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Pope Expected to Talk Environment in US Congress Address

FILE - Pope Francis arrives for his weekly general audience in St. Peter's Square, Aug. 26, 2015.
FILE - Pope Francis arrives for his weekly general audience in St. Peter's Square, Aug. 26, 2015.

When he addresses a joint session of the U.S. Congress next week, Pope Francis is expected to speak about the environment, and the need to combat climate change.

The Pope recently released an encyclical – or papal letter – on the environment. In the encyclical, entitled On Care for Our Common Home, he writes the Earth “cries out” because of the “harm inflicted on her by irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her.”

What’s more, he says, is that people have come to see themselves as “lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will.”

Jerry Kotas will assist Pope Francis when he leads Mass in Washington September 23rd at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. He’s an official with Interfaith Power and Light, a non-profit organization concerned about climate change, and a former scientist who worked for the Environmental Protection Agency.

He says the pope brings a “fresh, new energy” to environmental issues, including climate change.

"He calls things as they are and he says these issues of climate change and our call to care for our common home are moral issues," says Kotas. "He said technology is part of the answer, but we ourselves must change. We must transform our hearts. We must change and alter our lifestyles."

Pope Francis’ encyclical has been praised by many environmentalists, but criticized by those who say the pope should concentrate on religious matters.

Kotas says the Pope believes the United States, as a major producer and consumer of natural resources, must set an example as a protector of the environment.

"When we look to our brothers and sisters in Africa and other parts of the developing world we have [according to the Pope] a tremendous obligation to see ourselves as one, to see ourselves united as part of this integral ecology," says Kotas. "And therefore, we have to do more than our share to care for these issues and care for our brothers and sisters, who are not as able to adapt and change."

Science and Faith, Meeting in Nature

Kotas is deacon at Our Lady of the Pines Catholic Church in Conifer, Colorado. He describes his religious beliefs and his scientific training as having a “beautiful connection.”

"I’ve spent 35 years working on many of these issues from a scientific perspective and an environmental policy perspective," he says. "Now, with Pope Francis’ leadership I’m able to at least try to connect with people on a moral, religious basis, looking at our common connections."

There have been numerous reports of Pope Francis having a degree in chemistry and is therefore a scientist. However, the publication National Catholic Reporter says that’s not true. It says that “Pope Francis studied chemistry and worked as a chemist prior to entering the seminary. But…never graduated from university prior to entering the seminary.”

However, the deacon says Francis can still speak about the issues.

"The issues that we’re talking about today in terms of our air, climate, water.... These are issues that affect the poor and the vulnerable first," Kotas says. "And as a religious leader of faith and morals, he is perfectly aligned to speak for those who cannot speak for themselves."

In his encyclical on the environment, Pope Francis writes that people should approach nature and the environment with an “openness to awe and wonder.” Otherwise, he says, their attitude will “be that of masters, consumers, ruthless exploiters, unable to set limits on their immediate needs.”