There is a story within the story of Laudato Sì – Pope Francis’ landmark encyclical letter “On the Care of our Common Home.” The letter is an overview of the environmental crisis from a religious point of view. Until the publication of the Pope’s important document one year ago on June 18, the dialogue about the environment had been framed mainly using political, scientific and economic language. Now, the language of faith enters the discussion - clearly, decisively and systematically.
The encyclical is addressed to "everyone living on this planet" and calls for a new way of looking at things. We face an urgent crisis, when the earth has begun to look more and more like, in the Pope’s vivid image, "an immense pile of filth". Still, the document is hopeful, reminding us that because God is with us, all of us can strive to change course. We can move towards an "ecological conversion" in which we can listen to the "cry of the earth and the cry of the poor". This is a deeply uncomfortable encyclical because it is not content simply to face up to the institutional and moral issues of climate change and environmental degradation, but addresses the deeper tragedy of humanity itself.
“Laudato Sì” is a privileged instrument of Evangelization of our contemporary world because it strives to answer the deeper questions about ecology and the environment within God’s revelation as found in his creation and the teachings of the Catholic Church. At this critical moment in history, what is at stake is not just our respect for biodiversity, but our very survival. Scientists calculate that those most harmed by global warming in the future will be the most vulnerable and marginalized. The dignity and rights of human beings are intimately and integrally related to the beauty and the rights of the earth itself. After all, who will dare to speak for the voiceless resources of our planet? Who will step up to protect the silent diversity of its species? Will our generation accept responsibility for pushing our environment over the tipping-point?
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Christian spirituality has a precious contribution to make in responding to the environment crisis because it “can motivate us to a more passionate concern for the protection of our world,” (LS §216). For Francis, spirituality does not mean turning away from the world. There is a mystical meaning to be found in everything in the universe. A good spirituality finds God not only in the interior of our hearts but also in creatures outside of ourselves, whether it be “in a leaf, in a mountain trail, in a dewdrop, in a poor person’s face.” (LS §233)
At the heart Laudato Sì is this question: “What kind of world do we want to leave to those who come after us, to children who are now growing up?” Pope Francis continues: “This question does not have to do with the environment alone and in isolation; the issue cannot be approached piecemeal”. (LS §160) This leads us to ask ourselves about the meaning of existence and its values at the base of social life: “What is the purpose of our life in this world? Why are we here? What is the goal of our work and all our efforts? What need does the earth have of us?” (LS §160)
Laudato Sì is not simply a random sampling of issues that the Bishop of Rome considers important for our understanding of the environmental crisis of our times: “the noise and distractions of information overload”; access to clean drinking water; the crisis of hope in a “better tomorrow”; “the myth of progress”; modern architecture; the “culture of relativism”; drug abuse in rich countries; the need to accept “one’s own body in its femininity or masculinity” and how it is “not healthy to cancel out sexual difference”; the diversity of species; rising sea levels; global inequality. Pope Francis’ tone is passionate, personal and urgent. He has drafted this major encyclical letter with the mind and heart of a disciple of Jesus and the pen and voice of a prophet who has seen and personally experienced the grave injustices and ugliness that human beings can cause on this earth.
With Laudato Sì, Pope Francis has encouraged us all to care for others and for the gift of God’s creation. He has touched people’s hearts and moved them to action. Laudato Sì addresses a moral issue. It is a call to care for others. It is a call to care for God’s creation. It speaks of Catholic distinctiveness. It invites us to an integral ecology. We are called to live an integrated life rooted in what Pope Francis calls an “integral ecology.” We’re called to cooperate with God’s design in our relationship with the natural world and with one another. When we get these intertwined relationships right, we grow closer to God. We understand that our individual decisions have social consequences. We recognize the strong link between respecting human dignity and care for the natural world. We know that population isn’t the problem: it’s the throwaway culture that’s the problem.
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Pope Francis’ Encyclical
Pope Francis’ document on ecology puts the human person firmly at the center and draw attention to the connection between environmental problems and poverty. Such a document is urgently needed to correct many philosophical and theological errors that have crept into the environmental movement. Ecological efforts that seemingly begin with the program of saving our environment quickly run their logic to the point where the environment takes absolute priority over human beings. When taken to the extreme, many make the erroneous claim that the human person is simply one of a very large number of species, all equally valuable and enjoying the same rights.
Over the past year I have had the privilege of addressing many groups, including Church leaders, throughout North America on this important encyclical. I am convinced that Laudato Sì is a privileged instrument and catalyst of dialogue with other Christians, with believers of other religions, with people of little or no faith, and with people of good will. The questions that the encyclical raises have elicited intense, serious and passionate dialogue. One year after the publication of this masterful teaching document of the Roman Catholic Church, let us ask some questions of how we have truly “received” the encyclical in our ecclesial community and put it into practice.
- What does Pope Francis mean by a "throwaway culture" (22)? Do you agree with him? Why?
- What are the effects on people's lives of environmental deterioration, current models of development, and the throwaway culture (43-47)?
- Why does Pope Francis think that simply reducing birth rates of the poor is not a just or adequate response to the problem of poverty or environmental degradation (50)?
- Why does Pope Francis argue that "we are faced not with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather with one complex crisis which is both social and environmental" (139)?
- What does Pope Francis see as the successes and failures of the global response to environmental issues (166-169)?
- What does the Pope mean by an ecological spirituality, and how can it motivate us to a passionate concern for the protection of our world (216)?
- Pope Francis proposes that the natural world is integral to our sacramental and spiritual lives (233-242). How have you experienced this?
- How is this encyclical changing your life and your way of thinking about the world that God so loved?
Laudato Si’ must be read not only as a work of Catholic social teaching, but also as great instrument of the first Evangelization and the new Evangelization, and a witness to ecumenism and interreligious dialogue. Pope Francis’ letter reflects a profound confidence and openness to the world. The encyclical is a perfect example of how the Church, at the highest level, understands the modern world, enters into a profound dialogue with the world, and repeats again her age-old message of salvation in a new way. With this landmark encyclical letter, Pope Francis lays the groundwork for a new Christian humanism, rooted in the simple and beautiful image of Jesus that he presents for the world’s consideration. For in the end, it is in the name and mission of Jesus of Nazareth that the Pope issues his call to conversion – a compelling invitation to each of us to look at the earth and all of its creatures with the loving eyes and heart of Jesus Christ.
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Fr. Thomas Rosica, CSB, is CEO of the Salt and Light Catholic Media Foundation in Canada. He also serves as English language Media Attaché to the Holy See Press Office.