic Church has promulgated in the past. Pope Francis’ 184-page document is shocking, not necessarily for its content — it’s hard to argue with many of the conclusions — but for its boldness in directly confronting the environmental and political challenges of the 21st century.

Keep in mind, this is the same church whose leaders turned a blind eye to atrocities committed by the Nazis, and more recently, spent decades trying to hush up a worldwide scandal involving hundreds of cases of child molestation by members of the clergy.

This encyclical comes out swinging.

Titled “Laudato Si’,” or “Praise Be to You,” highlighted the crisis posed by climate change, placing the blame (quite properly) on fossil fuels and human activity, while warning of an “unprecedented destruction of ecosystems, with serious consequence for all” if corrective action isn’t undertaken.

The pope identified the pursuit of profits, excessive faith in technology and political shortsightedness as the culprits in exacerbating environmental exploitation — I’d put those in reverse order — and stated that countries in the developed world are obligated to help poorer nations confront the crisis.

“Climate change is a global problem with grave implications: environmental, social, economic, political and for the distribution of goods,” he wrote. “It represents one of the principal challenges facing humanity in our day.”

The encyclical will have a direct impact on the presidential election here in the United States, as five declared (or at least quasi-official) Republican candidates are Catholics, including Jeb Bush, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Rick Santorum, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, all of whom have publicly pronounced skepticism about whether climate change is man-made, or whether it even exists.

Rubio has already declined comment on the encyclical, even though Florida is in the crosshairs of the mega-storms and rising ocean levels linked to the increase in greenhouse gas emissions. Jeb Bush, however, waded right in, telling The New York Times that, “I don’t get economic policy from my bishops or my cardinals or my pope. I think religion ought to be about making us better as people and less about things that end up getting in the political realm.”

Laudato Si, however, is all up that political realm, and it will be tough for any presidential candidate to dodge the question of whether they agree or disagree with the pope’s perspective. Catholic bishops in Florida, Iowa and Ohio are laready planning media events to publicize the pope’s message.

A few vocal conservatives, such as fundraiser and kingmaker Richard Viguerie, have tried to deflect discussion of climate change. Viguerie posted on his website that the pope “Fiddles with one controversial political issue that is not at the core of spiritual matters, [while] there is increasing secular pressure for the Church to abandon its scriptural teachings on sexual morality, including homosexuality and marriage, in favor of acceptance of same-sex marriage.”

 

Nice try, but when Ireland, a country that’s as Catholic as the grass is green, votes overwhelmingly to approve marriage equalilty, those who continue fighting to ban gay marriage might as well give up.

It’s over.

A message of sustainability

Now, nobody should be surprised that this encyclical is taking on controversies over climate change and industrialization and their impact on populations outside Europe and North America. Pope Francis is the first pontiff elected from the developing world, and there’s no doubt he personally relates to the challenges faced by countries in Latin America, Africa and Asia.

His discussion of climate change will no doubt spark controversy (although not among the scientific community), as will the encycical’s attack on the biblical notion that humanity has dominion over the Earth.

Of course, the pope took his name from St. Francis of Assisi, and he’s practically channeling the patron saint of animals and the environment in chastising those who promote such destructive practices as mountaintop mining or fishing with ocean trawlers.

“This is not a correct interpretation of the Bible as understood by the Church,” news accounts quoting from the encyclical reported. The Bible teaches people to “till and keep” the garden of the world, and “tilling refers to cultivating, plowing or working, while keeping means caring, protecting, overseeing and preserving.”

That statement is good news for agriculture, in that while many — if not most — other industries must attempt, with varying success, to justify the often-destructive impact their operations have on planetary resources and ecosystems, producers and farmers can rightly claim the mantle of sustainability.

After all, agriculture’s managed to sustain itself for multiple millennia.

That’s not to say that agriculture has no issues related to land use, resource depletion and energy consumption. Modern food production has an enormous eco-footprint, although it’s often in the processing and distribution sectors where the problems are most severe.

But feeding the world’s burgeoning population is an imperative as urgent as weaning the world off fossil fuel dependence or mitigating environmental destruction.

And those who raise livestock and grow crops can do both: Feed the world, while tilling and keeping the global garden upon which we depend. 

Dan Murphy is a food-industry journalist and commentator