Pope Francis’ long-awaited encyclical, Laudato Si, was released to the world in its final form last month. Shortly after becoming pope, Francis signaled his intention to release an environmentally-minded encyclical, and the letter has attracted significant media attention for its strong words on the need to protect the environment. This is especially true in the United States, given the way polarized political attitudes feed a contentious debate about the reality of climate change despite a worldwide scientific consensus on the matter.
The media focus in the run-up to the encyclical’s release was centered on climate change and humanity’s relationship with the environment, sometimes framing it in light of religion’s supposedly antagonistic relationship with scientific thought. Many stories analyzed the encyclical through the prism of American politics—the willingness of uber-popular Pope Francis to take on such a hot-button issue. Depending on whom you ask, this is either a praiseworthy move from the Bishop of Rome or a gross overreach of Rome into politics.
But to reduce Laudato Si to a document entirely about climate change, or even simply one on environmental concerns, is to mistakenly narrow the scope of the encyclical and Francis’ intentions. Laudato Si does not limit itself to ecology in the biological sense, but addresses it in the much wider, radical sense of oikos, the Greek concept of ‘home’ and ‘dwelling place.’
This concept of ‘home’ rather than ‘nature’ is evident in the encyclical’s subtitle: ‘On care of the common home.’ Francis certainly writes out of concern for the world’s plant and animal life and for the natural resources of our world. But he is more broadly intent on showing that “nature cannot be regarded as something separate from ourselves or as a mere setting in which we live.” Beyond the environment, beyond climate change, the key issue is every aspect of our relationship, as humanity, with the world, our home.
Francis’ primary concern is one of relationships, and Laudato Si is a careful yet adamant call for humanity to urgently reevaluate its relationship with Creation—to recognize itself as part of, not superior to, Creation.
With copious scientific backing, Francis takes on climate change and other environmental concerns because they threaten our common home and are born from humanity’s imbalanced relationship with our environment, but he also writes of other threats which are just as concerning.
Increasing dependency on technology and corporatism, callousness towards the needs of the poor, and the frequently-cited ‘throwaway culture’ are all equally critical threats in Francis’ eyes, symptoms of a disease much greater and more central than fossil fuels and greenhouse gasses—a disease that has caused us to lose touch with our place in Creation, to lose touch with healthy relationships, to lose sight of what Francis terms ‘integral ecology.’
This beating heart of the letter, that “[w]e are not faced with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather one complex crisis which is both social and environmental” has already found itself overshadowed in the headlines that focus on climate change alone, undermining the very core of what Francis is trying to communicate.
To fully appreciate Laudato Si , we must recognize this refinement of ‘ecology’ and that Francis’ environmental concerns, though a core focus of the encyclical, are merely an illustrative example of a larger crisis of relationship with our world and with one another that is the very heart of his message.
Matt Gritzmacher is a freelance writer based in Washington DC.