“Laudato Si”, the long-anticipated and recently released encyclical of Pope Francis, has drawn wide attention and diverse reactions inside and outside the Church. Some praise the Pope for the moral charge he contributes to the environmental cause, while others criticize the Pope for overstepping his authority in matters reserved to science and politics. Perhaps for most of us, there’s no problem with talking about care for creation, but an entire encyclical? Now? Are forests and animal migration patterns really more important than the 9 million people that die of hunger each day? Or the nearly 50 million deaths due to abortion each year? Or the record 59.5 million people displaced in 2014?
Not only it is the first papal encyclical dedicated entirely to ecology, but its peculiarity extends to other aspects. For example, the frequent appeals to “every person living on this planet” (Laudato si, 3), uniting the concerns of the Church to those of the whole world. He calls for “a genuine and profound humanism to serve as the basis of a noble and generous society” (181). Also, there is a notably close relationship to the scientific community. In fact, in the analysis of the state of “our common house,” the Pope is unambiguous in his stance, trusting in scientific consensus: “a number of scientific studies indicate that most global warming in recent decades is due to the great concentration of greenhouse gases… released mainly as a result of human activity” (23). To what do we owe such an initiative from the Supreme Pontiff?
A big step in the same direction
First it’s necessary to point out that, while curious, Pope Francis’ appeal is no mere whim; it is no Eureka for the Church. As humanity has grown in its sensitivity for the environment, the magisterium has spoken louder and clearer. Briefly looking back, already in 1971 Pope Paul VI writes in Octogesima Adveniens of man’s “ill-considered exploitation of nature.” Pope St. John Paul II continues the reflection in Sollicitudo Rei Socialis within a moral sphere, presenting considerations that ought to inform our consciences, and in Centesimus Annus develops a relationship between environmental ecology and what he calls “human ecology”. We know Pope Benedict XVI, of course, as the “green Pope”, not only for his writings but also for his actions, leading the Vatican to become the first carbon-neutral state in the world in 2007. In Pope Benedict’s message at the 2010 World Day of Peace, he points out the importance of the environment with respect to other matters: “If we want justice and peace, we must protect the habitat that sustains us”.
In fact, the first social encyclical (Rerum Novarum in 1891) was written amidst a “revolutionary change” (as titled), the Age of Industrialization. According to the Pontifical Academy of Science, humanity is again entering a new era, the “The Age of the Anthropocene,” characterized as an age in which “human action, through the use of fossil fuels, is having a decisive impact on the planet”. In the midst of this rapid change, the Pope wishes to “help to provide an approach to ecology which respects our unique place as human beings in this world and our relationship to our surroundings” as a response to the “present ecological crisis” (15).
A Sign of the Times
[pullquote]Amidst the widespread experience of dissatisfaction and rupture, the Pope identifies in today’s world a genuine longing for harmony with the natural world, and an “increasing sensitivity to the environment and the need to protect nature” (Laudato si, 19). Such sensitivity is a clear “sign of the time”, as the Second Vatican Council would put it. The Council goes on to explain this phrase: “[the Church] labors to decipher authentic signs of God’s presence and purpose in the happenings, needs and desires in which this People has a part along with other men of our age. For faith throws a new light on everything, manifests God’s design for man’s total vocation, and thus directs the mind to solutions which are fully human” (Guadium et Spes, 11).[/pullquote]
A true ecological approach
Next, for those wondering about the hungry, the displaced, and the death of the innocent, Pope Francis insists on the link between the environment and such pressing issues: “If the present ecological crisis is one small sign of the ethical, cultural and spiritual crisis of modernity, we cannot presume to heal our relationship with nature and the environment without healing all fundamental human relationships” (119). In outlining a path to move forward, he insists that “the same mindset which stands in the way of making radical decisions to reverse the trend of global warming also stands in the way of achieving the goal of eliminating poverty” (175). This preoccupation for the poor has been a reoccurring theme from the onset of the encyclical “True ecological approach always becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor” (Laudato si, 49).
International policy and sustainable development
The Pope includes in the encyclical “some broader proposals for dialogue and action which would involve each of us as individuals, and also affect international policy” (15). Prior to the encyclical’s release, the Pope was questioned about its release date in an on-flight interview returning from the Philippines: “The important thing is that there be a bit of time between the issuing of the encyclical and the meeting in Paris, so that it can make a contribution.” The Pope refers to the Paris Climate Talks in December, which aim to make history in a binding and universal climate change agreement including all nations, which would be the first of its kind in over 20 years of UN negotiations. For example, the well-known “Kyoto Protocol” implemented in 2005 never managed to incorporate the United States, China, and India.
The most recent effort took place in Peru last December in a Climate Change conference that served as an opportunity for nations to begin negotiating the commitments they will make in Paris. In the previously mentioned interview, the Pope comments that, “The meeting in Peru was nothing great. I was disappointed by the lack of courage; things came to a stop at a certain point. Let’s hope that in Paris the delegates will be more courageous and will move forward with this.”
The Pope also plans to speak at the annual United Nations summit in New York in September, where the new Sustainable Development Goals will be launched in replacement of those defined back in 2000, and will remain in effect until 2030. In the same trip the Pope will address the US government, a key player in UN climate talks, in a joint session of US Congress.
An Ecological Conversion
[pullquote]Change begins with personal conversion. It is easy to identify climate change as a partisan issue, or to associate the movement with ideas of population control and a negative view of humanity. It is not uncommon to encounter a general lack of interest or even ridicule. “It must be said that some committed and prayerful Christians, with the excuse of realism and pragmatism, tend to ridicule expressions of concern for the environment. Others are passive; they choose not to change their habits and thus become inconsistent. So what they all need is an “ecological conversion”, whereby the effects of their encounter with Jesus Christ become evident in their relationship with the world around them” (217). Christ urges us. If we don’t change, nothing will change.[/pullquote]
“The urgent challenge to protect our common home includes a concern to bring the whole human family together to seek a sustainable and integral development, for we know that things can change” (13). In a world characterized by divisions, the Pope summons the scientists, politicians, theologians, philosophers, Christians and non-Christians alike to a “universal solidarity” in which “everyone’s talents and involvement are needed” (14).
Laudato Si is a more-than-timely wake-up call to recognize the “immensity and urgency of the challenge we face” (15). For the past 50 years now the Magisterium has been deepening in a true ecological approach, seeking to accompany and give a fully human response to one of the major signs of the time. It’s a principal issue concerning all human relationships, especially the commitment to the most vulnerable of the planet. It is a stern demand to “take a frank look at the facts” (61) and undertake a radical change in our personal and international approach our common home. Finally, it is a pastoral message driven by hope in humanity’s capacity to make sacrifices, overcome differences, and take action.
© 2015 – Jeffrey Ruskamp para el Centro de Estudios Católicos – CEC