In what will almost certainly come to be seen as a landmark in papal social encyclicals, Pope Francis has called for a radical conversion of hearts, minds and lifestyles in order to avert disaster on a global scale brought about by frenetic consumption and industrialization. In the 190-page Laudato Si’ (“Praise Be to You”), he urges humanity to seek a way back through “integral ecology,” a new way of thinking that articulates a persons’ three-way connectedness: with God, with others, and with the earth.
Laudato Si’ — the only social encyclical to have a vernacular (in this case Italian, rather than Latin) name — takes its title from St. Francis of Assisi’s famous hymn to God in creation, “The Canticle of the Creatures,” and bears the subtitle: “On Care for Our Common Home.” In common with other social encyclicals beginning in 1891 with Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum (“On New Things”) on capital and labor, Laudato Si’ surveys the ills of the contemporary world, finds their causes in an alienation from the truth about humanity and charts a path to renewal and restoration. Just as Rerum Novarum claimed that the market and wages and the impoverishment of Europe’s working classes were a moral matter that called for the Church to intervene, so Laudato Si’ frames the degradation of the environment as a consequence of our sin. Using St. Francis’ image of Mother Earth as a “Sister who sustains and governs us,” Laudato Si’ begins: “This sister now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by her irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her.”
‘No such right’
Invoking the many warnings by popes since the Second Vatican Council against the misuse of nature, as well as speeches by the Ecumenical Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew and the iconic figure of the poverello of Assisi, Pope Francis begins by appealing to the “whole human family” to come together to seek a sustainable and integral development by grasping again our interconnectedness with God and created things.
The encyclical is divided into six chapters: what is happening to our common home; the gospel of creation; the human roots of the ecological crisis; integral ecology; lines of approach and action; and ecological education and spirituality. But running throughout the text are consistent themes: the link between poverty and the planet’s fragility, the interconnectedness of the world, the critique of mentalities shaped by the myth of technological progress, as well as the “throwaway culture” which lies behind our mistreatment of both the planet and our fellow human beings.
Pope Francis’ sobering depiction of contemporary environmental degradation relies both on scientific surveys as well as evidence from local bishops of pollution, climate change and instability, water shortages, loss of biodiversity, the decline in quality of life and the rise of megacities and inequality. In a series of passages that will be closely read, he observes that “a very solid scientific consensus” points to “a disturbing warming of the climatic system.” He records both a marked rise in the levels of the seas and “an increase of extreme weather events, even if a scientifically determinable cause cannot be assigned to each particular phenomenon.” Humanity, he says, “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.” If present trends continue, the pope warns, “this century will witness extraordinary climate change and an unprecedented destruction of ecosystems, with serious consequences for all of us.”
The loss of species is a disaster not just because it deprives humanity of resources and alters the ecosystem, but because they have a value in themselves: “Because of us, thousands of species will no longer give glory to God by their very existence, nor convey their message to us,” he writes, adding: “We have no such right.”
‘Removed from the poor’
The pope is equally damning of the decline in quality of life in megacities, where people live “inundated by cement, asphalt, glass and metal, and deprived of physical contact with nature,” and where new media technologies cause “an informational overload” that produces “mental pollution.” The environmental devastation affects the poor above all, who die young over conflicts over resources, yet this is barely noticed because “many professionals, opinion makers, communications media and centers of power, being located in affluent urban areas, are far removed from the poor.” A true ecological approach, says Pope Francis, “always becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates about the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.”
While acknowledging that population imbalances are an issue, Pope Francis has little patience with western agencies urging a reduction in the birth rate. To blame population for ecological ills rather than consumerism “is one way of refusing to face the issues” and “an attempt to legitimize the present model of distribution, where a minority believes it has the right to consume in a way which can never be universalized,” the pope argues. He goes on to deplore the lack of leadership and culture capable of confronting the crisis: “The failure of global summits on the environment make it plain that our politics are subject to technology and finance” while “economic powers continue to justify the current global system” underpinned by “speculation and the pursuit of financial gain.” Noting the differences over how to solve the crisis, Francis critiques both those who believe technology will sort the problem and those who view human beings as inimical to the planet’s welfare. The Church, he says, respects divergent views and offers no definitive solution. “But we need only take a frank look at the facts to see that our common home is falling into serious disrepair.”
‘Desire to consume’
Pope Francis sees the origin of the problem in a sinful mindset that puts human beings, rather than God, in authority over the earth, thereby confusing dominion with exploitation rather than stewardship, in which the world was entrusted to man for him to cultivate and care for. The only way to restore men and women to their rightful place, he says, “is to speak once more of the figure of a Father who creates and who alone owns the world.” Only when we acknowledge the value and fragility of nature will we “finally leave behind the modern myth of unlimited material progress” and create what he calls “a sound ethics, a culture and spirituality genuinely capable of setting limits and teaching clear-minded self-restraint.”
Turning to the “deepest causes” of the crisis, Pope Francis notes that rapid technological development has not been accompanied by a corresponding growth in values and conscience, creating a dominant technocratic mentality that “perceives reality as something that can be manipulated endlessly.” Modernity has been marked by an “excessive anthropocentrism,” and a correct relationship with the world requires restoring our place in relation to others as well as to God. Linking the culture of relativism to the “throwaway culture,” Pope Francis sees the “same disorder” behind forced labor, the sexual exploitation of children and the abandonment of the elderly, as well as “the disordered desire to consume more than what is really necessary.”
In a challenge to liberal ecologists, Pope Francis observes that “concern for the protection of nature is also incompatible with the justification of abortion,” for “how can we genuinely teach the importance of concern for other vulnerable beings ... if we fail to protect a human embryo?” Referring to medical research on human embryos, Pope Francis observes that some ecological movements rightly demand limits on scientific experimentation, yet “justify transgressing all boundaries when experimentation is carried out on living human embryos.”
Pope Francis urges instead what he calls an “integral ecology” as a new paradigm of justice, “an approach to ecology that respects our unique place as human beings in this world and our relationship to our surroundings.” Integral ecology sees the environmental and social crises not as separate but two facets of the same crisis, and understands ecology — the relationship of ourselves to our environment — as having different facets. Thus, “cultural ecology” involves respect for place and the past, and the rights of peoples and their cultures, while an “ecology of daily life” involves creating better conditions for “belonging and togetherness,” as well as improving transport and housing. “Human ecology” meanwhile acknowledges the link between human life and the moral law, inscribed in our nature, beginning with our bodies. Pope Francis contrasts the acceptance of our bodies as God’s gift with “thinking we enjoy absolute power over our bodies,” which soon becomes “thinking that we enjoy absolute power over creation.” In a critique of gender theory, Pope Francis observes that “valuing one’s own body in its femininity or masculinity is necessary if I am going to be able to recognize myself in an encounter with someone who is different.”
Pope Francis then turns to what can be done, calling for “proposals for dialogue and action which would involve each of us individually no less than international policy,” which will “help us to escape the spiral of self-destruction which currently engulfs us.” While noting that the Church does not seek to settle scientific questions nor to replace politics, Pope Francis clearly looks to a renewal of politics and of leadership to meet the challenges. Criticizing a lack of political will behind recent world summits on the environment, he calls for forms and instruments of global governance, as popes have done many times since St. John XXIII’s Pacem in Terris (“Peace on Earth”). At a national and local level, he says politics and economic decision-making need to abandon the logic of shortsighted efficiency focused on profit and electoral success, and calls for “a new economy, more attentive to ethical principles, and new ways of regulating speculative financial practices and virtual wealth.” More radically, the pope calls for redefining the idea of progress, so that it focuses not just on increasing the pace of production and consumption but on increasing the quality of people’s lives.
‘Embark on new paths’
In the final section, Pope Francis spells out an ecological conversion involving “new convictions, attitudes and forms of life” that will set us out on the “long path of renewal.” Noting that when people become self-centered and self-enclosed “their greed increases,” the pope calls for society to “acknowledge our deep dissatisfaction, and embark on new paths to authentic freedom.” Pope Francis asks that environmental education be open to the transcendent, requiring educators to help people grow in solidarity, responsibility and compassionate care. The conversion starts with changes in lifestyle and consumer choices in daily life: recycling garbage, turning off lights and wearing warmer clothes to use less heating. Such efforts “benefit society, often unbeknown to us, for they call forth a goodness which, albeit unseen, inevitably tends to spread.”
These habits and gestures begin, above all, in the family, where we learn “respect for the ecosystem and care for all creatures.” “Our efforts at education will be inadequate and ineffectual,” warns the pope, “unless we strive to promote a new way of thinking about human beings, life, society and our relationship with nature. Otherwise the paradigm of consumerism will continue to advance, with the help of the media and the highly effective workings of the market.”
Pope Francis calls for people to take up an ancient spiritual lesson that “less is more,” urging moderation and a capacity to be content with little, to embrace simplicity and a liberating sobriety. “In reality those who enjoy more and live better each moment are those who have given up dipping here and there, always on the lookout for what they do not have.” Such people, says Pope Francis, “even living on little, they can live a lot.” Sobriety and humility, scorned in the 20th century, are necessary for the cultivation of inner peace, of serene attentiveness, “which accepts each moment as a gift from God to be lived to the full.” In this spirit, Pope Francis asks all believers to return to the habit of giving thanks to God before and after meals.
Laudato Si’ ends with the Eucharist (“an act of cosmic love”), the Trinity as a reflection of the “web of relationships” and Mary and Joseph as models of caring for creation. Finally, Pope Francis offers at the end of what he describes as “this lengthy reflection which has been both joyful and troubling,” two prayers, one that can be said with other monotheists, the second for use with other Christians “to ask for inspiration to take up the commitment to creation set before us by the Gospel of Jesus.”
Austen Ivereigh is author of “The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope” (Henry Holt, $30).