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Vincent J. MillerOctober 05, 2023
Pope Francis greets Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg during his general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican in this file photo from April 17, 2019. In a new book, Pope Francis writes that people must learn from young people to care for the poor and for the environment. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

In “Laudate Deum,” Pope Francis revisits the themes of “Laudato Si’” after eight years—a clear sign of urgency for a Catholic Church that thinks in centuries. “Laudato Si’” combined a call for a moral response to our ecological crises with the joy of praising God together with the rest of the community of creation. “Laudate Deum” continues those themes, but in a much darker tone. If “Laudato Si’” wanted to engage all who live on our planet about “our common home” (No. 3), in “Laudate Deum” Francis speaks to “my brothers and sisters of our suffering planet” (No. 2) about “damages and risks” as extreme weather becomes commonplace and we push up against the 1.5 degrees Celsius limit agreed upon in the Paris Climate Accords.

It is informative to recall the context of the release of “Laudato Si’” in the summer of 2015. Pope Francis challenged world leaders to action amidst the hopeful lead up to the Paris climate meeting. This was widely greeted with enthusiasm—evident in the unprecedented editorial in the leading science journal Nature entitled “Hope from the Pope.” Francis would address the United Nations and the U.S. Congress later that year. Religious and civil society leaders and community groups spoke out, and the United Nations passed the Paris Climate Accords that December. They went into effect in April of 2016, as the United States and China (together responsible for 40 percent of current emissions) along with 192 other parties signed the agreement. “Laudato Si’” spoke forcefully, but diplomatically, to a global governance system that seemed able to address the civilizational challenge of climate change.

Idolatry kills.

Eight years of inadequate progress later, as emissions continue to rise, and atmospheric carbon dioxide levels have risen from 405 parts per million then to 423 .pm this summer. “Laudate Deum” is much more critical, devoting more than a third of its length to the weaknesses of international politics and the U.N. in addressing climate change. Although papal writing is usually known for diplomacy, Francis is shockingly direct: “It is no longer helpful for us to support institutions in order to preserve the rights of the more powerful without caring for those of all” (No. 43).

The pope calls to democratize international decision-making, which would require “spaces for conversation, consultation, arbitration, conflict resolution and supervision” (a call he can make with more legitimacy as the Synod on Synodality gets underway). He defends the actions of climate activist groups that are often negatively portrayed as “radicalized” as “filling in a space left empty by society as a whole,” which is failing to “pressure” decision makers as the future of its “children is at stake” (No. 43).

If “Laudato Si’” looked with hope to the COP 21 U.N. Climate Change meeting in Paris, “Laudate Deum” speaks in apprehension about next month’s COP 28 meeting, which is being hosted by the United Arab Emirates, “a great exporter of fossil fuels” (No. 53). Francis notes that although the United Arab Emirates have “made significant investments in renewable energy sources…gas and oil companies are planning new projects there, with the aim of increasing their production” (No. 53). Hope in the U.N. climate process remains but is presented as a stark choice against a bleak alternative: “To say there is nothing to hope for would be suicidal…exposing all humanity, especially the poorest to the worst impacts of climate change” (No. 53).

“Laudato Si’” spoke of climate change, but here Francis forcefully recounts its scientific evidence, referencing denial of its overwhelming evidence “even within the Catholic Church.”

COP 28 can either “change direction, showing that everything done since 1992 was in fact serious and worth the effort” or “jeopardize whatever good has been achieved thus far” and be “ seen only as a ploy to distract attention” (Nos. 54-55).

Francis offers more than moral principles. He specifies that COP 28 must make drastic and intense policy commitments to “binding forms of energy transition that meet three conditions: that they be efficient, obligatory and readily monitored” (No. 59).

“Laudato Si’” spoke of climate change, but here Francis forcefully recounts its scientific evidence, referencing denial of its overwhelming evidence “even within the Catholic Church” (No. 14). The letter is deeply realistic about the powerful interests that facilitate such denial: “marketing and false information, useful tools in the hands of those with greater resources to employ them to shape public opinion” (No. 29). Our leaders prioritize “maximum gain at minimal cost” (No. 31) and are thus unable to see the world burning around us.

Francis rejects easy optimism. “Laudato Si’” calls us to listen to the “cry of the earth” (No. 49), and “Laudate Deum” chronicles in detail the already irreversible damage we have done. Rising ocean temperatures (which reached unprecedented levels this summer) are already killing our fellow creatures “who have stopped being our companions” and have become “our victims” (No. 15). His discussion of climate change now includes a refusal to let “apocalyptic diagnoses” distract us from the “real possibility that we are approaching a critical point” (No. 17). Cascades of irreversible change events may already be unfolding, such as the collapse of tropical rainforests, ice sheets melting and permafrost thawing. He admits the real danger: That once these begin, it will be “too late, since no intervention will be able to halt a process once begun” (No. 17). Strong words for a demanding moment.

The theological bases of his argument remain squarely rooted in a biblical theology that views humans as part of the community of creation.

The theological bases of his argument remain squarely rooted in a biblical theology that views humans as part of the community of creation. The obstacle remains what “Laudato Si’” termed the “technocratic paradigm,” which views “nonhuman reality as a mere resource at its disposal” (No. 22). Francis’ language here is dire: “admiration at progress blinded us to the horror of its consequences” (No. 24). Humans “stand naked and exposed in the face of our ever-expanding power, lacking the wherewithal to control it” (No. 24). Francis, who has coined many memorable phrases, offers here a particularly dark one: the “homicidal pragmatism” of the belief that our problems can be solved solely by “technical interventions” (No. 57).

The exhortation ends starkly—not with a formulaic prayer or formal closing remark—but with the theological equivalent of a mic drop:

“‘Praise God’ is the title of this letter. For when human beings claim to take God’s place, they become their own worst enemies” (No. 73).

Idolatry kills.

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