Population and Women Under-Recognized in Pope's Encyclical. Applause Anyway.

06/18/2015 07:01 pm ET | Updated Jun 18, 2016
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In a brilliant blend of distilled science and religious language, the pope has said what many of us have been saying for years: The whole Earth, our shared and increasingly degraded home, now cries out for our respect and reverence.

There is no taking away from the remarkable seismic shift indicated by the pope's encyclical. Famous for centuries as the anti-science Church that silenced Galileo and burned Bruno at the stake, the Catholic Church has by the pope's encyclical suddenly become the world's foremost institution for embracing the science of global environmental change. I say foremost because of the world's religions, the Catholic Church is the largest that has one person as its prime authority, making the pope a particularly influential communicator of moral valuation -- good and bad. (It is rich indeed to see some on the inane right criticizing a Church long seen as at odds with science, for -- embracing science.)

The fact that the world is changing rapidly and radically enough to bring out the pope is big news. The pope's distress at the deterioration that humans are causing to our planet, and the consequent injustices, will register on billions of people, including perhaps every decision-maker in the world. The ability of the pope to set the whole world talking has never been in full display and I must admit it's an awesome display of power.

In this time where corporate profits are usually elevated to near sanctity, the pope's disdain of greed is refreshing. He says, "the cost of... such selfish lack of concern is much greater than the economic benefits to be obtained...the values involved are incalculable... making the rest of humanity, present and future, pay the extremely high costs of environmental deterioration." As a secular person it's striking how much the pope's message resonates, with or without a belief that any god exists.

The pope does not ignore human population but he -- as many people -- see only half the problem. He says, "To blame population growth instead of extreme and selective consumerism on the part of some, is one way of refusing to face the issues." But the exact opposite is also true: to blame extreme consumerism instead of population growth is another way of refusing to face these issues. The two together make up the problem. Human stress on the world results from what people do and how many do it. Rich people have a disproportionate negative effect per person, but there are many poor people whose smaller personal damages to forests, wild creatures, reefs and waters add up.

In my travels I see plenty of damage caused by all kinds of people. Certainly the rampant wastefulness of so-called developed societies must be tamed. Yet in many of those same developed societies, population growth has greatly slowed because of progress in gender equality and female empowerment.

Suppression of women's rights and the denial of family planning remain grave injustices in much of the world, where population continues climbing. Regarding female empowerment, the Church continues to lag far behind. Indeed, most excommunications in recent decades have targeted people championing women's reproductive choice, ordination of women, and same-sex marriage. The Catholic Church's perpetuation of gender inequities creates much suffering.

The stresses Pope Francis emphasized -- to water, land, other species, life in general, and poverty -- are all worsened by our sheer numbers, both rich and poor. The Church needs to acknowledge that human population is too much of a good thing and that birth-spacing and family planning are crucially compassionate to the poor and their children -- and the nature and human dignity that Pope Francis's new encyclical is about.

That important reservation aside, I certainly rejoice in the pope having given his audience of billions a vivid acknowledgment that at this point in history, nature and human dignity require one another. Without human dignity we cannot afford to consider nature, and without nature we cannot maintain or recover human dignity. So I applaud the pope for elevating the moral stature of this most crucial message of our pivotal times. We can all resonate with his message.