Pope Francis’s plunge into the climate change debate has caused uneasiness in conservative Poland, exposing the dilemma for Catholics who are devout but prefer their leaders to steer clear of “liberal” causes.
The Pope’s call on Thursday for everyone to take responsibility to curb global warming is especially awkward for Poles, because they rely heavily on coal, a big contributor to greenhouse gases, to generate electricity.
A right-wing Polish newspaper, Rzeczpospolita, said before the publication of the encyclical, which was leaked earlier this week, that the document could be problematic for Poland because it emphasised the harm to the environment done by burning coal.
“The new encyclical is already being interpreted as an ‘anti-coal’ document. In the Vatican, one can also hear voices that this encyclical is ‘anti-Polish’,” the newspaper wrote.
The reaction demonstrates how polarising the document is liable to be among Catholics around the world. Liberal Catholics have cheered his stand but conservative believers may bristle.
US presidential candidate Jeb Bush, a convert to Roman Catholicism, has already said it is not the place of religious leaders to get involved in setting economic policy.
In a country where the church is revered by most people, few people were willing to openly criticise Pope Francis. But some conservatives signalled they did not share his views.
Poland was the birthplace of Pope John Paul II, one of the most conservative leaders of the church in generations.
Asked about the document, Andrzej Jaworski, a member of parliament with the conservative Law and Justice party, said: “The Polish energy sector not only should, but must be based on coal.
“We can’t turn our backs on coal production, building coal mines, or building coal power plants,” said Jaworski, who is deputy head of parliament’s treasury committee.
Poland, home to Europe’s largest coal-fired power plant at Belchatow, has repeatedly blocked European Union efforts to deepen carbon cuts.
For many Poles, coal is a national security issue. Without it, the country would need to import much more gas from Russia, making it dependent on a former overlord which it views with deep suspicion.
Piotr Naimski, a member of parliament who is drafting energy policy for Law and Justice, would not comment directly on the encyclical but said: “All actions related to climate policy should be based on local needs.”
In an essay released by the Vatican on 18 June, Pope Francis warned against global indifference to climate change, stating in stark terms that humanity is failing in its God-given role to be a responsible steward of Earth if it failed to act.
The encyclical could be viewed as the ultimate test of Francis’s role as one of the world’s most influential diplomats, after he helped thaw relations between the US and Cuba earlier this year.
In December, Paris will host the 21st Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change - or COP 21.
In Paris, negotiators are expected to strike an agreement to replace the Kyoto Protocol which set legally binding targets to reduce CO2 emissions between 2008 and 2012.
Agreeing on a framework, whether legally binding or not, is the top priority between now and December.