The Pope begins his encyclical Laudato Si with several paragraphs placing his document within the tradition the church, particularly as seen in Popes since Saint John XXIII. His quote from John VI is especially chilling; before the UN, John said, “[T]he most extraordinary scientific advances,the most amazing technical abilities, the most astonishing economic growth, unless they are accompanied by authentic social and moral progress, will definitively turn against man” (4).* This seems to have come to pass; technology now rules us, enslaved as we are to our passions.
So, starting with the tradition of the Roman church, he turns to the larger ecumenical community, focusing on the words of Patriarch Bartholomew, the spiritual father of Eastern Orthodox Christians. Bartholomew has said that the destruction, exploitation of the earth by humans has risen to the level of sin and that we humans need to, as the Pope paraphrases, “replace consumption with sacrifice, greed with generosity, wastefulness with a spirit of sharing” (9).
These opening calls are important to note because they focus on the nature of humanity. That is, the Pope starts out not by choosing “a side” in the “debate,” but rather he says that something is fundamentally flawed in the way we approach the earth. We need to change our heart, not simply because the earth is in danger, but because we endanger ourselves and our neighbors by our posture of exploitation. The reader should note that the word “repent” has already appeared (8).
Pope Francis next turns to the figure of St. Francis, who “is the example par excellence of care for the vulnerable and of an integral ecology lived out joyfully and authentically” and who “shows us just how inseparable the bond is between concern for nature, justice for the poor, commitment to society, and interior peace” (10). Francis notes that “to [St. Francis] each and every creature was a sister united to him by bonds of affection. That is why he felt called to care for all that exists.” Moreover, “if we feel intimately united with all that exists, then sobriety and care will well up spontaneously.” The Pope then notes the “radical” asceticism of St. Francis, which was “a refusal to turn reality into an object simply to be used and controlled” (11).
Francis concludes his Introduction with a message of thanks to those already working toward ending the exploitation of the planet, and with an outline of the rest of the encyclical:
- Reviewing the ecological crisis, providing the best scientific research available
- Offering coherent wisdom from the Judeo-Christian tradition
- Considering the deepest causes of the ecological crisis
- Providing items for dialogue and action
- Offering guidelines for human development from the Christian spiritual tradition
He also offers a list of themes that will appear through the encyclical:
- The intimate relationship between the poor and the fragility of the planet
- The conviction that everything in the world is connected
- The critique of new paradigms and forms of power derived from technology
- The call to seek other ways of understanding the economy and progress
- The value proper to each creature
- The human meaning of ecology
- The need for forthright and honest debate
- The serious responsibility of international and local policy
- The throwaway culture and the proposal of a new lifestyle
Pope Francis begins chapter 1 by identifying two problems in today’s world: “rapidification” and the throw away culture. Our rush for gain and success has created a milieu in which we don’t think about anything but advancing our own projects. And such rush has left a lot of filth in our wake. The increasingly ugly environment affects those at the margins: reducing persons’ health as well as their ability to farm and fish. For Francis, then, the world could best look to nature to learn how to live for nature is both slow as well as cyclical. He notes that nature creates plants that are eaten by herbivores that are eaten by carnivores that create lots of organic waste that in turn creates more plants. But the throw away culture is not cyclical; we produce, we consume. There is little recycling prior to our new rounds of producing.
For Francis, addressing deteriorating ecological conditions necessarily demands we address deteriorated social conditions among the poor and marginalized. Rapidification and the throw away culture need to be reversed as part of that because “when media and the digital world become omnipresent, their influence can stop people from learning how to live wisely, to think deeply and to love generously” (47). Again and again, Francis point to the plight of the poor, those who suffer most from pollution and climate change, even mentioning that one third of the food produced in the world is thrown out and thus robbed from the tables of the poor (50). “These situations have caused sister earth, along with all the abandoned of our world, to cry out, pleading that we take another course” (53). But responses from the international community have been weak. Additionally,
[o]n many concrete questions, the Church has no reason to offer a definitive opinion; she knows that honest debate must be encouraged among experts, while respecting divergent views. But we need only take a frank look at the facts to see that our common home is falling into serious disrepair….[T]he present world system is certainly unsustainable from a number of points of view, for we have stopped thinking about the goals of human activity. (61).
Francis beings chapter 2 by saying that questions of faith must be examined as part of a comprehensive approach to the current crisis. And so he turns to the theological underpinnings of his encyclical. First, he looks at the Genesis account, in which creation is labeled “very good” by God (Gen 1:31) and in which humans are said to be created in God’s image (Gen 1:26). For Francis, three relationships emerge for humans—”with God, with our neighbour and with the earth itself” (66)—but according to Genesis, these relationships are broken through sin. An outworking of such sin then is the notion that dominion means exploitation. Francis puts it this way:
[W]e must forcefully reject the notion that our being created in God’s image and given dominion over the earth justifies absolute domination over other creatures. The biblical texts are to be read in their context, with an appropriate hermeneutic, recognizing that they tell us to “till and keep” the garden of the world (cf. Gen 2:15). “Tilling” refers to cultivating, ploughing or working, while “keeping” means caring, protecting, overseeing and preserving. This implies a relationship of mutual responsibility between human beings and nature (67).
The three required relationships to care for the world go beyond merely caring for nature. Francis points to the story of Cain and Abel as an illustration that we are to care also for our neighbors. Additionally, the notion of sabbath—both personal and that of farmlands—illustrates the responsibility to “till and keep” as does the notion of jubilee. Jubilee, of course the breaking of bonds that enslave, is further proclaimed by prophets who call God’s people to justice. Crucially, relationships must not be self-aggrandizing.
A spirituality which forgets God as all-powerful and Creator is not acceptable. That is how we end up worshipping earthly powers, or ourselves usurping the place of God, even to the point of claiming an unlimited right to trample his creation underfoot. The best way to restore men and women to their rightful place, putting an end to their claim to absolute dominion over the earth, is to speak once more of the figure of a Father who creates and who alone owns the world (75).
Life then is a mystery, wrapped up in the care of the Father. Thus, interplay between lifeforms on earth reflect both the mystery of life and the transcendence of God, in which all live and move and have their being. Our end is not ourselves and our own advancement, but our end is finding our home in God and bringing others to that end. Each creature has a purpose in that mission. Though we cannot appreciate and care for nature if we do not do appreciate and care for other humans; here Francis speaks of a universal communion. We cannot keep for ourselves while others are in need, and Francis says that private property not inherent right and should be used for common good. Moreover, “[t]he rich and the poor have equal dignity” (94).
That is why the New Zealand bishops asked what the commandment “Thou shall not kill” means when “twenty percent of the world’s population consumes resources at a rate that robs the poor nations and future generations of what they need to survive” (95).
Francis concludes chapter 2 with a reflection on the work Jesus accomplished. Through Jesus’ teaching, we learn that all creatures are important to God (Matt 6; Luke 12), that Jesus used illustrations from nature, and that Jesus lived in harmony with nature (e.g., stilling seas). All creation is bound up in the mystery of Christ, awaiting redemption (Rom 8).
Thus, the creatures of this world no longer appear to us under merely natural guise because the risen One is mysteriously holding them to himself and directing them towards fullness as their end. The very flowers of the field and the birds which his human eyes contemplated and admired are now imbued with his radiant presence (100).
Chapter 3 examines the human causes of the ecological crisis, focusing on the technocratic developments of the last few centuries. He begins by affirming that some technological advances have “remedied countless evils” (102) and can improve human life (103). Yet, says the Pope,
it must also be recognized that nuclear energy, biotechnology, information technology, knowledge of our DNA, and many other abilities which we have acquired, have given us tremendous power. More precisely, they have given those with the knowledge, and especially the economic resources to use them, an impressive dominance over the whole of humanity and the entire world. Never has humanity had such power over itself, yet nothing ensures that it will be used wisely, particularly when we consider how it is currently being used. We need but think of the nuclear bombs dropped in the middle of the twentieth century, or the array of technology which Nazism, Communism and other totalitarian regimes have employed to kill millions of people, to say nothing of the increasingly deadly arsenal of weapons available for modern warfare. In whose hands does all this power lie, or will it eventually end up? It is extremely risky for a small part of humanity to have it (104).
Francis identifies a technocratic paradigm, which sees all things as expendable, and he says that many of the world’s problems today originate with the notion of limitless resources; the earth is thus squeezed beyond a sustainable limit. Such a paradigm views profits as paramount and trods over persons. “Finance overwhelms the real economy” (106). Technological specialization makes myopic those who use it, making solving large scale problems like poverty and climate change more difficult. Moreover, using technology alone fails to solve such problems because it lacks humanity. So the Pope calls for better uses of our technology, helping those on the margins with a spirit of charity, and an abandonment of modern anthropocentrism, which favors the technical over reality so that the dignity of the world is compromised. Francis reiterates by saying that we cannot heal these wounds with nature unless we heal our bonds with other humans. And both relationships must be viewed in relation to our relationship with God.
The Pope closes chapter 3 with a call to fair (i.e., just) employment practices. We have a “vocation to work” and Francis says that we must allow all persons to labor and make a living. He cites the Benedictine monastic tradition that prioritizes contemplation and labor as an exemplar of such vocation fulfillment.
In chapter 4, Francis posits an “integrated ecology,” one in which the interconnectedness of life is accounted for, one that is capable of protecting all creatures. He cites consumerism (again, the throw away culture) as a lifestyle that reduces the dynamic nature of human relationships. Remedies for consumerism need to surpass mere technological notions; they need to affirm that foundational interconnectedness while reducing exploitation of people and places. Again the treat of exploitation against those in the margins, often those in “extreme poverty,” arises in places worst affected by the absence of an integrated ecology. Francis says that quality of life is needed in order to experience the integrated ecology; one example is having adequate housing available to everyone in a given area.
For Francis, the respect needed for integrated ecology reflects the fact that ecology is bound up in the common good, “the sum of those conditions of social life which allow social groups and their individual members relatively thorough and ready access to their own fulfillment” (156).
In the present condition of global society, where injustices abound and growing numbers of people are deprived of basic human rights and considered expendable, the principle of the common good immediately becomes, logically and inevitably, a summons to solidarity and a preferential option for the poorest of our brothers and sisters. This option entails recognizing the implications of the universal destination of the world’s goods, but, as I mentioned in the Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, it demands before all else an appreciation of the immense dignity of the poor in the light of our deepest convictions as believers. We need only look around us to see that, today, this option is in fact an ethical imperative essential for effectively attaining the common good (158).
He closes chapter 4 by observing that “rampant individualism” hinders our efforts to live more integrated lives.
The purpose of chapter 5 is worth quoting directly: “to outline the major paths of dialogue which can help us escape the spiral of self-destruction which currently engulfs us” (163). Francis argues that all creatures have a common homeland and all are interdependent. Thus there is a need for global consensus when it comes to addressing the ecological crisis. Among nations, equitable shares of responsibility are needed. The Pope criticizes, for example, the sale of carbon credits and says that they do not actually reduce the amounts of carbon that are released. “For poor countries,” says Francis, “the priorities must be to eliminate extreme poverty and to promote the social development of their people” while also reducing pollutants (172). All is to be done is a spirit of solidarity.
Additionally, national politics need to cease short-term power plays and focus on long-term solutions; “True statecraft is manifest when, in difficult times, we uphold high principles and think of the long-term common good. Political powers do not find it easy to assume this duty in the work of nation-building” (178). Nevertheless,
[t]his does not mean being opposed to any technological innovations which can bring about an improvement in the quality of life. But it does mean that profit cannot be the sole criterion to be taken into account, and that, when significant new information comes to light, a reassessment should be made, with the involvement of all interested parties. The outcome may be a decision not to proceed with a given project, to modify it or to consider alternative proposals (187).
In the end, politics and economics needs to prioritize life not profit. “The principle of the maximization of profits, frequently isolated from other considerations, reflects a misunderstanding of the very concept of the economy” (195).
Francis concludes the chapter by saying that religious dialogue must ground conversations so that humanity is not overlooked.
The majority of people living on our planet profess to be believers. This should spur religions to dialogue among themselves for the sake of protecting nature, defending the poor, and building networks of respect and fraternity (201).
Pope Francis begins the final chapter of the encyclical with a call for renewal
Many things have to change course, but it is we human beings above all who need to change. We lack an awareness of our common origin, of our mutual belonging, and of a future to be shared with everyone. This basic awareness would enable the development of new convictions, attitudes and forms of life. A great cultural, spiritual and educational challenge stands before us, and it will demand that we set out on the long path of renewal (202).
First, Francis targets consumerism, which creates selfishness. For Francis, we must go outside ourselves to meet those who are being squashed by the ecological crisis—which is to say all our brothers and sisters.
Francis also advocates an “ecological citizenship” informed by renewed environmental education. “It needs educators capable of developing an ethics of ecology, and helping people, through effective pedagogy, to grow in solidarity, responsibility and compassionate care” (210).
Next, to Christians, Francis says that “an ‘ecological conversion’ [is needed], whereby the effects of their encounter with Jesus Christ become evident in their relationship with the world around them. Living our vocation to be protectors of God’s handiwork is essential to a life of virtue; it is not an optional or a secondary aspect of our Christian experience” (217).
Christians also need to display repentance and a desire to change, as seen in the life of St. Francis of Assisi.
Next, Francis points to the notion that “less is more.”
Christian spirituality proposes a growth marked by moderation and the capacity to be happy with little. It is a return to that simplicity which allows us to stop and appreciate the small things, to be grateful for the opportunities which life affords us, to be spiritually detached from what we possess, and not to succumb to sadness for what we lack. This implies avoiding the dynamic of dominion and the mere accumulation of pleasures (222).
[w]e are speaking of an attitude of the heart, one which approaches life with serene attentiveness, which is capable of being fully present to someone without thinking of what comes next, which accepts each moment as a gift from God to be lived to the full. Jesus taught us this attitude when he invited us to contemplate the lilies of the field and the birds of the air, or when seeing the rich young man and knowing his restlessness, “he looked at him with love” (Mk 10:21). He was completely present to everyone and to everything, and in this way he showed us the way to overcome that unhealthy anxiety which makes us superficial, aggressive and compulsive consumers (226).
For Francis, giving thanks before meals is an outworking of the attitude that appreciates the lilies and the birds.
Francis calls Christians to seek to build a better world through engaging persons around them.
Finally, Francis notes the sacramental aspect to creation, saying “The universe unfolds in God, who fills it completely. Hence, there is a mystical meaning to be found in a leaf, in a mountain trail, in a dewdrop, in a poor person’s face” (233). More to the point, “The Sacraments are a privileged way in which nature is taken up by God to become a means of mediating supernatural life” (235). Thus worship on Sunday, like sabbath, heals and offers reconciliation. Francis points to the restoration available through the sacraments by appealing to the life of the Trinity and the Holy Family—interconnectedness permeates both.
According to Francis, we are called to journey toward the New Heavens and New Earth, while we take care of our current heavens and current earth.
A few more things
Several things strike me. First, the Pope does not construe his topic as “climate change,” but rather as “ecological crisis.” Surely something much deeper and much easier to find common ground over. Second, Francis repeatedly calls our attention to the broken bonds of society that cause a lack of care for others as well as lack of care for the environment. Third, Francis points out that the ecological crisis hits persons who are poor and persons who live in the developing world hardest. Surely this is not just. Fourth, Francis notes again and again the interconnectedness among creation, which is rooted in God’s creative act. Fifth, he points out that all life falls under the care of God, and we are not sanctioned to usurp that care. Sixth, Francis quotes not only Catholic tradition, but also other Christian traditions, other religious traditions, and even political documents, showing an incredible breadth of understanding of the conversation around and reality of the ecological crisis. Surely these things (along with the items in the Summary above) demand that Francis’ encyclical not be discarded out of hand, but must be taken seriously.
In regards to those who discard it out of hand, they have no credibility. They are not open to the grace pouring forth from Francis’ pen. You’d serve yourself well by reading it for yourself. Much is being said of this encyclical, and you need to know what is and is not in it so that you can discern the voices of criticism.
I conclude with the prayers that Pope Francis offers at the end of his encyclical:
A prayer for our earth
All-powerful God, you are present in the whole universe
and in the smallest of your creatures.
You embrace with your tenderness all that exists.
Pour out upon us the power of your love,
that we may protect life and beauty.
Fill us with peace, that we may live
as brothers and sisters, harming no one.
O God of the poor,
help us to rescue the abandoned and forgotten of this earth,
so precious in your eyes.
Bring healing to our lives,
that we may protect the world and not prey on it,
that we may sow beauty, not pollution and destruction.
Touch the hearts
of those who look only for gain
at the expense of the poor and the earth.
Teach us to discover the worth of each thing,
to be filled with awe and contemplation,
to recognize that we are profoundly united
with every creature
as we journey towards your infinite light.
We thank you for being with us each day.
Encourage us, we pray, in our struggle
for justice, love and peace.
A Christian prayer in union with creation
Father, we praise you with all your creatures.
They came forth from your all-powerful hand;
they are yours, filled with your presence and your tender love.
Praise be to you!
Son of God, Jesus,
through you all things were made.
You were formed in the womb of Mary our Mother,
you became part of this earth,
and you gazed upon this world with human eyes.
Today you are alive in every creature
in your risen glory.
Praise be to you!
Holy Spirit, by your light
you guide this world towards the Father’s love
and accompany creation as it groans in travail.
You also dwell in our hearts
and you inspire us to do what is good.
Praise be to you!
Triune Lord, wondrous community of infinite love,
teach us to contemplate you
in the beauty of the universe,
for all things speak of you.
Awaken our praise and thankfulness
for every being that you have made.
Give us the grace to feel profoundly joined
to everything that is.
God of love, show us our place in this world
as channels of your love
for all the creatures of this earth,
for not one of them is forgotten in your sight.
Enlighten those who possess power and money
that they may avoid the sin of indifference,
that they may love the common good, advance the weak,
and care for this world in which we live.
The poor and the earth are crying out.
O Lord, seize us with your power and light,
help us to protect all life,
to prepare for a better future,
for the coming of your Kingdom
of justice, peace, love and beauty.
Praise be to you!
* Parenthetical citations refer to paragraph numbers.