By / Oct 8

Clergy and laypersons within the Catholic Church in France sexually abused hundreds of thousands of minors over the past seven decades, according to a report published on Tuesday by an independent commission. The commission concluded the problem in the French church was far more pervasive and systematic than previously known. According to their findings, “The Catholic Church is the place where the prevalence of sexual violence is at its highest, other than in family and friend circles.”

How many victims were uncovered by the report?

The commission that produced the report identified around 2,700 victims through a call for testimony, and thousands more were found in the Church archives.

But the report estimates a total of 330,000 victims. Out of that number, an estimated 216,000 people (65%) were abused by priests and other clerics. The remaining 35% of victims — an estimated 114,000 — were abused by other church figures, such as scout leaders or camp counselors.

The estimates are based on a broader research by France’s National Institute of Health and Medical Research into sexual abuse of children in the country.

What is the period the abuses occurred?

The report covered a span of 70 years, from 1950 to around 2018. The height of the abuse was 1950–1970; 1970-1990 was a period in which the abuse appeared to decline, and the early 1990s marked an apparent resurgence.

Who were the perpetrators of the abuse?

According to the commission, there have been around 2,900–3,200 suspected pedophiles in the French church over the last 70 years. This group included priests, nuns, monks, deacons, Boy Scout leaders, and parochial school staff. 

Cases of abuse occurred primarily in areas of low religious practice, where there was less oversight of the clergy.

Who were the victims of the abuse?

Most of the victims were boys between the ages of 10 and 13. The study’s authors estimate 80% of the church’s victims were boys, while the broader study of sexual abuse found that 75% of the overall victims were girls.

Based on previous studies of French society, about 14.5 % of women and 6.4% of men suffered from sexual violence in their childhood. Acts of sexual violence committed by clerics, monks, or nuns represent just under 4% of this total. Those committed by persons connected to the Catholic Church (including laypersons) represents 6% of the total. 

Who produced the report?

The report was produced by the Independent Commission on Sexual Abuse in the Church (CIASE), a 21-member commission established by Catholic bishops in France at the end of 2018. The commission worked independently from the church in conducting their investigation and creating the report. No clergy from the Catholic Church served on the commission. 

Data collection was organized by three research teams, and hearings and interviews were conducted by the members of the CIASE.

What was recommended that the Catholic Church do in response?

Over the greater part of the period studied by the CIASE, its observations show that the Catholic Church’s attitude could be summarized as “one of concealment, relativization or even denial, with only a very recent recognition, dating from 2015, and even then, unequally accepted by dioceses and religious institutions.”

The CIASE presented 45 recommendations in their report, which cover a broad spectrum ranging from listening to victims, reforming canon law, recognizing crimes committed, and providing reparations for the harms inflicted. It also makes suggestions regarding church governance, the training of clergy, the prevention of sex abuse, and dealing with the perpetrators. 

The report also encouraged French bishops to consider the ordination of married men and to give “a far greater presence of laypersons in general, and women in particular” in the church’s deciding bodies.

Earlier this year Pope Francis issued the most extensive revision to Catholic Church law in four decades, insisting that bishops take action against clerics who abuse minors and vulnerable adults. 

By / Aug 16

Last week, in the case of Starkey v. Roncalli High School and Archdiocese of Indianapolis, a federal court in Indiana ruled in favor of the Indianapolis Archdiocese, upholding its right to “provide students and families with an authentic Catholic education.” Along with other recent positive rulings, this latest decision is yet another win reaffirming the rights of individuals and institutions seeking to exercise fidelity to their religious beliefs without government infringing on their constitutional rights. This decision is good news for religious schools, the faculty, and families who send their children to those schools.

What was the case about?

In August 2018, Lynn Starkey, a former co-director of guidance at Roncalli High School, informed school leadership that “she was in, and intended to remain in, a same-sex marriage in violation of her contract and of Catholic teaching.” Upon learning of Starkey’s same-sex marriage, Roncalli administration “declined to renew her employment contract on the grounds that her marriage violated Catholic teachings.” Alleging discrimination, along with a list of other infractions, Starkey then sued Roncalli and the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Indianapolis.

What led to the favorable ruling?

Ultimately, the court made its decision based on an important legal doctrine –– one favorable to the Archidiocese. Luke Goodrich, vice president and senior counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, stated that it’s a matter of “common sense: religious groups have a right to hire people who agree with their religious beliefs and practices.” The long-standing consensus of the Supreme Court (and lower courts) has been and, with this ruling, clearly remains that “the Constitution forbids secular courts from interfering in important personnel decisions of churches and religious schools.

As outlined in a case detail produced by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, “As Co-Director of Guidance at Roncalli High School, Lynn Starkey was responsible for communicating the Catholic faith to students and families, and advising students both practically and spiritually as they discerned their vocational path at and after Roncalli,” a fact that necessarily invoked the principle of the ministerial exception.

The ministerial exception was one of the most significant factors at play in this case for several reasons: Roncalli High School is a private religious school; Starkey had a consequential role in advising students according to Catholic orthodoxy; and “Every administrator, teacher, and guidance counselor at Roncalli High School signs an agreement to uphold the teaching of the Catholic Church in both their professional and private lives.”

What is the ministerial exception?

The ministerial exception is a constitutional protection that bars the government from applying employment discrimination laws to religious organizations. To allow the government to control the hiring practices of religious organizations would infringe on the Free Exercise rights of religious organizations to operate independent of government involvement. Though the ministerial exception is not explicitly stated in the Constitution, it is grounded in both religious clauses of the First Amendment.

In its June 2020 decision in Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morissey Beru (in which the ERLC filed an amicus brief cited in the court’s ruling), the Supreme Court held that there is no rigid formula to determine if the ministerial exception applies. Rather, the court looks at a variety of factors surrounding the individual’s employment including, but not limited to: official title, religious training, religious credentials, a source of religious instruction, and whether the duties played a role in teaching the religious organization’s message and conveying its mission.

In contrast to the recent ruling in DeWeese-Boyd v. Gordon College, in which it was decided that the ministerial exception did not apply, the U.S. District Court Southern District of Indiana concluded, “Starkey qualified as a minister, and that the ministerial exception bars all of Starkey’s claims.”

What’s next?

The ministerial exception has been central to a slate of recent court decisions, a precedent, at this point, that shows no signs of abating. In fact, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty currently has pending a second, similar case defending Roncalli High School, the same Catholic high school involved in the lawsuit described above. 

The ERLC applauds the Indiana court’s decision to reaffirm the Archdiocese of Indianapolis’ constitutional rights and its prerogative to operate according to its deeply held religious beliefs, and the bearing that has on all other religious persons and institutions. Based on the number of recent favorable decisions, we are encouraged by the overwhelming number of rulings that continue to side with the cause of religious liberty.

As always, the ERLC remains committed to promoting and defending the religious liberty and conscience rights of all people and religious organizations.

By / Jul 9

A new survey on American religion finds that the percentage of Christians has stabilized, after falling for two decades.

The survey, called the 2020 Census of American Religion, finds that 7 in 10 Americans (70%) identify as Christian, including more than 4 in 10 who identify as white Christian and more than one-quarter who identify as Christians of color. Christians of color include Hispanic Catholics (8%), Black Protestants (7%), Hispanic Protestants (4%), other Protestants of color (4%), and other Catholics of color (2%). Nearly 1 in 4 Americans (23%) are religiously unaffiliated, and 5% identify with non-Christian religions.

The largest religious demographic are those who identify as white and Christian. More than 4 in 10 Americans (44%) identify as white Christian, including white evangelical Protestants (14%), white mainline Protestants (16%), and white Catholics (12%). Black Americans are also mostly Christian (72%). More than 6 in 10 (63%) are Protestant, including 35% who identify as evangelical and 28% who identify as non-evangelical Protestants.  Three in 4 Hispanic Americans (76%) also identify as Christian, and half (50%) are Catholic. About 1 in 4 (24%) identify as Protestant, including 14% who say they are evangelical and 10% who identify as non-evangelical Protestant.

Six in 10 Native Americans (60%) identify as Christian, with most (47%) identifying as Protestant (28% evangelical, 19% non-evangelical) and an additional 11% who are Catholic. Asian American and Pacific Islander Americans are as likely to be religiously unaffiliated (34%) as they are to be Christian (34%). The Christian subset includes 1 in 5 (20%) who are Protestant (10% evangelical, 10% non-evangelical) and 10% who are Catholic.

(All respondents who identified as Christian were asked: “Would you describe yourself as a ‘born again’ or ‘evangelical Christian,’ or not?” Respondents who self-identified as white, non-Hispanic, or Protestant and affirmatively identified as born-again or evangelical were categorized as white evangelical Protestants.)

A much smaller percentage of Americans identify as Latter-day Saint (Mormon), Jehovah’s Witness, or Orthodox Christian. The rest of religiously affiliated Americans belong to non-Christian groups, including 1% who are Jewish, 1% Muslim, 1% Buddhist, 0.5% Hindu, and 1% who identify with other religions. Religiously unaffiliated Americans comprise those who do not claim any particular religious affiliation (17%) and those who identify as atheist (3%) or agnostic (3%).

Until 2020, the percentage of white Americans who identify as Christian had been on the decline for more than 20 years, losing roughly 11% per decade. In 1996, almost two-thirds of Americans (65%) identified as white and Christian. But a decade later that had declined to 54%, and by 2017 it was down to 43%. The proportion of white Christians hit a low point in 2018, at 42%, but rebounded in 2020 to 44%.

The recent increase is primarily due to an uptick in the proportion of white mainline Protestants, as well as a stabilization in the proportion of white Catholics. The report notes that since 2007, white mainline Protestants have declined from 19% of the population to a low of 13% in 2016. But over the last three years, the mainline has seen small but steady increases, up to 16% in 2020. White Catholics have also declined from a high point of 16% of the population in 2008 to 12% in 2020.

Since 2006, the most radical decrease in affiliation has occurred among white evangelical Protestants, a group that shrank from 23% of Americans in 2006 to 14% in 2020. That proportion has generally held steady since 2017 (15% in 2017, 2018, and 2019).

The proportion of white Christians decreases for the younger generations. A majority of white Americans 65 and older (59%) identify as Christian, as do those ages 50-64. But that drops to 41% for those ages 30-49. Only 28% of Americans ages 18-29 are white Christians (including 12% who are white mainline Protestants, 8% who are white Catholics, and 7% who are white evangelical Protestants).

Roughly one-in-four Americans ( 26%) are Christians of color (including 9% who are Hispanic Catholics, 5% who are Hispanic Protestants, 5% who are Black Protestants, 2% who are multiracial Christians, 2% who are AAPI Christians, and 1% who are Native American Christians). More than one-third of young Americans (36%) are religiously unaffiliated, and the remainder are Jewish (2%), Muslim (2%), Buddhist (1%), Hindu (1%), or another religion (1%). 

The shift among Christians of color is more modest. While the numbers are small, African American Protestants make up 8% of Americans ages 65 and older but only 5% of Americans under the age of 30. Among those aged 18-29, 26% are Chrisitans of color (including 9% who are Hispanic Catholics, 5% who are Hispanic Protestants, 5% who are Black Protestants, 2% who are multiracial Christians, 2% who are AAPI Christians, and 1% who are Native American Christians). By contrast, the proportions of Hispanic Protestants are significantly higher among younger Americans than among people over 65. 

White evangelical Protestants are also the oldest religious group in the U.S., with a median age of 56, compared to the median age in the country of 47. Black Protestants and white mainline Protestants have a median age of 50. 

By / Dec 10

Southern Baptists affirm adoption as a central theological theme for our communities. We adopt because we ourselves were adopted through Christ into the family of God. A recent resolution of the Southern Baptist Convention stated this aspiration, “We pray what God is doing in creating an adoption culture in so many churches and families can point us to a gospel oneness that is determined not by ‘the flesh,’ or race, or economics, or cultural sameness but by the Spirit, unity, and peace in Christ Jesus.”

Unfortunately, there are ongoing attempts to bar from child-welfare programs faithbased organizations that believe marriage is between a man and woman. In 2018, Philadelphia barred Catholic Social Services from placing children in homes unless it changed its teaching on marriage. In 2019, the Attorney General of Michigan cancelled a contract for foster-care and adoption services with St. Vincent Catholic Charities citing a federal rule from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). The cited rule was set in place in January 2017 as a last-minute attempt by the Obama Administration to redefine federal nondiscrimination policies in a way that excluded many faith-based groups.

The Trump Administration proposed an HHS regulation that will help ensure the child welfare system remains about the welfare of children. The rule was proposed in November 2019 to bring the department’s regulations back in line with all other federal nondiscrimination law and Supreme Court precedent. The plight of over 435,000 children in foster care and 115,000 waiting to be adopted in the U.S. warrants a resounding call to make available as many safe and loving homes as possible.

This rule ensures no one is prevented from serving on the basis of their sincerely held beliefs. The previous Administration’s rule, like the laws in several cities and states, actually decreased the number of providers serving children. When faith-based providers are pushed out, the rate of youth aging out of foster-care without being adopted trends up as happened in Massachusetts, and the number of foster homes available plummets as happened in Illinois.

Christians are among the most motivated in American life to open their homes to children in need. Faith-based agencies should not be barred from providing foster-care and adoption services because of their theological convictions. The HHS rule change is an important start in the right direction.

By / Oct 30

The most recent major manifestation of the widespread Catholic sex abuse scandal occurred in the diocese of Pennsylvania. Investigators discovered that, over decades, numerous priests abused especially young men and that the presiding bishops covered up the accusations against them. There is also the recent open letter from Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, which implicated the Vatican and even the current pope for enabling the predatory sexual behavior of ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick against young seminarians.

Other examples of mass sexual abuse committed by Catholic clergy, again hushed by the hierarchy, have been reported in various countries around the world. The story coming out of the nation of Ireland is particularly heart-rending, for the Roman church in this traditionally Catholic nation has lost so much credibility that the political ground has shifted radically toward secular liberalism.

However, before American Protestants, including Southern Baptists, begin to think this problem does not concern us, we should take time to reconsider our presuppositions. There are numerous factors that, in contrast to the Roman Catholic context, suppress the ability of investigators to get to the bottom of the systemic problem of sexual abuse among Protestants. Immediately coming to mind are three sets of complicating factors that inhibit the gaining of adequate knowledge regarding the extent of the problem of sex abuse in Protestant churches.

The first set of complicating factors concerns the record-keeping. While Roman Catholics have centralized records that have assisted diligent investigators in tracking down the abused, the abusers, and the abettors of abuse, it would be much more difficult to prove these things in a similar size group of Protestant churches, especially among those who hold autonomous congregational polities. Because the damaging sins of some Roman Catholic clergy have been exposed, and similar numbers among Protestants have not been reported, we might presume this means Protestants are relatively guilt-free.

The sex abuse scandal among Roman Catholics should function as a wake-up call for Protestants to consider their own sex abuse problems.

A second set of complicating factors pertains to reporting and indicates this may be far from the reality. Sexual abuse by its nature is often effectively hidden from view. Because of the highly personal even shameful nature of sexuality among religious believers, sexual abuse is grossly underreported: The abused often blame themselves—they feel they were at least in part responsible, and only with hindsight and growth in social wisdom and self-awareness does this delusion begin to fall away. Again, sometimes the abused are simply not given credibility by those to whom they confide the abuse. As a result, the abused may walk away from the church or from considering real faith.

Moreover, church leaders often decide to cover up abuse in order to preserve the reputation of their institutions (or for perhaps for worse reasons). Compounding the problem is that some leaders may believe they are not accountable for their actions in these cases, simply because they could not find a Bible verse explicitly requiring them to act in this particular case in a wise manner.

Finally, it should go without saying, but sexual abusers typically do not seek to expose their own crimes. I personally know of several families, including my own extended family, who have suffered from the problem of predatory sexual grooming and child abuse in the churches, and most such instances will likely never come to public light.

A third set of complicating factors in reporting sexual abuse concerns the nature of our church polity. It is clear from stories that have recently surfaced about Protestant clergy who have sexually abused minors that their crimes were hidden simply by moving away from the church where the activity occurred. Baptists and Pentecostals and Churches of Christ, for instance, generally hold to autonomous congregational polity as a matter of conviction. If these churches do not report sexual abuse crimes to the local police, perhaps out of a misunderstanding regarding the separation of church and state, it is likely that a perpetrator will transfer his “mission field” and continue his horrific crimes elsewhere. Sexual abuse easily becomes serial sexual abuse when the perpetrator changes his address.

We could go on, but I would argue the sex abuse scandal among Roman Catholics should function as a wake-up call for Protestants to consider their own sex abuse problems. Never again should there be a little girl who reports a rape but is summarily dismissed, because people say, “Such a nice guy could never do such a thing,” and, “She has such a vivid imagination.” Never again should there be a pastor who ignores multiple warnings about a rich man grooming a lonely young man with lavish attention and gifts. Never again should there be a youth pastor who tells a young lady that he wants to pray for her, real close, encouraging her to drop her guard and allowing him to engage in inappropriate touching.

The problem we should be concerned about is not that Protestant sexual abuse might become a public scandal and that Protestants might lose public credibility. The problem we should be concerned about is that lives are permanently damaged because of our negligence to report or even willfully cover up sexual abuse. Let us pray and act, that judgment against sex abuse will begin in the Protestant church before God himself decides to restore justice, either in this life or before his throne on the Day of Judgment.

By / Aug 17

Editors note: The following article contains graphic details of a sexual nature related to sexual abuse and assault. Please read with discretion.

A Pennsylvania Catholic priest raped a young girl, got her pregnant, and arranged an abortion. Bishop James Timlin wrote a letter of sympathy after this traumatic situation. He said, “This is a very difficult time in your life, and I realize how upset you are. I too share your grief.” But the bishop’s letter was not directed to the traumatized girl. It was actually sent to the priest.

This and many other horrific stories have emerged in the wake of a wide-ranging 884-page grand jury report that documents hundreds of cases of sexual assault and abuse by Catholic clergy in Pennsylvania since the 1940s.

At the 2018 SBC annual meeting, I stood on the floor of the convention to make a motion that the newly elected SBC president appoint a group to assess and address issues related to sexual abuse amongst Southern Baptists. Last month, SBC president J.D. Greear announced the formation of a Sexual Abuse Presidential Study Group in connection with this motion. The purpose of the group is to evaluate how the #MeToo moment facing Southern Baptists can be turned into a movement that results in lasting change.

As Southern Baptists commit to studying this issue for the next year, what can we learn from the Pennsylvania Catholic sexual abuse crisis?

First, it exposes the trauma of victims in a way that should drive us to compassionate ministry. The lingering effects of abuse, especially at the hands of clergy, cannot be overlooked or minimized. An adult victim who was one of five siblings abused as children by a priest “suffered a panic attack in the grand jury suite” after testifying about her experience. Several months later, she attempted suicide. Another victim “was so violently raped when he was 7 years old that he suffered injuries to his spine. [He] became addicted to pain medication, and eventually overdosed and died.”

The trauma that victims experience is not only caused by the abuse but amplified when deep wounds are reopened as they have to deal with the trauma later on. As one 37-year-old victim put it, “It's very lonely. Especially when it's your word against God's." You can hear the despair in her voice as you read those words. The place that should have been the safest turned out to be, for her, the most dangerous.

The report reveals the dangers inherent in the instinct to cover up sin and criminal activity. It declares, “All victims were brushed aside, in every part of the state, by church leaders who preferred to protect the abusers and their institution above all. The main thing was not to help children, but to avoid scandal.”

Unless Southern Baptists approach issues of assault and abuse by prioritizing the care of victims, then we will not be able to effectively address the issue.

Unless Southern Baptists approach issues of assault and abuse by prioritizing the care of victims, then we will not be able to effectively address the issue.

Second, it exposes how the root of sexual trauma is not just the abuse of people but also the abuse of power. This manifested itself in several ways. There was abuse of power through the use of authority. As the report states, “Priests were raping little boys and girls and the men of God who were responsible for them not only did nothing: they hid it all.” Clergy used their status to gain favor, groom targets, then guard themselves.

Then, there was abuse of power through the use of language. For example, “A priest's removal was explained to his fellow clergymen as him being ‘sick’ or having ‘nervous exhaustion.’" Likewise, they used euphemisms to describe sexual assaults, with the report documenting instructions to "never say 'rape'; say 'inappropriate contact' or 'boundary issues.'" Rather than call this abuse what it was—heinous sin and a clear crime—church leaders leveraged their power to blunt the fall out through the misuse of language.

There was also abuse of power through the use of spiritual justification. The report notes that a “young girl was raped by a number of priests who later told her that this was God's way of showing love." Another boy was “made to pose naked as Jesus while other priests took pornographic pictures.” The details are gut-wrenching and soul crushing. Clergy used their power to convince victims that what happened to them was not bad. But they went further than that. Clergy used their power to spiritually justify how the abuse was actually good.

If Southern Baptists want to make strides in addressing these issues, we must recognize how trauma stems from both the abuse of sex and the abuse of power.

Third, it exposes how a broken system can amplify individual injustice. The particular examples of abuse are heartbreaking enough, but it is also alarming how the ecclesiastical and legal systems empowered and protected predators. For instance, there was a “ring of predatory priests” in the 1970s “who shared intelligence about their victims and sometimes even the victims themselves.” Instead of holding their peers accountable, these priests actually leveraged their relationships to advance abusive activity.

The church, furthermore, simply relocated these abusers to other parishes much of the time. The report notes, “Diocesan administrators, including the Bishops, had knowledge of this conduct and yet priests were regularly placed in ministry after the Diocese was on notice that a complaint of child sexual abuse had been made. This conduct enabled offenders and endangered the welfare of children.” Instead of protecting victims from priests, they protected priests from prosecution.

Shamefully, church leaders often protected the offenders rather than report the crimes. In one case, a priest admitted to molesting approximately three dozen boys. “Despite the admissions and a clinical diagnosis of pedophilia, the priest was then transferred to another diocese in Pennsylvania where his bizarre sexual fixation continued.” The report notes the long, difficult path to lasting change: "Priests were raping little boys and girls, and the men of God who were responsible for them not only did nothing; they hid it all . . . Until that changes, we think it is too early to close the book on the Catholic Church sex scandal."

In addition, church leaders often manipulated the legal system to enable their cover up. The report observes that administrators and Bishops “often dissuaded victims from reporting abuse to police, pressured law enforcement to terminate or avoid an investigation, or conducted their own deficient, biased investigations without reporting crimes against children to the proper authorities.” The problem wasn’t just the broken victims of abuse; it was also the broken system that empowered and protected predators.

As Southern Baptists seek to engage the subject of abuse, we must address potential issues at both the individual and systemic level.

This tragic report reads like an extended manifestation of Romans 1 perversity. Lack of compassion for victims. Abuse of power. A broken system. These are the major takeaways from the grand jury report on the Pennsylvania Catholic sexual abuse scandal. As Southern Baptists grapple with the depth of this perversity, it should cause us to seek the Lord to help us flee from sin and walk in a manner worthy of the gospel. What does it profit our churches if we get it right on sexual abuse but wrong on our own pursuit of personal holiness? We must do both. And as we embark on our efforts to address this issue, we must learn from the missteps of others and have an unwavering commitment to protect the vulnerable and never tolerate any form of abuse.

By / Jun 17

On June 18th, 2015, Pope Francis will issue an encyclical on the environment. Many are assuming the Pope will openly affirm data from popularly accepted climate models, which predict significant ongoing problems due to human-caused release of greenhouse gases. Because of the politically charged nature of the issue of climate change, this new statement is drawing a great deal of advance interest.

An encyclical is an official statement, in this case from the Pope, which illuminates or emphasizes doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church. Although papal encyclicals are not considered infallible ex-cathedra teachings, they are authoritative for Catholics because they represent teachings approved by the Pope.

The title of the forthcoming encyclical, Laudato Si, gives some indication of its content. The phrase, which roughly translates to “praised be,” comes from a song written by Saint Francis of Assisi, who is a favorite saint for environmentalists. The song, Canticle of the Sun, recounts ways the creation praises God by reflecting his glory. In many ways, the song parallels the ideas presented in Psalm 19:1–6.

Many environmentalists are openly hopeful this encyclical will provide a major victory in the fight for universal affirmation of their climate change models. Given that climate scientists from the United Nations are advising him, this is a strong possibility. Many environmentalists are waiting in anticipation of the increased support of over 1 billion Roman Catholics worldwide due to the authority given to this teaching from the Pope. However, that anticipation may lead to some confusion immediately after the Vatican releases the encyclical, much like analysis of some of Pope Francis’ comments on previous issues.

Initial reports about the encyclical are likely to report affirmation of specific policies promoted by some environmentalists. For example, if the Pope affirms popular climate models, some media outlets may spin that as support for a tax on carbon emissions or population control measures. However, affirmation of a certain climate model does not present a blank check to activists to enlist every Roman Catholic for every policy proposed in the name of the environment.

The content of this forthcoming encyclical will probably not be earth-shatteringly new. The Pope is likely to call members of the Roman Catholic Church to be better stewards of the created order. He is also likely to affirm that abuse of God’s creation is a sin. He will probably remind his Church that many times the poor have the least ability to survive and recover from natural disasters, and thus mitigating natural disasters is a part of caring for the poor. These are basic, biblical ideas that the Catholic Church has previously affirmed and should resonate with both Protestants and Catholics.

Despite all of the ongoing discussion, we do not yet know what the content of the encyclical is. If it contains an open affirmation of human-caused climate change, that will be heralded as a major victory for some environmentalists who often describe resistance by people of faith to aspects of the environmental movement as part of a war between religion and science. Often, in reality, this resistance is actually over concerns about the potential impacts of proposed laws beyond the intended effect. Papal affirmation of popularly accepted models of climate change will not undermine the basic concerns all Christians should have for the welfare of all humans, including the global poor.

When the encyclical is released to the public, initial reports will probably be based on a cursory analysis of the letter and wishful extrapolation. However, this will be a carefully reasoned document that theologians and scientists have painstakingly groomed and the Pope has finally approved in light of historic Roman Catholic teaching. The document will deserve careful study instead of a cursory search for headline quotes and supporting proof texts.

Whatever the content of the new encyclical is, we must read it in concert with previous teachings of the Church. Laudato Si will not undermine the Catholic Church’s basic teachings about the value of human life nor authorize concern for the environment to the neglect of concerns for human flourishing. The basic teachings about the special place for humans in creation as stewards exercising responsible dominion over the created order have been a central teaching in the Catholic tradition. Additionally, opposition to population control measures through the prohibition of most forms of birth control and rejection of abortion are rooted in the foundations of Catholic social teaching.

In addition to these basic, biblical forms of stewardship, the Roman Catholic Church has consistently emphasized the principle of subsidiarity, which encourages finding solutions in communities closer to the problem. It pushes against collectivism and excessive governmental coercion. Subsidiarity affirms the dignity of humans and the importance of human freedom. We should keep these things in mind in light of the content of Laudato Si.

We must always filter policies and personal lifestyle choices through a set of considerations that include the flourishing of all of creation. Humans are a part of creation. However, humans are unique in creation, because we are made in the image of God (Gen 1:27).We are the only part of the created order that has the mandate and power to subdue the earth (Gen 1:28–30). Worship of the creation instead of the Creator is idolatry (Rom 1:24–25). These concepts have been consistent parts of traditional Catholic teaching, and Pope Francis will not change that.

In other words, any potential environmental regulations must also take into account the secondary effect of limiting development and economic progress among the poor. We should not create environmental rules, presumably to benefit the global poor, which prevent the global poor from overcoming their poverty.

Unthinking use of resources is contrary to just stewardship. It is, after all, God’s earth and not ours. However, failing to use available resources to eliminate physical and spiritual poverty reflects attitudes that are just as morally bankrupt. Not all economic development is good, but neither is it all bad. We must use the best information we have available to make wise personal and policy choices. Nothing in the forthcoming encyclical can change these responsibilities.

Evangelicals will benefit from carefully reading what Pope Francis publishes instead of reacting to pre-written or hastily compiled news stories. Hurling anathemas over disagreements about data and biblical interpretation has rarely done good for the gospel. It is unlikely to do so in this case. If the Pope affirms human-caused climate change, it is likely to cause a surge in support for radical climate action from people of faith. In the end, however, concern for climate change does not diminish our responsibility to be concerned for the flourishing of all of creation, which includes continued pursuit of stewardship that responsibly balances the welfare of both human and non-human creation.

The view expressed in this commentary belongs solely to the author and is not necessarily the view of the ERLC.