Not since Humane Vitae has a papal encyclical attracted as much attention as Pope Francis’s encyclical on the environment, On Care For Our Common Home, which calls us to rethink and transform the “outdated criteria which continue to rule the world.”
From the first page, Laudato Si’ grabbed me, and not because I am an environmentalist, a social justice activist or a Catholic who hangs on every word issued from the Holy See. This encyclical hooked me with its straightforward and direct language, occasionally surprising me with its bluntness, such as the description of the world as resembling a “pile of filth”, or the criticism of politicians for lacking “breadth of vision.” Other times, the language is more poetic, particularly when it praises the beauty of creation.
Another aspect of the encyclical that caught my attention was the numerous references to statements on the environment from Catholic bishops’ conferences around the world, as well as several paragraphs devoted to the teaching of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew. While Laudato Si’ is given from the hand of the pontiff, it reflects the thought of the universal church. With the weight of his brother bishops behind him on environmental and social issues, Francis speaks with even greater credibility and authority.
Although it has been dubbed “the climate change encyclical”, the discussion on climate change is only a small portion of Laudato Si’. Those who focus on the pope’s comments on climate change miss the point. This encyclical is about three key relationships – humanity’s relationship with God, with the created world, and with one another (in other words the social order) – and it reflects on the problems existing within the web of these relationships.
At the root of the environmental crisis is a “misguided anthropocentrism” that places human beings at the centre. In our hubris, we have fallen prey to “unrestrained delusions of grandeur” and a utilitarian mindset. We seek mastery over nature instead of respecting it as a sacred gift. We are turning “a magnificent book in which God speaks to us and grants us a glimpse of his infinite beauty and goodness” into something that “is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth”.
We treat human beings with a similar disregard, valuing them only in so far as they are useful to us. We are more interested in convenience and consumption, economics and power than in the intrinsic dignity of the human person and nature. In the theology of this encyclical, our lifestyle and mindset blind us to the destruction of the environment and deafen us to the cries of the poor.
Francis cautions that if we continue to see ourselves as independent from others and as separate from nature, our attempts to heal the environment will be piecemeal at best. Healing the environment requires healing the other two key relationships; “our relationship with the environment can never be isolated from our relationship with others and with God. Otherwise, it would be nothing more than romantic individualism dressed up in ecological garb”. A true ecological approach is therefore always a social approach; “it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor”.
Less we feel overwhelmed and discouraged by the reality of the challenges facing humanity, the encyclical offers hope. Human beings have the capacity to transform the present environmental and social crisis, but it will require a change of heart and attitude. We will do well to heed an ancient lesson common in religious traditions, ‘less is more’, and to cultivate a spirit of moderation that is happy with fewer goods even if it is contrary to today’s culture of consumption and waste.
From developing enforceable international environmental policies to small individual actions, everyone has a part to play in caring for our common home. We renew the social fabric, break down indifference, and forge a shared identity, says Francis, when we promote the common good and defend the environment. “Social love moves us to devise larger strategies to halt environmental degradation and to encourage a “culture of care” which permeates all of society.”
Laudato Si’ challenges us, individually and collectively, to confront the environmental crisis and to resolve the inequalities of human society. The future hangs in the balance of our response.
Louise McEwan is a freelance religion writer with degrees in English and Theology. She has a background in education and faith formation.