Just as Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum (1891) offered a Catholic response to the industrial era and John XXIII’s Pacem in Terris (1963) to the period of the Cold War, Laudato Si’ On Care for Our Common Home, the much-anticipated encyclical of Pope Francis presents a Catholic response to the anthropocene. At times, Francis echoes the insights of Sr. Elizabeth Johnson as he displays a deep love and concern God’s creation and our “three fundamental and closely intertwined relationships: with God, with our neighbor and with the earth itself” (66).
For the pope, the present crisis in which both the earth and the poor cry out to God (see 49), is rooted in misplaced notions of what it means to be a human being and destructive human behaviors. While there is always room for dialogue, we must be frank and look at the “very solid scientific consensus” that warming is caused “mainly as a result of human activity” which “is aggravated by a model of development based on the intensive use of fossil fuels, which is at the heart of the worldwide energy system.” (23)
In order to address the broader crisis, then, we need a “bold cultural revolution” (114) that addresses three levels (see 53).
- We need effective and ethical norms at the local, national and international levels that can regulate the economy and technology to protect both people and planet. Local, national and global governance (164, 173) structures can help to restrain destructive market forces while also promoting a better relationship (e.g., parks, public transport). This is not an anti-government document by any means.
- This can only happen with effective leadership in public and private life who can make difficult decisions that look to the long term and not short-sighted gains (see 197 for a critique of Congress)“If politics shows itself incapable of breaking a perverse logic, and remains caught up in inconsequential discussions, we will continue to avoid facing the big problems of humanity. A strategy for real change calls for rethinking processes in their entirety, for it is not enough to include a few superficial ecological considerations while failing to question the logic which underlies present-day culture. A healthy politics needs to be able to take up this challenge.” (197)
- Finally, good regulations and leaders will be ineffective without an “Ecological conversion” (14, 216) and a change of lifestyles. Here education and religion can help to bring about a renewed appreciation for the ecology and our role within it.
While this is a massive step in the right direction, I find three things missing from the text. First, there is no mention of social or structural sin. This surprised me given his analysis of the root causes. Second, there is little mentioned about the effect of war on the environment and the poor. There are rumors that the next encyclical will be on disarmament, but this is a big hole in the text. Finally, it lacks a strong call to action on the part of parishes, schools and other church institutions. I can see a pastor, university president or hospital administrator looking at this and saying “so what?”. The challenge is to find a way to articulate, with some moral weight, how the church and church institutions can and should live up to our vocation to be “instruments of God our Father, so that our planet might be what he desired when he created it and correspond with his plan for peace, beauty and fullness.” (53)
Below is a very brief outline of the structure of Laudato Si’. You should read it, but if you just need a starting point or want to talk about it at work or the bar today, here is an outline:
Outline Notes of Laudato Si’, On Care for Our Common Home
In the encyclical, Pope Francis follows the See-Judge-Act method developed by the Young Christian Worker movement and adopted as the method of Catholic social teaching by Pope John XXIII in Mater Et Magistra in 1961 (no. 236).
The following is a very brief summary of each chapter following the structure of this “review of life” method.
After a brief introduction where he roots this text in the teachings of his predecessors, he begins by taking stock of the problem.
- Chapter One
What is Happening To Our Common Home [17-61]
- takes stock of the present reality. He examines pollution, climate change, the water crisis, loss of biodiversity, links between ecological degradation and inequality; urbanization; and the failure of leadership to respond effectively to this crisis.
- While he speaks to the importance of dialogue among a diversity of opinions, he clearly and forcefully points to human actions as the primary cause of the present ecological crisis.
Here, in the judge stage, the Pope looks at the deeper reality in three parts.
- Chapter Two
The Gospel Of Creation [62-100]
- examines the present crisis through the lens of the Catholic Christian tradition. He offers an overview of Biblical accounts starting from the book of Genesis. Everything is created by God. Everything has value. Humans, created in the image and likeness of God, are special but animals and the rest of creation also have value. They are not objects .God is the source and goal of all life and so we don’t really ever own anything.
- Jesus Christ, according to Francis, was someone deeply in harmony with nature and the Christian belief of the Resurrection speaks about his role in healing all of creation.
- Chapter Three: The Human Roots of The Ecological Crisis [101-136]
- Examines more deeply the root causes of the present crisis by taking stock of several cultural trends which support an anthropocentric worldview. These include faith in a technocratic paradigm where everything becomes an object to be used for the sake of profit. These social approaches have a negative view on the earth and on the poor.
- Chapter Four:
Integral Ecology [137-162]
- Lays out an alternative vision. An integral ecology that affirms the interconnectedness of peoples, cultures, generations, and classes, as well as the deep relationships between people and planet.
In order to act for an integral ecology, Francis identifies two levels of action.
- Chapter Five
Lines of Approach and Action [163-201]
- Speaks about the need for leadership and regulatory laws concerning the environment and our relationships with the poor. This calls for dialogue at multiple levels, including between religion and science.
- Chapter Six:
Ecological Education and Spirituality [202-246]
- Points to the need for a radical change of lifestyles, particularly for those of us in developed nations. Law and rules, while important, will never succeed unless we change people, their views of nature, their views of the economy, and their understanding of property. This calls for an ecological conversion. Several positive examples are offered.
- He concludes with two prayers.