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An Environmentalist’s Guide to the Pope’s Encyclical

by Farley Lord Smith

It’s been a few months since Pope Francis visited Washington, and several more since his encyclical, Laudato Si’: On the Care of our Common Home was published. Yet the effect of his words and presence still ripples.

For the faith community, Laudato Si’ s significance is pretty clear. An encyclical is a letter from the Pope to instruct Catholic bishops in how they guide their congregations. Pope Francis riffs on that a bit by addressing the letter to all people living on the planet.

For the 5,100 Catholic bishops representing 1.2 billion Catholics, it is a directive. To the 801 million Christian Protestants and roughly 3.5 billion people of other faiths, it is a strong statement if not an example.

But does Laudato Si’ have anything to say to environmentalists, regardless of faith? I think so, and I suggest that everyone should put it on her reading list. It is accessible and beautifully written – think Wendell Barry meets Desmond Tutu with a dash of Naomi Klein.

Living our vocation to be protectors of God’s handiwork is essential to a life of virtue; it is not an optional or a secondary aspect of our Christian experience. (217)

The first thing that strikes me is the quality of the moral language Pope Francis uses. Notably, he contains most of the “Jesus stuff” in one section, presenting most of the letter in language accessible to anyone, regardless of faith. The environmental movement has gotten comfortable with moral language, such as justice or our responsibility to future generations, and Laudato Si’ gives this way of thinking fodder, freshness, and encouragement.

Using strong, unapologetic moral language, Pope Francis bubbles up two major themes that were already simmering within the environmental community:

Integral ecology: Everything is connected

“We are not faced with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather one complex crisis which is both social and environmental.”

Pope Francis touches on multiple issues including climate change – pollution, waste, consumerism, water, loss of biodiversity, agriculture, oceans, privatization of land, urban sprawl, employment, social exclusion, inequality, and politics.

By the way, the Pope was trained as a chemist, so he can definitely talk about science.

In a pretty pointed way, he criticizes capitalism as detrimental to both people and planet. He calls for an “integral ecology” in which ecology, economics, culture, society, and government are connected to uphold peace, love, and justice. This, in turn, sustains the natural world.

“An integral ecology calls for openness to categories which transcend the language of mathematics and biology, and take us to the heart of what it is to be human.” (11)

Local to global

Pope Francis presents the entire “ladder of engagement,” as environmental advocates might call it.

  1. He celebrates small, individual actions as reason for hope and progress.

  2. He calls for collective action through churches, neighborhoods, and cities.

  3. He moves to cultural and policy shifts.

  4. He implores international decision-making bodies to inspire new approaches to the global economy.

The “faith” part

From a particularly Christian perspective, Francis has broadcast the worldview of many people following different faiths in which caring for the natural world is essential. For environmental advocates who aren’t fluent in the faith-based case for “creation care”, the Pope gives a comprehensive summary, including these important themes:

Caring for creation: Many churches have gardens

Caring for creation: Many churches have gardens

“Creation” vs. “nature”

Simply put, “Creation” implies a “Creator”. In the Pope’s tradition, the Creator is the benevolent, redemptive One who brought all things into being out of love; who remains present and alive to all things; and brings about beauty, goodnesss, and truth. “Creation” includes all living beings, air, water, soil, the human-built environment, relationship, economy, and government.

Human beings have the potential for immense power over creation, including the capacity to love it and to take joy in sustaining it. Problems occur when we prioritize our vices and when the systems we’ve created become forgotten and anemic.

We have forgotten that we ourselves are dust of the earth (cf. Gen 2:7); our very bodies are made up of her elements, we breathe her air and we receive life and refreshment from her waters. (1-2)

Vice, conversion and hope

Pope Francis echos Gus Speth, who names the root causes of environmental degradation as selfishness, greed, and apathy. Moral failings in individuals or in societies – also called “sin” – are named unabashedly by Pope Francis as foundational for the interconnected suffering in our world.

This sister now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her. We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will. The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life. This is why the earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor; she “groans in travail” (Rom 8:22).

Whereas Speth concludes that scientists don’t know how to address these vices, Pope Francis offers faith-based concepts that do. He suggests a spiritual “conversion”, in which we name our “sins,” forgive ourselves, and follow a new path.

I also note that hope is the antidote virtue to the vice of despair, which is a real temptation in environmental work.

The urgent challenge to protect our common home includes a concern to bring the whole human family together to seek a sustainable and integral development, for we know that things can change. The Creator does not abandon us; [God] never forsakes [God’s] loving plan or repents of having created us. Humanity still has the ability to work together in building our common home. (13)

What can we –  as environmental advocates – learn from Laudato Si’?

This is a textbook example of how the right champion, with the right message, at the right time, to the right audience, can have an immeasurable impact.

Both the encyclical and the Pope's visit to the United States increased awareness about climate change across all American demographics

Both the encyclical and the Pope’s visit to the United States increased awareness about climate change across all American demographics

Consider the power of the faith community

Ecological and social sustainability. Re-imagining capitalism. Speaking truth to power.

This is the food the faith community is being fed through particular contexts and language. How can the environmental community engage them honestly and effectively?

Farley Lord Smith is the Founder and Principal at Wesley Walden, offering creative integration of faith-based approaches into the sustainability-community nexus.


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