In Ecology Encyclical, Pope Points to Science, Faith in Call for Bold Action

Catholic environmental advocates, who have been preparing for the document for months, are now in high gear

Pope Francis’s statement on ecology, issued today at noon in Rome, is already being hailed as a game-changer, particularly when it comes to mobilizing Catholics towards climate action. With the document having drawn attention to ecological issues months before its release, the question now is, how can environmental communities leverage the current momentum?

First, it will be helpful to understand some of the major messages and components of the document — what it is and what it is not. Then we can appreciate what’s currently happening and what’s in the works.

Photo of Pope FrancisPhoto by Aleteia Image Department Pope Francis’s comments on ecology build on those of his predecessors.

Pope Francis’s comments on ecology build on those of his predecessors, Saint John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Now Pope Francis has in many ways expanded on these comments and made the teachings his own with the issuance of an authoritative Church document known as an “encyclical.” (The name comes from the Greek word for circular. It refers to important letters that would be circulated in the early Church when, because of state persecution, communication wasn’t always easy.) Since the late nineteenth century, popes have been issuing “social encyclicals” to discuss important changes in the societies of their time.

Pope Francis’s encyclical on the environment is called “Laudato Si,” or “Praise Be to You.” The name comes from a famous text from St. Francis of Assisi in which he praised God for the gifts of nature.

Laudato Si is made up of seven sections spanning 246 sizeable paragraphs that are all focused on understanding today’s ecological issues and their origins. Besides climate, Pope Francis discusses biodiversity loss, water justice issues, and general “throwaway cultures” in which consumption and waste are prevalent. He also offers pathways forward — from a perspective of faith.

This spiritual perspective places the focus of the encyclical not so much on political, economic, social, and individual causes and corrections — although those are important discussions within the text. Rather, the central thesis of Laudato Si is to find deeper sources of our shared environmental and social ills.

“We have come to see ourselves as [creation’s] lords and masters,” Pope Francis writes, “entitled to plunder her at will. The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life.… We have forgotten that we ourselves are dust of the earth; our very bodies are made up of her elements, we breathe her air and we receive life and refreshment from her waters.”

A chemist in earlier training, Pope Francis the pastor makes his case by weaving faith and reason — the two strands of Catholic social thought — throughout the first chapter in a review of the ecological and social crises facing us. Both sets of crises, the pope offers, are “ultimately due to the same evil: the notion that there are no indisputable truths to guide our lives, and hence human freedom is limitless.”

What Pope Francis means by this is that there are, of course, indisputable truths. They’re called the laws of nature and they dictate what happens when we dump too much carbon in the atmosphere or when we ingest toxic pesticides. In the Catholic tradition there are also natural laws. These, like the laws of nature, come with consequences if you try to violate them.

“In the absence of objective truths or sound principles other than the satisfaction of our own desires and immediate needs, what limits can be placed on human trafficking, organized crime, the drug trade, commerce in blood diamonds and the fur of endangered species? Is it not the same relativistic logic which justifies buying the organs of the poor for resale or use in experimentation, or eliminating children because they are not what their parents wanted?”

All this is important to know because, true to Catholic social thought, while the encyclical examines worldly errors, it does not propose specific worldly remedies. Those will vary between situations and cultures. What Pope Francis proposes are remedies for darkened hearts so that people of goodwill can together find the necessary answers of their time and place.

And so in the issue of climate change — which takes up only four of 246 paragraphs in the document — the pope does not intend to enter into a debate about causes or solutions. But he is quite concerned about the issue. He maintains that humanity is playing a role in a warming climate. And he expects action.

“A very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climatic system.…  Humanity is called to recognize the need for changes of lifestyle, production and consumption, in order to combat this warming or at least the human causes which produce or aggravate it.”

The pope may not offer specific programs (although he does critique the idea of carbon credits, saying they are “a ploy which permits maintaining the excessive consumption of some countries and sectors”). But that doesn’t mean that those in the Catholic environmental community — now energized by the encyclical — aren’t.

Catholic environmental advocates, scientists, and theologians have been preparing for this document for months. Groups like the Global Catholic Climate Movement and the Catholic Climate Covenant, which works with the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and other US Catholic agencies, have petitions and campaigns underway. Similar groups — like Catholic Earthcare Australia or CAFOD, the Catholic aid agencies in the United Kingdom — are also in high gear at the moment.

Joining them are global interfaith groups like OurVoices and Green Faith. Both are planning (or have already initiated) climate pilgrimages, educational campaigns, and a special Thank You rally for Pope Francis on June 28 in the Vatican’s St. Peter’s Square.

It may seem odd that an authoritative teaching document for the Roman Catholic Church has created this opportunity for advancing the global cause of environmental protection. But this is in fact the moment in which we find ourselves. The question now is how do we maintain the momentum?

A first step would be to read Laudtao Si. The next is to check out the organizations above to plug into their efforts. And of course, Pope Francis would add a third: pray for the conversion of all our hearts so that as a community we can protect our beautiful but threatened common home. 

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