On June 18th, the Catholic Church officially released Pope Francis' encyclical on the environment. The encyclical's title, Laudato Si ("praise be" in Latin), is a reference to a canticle by Saint Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of the environment. While Pope Francis is not the first pontiff to address environmental issues, he is the first to devote a papal encyclical to the subject.
The encyclical comes at a time when many Catholics believe that humans must live responsibly upon the Earth, according to research by the Public Religion Research Institute. This is reflected in the efforts of organizations such as Catholic Climate Covenant and in initiatives such as the USCCB's Environmental Justice Program. Laudato Si speaks to the concerns of environmentally-conscious Catholics while addressing humanity at large.
In the encyclical, Pope Francis addresses every person on the planet, lamenting that humans have abused Earth and likening Earth to "the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor".
"This sister [Earth] 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). 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."The Pope chides those who interpret scripture in ways that sanction environmentally destructive practices, rejecting the idea of absolute human dominion over creation.
"We are not God. The earth was here before us and it has been given to us. This allows us to respond to the charge that Judaeo-Christian thinking, on the basis of the Genesis account which grants man "dominion" over the earth (cf. Gen 1:28), has encouraged the unbridled exploitation of nature by painting him as domineering and destructive by nature. This is not a correct interpretation of the Bible as understood by the Church. Although it is true that we Christians have at times incorrectly interpreted the Scriptures, nowadays we must forcefully reject the notion that our being created in God's image and given dominion over the earth justifies absolute domination over other creatures."The encyclical acknowledges widespread concern about the environment among scientists, philosophers, civic groups, and religious thinkers, thanking those who have labored to protect the natural world. However, it also observes that apathy and "obstructionist attitudes" have impeded environmental action.
"Regrettably, many efforts to seek concrete solutions to the environmental crisis have proved ineffective, not only because of powerful opposition but also because of a more general lack of interest. Obstructionist attitudes, even on the part of believers, can range from denial of the problem to indifference, nonchalant resignation or blind confidence in technical solutions. We require a new and universal solidarity."Laudato Si discusses the impact of environmental harm on humans, especially on poor populations. Climate change, loss of biodiversity, pollution, bioaccumulation of toxins, poor water quality, and wasteful "throwaway culture" are turning the planet into "an immense pile of filth", Pope Francis writes. The encyclical highlights the social dimensions of environmental harm, such as urban pollution, lack of green spaces, and exacerbation of social inequalities. In the real of international relations, an "ecological debt" exists between the global north and south that reflects economic and social injustices.
Pope Francis declares that the natural world is a common good, which humans must preserve by changing their practices and retarding global warming.
"The climate is a common good, belonging to all and meant for all. At the global level, it is a complex system linked to many of the essential conditions for human life ... Humanity is called to recognize the need for changes of lifestyle, production and consumption, in order to combat this [global] warming or at least the human causes with produce or aggravate it."As my readers know, I've been disappointed with Pope Francis' stance on women's issues and LGBTQ issues. However, I have great respect for his recent environmental advocacy. Laudato Si is a timely and urgent call for enlightened environmental action on an individual, social, and international scale. Pope Francis educated himself about a range of environmental issues, including the social impact of environmental decline. The encyclical has great potential to educate Catholics about environmental harm and inspire them to take action.
However, the spirit of the encyclical is at odds with the Catholic Church's ban on family planning measures. A church that rejects contraception and abortion is ignoring key elements in the ways that human behavior impacts the natural world. When women cannot control if, when, and how many children they bear, overpopulation results, leading to increased consumption for natural resources. When women cannot exert control over their reproductive lives, they are more likely to become mired in poverty, which renders them even vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. If we want to protect the environment, reproductive freedom must be part of the conversation. The Catholic Church must understand this before it can truly help the poor or the environment.
While the Catholic Church is behind the times in many ways, Laudato Si shows that it is enlightened when it comes to modern environmental matters. What environmental efforts will emerge now that the encyclical has been released? Can the church bring the rest of its outmoded thinking up to speed?