By now, most of us have heard of the new encyclical on the environment issued by Pope Francis on May 24, 2015. In Catholic tradition an encyclical is a letter written by a pope to address a specific topic of concern. Laudato si is the second encyclical issued by Pope Francis, the first being ‘The Light of Faith,” published just two months after his election. “The Light of Faith” is the last in a series of three encyclicals begun by Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI, the first two being on Hope and Love.
The title of this new encyclical, Laudato si, is taken from the prayer known as the “Canticle of the Sun” written by St. Francis of Assisi in the early thirteenth century. The opening sentence of the English text of the encyclical uses the original Italian of the prayer: “Laudato si, mi Signore…” and then translates: “Praise be to you, my Lord…”
Even in the Introduction to the encyclical, Pope Francis cites Saint Francis as “particularly concerned for God’s creation and for the poor and the outcast” (n. 10). Further, “His response to the world around him was so much more than intellectual appreciation or economic calculus, for to him each and every creature was a sister or brother, united to him by bonds of affection” (n.11).
From that introduction, Pope Francis proceeds through the six chapters of the text to set out a portrait of the earth as a gift to all of humanity from the hand of God, and our common home. This gift, he says, is for the use of all people, not just a few, and misuse by one causes others to suffer. Throughout the text, the encyclical emphasizes that care for the earth and care for the poor cannot be separated. Certainly, since its publication, Laudato si has been both highly praised and harshly criticized. Only time will tell the true impact of this extraordinary document.
The first chapter begins with a review of current scientific consensus on the harm being done to the earth by pollution and climate change. Among other issues, the encyclical highlights the increasing lack of drinking water for so many: “Our world has a grave social debt toward the poor who lack access to drinking water, because they are denied the right to a life consistent with their inalienable dignity” (n. 30).
Also so in this chapter are some statements very critical of “global inequality,” the situation in which some countries live in abundance while others have little or nothing of life’s necessities. The encyclical cites a pastoral letter issued in 2012 by the Episcopal Conference of Bolivia: “Both everyday experience and scientific research show that the gravest effects of all attacks on the environment are suffered by the poorest” (n. 48). In fact, the encyclical consistently equates care of the earth with care of the poor; that is, to accomplish the first task is also to accomplish the second.
The encyclical contains several citations from Scripture which support this view, one being the concept of a “universal communion within all of nature,” which cannot be real if we lack compassion and concern for our fellow human beings. “Everything is related, and we human beings are united as brothers and sisters on a wonderful pilgrimage, woven together by the love God has for each of his creatures” (n. 91, 92).
The third chapter of the encyclical is titled “Human Roots of the Ecological Crisis.” Here, there are harsh words for consumerism with its underlying presumption that the resources of the earth are infinite. There is also criticism of the idea that technology will eventually address all social ills. “The economy accepts every advance in technology with a view to profit, without concern for its potential negative impact on human beings” (n. 109). Pope Francis calls for honesty and dialogue with respect to technological advances because “a technology severed from ethics will not easily be able to limit its own power” (n. 136).
The fourth chapter, “Integral Ecology,” goes more deeply into the relationship between care of the earth and care of the poor. Also brought into the discussion is the concept of the Common Good, first defined by Vatican II as “the sum of those conditions of social life which allow social groups and their individual members relatively thorough and ready access to their own fulfillment.” The Common Good, the encyclical teaches, has as its underlying principle respect for every person (n. 157). To illustrate this point in reference to indigenous peoples, the encyclical states: “The disappearance of a culture can be just as serious, or even more serious, than the disappearance of a species of plant or animal” (n. 165).
The fifth chapter, “Lines of Approach and Action,” calls for dialogue, dialogue and more dialogue, on national, international and local levels, so that solutions to global problems will benefit all of humanity, and not only economic interests of some. “Interdependence obliges us to think of one world with a common plan” (n. 164). There are calls to end the use of fossil fuels and to have enforceable international agreements on pollution, to decrease greenhouse gases, and to increase availability of renewable forms of energy.
To show its own willingness to contribute to global efforts, just this past July the Vatican sponsored a conference in Rome attended by mayors of sixty cities around the world. The topics discussed included climate change, poverty and human trafficking. Much emphasis was given to the need for cities and other local governments to work together to bring about policy changes.
The sixth and final chapter of the encyclical, “Ecology Education and Spirituality” places the issues of caring for the earth and caring for each other in the context of personal conversion. “Only by cultivating sound virtues will people be able to make a selfless ecological commitment” (n. 211).
The encyclical suggests small gestures which might put individuals on the path to greater appreciation of the earth as our common home. One practice is simply to say Grace or some other prayer before meals as a sign of gratitude for the benefits the earth provides to us (see n. 227). Another is to have greater devotion to the Eucharist which joins heaven and earth together in Christ. “Eucharist is a source of light and motivation for our concerns for the environment, directing us to be stewards of all creation” (n. 236). Also, devotion to the Holy Trinity can lead us to a greater appreciation of the ways in which all of creation is interrelated and interdependent. “The divine persons are subsistent relations, and the world, created according to the divine model, is a web of relationships” (n. 240). Finally, devotion to Mary, “who cares for this wounded world,” and to Saint Joseph who “can inspire us to work with generosity and tenderness in protecting this world which God has entrusted to us” (n. 242). These small gestures and prayers are powerful means of growing in personal awareness and conversion.
The text of the encyclical concludes with two prayers, “A Prayer for Our Earth,” and “A Christian Prayer in Union with Creation.”
(All citations taken from “Laudato si” available at http://w2vatican.va)
Sister Elissa Rinere, C.P.