The Pope's Encyclical Demands Action
Pope Francis, the first pope from the developing world, has released the first papal encyclical focusing exclusively on the environment entitled “Laudato Si: On Care for Our Common Home.” Although its the first encyclical to focus on the environment, Francis liberally quotes his predecessors and a wide berth of sources to underscore both religious precedent for environmental concern and the universality of the demand for action. The encyclical condemns the profit-driven market system and myopic political action that have failed to address climate change, disproportionately affecting the world’s poorest.
The Pope’s goal, he makes clear, is to stir a broad global movement that results in concrete policy changes this November and beyond. He makes it clear that the encyclical is intended “to address every person living on this planet.” This was underscored by the three speakers who launched the document, a Vatican cardinal, a Greek Orthodox theologian and an atheist scientist.
The title itself comes from Saint Francis — the Pope’s namesake — and the encyclical opens with his hymn:
“Laudato si’, mi’ Signore” – “Praise be to you, my Lord”. In the words of this beautiful canticle, Saint Francis of Assisi reminds us that our common home is like a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us. “Praise be to you, my Lord, through our Sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us, and who produces various fruit with coloured flowers and herbs”.
Pope Francis goes on to condemn our mistreatment of the earth: "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 dangerously hubristic, he stresses: "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.”
Francis even goes so far as to condemn Christians who use the passage of Genesis granting man dominion over the earth to justify ecological damage as misinterpreting the bible. "This is not a correct interpretation of the Bible as understood by the Church,” he writes forcefully. He instead encourages an interpretation based on the directive to ‘till and keep’ the garden of the world (cf. Gen 2:15), arguing that “‘Tilling’ refers to cultivating, ploughing or working, while ‘keeping’ means caring, protecting, overseeing and preserving. This implies a relationship of mutual responsibility between human beings and nature.”
Many scientists have welcomed the Pope’s encyclical as it bridges a gap between morality and science they are wary to pass themselves. As the New York Times reports:
“Within the scientific community, there is almost a code of honor that you will never transgress the red line between pure analysis and moral issues,” said Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, founder and chairman of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research. “But we are now in a situation where we have to think about the consequences of our insight for society.”
The Pope fiercely criticizes our political shortsightedness and focus on short-term profits:
“A politics concerned with immediate results, supported by consumerist sectors of the population, is driven to produce short-term growth. In response to electoral interests, governments are reluctant to upset the public with measures which could affect the level of consumption or create risks for foreign investment. The myopia of power politics delays the inclusion of a far-sighted environmental agenda within the overall agenda of governments.”
He stresses the moral imperative of “assessing the impact of our every action and personal decision on the world around us,” encouraging consumers to boycott goods and companies that fail to meet ecological and social standards. But while individual economic choices are important, they are not sufficient in and of themselves. The Pope stresses the need to move away from our “throwaway” consumer culture and obsession with profits. Broad social movements need to be built. “If we can overcome individualism, we will truly be able to develop a different lifestyle and bring about significant changes in society,” he urges.
“The strategy of buying and selling ‘carbon credits’ can lead to a new form of speculation which would not help reduce the emission of polluting gases worldwide. This system seems to provide a quick and easy solution under the guise of a certain commitment to the environment, but in no way does it allow for the radical change which present circumstances require. Rather, it may simply become a ploy which permits maintaining the excessive consumption of some countries and sectors.”
This passage will undoubtedly cause a stir among environmentalists, many who champion carbon credits as the most practical tool available to stem climate change. While controversial, the passage alludes the Pope’s more radical critique of capitalism.
He is also highly critical of technological solutions that lack a social and moral dimension: "our immense technological development has not been accompanied by a development in human responsibility, values and conscience. Each age tends to have only a meagre awareness of its own limitations. It is possible that we do not grasp the gravity of the challenges now before us.” This in many ways is one of the Pope’s most important critiques. We have the technological capability to stem climate change and end poverty, but we have failed to wield this technology to achieve such ends, instead using our technologies to extract wealth from earth and enrichen a few. Hopefully “Laudato Si” will act as a spark to change that.
And the Pope has hope such a change is within our capabilities:
“All is not lost. Human beings, while capable of the worst, are also capable of rising above themselves, choosing again what is good, and making a new start, despite their mental and social conditioning. We are able to take an honest look at ourselves, to acknowledge our deep dissatisfaction, and to embark on new paths to authentic freedom. No system can completely suppress our openness to what is good, true and beautiful, or our God-given ability to respond to his grace at work deep in our hearts. I appeal to everyone throughout the world not to forget this dignity which is ours. No one has the right to take it from us.”
Do you think the pope's encyclical can spark a mass movement and urge action on climate change?