When the Archdiocese of Atlanta found out last month that Pope Francis would release an encyclical on the environment, Catholic educators knew that they'd want to include it in the new science curriculum at their schools.
Starting this fall, fifth-graders at 15 Catholic schools run by Atlanta's archdiocese will study the encyclical as part of their science classes, said Diane Starkovich, superintendent of schools for the archdiocese, which educates nearly 12,000 students from pre-kindergarten through high school at 25 private Catholic schools.
"That doesn't mean it's only going to be referenced in fifth grade," Starkovich said. "As teachers plan for the fall, particularly in high schools, I can see our theology faculty reading this and looking to make sure we are covering this in all our curricula."
The pope's 184-page encyclical, released last week, has caused a stir around the world for its bold critique of consumerism in developing countries and how it has turned the planet into a "pile of filth."
The archdiocese is among several in the country that are reviewing the papal document to see how its guidelines may fit into their teaching.
The pope's 184-page encyclical, released last week, has caused a stir around the world for its bold critique of consumerism in developing countries and how it has turned the planet into a "pile of filth." This papal decree blames wealthy countries, including the United States, for playing the biggest role in causing climate change at the expense of poor countries, where he says global warming is making it harder for people to survive.
The pope also makes the argument that environmental conservation is a moral value, as humans are stewards of God's earth and share a responsibility to help the poor.
These values are in line with those taught at Catholic schools in Newark, New Jersey, said Margaret Dames, superintendent for the Archdiocese of Newark.
"I think [the encyclical] charges every human being with protecting and caring for the physical environment and that's long overdue," said Dames, who oversees the 94 Catholic schools in the Newark area.
The archdiocese is looking at how to incorporate teachings from the encyclical into the school curriculum and how to foster a culture that encourages students to take a more critical look at the impact of consumer choices, food consumption, water, and energy.
The most controversial part of the encyclical blames humans for causing climate change, an issue about which U.S. Catholics—like the general public—are divided. Though most Americans believe that the Earth is getting warmer, nearly half of U.S. Catholics do not believe humans are causing it, according to a recent Pew Research Center survey.
Starkovich, of Atlanta, admits that the issue of climate change has become politicized. Though science teachers are not required to teach a certain point of view, they are expected to create lesson plans based on scientific evidence.
"It's still too early to tell how [the Pope's] message on climate change ties into what we already teach," she said.
Meanwhile, Atlanta Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory has asked faculty, staff, and all Catholics to read the encyclical and learn from it. The archdiocese also has asked scientists at the University of Georgia to help parishes find ways to reduce their carbon footprint.
"The Holy Father wants us all to take seriously the issues that face our planet," Gregory explained in a written statement released last week. "The Holy Father urges us to continue to work together across political, national and ideological divides to address the issues that both benefit and threaten our contemporary environment."
This article is part of our Next America: Higher Education project, which is supported by grants from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Lumina Foundation.