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Jaime L. WatersOctober 11, 2023
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On Oct. 4, 2023, the feast of St. Francis of Assisi, Pope Francis released his apostolic exhortation “Laudate Deum” (“Praise God”), a follow up to “Laudato Si’.” The highly anticipated text draws on the earlier encyclical, adding more specific and focused critiques of the state of affairs on climate change. The intensity of Francis’ concern is palpable and is meant to inspire decisive actions, especially by countries responsible for the largest greenhouse gas emissions, in particular the United States.

The theological roots of Francis’ statements are discernible in the text, and his scriptural quotations and allusions offer ways to think and act theologically in light of ecological crises. In Section 6, Francis makes an explicit statement to the Catholic faithful that “we know that authentic faith not only gives strength to the human heart, but also transforms life, transfigures our goals and sheds light on our relationship to others and with creation as a whole” (No. 61). Francis connects faith with transformation and action in support of all creation, and he uses biblical texts to inform this powerful assertion.

Reflections on Creation

The title and the first and last paragraphs of “Laudate Deum” reveal the influence of the Book of Psalms on Pope Francis. Several psalms call on creation to praise God. Psalm 148, for instance, directly addresses angels, the cosmos, land, vegetation, weather phenomena, and nonhuman and human animals alike. All are exhorted to praise their creator:

Praise him, sun and moon;

praise him, all shining stars.

Praise him, highest heavens,

you waters above the heavens.

Praise the LORD from the earth,

you sea monsters and all the deeps of the sea;

Lightning and hail, snow and thick clouds,

storm wind that fulfill his command;

Mountains and all hills,

fruit trees and all cedars;

Animals wild and tame,

creatures that crawl and birds that fly;

Kings of the earth and all peoples,

princes and all who govern on earth;

Young men and women too,

old and young alike.

Let them all praise the Lord’s name, for his name alone is exalted,

His majesty above earth and heaven.

Ps 148:3-4, 7-13

Psalm 148 and other psalms about creation influenced Pope Francis and also St. Francis of Assisi, who is referred to in both “Laudato Si’” and “Laudate Deum.” For instance, in “The Canticle of Brother Sun” (also called “The Canticle of the Creatures”), St. Francis draws on language and imagery in the psalms, infusing familial language of brother, sister and mother into his vision of creation.

Psalm 148 and St. Francis’ canticle invite readers to see themselves among creation, not better than or separate from it. The Book of Psalms offers a variety of prayers and songs that reflect on creation’s relationship to creator and humanity’s relationship and responsibility to other creatures, including Psalms 8, 33, 104, 145 and 150.

Likewise, Pope Francis quotes Genesis 1, which affirms the goodness of all creation: “God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good” (v. 31). Throughout that chapter creation is repeatedly called good as a recurring refrain. God speaks creation into existence, gazes upon it and recognizes its goodness. As humans are created in God’s image (v. 27), we are called to imitate God’s recognition and care for creation. Genesis 1 provides theological grounding for human responsibility.

A Shift in Language

In “Laudate Deum,” Pope Francis incorporates a more nuanced perspective on humanity’s relationship to land than what was prominent in “Laudato Si’.” In “Laudato Si’,” Pope Francis on multiple occasions refers to land as gift. When discussing biblical legal texts about land ownership, management and sharing resources in “Laudato Si’,” Pope Francis says biblical laws attempted to ensure balance and fairness, acknowledging that “the gift of the earth with its fruits belongs to everyone” (No. 71). Elsewhere in the encyclical, he refers to the world as “a gift from the Father and our common home” (No. 155) and “a gift which we have freely received and must share with others” (No. 159). The language of gift and connection to sharing is meant to instill care, concern and love, especially for vulnerable populations. He argues that gift language ought to inspire people to imitate God in God’s care for creation (No. 220). Unfortunately, language like this can be and likely has been interpreted in more negative ways than Francis intends here.

Referring to the earth as gift opens the door to a level of control and freedom that could result in misuse and abuse. Gift implies personal ownership, and it could be misinterpreted as the ability to act freely, even recklessly, since a gift is something that is possessed. Such a mindset is of concern to Pope Francis in “Laudate Deum,” which might be why gift language is almost entirely absent from the new document. The one mention of gift is in reference to natural resources that are needed to sustain technology, which we should honor but not rely upon too heavily: “Everything that exists ceases to be a gift for which we should be thankful, esteem and cherish, and instead becomes a slave, prey to any whim of the human mind and its capacities” (No. 22).

Referring to the earth as gift opens the door to a level of control and freedom that could result in misuse and abuse.

Francis seeks to curb human actions that have negatively affected the earth, and he draws from Leviticus and Deuteronomy to reframe the human relationship to land. In his section on spiritual motivations, Francis brings together several quotation from biblical legal texts from the Bible: “[God’s] is ‘the earth with all that is in it’ (Dt 10:14). For this reason, [God] tells us that, ‘the land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; with me you are but aliens and tenants’ (Lv 25:23).” Drawing on these verses, Pope Francis seeks to shift our language and attitude toward the earth and its resources. We are renters on a land that belongs to God, and that emphasis (rather than thinking of land as gifted by God), is a slight but powerful theological adjustment to encourage more conservation and restraint and less consumption and mishandling.

More Texts to Consider

There are many texts that we should consider to enhance our spiritual motivations to address ecological crises. The prophets of the Old Testament are a notable resource, especially Hosea, Joel, Amos, Isaiah and Jeremiah. They offer vivid and evocative depictions of the earth mourning, often in response to human actions or divine commands. The prophets are frequently critical of human wrongdoing, and they connect human actions with the cries of the earth, language that Pope Francis uses to speak metaphorically of climate change.

The Book of Joel contains descriptions of reactions by humans, animals and the land to ecological disaster, and the urgent tone has resonances with Pope Francis’ exhortation.

“Listen to this, you elders!

Pay attention, all who dwell in the land!

Has anything like this ever happened in your lifetime,

or in the lifetime of your ancestors?

Report it to your children.

Have your children report it to their children,

and their children to the next generation. (1:2-3)

The field is devastated;

the farmland mourns,

Because the grain is devastated,

the wine has dried up,

the oil has failed. (1:10)

The seed lies shriveled beneath clods of dirt;

the storehouses are emptied.

The granaries are broken down,

for the grain is dried up.

How the animals groan!

The herds of cattle are bewildered!

Because they have no pasture,

Even the flocks of sheep are starving. (1:17-18)

The Book of Jeremiah, similarly, includes images of the earth responding to human failures, and God recognizes the cries of the earth. God criticizes humans for failing to keep covenantal obligations, which causes the earth to mourn:

“They have made it a mournful waste,

desolate before me,

Desolate, the whole land,

because no one takes it to heart.” (12:11)

During a period of drought, Jeremiah characterizes ecological change as the earth mourning. The lack of water causes land to dry up, and people and animals respond with shame, grief and behavioral changes as they near death (14:1-6). The biblical prophets of old should be read anew in light of our modern ecological crises, and their voices should inspire action.

God recognizes the cries of the earth.

And we cannot forget Genesis 9, the covenant made between God and all creation after the flood. Similar to the creation account of Genesis 1, which affirms God’s connection to creation, in Genesis 9 this theological belief is formalized with covenantal language: “See I am now establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you and with every living creature that was with you: the birds, the tame animals, and all the wild animals that were with you—all that came out of the ark” (v. 9-10). This relationship, frequently called the Noahide covenant, is called an “everlasting covenant” (v. 16), and the rainbow in the clouds is called a sign of God’s covenant with the earth (v. 13).

Overall, “Laudate Deum” invites us to look thoughtfully and carefully at Scripture to ground our theological response to climate change. Pope Francis draws inspiration, especially from psalms and legal texts, to remind humans of our shared status with creation and our need to address, condemn and rectify abuses that have led us to this current ecological moment of crisis. This apostolic exhortation read alongside Scripture should spark theological reflection, prayer and action.

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