You are here

Is Pope Francis the World's Most Powerful Advocate for Climate Stability?

Don Fitz

Maybe not now. But that's what he could well become. Francis' Encyclical “On Care for Our Common Home” recognizes the incredible damage being done to climate change and biodiversity. Few realize how strong his beliefs are and the unused power of persuasion he has. Here's 10 ways that power could be used.

1. Francis could call for a renewed emphasis on not eating red meat on Fridays.

Francis unequivocally recognizes the science of climate change: “The climate is a common good, belonging to all and meant for all. A very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climatic system.” [23]

He shows no quarter to climate change deniers, writing “Obstructionist attitudes, even on the part of believers, can range from denial of the problem to indifference...” [14]

Missing from Francis' Encyclical is the massive scientific evidence that meat is probably the single most important contributor to greenhouse gases (GHGs). Meat production (beef, chicken, pork) produce more GHGs that either the transportation sector or all industrial processes.

Some believe that meat production could account for much more than the 18-20% of GHGs if other factors are taken into account, such as livestock respiration, medical care of livestock, full loss of land used for meat production, and packaging, refrigerating, cooking and disposing of meat.

Francis affirms the “an urgent need to develop policies” to address climate change [26]. There is probably no better way to develop a policy to reduce GHGs than resurrecting the emphasis on meatless Fridays.

2. Francis could ask religious leaders throughout the world to consider a day without red meat.

This brings up two big questions: Would a pope try to influence non-Catholics? and, Would non-Catholics pay attention to a Catholic tradition? Francis clearly understands that the extent of environmental crises goes beyond his own church when he says “I wish to address every person living on this planet” regarding “our common home.” [3]

In wondering about the potential response from non-Catholics, I recall going to elementary school in Houston during the McCarthy era of the 1950s. It was not a particularly tolerant time or place. The proportion of Catholics at my school was tiny – not more than 3-4%. When I asked my teacher why we had fish cakes every Friday, she said “It's because the Catholic kids aren't supposed to eat meat on Fridays.” That seemed reasonable. And it was okay with everyone else. Not one kid ever challenged a school that was over 90% non-Catholic adjusting its meals to accommodate a meatless Friday.

Might non-Catholics of today move from a passive acceptance of meatless Fridays to actively participate in a joint effort to halt environmental devastation? Francis is hopeful when he says, “Outside the Catholic Church, other Churches and Christian communities – and other religions as well – have expressed deep concern and offered valuable reflections on issues which all of us find disturbing.” [7]

Millions of people are searching for ways to have a meaningful effect on the climate. Most individual behaviors either have little impact on the big picture or are out of the reach of many people. For example, individuals who live 20 miles from work cannot really choose to ride a bike or take mass transit that does not exist.

Choice of food is different – it is something that most people can do by themselves. New eating habits by enough people might dramatically influence the world's climate.

3. Francis could ask governments to ensure that those who receive their livelihood from the livestock sector are protected from harm by decreased consumption of meat.

Over 1.3 billion people depend on livestock for income. This could make for a very long unemployment line and a lot of hostility toward vegetarianism. In addition to those who raise livestock, livelihoods that derive from it include manufacturing ranch equipment and supplies, growing animal feed, transportation, and sales of animal products such as leather.

Workers in all these industries are super-sensitive to the economics of livestock reduction. They must be a core part of planning for economic transition. A transformation would need to include projects that demonstrate how changing from a cattle ranch into growing crops (or other economic activity) can successfully occur. This would also include educational programs on how to make such changes, as well as proposals for new jobs for those currently working in livestock-dependent industries.

The US is a rich country that can afford to be a model for the rest of the world. We could guarantee an income equal to what families relying on animals currently make if they agree to transition to plant-based agriculture for human food.

4. Francis could recommend that Catholics not eat any meat (including foul and fish) on Mondays.

This would be a bold step, going beyond reemphasizing what what is already Catholic doctrine. Yet, it would be consistent with Francis' belief that the world has a “sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life.” [2]

Overproduction of meat has horrible effects beyond climate change. The livestock sector accounts for over a third of global land area, which makes it a major contributor to deforestation, habitat destruction, and species extinction. According to the Food & Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, livestock production is responsible for 55% of erosion, 37% of pesticide usage, and 50% of antibiotic usage.

There is already an embryo of the needed change in the “Meatless Monday” movement. A serious effort toward stewardship of the Earth requires a halt in the expansion of land which is used for livestock and then a progressive increase in acres of land returned to wild Nature.

5. Francis could ask religious leaders to consider a day without any meat (including foul and fish).

Papal Encyclicals are recommendations – they are not commandments. Thus, an Encyclical by Francis recommending meatless Mondays would mean that Catholics would need to decide to what extent they should follow it.

Inspiring controversy would actually be better than ordering people to eat less meat. Once folks argue and haggle, the issue sticks to their minds. Those who do something because of their own choice are much more committed once they have made a decision.

A debate between the world's 1.2 million Catholics would not be ignored by other religions. In fact, it could be a powerful impetus for a Great Discussion regarding how people can effectively impact climate change.

If Francis were to take such an audacious stand within the Catholic Church, he would elevate his ability to ask other religious leaders to step outside of their roles established hundreds or thousands of years ago to similarly recognize the profound threat to Life on Earth. What could be more helpful than several billion people questioning how actions during the next few decades will affect the existence of generations to come?

6. Francis could precaution the world against using vegetarianism as a weapon of cultural domination.

Of particular concern are non-Brahmin Indians and American Cowboys. Most of the world's 1.1 billion Hindus live in India, which is often assumed to be overwhelmingly vegetarian. In fact, over two-thirds of Indians eat meat.

While Hindus do not have a strict ban on eating meat, most avoid doing so because they wish to minimize harming other life forms. Indians who do eat meat eat far less than do Americans. They include young people exposed to Western life styles and religious minorities of Muslims and Christians. According to Priti Gulati Cox, they also include “Dalits (formerly known as untouchables) and Adivasis (Indigenous communities),” who are victims of “Hindu-centric cultural imposition.”

In his article “Beef ban is an attempt to impose upper-caste culture on other Hindus” Dalit Professor Kancha Ilaiah explains that eating meat has always been a part of Dalit food culture. Since water buffalo meat is cheap, it is their major source of protein. He sees the current attempt by Brahmins to impose a beef ban as “casteist and racist.” Non- Brahmin Indians particularly resent attempts to ban eating beef when India is a major exporter of water buffalo meat, which is not considered sacred by upper castes.

Glance a few thousand miles away to the US. Many people in western states are very hostile to having a lifestyle imposed upon them by what they perceive as urban elitism. Some do things that harm their own health and welfare to preserve their customs. (Witness 2016 Presidential voting patterns.) In this way, they are not so different from India's Dalits and Adivasis who strongly resist having Brahmin vegetarianism imposed on them.

The issue is how to present a change away from overconsumption of meat without devaluing their culture or creating massive unemployment. There is no magic bullet. But the answer must include a dialogue and understanding that eating less meat at each meal has as much effect as having some meals without meat.

In fact, the small portion of meat eaten means that Indians already have much less environmental impact than do Americans. Instead of being grain-fed, cattle and water buffalo in India typically eat vegetation from land unsuitable for farming, further reducing their harmful effects.

Yet, we must keep our eye on the prize. Giving up smoking and having unprotected sex with multiple partners have both been sub-cultural values that came into conflict with objective facts. Campaigns became effective when former smokers spoke out and when gay men themselves advised new behaviors. Attempts to reduce meat consumption will be counter-effective unless they include those American Cowboys who already question the quantity of meat eaten.

7. Francis could recommend that Catholics eat no animal flesh or animal products (including eggs, milk and cheese) on Wednesdays.

The tradition of not eating meat on Fridays comes with the idea of doing without something for Lent. Not eating red meat for three days a week, no meat of any kind for two days a week, and no animal products one day a week would transform the concept of “doing without” to mean “doing without to preserve our common home.”

This is the sort of sacrifice that Francis hints at when he says calls on humanity “to recognize the need for changes in lifestyle.” [23] He quotes approvingly of the leader of Eastern Orthodox Church stating that “to commit a crime against the natural world is a sin.” [8]

This reflects the belief in man's stewardship over nature shared by Jews, Christians and Muslims. The responsibility to preserve Life in all forms is an impossibility if ranchland and farms for animal feed continue to expand their destruction of wildlife habitat throughout the world.

How can the desire to protect wild Nature best be expressed? Recognizing that food travels over 1000 miles from “farm to plate” has lead many to become “locavores” who seek to eat food grown close to where they live. However, research demonstrates that not eating red meat and dairy for less than one day per week “achieves more GHG reduction than buying all locally sourced food.”

8. Francis could suggest to those of other faiths that they join him in setting aside an additional day for eating no animal flesh or animal products.

Clearly, millions of Catholics combining a locavore diet with a meatless diet for multiple days per week would have a profound impact on GHG emissions. Imagine the effect if billions of people did so.

Participants would make two important discoveries. First, food can taste good if it does not include red meat, if it does not include any animal flesh and it can even taste good without any animal products. As this realization spread, an increasing number of restaurants would offer non-animal dishes on a regular basis. There would be more cooks realizing that vegetarian food is not the same as the current diet without meat but is a different approach to preparing food. Many people would voluntarily change to eating less meat during each meal and eating more meals without meat.

Second, reduction in eating meat would have profound health effects. High meat consumption is associated heart disease, obesity and colorectal cancer. Health improvement would occur not only in Western countries, but also China, where meat consumption has zoomed upwards. Combined discoveries of taste and health could well reinforce each other as people realized that they would not be giving up good food to have a better quality of life.

9. Francis could urge the world to recognize the need for humane treatment as well as humane killing of animals.

Both Muslims and Jews are prohibited from eating meat from animals killed in a cruel way. Jews include humane killing as part of kosher meat and, for Muslims, it is halal meat. At the time those rules were written, there was no such thing as factory farms (Confined Animal Feeding Operations, CAFOs).

A twenty-first century extension of ancient laws would recognize that CAFOs practice a merciless process of killing by slow torture. Confinement of animals in tiny cages is so unhealthy that CAFOs routinely pump antibiotics into them so they will live long enough to be slaughtered.

Treating (and killing) animals in a humane fashion is close to a universally accepted value. CAFO owners are so worried that people would be horrified if they saw how they operate that they go to great lengths lobbying for laws that criminalize filming how animals are treated.

It is highly unlikely that the meat industry can continue to grow without an expansion of CAFOs. National laws and international treaties banning CAFOs should parallel an increase in plant-based diets. A call by Francis for humane treatment of animals, with a specific request that CAFOs be banned, would be an enormous contribution to reducing animal cruelty, reducing meat consumption and reducing GHGs.

10. Francis could request a global inquiry into the need to begin shorter work weeks in a world which consumes less meat.

Since producing 1 pound of beef protein requires 10 pounds of vegetable protein, obtaining sufficient protein from vegetables will require vastly less cultivation. Just as fair trade means less trade, a world which relies on less meat will be one which needs less labor.

The livestock industry is merely one piece of an economy that must be massively reduced for human survival. Vegetarian agriculture is a bit analogous to a peace economy. Vegetarian production requires different use of land, but more important, use of less land. Peace economics emphasizes having fewer weapons to kill people rather than killing people with different weapons.

It is not possible to have less meat, less war, fewer toxic chemicals, less extractions of fossil fuels, fewer products (including homes) designed to fall apart and more wild Nature in an economy that is growing exponentially. More astute than many progressives, Francis recognizes dangers of unlimited economic expansion when he nods approval to “…correcting models of growth which have proved incapable of ensuring respect for the environment.” [5]

We need a smaller economy which focuses on providing basic needs for every person on the planet. This means a shorter – a much shorter – work week.

Producing less is only the first step in solving or reducing environmental problems. Of course, changes in production will be very different in various industries; so, environmentally sound economics requires considerable planning, education, adjustment and readjustment.

This train of thought runs counter to capitalism, whose First Commandment is growth.

Francis has not been particularly receptive to capitalists, along with their politicians. They are left out of the equation when he calls for heeding “the reflections of numerous scientists, philosophers, theologians and civic groups...” [7] He warns that “Many of those who possess more resources and economic or political power seem mostly to be concerned with masking the problems or concealing their symptoms ...” [26]

Neither is Francis receptive to “Technology, which, linked to business interests, is presented as the only way of solving these problems, in fact proves incapable of seeing the mysterious network of relations between things and so sometimes solves one problem only to create others.” [20] He spells out concerns with the latest step in capital accumulation: “Even as the quality of available water is constantly diminishing, in some places there is a growing tendency, despite its scarcity, to privatize this resource, turning it into a commodity subject to the laws of the market. Yet access to safe drinkable water is a basic and universal human right...” [30]

Bringing it home

We can't explore every religion; but, now that we've looked at Catholicism, Hinduism, Judaism, and Islam, let's consider my religion of devout atheism. Devout atheism is quite different from dogmatic atheism, whose dedication to putting down religion has much in common with narrow-minded adherents within the religions it belittles.

Devout atheism feels a connection with the natural world that would be quite receptive to an encyclical from Francis that specified actions to protect Earth. Dogmatic atheists would, of course, reject anything from a Pope because they often worship money and power as do their dogmatic counterparts in the powerful religions.

The division of world is not between Catholic vs. Protestant, Muslim vs. Jew, Hindu vs. Adivasi or pious vs. atheist. Rather, the great division is those of every belief who exalt the preservation of Nature vs. those who fantasize that happiness flows from possession of an ever greater quantity of objects.

Attaining a 100% vegan world overnight is not going to happen. Instead, we should work toward a huge reduction in meat production by (a) encouraging heavy meat eaters to decrease their portions, (b) encouraging moderate meat eaters to increase their vegetarian days, and (c) expanding the number of vegetarians and vegans, while (d) avoiding domination of meat-eating cultures, and (e) preparing for the economic disruptions which will inevitably accompany changes of the magnitude that must happen. Securing alliances and modifying approaches are possible without compromising the goal of vastly reducing the amount of meat produced.

Note. Numbers in brackets indicate the section of “On Care for Our Common Home” from which the quotation is take.

Don Fitz has taught Environmental Psychology at Fontbonne University and Washington University in St. Louis. He produces Green Time TV in conjunction with KNLC TV in St. Louis and is on the editorial board of Green Social Thought. He can be contacted at