The Environmental Encyclical is Out – Now What?

Last week, Pope Francis released his first major teaching letter, Laudato si’ (“Praise Be,” invoking the opening lines of St. Francis of Assisi’s canticle, “Brother Sun and Sister Moon”). An encyclical years in the making, it weaves together science and theology, ecology and economics to urge not only Catholics and other Christians, but all members of the human family to take better care of our common home, planet earth.


Some have scoffed at the science – there are even those who claim Pope Francis and his advisors have been duped by a political agenda masquerading as science. Others have questioned the theological veracity of these claims or the weight of this teaching. These responses are mere distractions, especially when taking into account the data itself on climate change as well as the long tradition stressing care for our world—going all the way back to the accounts of creation in Scripture, like Genesis 9:9-10, which make humans covenant partners not only with God but also the rest of creation—thus the principle of Catholic social teaching which stresses the God-given duty to be good stewards of creation (highlighted throughout the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, for example). In fact, the better question might be: what’s all the fuss about?, since it’s been 25 years since John Paul II claimed:

“Today the ecological crisis has assumed such proportions as to be the responsibility of everyone … When the ecological crisis is set within the broader context of the search for peace within society, we can understand better the importance of giving attention to what the earth and its atmosphere are telling us: namely, that there is an order in the universe which must be respected, and that the human person, endowed with the capability of choosing freely, has a grave responsibility to preserve this order for the well-being of future generations. I wish to repeat that the ecological crisis is a moral issue. Even men and women without any particular religious conviction, but with an acute sense of their responsibilities for the common good, recognize their obligation to contribute to the restoration of a healthy environment. All the more should men and women who believe in God the Creator, and who are thus convinced that there is a well-defined unity and order in the world, feel called to address the problem. Christians, in particular, realize that their responsibility within creation and their duty towards nature and the Creator are an essential part of their faith.” (emphasis added)

Republican presidential contender Jeb Bush is not necessarily wrong when he admitted that he doesn’t “get economic policy from [his] bishops or [his] cardinal or [his] pope.” The Church isn’t in the business of writing policy (as Cardinal Wuerl explained on Fox). But its theological and moral teachings ought to be sources of wisdom used to strengthen and otherwise improve practices and policies, which is why it is problematic when Bush continued, “I think religion ought to be about making us better as people and less about things that end up getting in the political realm.”

The very point of politics is to take proper care of the polis, the shared community of citizens. That isn’t a theological claim; that’s the basic point of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics (who argued that inquiry into the good, or virtue, must necessarily extend into the public or shared realm of human affairs for that good/virtue to be shared; Cicero made a similar claim in The Republic; the word “republic” literally stems from the Latin “res publica” – the shared thing). The whole point of governance is to create order, stability, security, and opportunities for development for the members of its community. Pope Francis is qualifying this in saying that our political and economic systems are subsystems within a larger context: the integral ecological order of all creation. If we think our subsystem is the only system that matters, we will wreak havoc on not just ourselves, but the whole created order. Francis is asserting that what is missing is equity between human ecology and the larger natural ecology, and, that instead of opportunities for development for some members of the human community, we need new political and economic systems that will provide more equitable opportunities for integral (all-inclusive, interdependent) development for all members of the created order. Francis isn’t critiquing progress; in the spirit of environmental philosopher John Muir, he is insisting, “Not blind opposition to progress, but opposition to blind progress.” Which is precisely where this essential component of Christian faith (see the quote from Pope John Paul II above) to take responsibility for creation can and should be relevant and meaningful for economics and politics. The current system isn’t working, and Pope Francis is offering a much-needed critique to change the status quo. As Laudato si’ claims:

“It is remarkable how weak international political responses have been. The failure of global summits on the environment make it plain that our politics are subject to technology and finance. There are too many special interests, and economic interests easily end up trumping the common good and manipulating information so that their own plans will not be affected … Consequently the most one can expect is superficial rhetoric, sporadic acts of philanthropy and perfunctory expressions of concern for the environment, whereas any genuine attempt by groups within society to introduce change is viewed as a nuisance based on romantic illusions or an obstacle to be circumvented” (#54).

Those who make this encyclical about taking sides in the obstreperous debates about the root causes or impending effects of climate change or the merits of one political party versus another miss the point. Pope Francis is following his predecessors’ emphasis on the essential link between Christian faith and responsibility as creatures to other parts of creation.   This is an inclusive call to all to recognize the integrity of all creation (a key focus of the encyclical, since the word “all” appears more than 400 times in the document) so that we might embrace our interdependence with all creation and act in such a way that does justice to each part of the whole created order revealing itself as a sacrament of the divine: “As Christians, we are also called to ‘accept the world as a sacrament of communion, as a way of sharing with God and our neighbors on a global scale’” (#9).

In my eyes, this is a beautiful and brilliant piece of writing. It speaks so eloquently about a tradition of philosophy and theology that cares deeply about the common good (or in this case, “our common home”). It is a call to conscience (#105), to ecological conversion (#5), and moral growth (#127). There have been numerous reflections on this document rich in insight and meaning (see for example, those listed here or here). I applaud those who are echoing Pope Francis’ call to build consensus across religious, political, economic, and social differences (#164), improved appreciation and understanding of the goodness of creation (#215), and increased awareness of the temptations, threats, and other dangers which obfuscate our duties to our common home and eclipse human dignity (#56).

And yet, the encyclical has only been out a week and already it has fallen out of the current news cycle. Sure, some churches will organize reading groups around the document, some teachers will add it to their syllabi, and it may get more attention in a few months at the upcoming UN Conference on Climate Change in Paris. But aside from this, what good will Laudato si’ produce if all those who read it or read about it don’t do something? In other words, with this encyclical, Pope Francis has given us both a gift and a task; the question is, how are we going to respond to each of these?

Aside from Kerry Weber’s reflection on 7 ways to live like Pope Francis, I haven’t seen many articles that try to translate this document into our everyday lived reality (some notable exceptions would include: Chris Pramuk’s connection between the encyclical and the tragic shooting in Charleston and Tim O’Malley’s work to unpack implications for liturgy). I’m not the only one to make this observation, of course, as encyclicals are notoriously difficult in translating from principles to practices. It would violate the virtue of prudence and the sanctity of conscience for the pope to tell every reader what to do next. And yet, the critical “next step” is one of action. As such, Pope Francis concludes the document with a strong call to action throughout Chapters 5 and 6. But in speaking about the need for leadership, dialogue, and shared moral norms, there is a stark disconnect between individuals reading the document and those responsible for the kind of regulatory policies and laws that can create effective change.

So what are we to do?

Some might join other Christians working to make more explicit the link between being committed to social justice and environmental action. The Catholic Climate Covenant and Catholic Relief Service are two excellent places to start, although there are countless others, both religious (like the Quakers) and secular (like the Sierra Club). Some might petition their institutions to divest from fossil fuels (as Stanford University decided to do last year), a movement some say might pick up steam following this encyclical (although this particular issue is not addressed therein). There may even be some individuals who decide to eat less meat or go vegetarian, citing the fact that the global livestock industry produces more greenhouse gasses than all methods of transportation combined (to say nothing of the water and other natural resources in short supply required to raise livestock – which amounts to something like 920 gallons of water for an 8 oz. steak).

I hope readers of the encyclical will contact their elected officials and make it clear that the environment is an important political and economic matter. (Incidentally, I recently learned two pieces of advice for such communication: first, don’t use the phrase “climate change” since it’s too politically controversial; second, it’s important for politicians to see and hear that the environment isn’t just a concern of crunchy-granola, Birkenstock-wearing tree-huggers—which is the actual phrase that was used, not my generalization). Certainly Laudato si’ provides a firm foundation for such conversations. I hope readers will think more carefully about their carbon footprint (which you can calculate here – and given Pope Francis’ explicit link between care for the earth and the poorest of the poor, this should not be in opposition to confronting our slavery footprint). Maybe this document will help more of us be more intentional about the purchases we make and our power as consumers (the Better World Shopping Guide is one helpful tool; Everyday Justice is another).

Indeed, the “ecological conversion” urged in Laudato si’ is sorely needed in this country more than any other: Americans have the largest impact on the environment and rank last in sustainable behavior or guilt about our impact on the world around us.

But what does an “ecological conversion” require? It has to mean more than following National Geographic on Instagram or watching Greenpeace International videos on YouTube. Even with all the time we spend behind a screen, the answer cannot be found on Facebook or Twitter.

One of my favorite parts of Laudato si’ is actually a quote from a 2005 homily by Pope Benedict XVI, “The external deserts in the world are growing, because the internal deserts have become so vast.” If everyone on the planet consumed at the rate of Americans, we would need at least 4 Earths to provide for everyone. It’s one thing to call for a more moderate pace of consumption of energy, resources, and products (and a more temperate production of waste). But Laudato si’ is going even deeper. It’s asking us to think about why we consume so much. What is underneath that desire to purchase, possess, and use?

In his book, Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire, William Cavanaugh turns this question all the way back to Augustine. Augustine’s insight in Confessions is that to be human is to be fundamentally restless, which, in Augustine’s view is a good thing because it keeps us from being satisfied by anything except that which can ultimately fill us: God (who is our ultimate end, or telos). Being human means being hardwired for God, who is our deepest desire underneath the multitudinous, often fleeting desires we might be responding to more impulsively. Yet Augustine also recognizes the ways in which desire is a social production: our desires are shaped by the world around us and those with whom we interact. In the face of these desires, freedom isn’t capriciously following our desires; it’s being mindful about cultivating true desires. As Cavanaugh writes, “This is not just a matter of wanting too much; it is a matter of wanting without any idea why we want what we want … To desire with no telos, no connection to the objective end of desire, is to desire nothing and to become nothing” (14). Without any specific aim in mind, in other words, the search is literally endless. It is an aimless wandering in the desert, not just in the sense of being alienated and meaningless, but in laying waste to the world around us as we try to fill the void within.

The internal deserts referenced by Pope Benedict XVI are not by accident or by defect in being human. They are—just as Augustine recognized so long ago—socially constructed. We live in a world bombarding us with images and messages that try to make us believe that our value is tied to having and doing; that we can be loved only by marking ourselves with the right symbols, logos, brands, and trademarks. Advertisements feed on our insecurity and push us to conform to standards that can be racist, sexist, and homophobic (and have little to no regard for our impact on the world around us). This insecurity fuels our incessant consumption, which can lead either to a desire for dominance or a spiral downward spurred by fear that we are not, in fact, good or lovable, all of which contravenes the accounts of creation we find in Genesis: all of creation is very good as it is (Gen. 1:36; importantly, the text does not say creation is useful; the value is not tied to some instrumental function toward another end other than itself).


In Laudato si’, Pope Francis makes a personal appeal to his reader, asking that we might grow in an “awareness that each creature reflects something of God and has a message to convey to us, and the security that Christ has taken unto himself this material world and now, risen, is intimately present to each being, surrounding it with his affection and penetrating it with his light.” He continues:

Then too, there is the recognition that God created the world, writing into it an order and a dynamism that human beings have no right to ignore. We read in the Gospel that Jesus says of the birds of the air that “not one of them is forgotten before God” (Lk 12:6). How then can we possibly mistreat them or cause them harm? I ask all Christians to recognize and to live fully this dimension of their [ecological] conversion. May the power and the light of the grace we have received also be evident in our relationship to other creatures and to the world around us. In this way, we will help nurture that sublime fraternity with all creation which Saint Francis of Assisi so radiantly embodied” (#221).

He also asks his reader to pray, giving thanks to God before and after meals, since this “moment of blessing, however brief, reminds us of our dependence on God for life; it strengthens our feeling of gratitude for the gifts of creation; it acknowledges those who by their labors provide us with these goods; and it reaffirms our solidarity with those in greatest need” (#227).

Pope Francis is calling for Christians to take up a “sacramental vision,” to see with eyes that recognize the whole world and all members of creation as good, as sacred, and revealing the divine (#9). Prayer is a practice to help us see the world as God does and try to love as God loves (Jn 13:34) and might foster a “sacramental imagination” capable of creating new possibilities for communication and collaboration among the world’s 7 billion people in service of this fragile, intricate, interdependent created order. It could produce wonder, awe, and appreciation strong enough to subvert the “globalization of indifference” that Pope Francis has previously lamented (or the “globalization of superficiality” as others have called it) and lead to the recalibration of desires toward a telos of right-relationship and integral development. It might generate the moral imagination and will to demand the construction of political and economic practices, policies, and laws to promote the common good, and thus preserve our common home—the home, which the opening lines of this encyclical remind us, “is like a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us” (#1).

Such a beautiful gift and task. How will you respond?