An Antidote to the Distressing Climate News
- “The environment is part of a logic of receptivity. It is on loan to each generation, which must then hand it on to the next.”
- “Both everyday experience and scientific research show that the gravest effects of all attacks on the environment are suffered by the poorest.”
- “Peace, justice and the preservation of creation are three absolutely interconnected themes, which cannot be separated and treated individually without once again falling into reductionism.”
- “The Spirit of life dwells in every living creature and calls us to enter into relationship with him. Discovering this presence leads us to cultivate the ‘ecological virtues.’”
- “To sense each creature singing the hymn of its existence is to live joyfully in God’s love and hope.”
—from the encyclical Laudato si’
It has been six years since Pope Francis’s encyclical on the environment, Laudato si’: On Care for Our Common Home, was published. I must admit, when it first came out I didn’t read it all that carefully. I could affirm what it said, but, naïvely perhaps, I had a sense that a lot of people were ringing the bell on the subject of ecology and things were gradually getting better.
That was before the Trump administration. Since the encyclical was written, the United States had pulled out of the Paris agreement on climate change. Environmental regulations and protections for endangered species are being rolled back. Fossil fuels are being promoted. And we are seeing more intense hurricanes, wildfires, and droughts due to climate change, which is also spurring mass migration.
Things, in short, are getting worse.
So I decided it was time to go back to that encyclical, and hear again what Francis had to say. Maybe it would provide an antidote to the depressing circumstances we are facing. And in fact, it did.
With Francis, it is important to ask not only what he says, but how he says it. The quotes listed at the top of this article are all taken from Laudato si’—but they are not Francis’s own words. They are quotations from conferences of bishops around the world (respectively, Portugal, Bolivia, the Dominican Republic, Brazil, and Japan). There are 21 quotes from bishops’ conferences altogether.
Such a thing has never been done before. In papal encyclicals, popes quote other popes, conciliar documents, themselves, scripture, maybe saints or theologians—but not conferences of bishops.
Some have suggested Francis included these sources because he wanted to show that he has support from many parts of the world. He knew that his critics would be lined up to strike. By quoting conferences of bishops, perhaps he could forestall criticism that this is just his own opinion, by demonstrating, in effect, “Look, it’s not just me.”
But I believe there are deeper stakes here. Francis is very interested in synodality in the church. He supports the local bishops’ conferences and wants them to be tools of renewal as the Second Vatican Council envisioned. The Tridentine era was strong on centralization; Vatican II restored a more balanced view of the proper relationship between the centre and the peripheries.
The quoting of conference statements also suggests that the present crisis of the earth confronts us with problems that can’t be solved by lone rangers. Groups, communities, and collaborative efforts are not optional extras; they are expressions of the path humanity needs to take in order to rise to the challenge of this moment. Saint Francis of Assisi hovers over this encyclical, which is named for the opening line of his Canticle of the Creatures, but its foundation is the rock of collective wisdom in the church.
In addition to conferences of bishops and their statements, the encyclical quotes previous popes and, yes, Francis quotes himself. He quotes a Sufi mystic—a first!—and shares insights from Thomas Aquinas, Romano Guardini, and more. There are many voices here, a cloud of witnesses whom Francis invokes to make his points.
And the points themselves are sharp. The first of these is simple: Francis says unambiguously that addressing the destruction of the natural environment is an urgent priority for all people. Other popes have spoken about ecology, but not like this. Francis has deepened and broadened the discussion, creating new urgency and a deeper level of commitment to an integral ecological vision.
As proof of his seriousness about gathering support for addressing the environmental crisis, he takes pains to address a broad audience. The encyclical is addressed to all people of goodwill. In this, he follows the example of Pope John XXIII, who did the same in his encyclical on war and peace, Pacem in terris. The environmental crisis affects everybody, and so, although Francis clearly invokes Christian belief and Catholic tradition, he addresses believers and nonbelievers alike in speaking about the challenge before us.
In order to reach everybody, he maintains a humble tone. Although Francis uses religious language and concepts, he makes a reasoned plea to nonbelievers and to members of other religious traditions, asking them to find common cause in addressing this urgent problem. He also calls for integrating science and religion in response to the environmental crisis.
Second, Francis makes a strong point of saying that poverty and ecological disaster flow from the same pathologies of modern life, and so must be understood and addressed together. It’s a radical claim, undertaken because he wants to address the root causes of environmental degradation, not just manage its effects. Like a physician, he examines the symptoms in order to diagnose the disease (there may be more than one), and to propose remedies for healing the patient.
Outstanding among the analytic elements in the encyclical is Francis’s description of the “technocratic paradigm” which, he argues, has insidiously come to dominate our economic and political life (109). This paradigm “exalts the concept of a subject who, using logical and rational procedures, progressively approaches and gains control over an external object” (106). Interactions with creation are no longer about receiving what nature allows: “It is as if the subject were to find itself in the presence of something formless, completely open to manipulation” (106).
The technocratic paradigm thrives on the false notion of infinite or unlimited growth, and trades in the lie that there is an unlimited supply of the earth’s goods on which we can lay our hands (106). As Francis puts it in Laudato si’, “Life gradually becomes a surrender to situations conditioned by technology” regardless of human costs and environmental consequences (110). The pace of life, driven by technology and its demands, continually accelerates. We can’t slow down, even when we want to (18).
Francis is a scientist (he has a degree in chemistry), so it should come as no surprise that his encyclical uses the best science. But he is speaking here mainly as a pastor and world leader. He was once asked by a journalist, “Is this a green encyclical?” He said, “No, it’s a social encyclical.” This may surprise us. But for Francis, the problem is at root a social problem (one concerning our life together).
Here, Francis joins forces with the robust tradition of Catholic social teaching that began with Leo XIII’s Rerum novarum (1891), which addressed the miserable conditions of workers in industrialised societies. Subsequent popes have followed in Leo’s wake, speaking and writing about social justice. Well before Laudato si’ was written, “care for creation” was recognised as one of the seven pillars of Catholic social teaching.
What Francis’s analysis of the ecological crisis has done, however, is to signal the utmost gravity of this topic today, and to emphatically affirm the link between environmental degradation and poverty. In his words: “A true ecological approach always becomes 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” (49) (emphasis in the original).
This leads to a third point: Interrelationship is key to Francis’s vision. “Everything is closely interrelated,” Francis says (137). A deeply challenging yet essential first step in responding to the current ecological crisis is to perceive the interwoven character of all God’s creation. Human beings are part of this greater whole; we do not stand outside it. The human person exists in relationship to God, self, others—and to the created order itself.
An integral ecology takes into account human relationships which extend across time and generations to form a dense network of gift and responsibility. People living today hold the bounty of nature in stewardship for future generations; we owe them something. Human communities and cultures are complex ecosystems in themselves. We cannot let ourselves become unmoored and stranded from these relationships, which are a source of joy and fullness of life, for this too is proper to the created order.
Finally, Francis makes the point that hope is not lost. Again and again, he affirms the goodness of human beings, as well as their ability to see where they have gone astray and to change for the better. He calls confidently upon the power of example, of education, and above all, the power of God’s grace.
Recurring themes of hope arise in the midst of this encyclical alongside hard-headed descriptions of ecological problems that are absolutely devastating: climate change; water scarcity; pollution of land, sea, and air. I have rarely read so much bad news in a single papal encyclical. Yet Francis manages also to lift up a hope that inspires. The encyclical begins and ends with singing.
Make no mistake: the unsparing candour with which Francis faces the bad news is an essential part of what makes the encyclical great. He points out that grave problems of pollution and climate change—both linked to the use of fossil fuels (he accepts the scientific consensus)—threaten the common good (20–23). In a particularly strong affirmation, he states that safe, drinkable water is a universal human right, yet its availability is constantly diminishing (30). Loss of biodiversity compromises the fullness of creation. God’s creatures have a value in their own right, yet are becoming extinct because of our actions (33). Forests, wetlands, and oceans are exploited, their ecosystems undermined, leaving land and seas impoverished (39-41).
The encyclical then analyses the impact of the degradation of creation on people. These global changes affect human environments, accelerating social exclusion and violence, the breakdown of identity, and the rupture of social cohesion. There is also a profound cost to the human spirit, including the loss of beauty, relentless noise and distractions, information overload, and “mental pollution” (43-47).
He notes that those at the centres of power do not value the poor: the vast majority of the earth’s people and their needs are treated as an afterthought or “collateral damage” in the quest to exploit the earth’s resources for profit (49). In a judgment intended to sting the conscience of rich and wasteful individuals and nations, Francis also observes that extreme consumerism and waste on the part of a few creates an “ecological debt” toward the many (49).
There is not much optimism in the encyclical regarding existing efforts to rein in the problem on a global scale. International responses and legal frameworks to address these ecological problems have been weak, the encyclical says, hindered by corruption and a lack of political will (53). Although some positive work has been undertaken (such as efforts to clean up waterways), many people continue to avoid taking the problems of pollution seriously. A superficial environmentalism can bolster their complacency (58–59).
Laudato si’ acknowledges the seriousness of these problems. Yet the encyclical offers a solution that operates on three levels: the personal, the social, and the theological. This is where we find hope. We need to accept our limitations (67), recognise that creation itself praises God (69), and contemplate the mystery of the universe as a gift, “a reality illuminated by the love that calls us into communion” (76-77).
Francis calls us to believe that God, who works with us and counts on our cooperation, “can also bring good out of the evil we have done” (80). He gives a full-throated cry of advocacy for protecting work and the dignity of labour (124–129) and reminds us that in the ecology of daily life, networks of solidarity and acts of loving kindness help to foster human dignity. They create beauty, even in the most devastating circumstances (148–149).
In addition to advocating policymaking that includes all relevant parties, and thrives on dialogue and transparency, Laudato si’ has personal conversion in its sights. Francis calls on people to resist the pull of “compulsive consumerism” and to embrace a simpler lifestyle (203–208). He advocates an environmental education that critiques the myths of individualism, unlimited progress, competition, consumerism, and the unregulated market. He affirms the importance of cultivating harmony within ourselves, with others, and with nature (210). He praises the practice of virtue in small ways in daily life, and the formation of good habits (211). These practices call forth goodness, benefit society, and restore our sense of self-esteem. “We must not think these efforts are not going to change the world,” he says (212).
An aesthetic education is likewise essential: “If someone has not learned to stop and admire something that is beautiful, we should not be surprised if he or she treats everything as an object to be used and abused without scruple” (215). Cultivation of the virtues of sobriety and humility is necessary too (224–225). Francis advocates resurrecting the concept of the common good (156–158), and urges us to stir up the desire to invest in it: “We must regain the conviction that we need one another, that we have a shared responsibility for others and the world, and that being good and decent are worth it” (229).
The development of an ecological spirituality, which Francis proposes, is strengthened within the Christian tradition by treasuring the sacramental signs, particularly Eucharist; by revering the mystery of the Incarnation and its echo in the bodily nature of worship; by cultivating Sabbath rest; and by discerning the mystery of Trinity in the interrelatedness of all things in creation (233–240).
As a liturgist, I was particularly interested to revisit what Francis has to say about liturgical prayer and worship in connection with ecology. Alas, there is very little. But there is no question that an organic relationship exists between this encyclical and the liturgical tradition out of which Francis speaks. The explicit attention Francis pays to worship is slight, yet the orientation of Laudato si’ to “beauty,” to “respectful awareness of the world as gift,” to “interconnectedness,” and to “cross-generational communion” is deeply expressive of a sacramental worldview. Indeed, it would not be farfetched to hypothesise that the devaluing of liturgy in the developed world in our time (for which many scapegoats have been proposed) is a symptom of the same technocratic, utilitarian paradigm that has despoiled the environment.
It seems to me, therefore, that the renewal of a sacramental worldview expressed and experienced liturgically can and ought to be an element in the solution of the great problem this encyclical addresses. It’s not so much a matter of getting together special music for Earth Day. It’s a matter of what we believe we are doing when we celebrate Eucharist.
Dom Hélder Câmara, the legendary bishop of Brazil who championed the cause of the poor, said it well in 1971: “We must have no illusions: the world knows very well the scandal. That 20 per cent of humanity that takes in its hands 80 per cent of the goods of the earth are Christians, at least in origins. What have we made of the Eucharist? How can we reconcile it with injustice, the daughter of egoism?”
Rita Ferrone is the author of several books about liturgy, including Liturgy: Sacrosanctum Concilium (Paulist Press). She is a contributing writer to Commonweal.
With thanks to Commonweal Magazine and Rita Ferrone, where this article originally appeared.