Pope Francis has given the world a choice between “debris, desolation and filth” or “a serene harmony with creation.” The path we take, both individually and on a global scale, depends upon a clear-eyed view of reality and the deep connection we experience as God’s creatures with one another, with our world and with God.
Issued June 18 in the Vatican, the papal encyclical Laudato Si’: On Care For Our Common Home transcends its political purpose — to nudge the international community into responsible, concrete, measurable action on climate change at the United Nations’ next climate summit in Paris this December. The pope proposes a profoundly Christian and deeply spiritual framework for understanding our world and human life.
“If these issues are courageously faced, we are led inexorably to ask other pointed questions: What is the purpose of our life in this world? Why are we here? What is the goal of our work and all our efforts? What need does the Earth have of us?” writes Pope Francis. “It is no longer enough, then, simply to state that we should be concerned for future generations. We need to see that what is at stake is our own dignity. Leaving an inhabitable planet to future generations is, first and foremost, up to us. The issue is one which dramatically affects us, for it has to do with the ultimate meaning of our earthly sojourn.”
Like St. Pope John XXIII’s magisterial Pacem in Terris 52 years ago, Laudato Si’ is addressed to to a much wider audience than the traditional list of bishops in communion with Rome. Just as Pacem in Terris responded to the threat of nuclear war as a common concern for all of humanity, Laudato Si’ insists everyone on the planet has a stake in what is happening to the global ecosystem.
“I would like to enter into dialogue with all people about our common home,” writes Pope Francis.
The pope’s hunger for dialogue is on display right from the beginning of the letter, when Francis breaks new ground in the history of papal encyclicals by basing his argument on the theological judgment of an Orthodox bishop. Within his first few paragraphs, Francis quotes “beloved Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew” on the question of sin.
“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,” writes the patriarch of Constantinople — and the patriarch of Rome fully endorses his judgment.
Having laid out the moral ground we walk on, Pope Francis surveys the scientific landscape.
“His starting position is accepting what science is telling us about climate change,” points out University of St. Michael’s College eco-theologian Dennis Patrick O’Hara. “He recognizes that when science is alerting us to the dangers of our present situation, we have to take that science seriously, rather than trying to debunk the science because what it’s telling us is inconvenient.”
The pope makes it abundantly clear he accepts the UN’s International Panel on Climate Change consensus that climate change is real, a threat to human populations and caused mainly by humans burning fossil fuels. Francis has no time for people who want to argue their way out of what the best science tells us.
“Obstructionist attitudes, even on the part of believers, can range from denial of the problem to indifference, nonchalant resignation or blind confidence in technical solutions. We require a new and universal solidarity,” he states.
The pope does not stop at merely taking in the data. He wants to integrate an understanding of science with an understanding of human society. From there, he further combines what we know about society with how we know ourselves as creatures of God. His insistence on “integral ecology” leads him to write extensively on how the scientific data relates to economics, politics and theology.
Francis’ wisdom about markets isn’t a condemnation of capitalism, but recognition that markets are a tool and as such not always the right tool for every job, economist Armine Yalnizyan told The Catholic Register.
“He’s not suggesting we leave the market system. He’s just saying, let us be more mindful of what happens in the market. I think that’s a really important distinction,” Yalnizyan said. “You can’t assume markets are our salvation. We are our salvation, or not. The interesting overlap between his economic and climate change analysis and theology is the description of markets as the new theology. Markets are not some kind of deus ex machina. Markets are us.”
Markets and our individualistic culture, and how they feed each other, lead Pope Francis to urge us to a more profound understanding of sin and how we, in a fallen world, relate to the world God gave us. For Francis, our sins are not merely personal failings but also the ways in which we participate in the culture around us.
“We are faced not with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather with one complex crisis which is both social and environmental,” writes Francis.
This goes beyond filling our houses with consumer goods or investing our whole identity in the car we drive or clothes we wear. It extends to our faith in progress and technical solutions without examining our moral choices.
“To seek only a technical remedy to each environmental problem which comes up is to separate what is in reality interconnected and to mask the true and deepest problems of the global system,” Francis writes.
Laudato Si’ is much more than a technical or even social analysis of the world’s problems.
“It’s going to affect the way people approach spiritual direction,” said Ignatius Jesuit Centre spiritual director Yvonne Prowse. “How do you invite people to pray with the land, with creation? We’re very used to inviting people to pray with Scripture. Well, what about this other book of revelation that he talks about in the document? The other book of revelation being creation.”
Prowse doesn’t suggest spiritual directors will back retreatants into a corner of some pre-determined set of political or cultural assumptions. But that doesn’t mean politics or even economics are irrelevant to the spiritual life.
“Nothing can be separated from the spiritual life. We’re a whole being and the choices we make in our day-to-day life have to do with how we’re responding to how God is calling us in our lives,” said Prowse.
“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,” writes the pope.
By decisive, he means a “cultural revolution” that begins with fundamentally spiritual choices — decisions that will separate who we are from what we consume.
“Christian spirituality proposes an alternative understanding of the quality of life and encourages a prophetic and contemplative lifestyle, one capable of deep enjoyment free of the obsession with consumption,” writes Francis. “We need to take up an ancient lesson, found in different religious traditions and also in the Bible. It is the conviction that ‘less is more.’ A constant flood of new consumer goods can baffle the heart and prevent us from cherishing each thing and each moment. To be serenely present to each reality, however small it may be, opens us to much greater horizons of understanding and personal fulfilment. Christian spirituality proposes a growth marked by moderation and the capacity to be happy with little.”
The pope adds a couple of prayers at the end of his manifesto to propose prayer as a solution.
“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,” Pope Francis prays.
“O Lord, seize us with your power and light, help us to protect all life, to prepare for a better future, for the coming of your kingdom of justice, peace, love and beauty. Praise be to you!”