Archbishop Paul S. Coakley
There is no question that “Laudato Si,” Pope Francis’ encyclical “On the Care of Our Common Home,” has been the most widely anticipated papal document in generations, perhaps ever.
Many media organizations, social and religious commentators, and political candidates prepared talking points even before they read what the pope actually said.
Having finally had an opportunity to read the lengthy text, I would like to share a few of my own reactions and invite you to take time to read and reflect upon this remarkable text yourselves. It is beautiful. It is challenging.
An encyclical is a letter from the pope prepared in the exercise of his teaching office. This encyclical becomes part of the growing body of Catholic social teaching that applies principles from natural law and Divine Revelation to the problems and concerns of our day. Since the birth of modern Catholic social teaching in the late 19th century, popes have addressed problems and threats to human flourishing posed by challenges such as the industrial revolution or the rise of totalitarian ideologies.
This is the first papal encyclical dedicated exclusively to environmental concerns. That said, what strikes the reader is its clear continuity with the teaching of bishops from around the world, and especially Pope Francis’ predecessors, Saint John Paul II and Benedict XVI.
Today, the Holy Father is addressing himself not just to Catholics or even believers, but to “every person living on this planet.” He writes, “I would like to enter into dialogue with all people about our common home.” (3) The subject of “Laudato Si,” whose title comes from Saint Francis of Assisi’s beautiful Canticle of the Creatures, is the ecological crisis facing humanity.
One of the most important contributions that Pope Francis makes to the dialogue concerning environmental degradation as well as its causes and effects is embodied in what he calls integral ecology. Repeatedly, he emphasizes how everything is connected. The earth is our home. How we live in our home affects the network of relationships with others who share our common home.
“Disregard for the duty to cultivate and maintain a proper relationship with my neighbor, for whose care and custody I am responsible, ruins my relationship with my own self, with others, with God and with the earth.” (70) He adds, “We are not faced with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather with one complex crisis, which is both social and environmental. Strategies for a solution demand an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature.” (138-139)
Pope Francis devotes one of the six chapters of this document to what our biblical faith teaches about our relationship to the world in which we live and our care for this shared home.
“We are not God. The earth was here before us and it has been given to us.” (67) In fact, he reminds us that “the word ‘creation’ has a broader meaning than ‘nature,’ for it has to do with God’s loving plan in which every creature has its own value and significance.” (76)
We have to avoid an exaggerated sense of “dominion” over creation, which is excessively “anthropocentric” and leads to the distorted view that the world in which we live is ours to simply use and consume for our own short-term benefits. Instead, we are called to responsible stewardship of our common home, remembering that it also must be developed and preserved for our children and grandchildren.
There are many unambiguously clear affirmations of the dignity of human life that perhaps some did not expect to find in an encyclical on ecology and the environment.
The pope writes, “There can be no ecology without an adequate anthropology. When the human person is considered as simply one being among others, the product of chance or physical determinism, then ‘our overall sense of responsibility wanes.’” (118) Or again, “Since everything is interrelated, concern for the protection of nature is also incompatible with the justification of abortion.” (120) “When we fail to acknowledge as part of reality the worth of a poor person, a human embryo, a person with disabilities — to offer just a few examples — it becomes difficult to hear the cry of nature itself; everything is connected.” (117)
When it comes to environmental degradation, people are not the problem. The problem is consumerism and a “throw away culture.” “To blame population growth instead of extreme and selective consumerism on the part of some, is one way of refusing to face the issues.” “Instead of resolving the problems of the poor and thinking of how the world can be different, some can only propose a reduction in the birth rate.” (50)
“Laudato Si” is a comprehensive analysis, a contemplative vision and a prophetic call to action for our time. Many people will find plenty here to be offended by and take issue with. It is challenging. It is prophetic. It is hopeful. The Holy Father accepts the broad consensus of scientists that climate change is real and that human activities contribute to it, at least in part.
“There are certain environmental issues where it is not easy to achieve a broad consensus. Here, I would state once more that the Church does not presume to settle scientific questions or to replace politics. But, I am concerned to encourage an honest and open debate so that particular interests or ideologies will not prejudice the common good.” (188)
After a wide ranging analysis that includes a critique of cultural trends as well as economic and political challenges that affect our common home, Pope Francis concludes with a summons to conversion and a deep spirituality, which alone can solidify our efforts to make permanent and meaningful changes.