If someone had said to me five years ago that a newly elected pope would publish an encyclical dealing with the questions I have been struggling with for a lifetime, I would have stared in disbelief. Perhaps I lack faith.
When I spoke about the encyclical, Laudato Si’ (Praise Be To You) shortly after its release by Pope Francis in June, a friendly observer commented: “The Holy Spirit moves in this pope like thunder and lightning.” The natural imagery is perhaps appropriate because the central message of this encyclical is that the world does, indeed, show traces of the Trinity. So perhaps we could say, instead, “The Holy Spirit moves in this pope just as it does in thunder and lightning.”
The pope’s cry — Laudato Si’ — is the cry of the prophet, calling out to all people to wake up to what we have done to the Earth and to avoid indifference and apathy. “Obstructionist attitudes, even on the part of believers,” he declares, “can range from denial of the problem to indifference, nonchalant resignation or blind confidence in technical solutions.” For him, the greatest danger is that we have lost our affiliation with and care for the Earth, our common home.
The inspiration for his stance comes squarely from the pope’s namesake, Saint Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of ecologists. The encyclical’s title comes from the first line of the saint’s “Canticle of the Sun,” one of the best-loved songs in Christian history. “Whenever he would gaze at the sun, the moon or the smallest of animals,” the pope said of the saint, “he burst into song, drawing all other creatures into his praise.” And once we start to praise God for the created world, our perception of what we see around us changes. Love is the fundamental movement for this changed attitude to the creatures of the Earth, as each and every creature is valuable to God.
The encyclical is subtitled “On care for our common home,” and, as Pope Francis writes, “The earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth.” Rather than giving up in the face of what looks like insurmountable difficulties, however, Pope Francis does not lose faith, or hope, that another world is possible. That call includes scientific creativity that pays attention to the common good, including the good of the Earth. And his call here is to “the whole human family” — an appeal that is decidedly transnational, transpolitical and transcommunity.
The pope’s concern for the natural environment does not bypass social justice issues and Catholic social teaching, which gives priority care to the poor, marginalized and oppressed. Rather, as many of those working in the poorest regions of the world are acutely aware, the “tragic effects of environmental degradation” impact the world’s poorest communities the most. As the pope writes, “Many of the poor live in areas particularly affected by phenomena related to warming, and their means of subsistence are largely dependent on natural reserves and ecosystemic services such as agriculture, fishing and forestry.”
It is this “intimate relationship between the poor and the fragility of the planet, the conviction that everything in the world is connected” that sets up the pope’s wider discussion of how to address the problems facing people and our home.
But first, a scolding. Our disregard for such events reflects more than apathy, the pope says: “Our lack of response to these tragedies involving our brothers and sisters points to the loss of that sense of responsibility for our fellow men and women upon which all civil society is founded.” This concept of a loss of responsibility at the heart of civil society implies that humanity, especially in the richer industrial nations of the world, has lost a sense of its own socio-political origin. This deep charge at the ethical roots of civil society goes beyond existing political alternatives or climate-change debates.
In terms of climate debates, however, Pope Francis sides with science when he writes, “most global warming in recent decades is due to the great concentration of greenhouse gases . . . released mainly as a result of human activity.”
So what kind of changes does he recommend? Adjusting to such new conditions as extreme weather events or the loss of arable lands is not enough; concerted efforts at mitigation — steps taken to lessen the impact of climate change — are necessary as well. So he is clear in recommending policies that drastically reduce carbon dioxide emissions, offer greater access to renewable sources of energy and promote more widespread use of cleaner, less polluting technologies.
He also is realistic about the present state of play: “With regard to climate change, the advances have been regrettably few. Reducing greenhouse gases requires honesty, courage and responsibility, above all on the part of those countries which are more powerful and pollute the most.” The pope does not hesitate to say that current models of production and consumption have to change and change fast.
Helping other nations adapt to the worst impacts of climate change is another, connected responsibility. His position is in line with the best scientific consensus presently available, namely, that both mitigation and adaptation measures need to be put in place simultaneously. He acknowledges that mitigation measures are more difficult to implement because they involve, at least for those in positions of wealth and power, changes in lifestyle and habits of consumption.
In the encyclical, Pope Francis is both prophet and priest. He cares deeply for all people, and he sees the need for a broken, modern world to be healed at the deepest level of human inter-relationships. “If the present ecological crisis is one small sign of the ethical, cultural and spiritual crisis of modernity,” he says, “we cannot presume to heal our relationship with nature and the environment without healing all fundamental human relationships.”
In this he is open to those of other faith traditions: “Respect must also be shown for the various cultural riches of different peoples, their art and poetry, their interior life and spirituality.” Like other writers in ecotheology, Pope Francis insists, therefore, that healing the planet requires paying attention to each other, healing fragmented relationships. This is also the basis on which he urges the need for peace-making in the face of gross injustices.
How can we move away from selfish attitudes to concern for others to building peace? This, the pope believes, requires a spiritual and moral conversion. He builds on the concept of ecological conversion that Pope (now Saint) John Paul II spoke about frequently, especially in association with the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople and the Eastern Orthodox Church.
“For human beings . . . to destroy the biological diversity of God’s creation; for human beings to degrade the integrity of the earth by causing changes in its climate, by stripping the earth of its natural forests or destroying its wetlands; for human beings to contaminate the earth’s waters, its land, its air, and its life — these are sins,” Bartholomew said in 2003.
It is remarkable, indeed, that religious leaders of Christianity are converging on the issue of ecology as a central platform of their ministry. Priests, religious and lay people can no longer say that too many pressing social issues take precedence over the natural world. For, as far as Pope Francis is concerned, and indeed Pope John Paul II before him, care for creation is an essential part of Christian faith and not an optional extra. “All Christian communities have an important role to play in ecological education,” Francis writes in Laudato Si’. This is unqualified — not some, but all Christian communities.
In this encyclical, we have a clear, bold statement about humanity embedded in the natural world, an unambiguous requirement for Catholic Christians to care for the creatures of the Earth as well as human families and, like his predecessors, to prioritize the poor. For in Francis’ mind there is no “either/or,” but “both/and.”
Thus, when the pope writes of integral ecology, he means including social justice issues with ecological factors, rather than treating environmental issues as “externalities.” This is practical and public theology writ large.
Some media commentaries have suggested Pope Francis is too political in this encyclical. But that ignores more than 100 years of Catholic social thought, beginning with Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 Rerum Novarum (On Capital and Labor). In that encyclical, Leo XIII critiqued both radical socialism and unrestrained capitalism — a theme common to Laudato Si’.
The point is that Catholic social thought seeks to inculcate a different way of thinking about the economy and politics, one that concentrates on the common good, understood as the good for all and the good for each. Pope Francis’ diagnosis is that the environmental basis of that good now needs to be factored into our analysis because all human life depends on the health of the Earth, and those marginalized in human societies are facing the brunt of the impact.
Suddenly the Church has moved into the public sphere, offering the world a message of hope that comes from one who lives out that hope by living simply, in solidarity and in communion with creation.
What is needed is innovation in economics, technology and business, so policies take into account the reality of climate change and move to a different way of conceiving the allocation of capital. It is the world’s richest nations and communities that bear a huge burden of responsibility. Are we ready to face that challenge?
The pope also strongly speaks out against specific self-centered acts by humans that damage the natural world, such as over-consumption of the world’s natural resources. This is not a radical break from Catholic social thought but a particular reading of the times through the lens of the mission and ministry he believes he is divinely called to perform — an imitation of the life and work of Saint Francis of Assisi.
What might that look like? The canticle by Saint Francis begins with a message of praise, and praise appears throughout Laudato Si’. Praise for creatures in particular, with references to how the created world is a reflection of God the Trinity, goes back to an ancient theological tradition found at the dawn of Christianity.
Can we still retrieve such high thoughts about the created world bearing an imprint of the Trinity while holding to the discoveries of modern evolutionary biology? Pope Francis clearly believes we can, since he is prepared to accept the evolutionary account for creatures, even if he adds that human beings “also possess a uniqueness which cannot be fully explained by the evolution of other open systems.”
But what does he mean? He is not saying that humans have appeared simply by divine fiat, but there is something about the way humans have evolved that is hard to pin down according to standard evolutionary theory. He is not controversial in this respect, since evolutionary anthropologists are still trying to work out what makes human beings distinct from other animals. Distinction is not a license for domination, however, but reflects the special privilege of humanity to bear the divine image.
So gone in Pope Francis’ account is an attitude of domineering superiority of human beings over other creatures. The goodness of creation is such that “the Church does not simply state that other creatures are completely subordinated to the good of human beings, as if they have no worth in themselves and can be treated as we wish.” Francis affirms each and every creature on the basis of their worth to one another and to God. “Because all creatures are connected,” he writes, “each must be cherished with love and respect, for all of us as living creatures are dependent on one another.”
While he recognizes that some death is inevitable, we should not take the deaths of other creatures lightly, and we should understand whether that killing is necessary. Francis cites the catechism that animals should not have to die needlessly, but he does not demand, for instance, that we all turn into vegetarians. He does ask, however, that we be more mindful of our actions.
This thoughtfulness also applies because of the “thousands of plant and animal species which we will never know, which our children will never see, because they have been lost forever. The great majority become extinct for reasons related to human activity. Because of us, thousands of species will no longer give glory to God by their very existence, nor convey their message to us.”
Along with the nature-centered legacy of Saint Francis, what other theological threads might we find if we turn over the tapestry and look at the way this encyclical is woven together? One central thread is that of love — rooted in the love found in marriage and the family but extended to include others and the natural world around us. The pope is inclusive when speaking about humanity, saying men and women rather than just the male term.
Another important thread is humility. That comes through not just in the pope’s writing but also in his willingness to recognize scientific, ecological and conservation research that is outside the usual material of encyclicals. Francis wants all of us to draw on the Catholic tradition but also to be open to the insights of others rather than shoring up refuges of our own making, hiding behind either Scripture or tradition.
Instead, Christian believers, rooted in the ethical demands laid out in the Gospels, need to become salt and light, their witness then empowering a wavering world to act before it is too late. So hope, too, is a thread that runs right through this encyclical and insists on being heard. As Francis says, “All it takes is one good person to restore hope!” And he has done that for the Catholic community and for the world at large. Suddenly the Church has moved into the public sphere, offering the world a message of hope that comes from one who lives out that hope by living simply, in solidarity and in communion with creation.
Another thread that is perhaps harder to see is what I would term glory, but it is a glory cast often in the language of beauty. Can we ever see that glory in the natural world? Do we glimpse what the early saints perceived — a world pregnant with meaning? Some of my favorite places on Earth are islands, and off the coast of Scotland the island of Iona sits next to the larger island of Mull. Iona was a place where Saint Columba (521-597) landed while on pilgrimage. This island is not only extremely beautiful but is pregnant with meaning. Many Celtic saints settled in landscapes where there was a transition between two different geographies, representing the liminal transition between Earth and heaven. Here, too, that island speaks of something of God’s glory here on Earth, offering a moment of wonder when awe stills our human spirit.
This leads me to another thread of this encyclical: joy. Joy is not the same as happiness. We might feel a fleeting sense of happiness upon acquiring possessions of one sort or another. But the grip of consumerism is such that this kind of happiness is peddled as something else, a necessity rather than a mere want. While many technologies have given us great advantages in all sorts of ways, including medicine, inventions that make up our modern world can also be sources of inappropriate power and, bordering on that, an addictive force.
So we read in Laudato Si’ that “technology tends to absorb everything into its ironclad logic,” and we need liberation from this framework in order to become “more human, more social, more integral.” The pope cites the effect of “compulsive consumerism” on individuals, noting, “many problems of society are connected with today’s self-centred culture of instant gratification” — all leading to potential breakdowns in family relationships.
A change along the lines that Pope Francis is suggesting is hard to achieve; the pressure on young people to get gadgets is strong. We refused to give our older daughter any kind of electronic device until she was 10, to encourage her to read. But young people today see their phones as an extension of themselves; the human becomes a cyborg. Of course, to be fair, my phone is a fine example of technology, and it allows me to share experiences with my loved ones while I am traveling.
Yet some scientists say the use of texting has re-wired our brains. Our brains are modified by repeated activity of any sort, and in this sense we are becoming different by what we do. The ancients knew this in a disparate way, but the habits they encouraged were habits of virtue, choosing repeatedly to do what is right and good for the community.
Getting back to a deep appreciation of and wonder for the natural world is tough going, and we have to make specific choices to address this. True joy comes from being liberated from the kinds of pressures consumer demands make on us, and free to experience the presence of God in each other and in the creatures with whom we share our home.
With these threads — love, humility, faith, hope, glory, joy, all in the spirit of praise — we begin to find something else: peace. And that peace is also given a name in Scripture that appears toward the end of the encyclical, namely, Sabbath. The Sabbath in the Hebrew Bible is not just a collapse of exhaustion after a week’s work but is a celebration of the fullness and richness of life. The Sabbath rest gives us holy time, a time apart to be with God and each other.
Why have Americans given up on the idea of a day of rest? Or even a rest from work? Time to just be is important not only for ourselves but for providing the space and time to recharge and reconnect with our own priorities and needs.
What would happen if all Catholics (who had the means to do so) dedicated themselves to three days without work to reflect and meditate on the encyclical? I believe it would be impossible not to feel moved by reading this document slowly, carefully and in the spirit of prayer. In the midst of the violence that comes to us day by day in the news media, something else needs to be in our hearts, a spirit of gratitude and thanksgiving, a spirit of praise. Pope Francis is therefore right — praise opens the gate to glory. Are we brave enough to enter?
Celia Deane-Drummond is the director of the Center for Theology, Science and Human Flourishing, and a professor of theology at Notre Dame.