According to the Catholic Church, a number of acts qualify as mortal sins: murder, apostasy, stealing from the poor, etc. But in the eyes of a Vatican official who spoke to Bloomberg News on Monday, there’s another kind of sin that qualifies as a “heinous act”: when a newspaper leaks a papal encyclical three days before it’s supposed to come out.
For more than a year, Pope Francis and his close advisors have been preparing this document, called Laudato Si, or Praised Be. The text focuses on environmental stewardship and, in particular, the effects of climate change on human life. The themes are directly in keeping with the rest of his papacy: When he was elected to the office, he told journalists he took the name “Francis” in honor of St. Francis of Assisi, who stood for the poor and for peace, and was a “man who loved and cared for creation ... in this moment we don’t have such a great relationship with the creator.” The official copy of the encyclical doesn’t come out until Thursday, but on Monday, the Italian magazine L’Espresso leaked an Italian version, which Church officials are calling a “draft.”
The Vatican has reacted so strongly to the leak because this encyclical is a very big deal within the Catholic world. It’s one of the most formal statements the pope can make about Catholic doctrine, and it’s the first of his papacy. (Last spring, he released another piece of writing on the topic of poverty, but it was a slightly less formal document called an apostolic exhortation.) Francis chose a theme that’s long been a focus for pontiffs: Benedict XVI is cited 21 times in the draft version of the text, and John Paul II is cited 22 times. But this is the first instance in which the environment has been a topic of an encyclical. “No pope has ever issued a statement [about the environment] on this level of document,” said Kevin Irwin, a priest and theologian who teaches at the Catholic University of America. “John Paul put it into a World Day of Peace message, but a World Day of Peace message is down the rung on the ladder of the hierarchy of Catholic documents. And Benedict gave a number of homilies and speeches on it, but never a document on this level.”