As Pope Francis visited the United States for the first time—addressing a joint session of Congress as well as the United Nations during his September 22-27 stay—his recent narrative on the global environment provided much grist for talking points and debate.
Even before he spoke in the United States, however, the pope said he hoped his wide-ranging treatise on the interconnection of ecology, economics, climate, and compassion might influence the U.N.’s November 30-December 11 Paris conference on climate change.
And to keep the topic on the active list for the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics, on August 16 the pope designated September 1 as a new date on the Catholic Church calendar, World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation, an event marked by Orthodox Christians’ calendar for decades.
Released June 18, 2015, Laudato Si’, “Care for Our Common Home,” has been largely discussed on the merits of its assessments of climate change and environmental degradation, and what can or should or must be done.
In that regard, the sprawling 184-page teaching tool’s theme is straightforward: the planet’s health is in peril, humankind is a primary cause, and everyone needs to become aware and involved now.
Writes Pope Francis, “Doomsday predictions can no longer be met with irony or disdain. We may well be leaving to coming generations debris, desolation, and filth. The pace of consumption, waste, and environmental change has so stretched the planet’s capacity that our contemporary lifestyle, unsustainable as it is, can only precipitate catastrophes, such as those which even now periodically occur in different areas of the world. The effects of the present imbalance can only be reduced by our decisive action, here and now.”
However, commentary on the high-profile document has increasingly called attention to the encyclical’s spiritual themes, notably the intertwined treatment of natural resources and one another.
“A sense of deep communion with the rest of nature cannot be real if our hearts lack tenderness, compassion, and concern for our fellow human beings,” declares Francis. “It is clearly inconsistent to combat trafficking in endangered species while remaining completely indifferent to human trafficking, unconcerned about the poor, or undertaking to destroy another human being deemed unwanted. This compromises the very meaning of our struggle for the sake of the environment.”
Laudato Si’ s impact—now and in the future—is a topic of much conjecture. As a matter of church doctrine, Catholics, of course, are obliged to take encyclicals seriously. That form is one of the church’s most authoritative for doctrinal formulation. Even if a Catholic disagrees with elements or specifics, he or she is not to ignore the treatise’s moral imperative to address environmental distress.
As the pope writes in one of his two poems that conclude Laudato Si’, God is to be asked to “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.”
An immediate and ongoing result of the document—which had been anticipated months before its official publication—was a combination of booster shot and endorsement for disparate environmentalist groups, whether religiously affiliated or not.
For example, commenting on the encyclical, Rabbi Yonatan Neril, director of the Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development, told journalists that world religions must take leadership roles on environmental questions because the latter involve moral and social elements as much as scientific, governmental, and economic ones.
Catholic sister Margaret Mayce agrees. Interviewed by National Catholic Reporter, the Dominican nun praised Pope Francis’ coalescing of economic, environmental, social, moral, and institutional aspects of the climate change conversation. Mayce is the nongovernmental organization representative for the Dominican Leadership Conference at the U.N.
Curiously, Laudato Si’ will make both progressive and traditionalist Catholics and some others squirm a little, as it will both liberal and conservative politicians. While Catholic doctrine affirms the right to private property and the importance of the individual, it also underscores that these are not “absolute or inviolable,” because the riches of creation are meant for all, the pope emphasizes.
Well-known conservative Catholic columnist George Weigel, for example, downplayed the pope’s environmental focus and argued that Laudato Si’ is preeminently pro-life.
Catholic Republican presidential hopefuls Jeb Bush and Rick Santorum both provided early sound-bite reactions. Bush said he does not take economic or political counsel from the pope. Santorum suggested Francis avoid such topics as the environment.
Interestingly, Father Thomas Reese, a Jesuit priest like the pope, argues that if any pope should be taken seriously on issues of science, it is Francis, “whose initial training prior to entering the seminary was as a chemist.”
“He never finished his doctorate in theology. He is what academics refer to as ABD, ‘all but dissertation,’” points out Reese.
Unlike the two previous pontiffs—John Paul II and Benedict XVI—Francis “never wrote scholarly books. He was a wide-ranging consumer of theology, not the proponent of a particular view,” Reese notes, adding:
“For John Paul the philosopher and Benedict the theologian, ideas were paramount. But for Francis the scientist and pastor, facts really matter. For John Paul and Benedict, if reality does not reflect the ideal, then reality must change, whereas for Francis, if facts and theory clash, he, like a good scientist, is willing to question the theory.”
Typically, encyclicals are written with bishops as the primary audience. Laudato Si’, however, in style and scope, is clearly aimed at a world audience. And one of the aspects that could contribute to a lasting impact is not only on the cogency of the topic, but its readability. The language is at times blunt, at times poetic, but consistently clear. One need not be a theologian, Scripture scholar, political analyst, canon lawyer or church historian to decipher it.
For example, writes Francis in his opening: “‘Laudato Si’, mi’ Signore’”—‘Praise be to you, my Lord.’ In the words of this beautiful canticle, Saint Francis of Assisi reminds us that our common home is like a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us. ‘Praise be to you, my Lord, through our Sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us, and who produces various fruit with coloured flowers and herbs.’ This sister now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her. We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will.”
It is common to find praise for the document similar to that from avowed “thoroughgoing nonbeliever” blogger Rob Tiller: “The prose is lucid and emphatic, with an animating passion. Francis leaves no doubt that he agrees with the scientific consensus that man-made greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide are responsible for much of the global warming crisis. He states that there is an urgent need to reduce such emissions and develop renewable energy. If he accomplished nothing more than calling more attention to this issue and inspiring high-level discussion and action, that would be a lot. But Laudato Si’ does more than that, persuasively articulating a powerful ethical vision that calls for reforming both societies and our selves.”
Part of the “ethical vision” embedded within Laudato Si’ is a call for families and individuals to take a hard look at consumption-driven lifestyles, to simplify their lives, to seek joy and comfort from nature and service and even rest. He underscores that every individual can do something to help—use nonpolluting soap, take public transportation, recycle paper, put on a sweater instead of turning up the heat.
“We 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,” writes Francis.
In the same vein, Francis encourages families to reembrace or return to the practice of saying grace at meals: “I ask all believers to return to this beautiful and meaningful custom. That moment of blessing, however brief, reminds us of our dependence on God for life; it strengthens our feeling of gratitude for the gifts of creation; it acknowledges those who by their labors provide us with these goods; and it reaffirms our solidarity with those in greatest need.”
Francis’ call to simplicity echoes his often-repeated encouragement for families to make time for themselves and their communities, especially carving out a day for rest.
While individuals can and must address environmental issues, governments and major institutions must do the heavy lifting, argues the encyclical.
“Francis saves his harshest words for economic interests who ‘accept every advance in technology with a view to profit, without concern for its potentially negative impact on human beings,’” writes analyst Reese. “They show ‘no interest in more balanced levels of production, a better distribution of wealth, concern for the environment and the rights of future generations. Their behavior shows that for them maximizing profits is enough.’”
“In Francis’ mind,” concludes Reese and others, “this is the cause of our current economic and environmental crisis. What is needed is a broader vision where ‘technology is directed primarily to resolving people’s concrete problems, truly helping them live with more dignity and less suffering. Technology must serve humanity, not the market.’”
“Nobody is suggesting a return to the Stone Age,” the pope affirms, “but we do need to slow down and look at reality in a different way, to appropriate the positive and sustainable progress which has been made, but also to recover the values and the great goals swept away by our unrestrained delusions of grandeur.”
Editorial note : This article was written after the release of the encyclical but before Pope Francis’ September visit, which included addresses to the U.S. Congress and the United Nations. We at Liberty and all who value the resources our Creator has given us applaud the document and that part of it that represents a “nonpartisan” respect for the environment. However, I note the injection of a holy day into the discussion. Here the pope becomes partisan, as the text itself acknowledges: God’s people in the Old Testament were indeed commanded to honor the seventh day as a memorial of creation, and by inference as an act of respect for the created world itself. However, the pope’s encyclical goes a step further in transferring this to Sunday worship—a self-proclaimed memorial of Christ’s resurrection but without any biblical license whatsoever. This of course goes to the issue of the Protestant Reformation and whether authority is found in Scripture alone or in the dictates of a religious entity that has assumed superior authority. All this of course would be merely theological narrative and not a religious liberty concern were it not for the manner in which this document is being put before the world—on a political stage and with the political authority of the Vatican ministate. In addressing the issue of global warming and the environment in general, this pope and his predecessor present a package deal and then in the document Caritas in Veritascall for a global authority with “the power to act and to enforce.” With a religious viewpoint at play, such a dynamic will result in instant persecution for some and instant political establishment of a particular religious assumption.
Author: Dan Morris-Young
Dan Morris-Young is the west coast correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter and has written extensively on developments surrounding Catholic identity issues in the San fFancisco Bay Area.