"Laudato Si'" offers bold challenge that will take time to measure

It will take years to take the full measure of “Laudato Si’,” Pope Francis’ new encyclical on the environment, and assess its impact. Pope Leo XIII wrote about the rights of workers in “Rerum Novarum” (1891) in response to the Industrial Revolution, but unions still struggle to remain relevant in a swiftly changing economy. St. John XXIII warned about the dangers of nuclear war in “Peace on Earth” (1963), but world leaders continue to grapple with the complexities of enforcing a nonproliferation regime. Yet these documents marked watershed moments, when the church directed the world’s attention to a calamity that no one nation could face alone, prescribing remedies but also outlining the spiritual ills that impede progress and reform.

With “Laudato Si’,” the church now trains its focus on the plight of“our common home,” offering both an accessible summary of the climate crisis and a call to conversion. It is an authoritative document, using the power of the papacy to draw attention to the climate crisis. It is also a humble document, infused with the spirit of dialogue and engagement born of the Second Vatican Council. Quoting the Southern African bishops’ conference, Pope Francis writes, “Everyone’s talents and involvement are needed to redress the damage caused by human abuse of God’s creation” (No. 14). It is a call to action that should be taken up with urgency by individuals, churches and governments.

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With the arrival of “Laudato Si’,” the voice of religion has now decisively entered the climate change debate. The document is already controversial, and not just because it accepts the scientific consensus that global warming is a result of human activity. Even before it was released, the encyclical was strongly criticized by climate change skeptics. “Laudato Si’” is a challenge to these individuals, but not only to them. It offers a deep critique of the global capitalist system and, perhaps most radically, of the absolutist notion of private property, pointing instead to “the universal destination of goods.” This idea—that property does not belong to any one person but is a God-given resource for the commonweal—has long been a part of Catholic social teaching, but it is sometimes overlooked. Pope Francis reminds us that all of creation belongs to God and is in urgent need of common care and protection. 

“Laudato Si’” is also a challenge to those of us who live in developed countries. It is tempting to believe that technology holds the key to addressing the environmental crisis. Pope Francis writes that while clean energy and other technical remedies are worth investigating, they are not sufficient to the problem at hand. We must also examine our lifestyles. It will be impossible to sustain life on this planet if we all expect to live according to the dictates of first-world consumer culture. 

What may be most compelling about the encyclical is the way it connects environmental concerns to other social justice issues. In a fractured world, advocates for the poor,  the sick or the marginalized are often separated into camps. In some quarters, environmental advocates are distinguished from advocates for human rights because concern for our natural world is seen as different from, even less important than, the plight of the people who inhabit it. “Laudato Si’” exposes the error of this logic by offering a fully integrated theology. In the vision of Pope Francis, the people of the earth are inseparable from the ground upon which they walk. “We have forgotten,” he writes, “that we ourselves are dust of the earth (see Gn 2:7); our very bodies are made up of her elements, we breathe her air and we receive life and refreshment from her waters” (No. 2). 

There are many other strands to this encyclical. It is an ambitious document that strays down some unexpected pathways. It is surprising, for instance, to encounter a critique of society’s addiction to technological devices in an encyclical dedicated to the natural world. Some of these arguments are more effective than others, but taken together they are compelling. They force the reader to think about the myriad connections that tie us together as a human family living on a fragile planet.

“Everything is connected,” Pope Francis writes in a phrase that is sure to be widely circulated and taught. The poor are connected to the rich, paying the price for the latter’s ecological malfeasance. Humans are connected to the abundant species that inhabit this planet. We are all connected to God who gifted to us this created world. If we look at our problems in this way, Francis offers us hope that we can meet the challenges we face. “Laudato Si’” redirects our attention to the spiritual resources in the Christian tradition that point the way forward. The world that needs saving, after all, is the world our Savior walked. “The very flowers of the field and the birds which his human eyes contemplated and admired,” the pope writes, “are now imbued with his radiant presence” (No. 100).

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David Backes
2 years 4 months ago
I agree. It is truly an inspiring document. Compared to most encyclicals, it is accessible and at times deeply moving. I would argue that its success lies in his radical (as in root) insistence on humans as being part of nature, and the interconnectedness of all things. He applies systems thinking, not only for his ecological insights where one would expect it, but to social systems, their interactions with ecosystems, and even to what could be called the Trinitarian system and the connections among all of these: http://wp.me/p6iKng-4o .
Jacqueline O'Brien
2 years 3 months ago
I very much appreciate this reflection on Systems Thinking, Mr. Backes. An understanding of system interdependencies, feedback loops and materials cycles are sorely lacking in many of our country's educational approaches and faith-based ministry approaches. Having done work in Education for Sustainability, I have seen countless teachers thwart the "integrated approach" to curriculum because it is not in the standards. If the Next Generation Science Standards and a National set of EfS Standards are adopted, there will be relevance to this style of teaching and learning, but until then, it's hard to engage teachers in systems thinking approaches. Similarly, many faith-based ministries offer charity to far away concerns and the poor and disadvantaged without any sense of relfection upon their own role (as a consumer) in the lives of those same people. It is a shame that it ought to take so long for the idea of "sustainability" -- meeting the economic, environmental, and societal needs of a people without putting future generations at risk -- to be appealing long enough to get past the cynicism and political apoplexy it seems to bring on.
Alex Finta
2 years 3 months ago
Thank you, Ms. O'Brien. I agree with an emphasis on Systems Engineering. It usually requires some optimization and tradeoffs between mutually incompatible desiderata. I see a world of 7 Billion humans, 1 Billion of whom lack ANY electricity and 2 Billion more for whom electricity is a sometime thing. That makes it unreliable for food and medicine refrigeration, indoor cooking (vice fires of brush and dung), water well pumping, and electricity for light and radio/TV. The encyclical seems to offer no systems thinking and no tradeoffs at all; emission of CO2 from fossil fuels is Evil and must be stopped. Since no link between human CO2 and global warming has been demonstrated - especially over the last 18 years - where do you see the fulcrum of tradeoffs between continuing CO2 emissions and raising a few billion people out of poverty? as the industrialized West began to do in the late 1700's??
Richard Murray
2 years 3 months ago
Wonderful review. Thank you, America editors!
Alex Finta
2 years 3 months ago
Nonsense, Mr. Murray. The encyclical is an ignorant, one-sided assertion of "facts not in evidence." When did the Papacy become authorities on science?
Chuck Kotlarz
2 years 3 months ago
The religious right perhaps does not wish to yield the pulpit to the religious left.
Luis Gutierrez
2 years 3 months ago
The encyclical provides a good overview of the ecological crisis. The moral teaching is very appealing, even though there is a huge gap about demographic issues. The teaching is mostly about the renewal of humanity and human relations: "There can be no renewal of our relationship with nature without a renewal of humanity itself." How this renewal can be attained, without dealing with issues of human sexuality and gender relations in church and society, is beyond me. Should we expect the synod of bishops to consider how to fill this gap? Pope Francis recognizes that "everything is connected," and is calling for dialogue. Would appreciate critical feedback on the following: A Sacramental Ecology for the Anthropocene http://www.pelicanweb.org/solisustv11n06page1.html#editorial A Sacramental Ecology for the Human Family http://www.pelicanweb.org/solisustv11n07page1.html#editorial Nuptial Balance in the Priesthood and the Episcopacy http://www.pelicanweb.org/solisustv11n07supp6.html#section9
Alex Finta
2 years 3 months ago

I think you are right in recognizing the lack of any coherent thought on the issues you raise. I agree with you that human sexuality and reproduction must be considered. Unfortunately, the UN Climate Conference at Paris in December is going to offer some very harsh recommendations (abortion, contraception, single-child legislation a la China). The Vatican has cast its lot with international bureaucrats who are totally opposed to Catholic teaching on the sanctity of life.

In trying to ingratiate the Church with the UN, the Vatican has embraced the phony "climate crisis." There isn't any "crisis", ecological or otherwise. There also hasn't been any global warming for the last 18 years. (Global atmospheric temperature is measured from orbiting satellites; two separate contractors process the data and provide reports on the web.)

Worst of all, the encyclical will add support to those who deny cheap electricity to the more than 1 Billion people who have no electricity at all - to refrigerate food and medicine, cook food cleanly, pump clean water, and light the home for reading and watching radio and TV.

Luis Gutierrez
2 years 3 months ago
The encyclical explicitly upholds the sacred value of life from conception to natural death. It also calls for dialogue to elucidate all the issues related to social and ecological justice, and recognizes that they are all tightly coupled: "everything is connected." There is legitimate cause for concern about current trends of environmental degradation. Granted that scientific consensus is a measure of agreement, and not necessarily a measure of reality, inflammatory rhetoric is not helpful, and I strongly disagree with your characterization of Pope Francis as "Pope Ignorant." The encyclical proposes a concept of "differentiated responsibilities" when it comes to mitigation and adaptation strategies going forward. It proposes moderating extravagant consumption, but does no advocate suppressing development where it is needed. In the secular dimension, the UN Sustainable Development Goals may be the best initiative we have at the global level. If you have constructive alternatives, please tell us what they are. Specifically, please tell us how you think the Catholic Church should contribute by way of example, so that we are part of the solution, rather than part of the problem.
John Hess
2 years 3 months ago
Alex, you seem to be extremely angry. Please recall that Justice and Temperance are cardinal virtues.
Jacqueline O'Brien
2 years 3 months ago
Pope Francis' call for human beings to view their lives within an integrated system will require a reweaving of educational inquiry-based methodologies to include systems thinking, an understanding of ecological services (product and materials cycles) and some sophisticated thinking about resource use and capacity. Until these become front and center in our school curriculum, they will be continue to be designated to "Earth Day" and field trip domains, as they have for the past 45 years (since the first Earth Day). For example, while recycling is preferable to the landfill, there are many who view it as a solution, not understanding the energy intensive materials cycle that it requires, and the limits within that industry's system components, globally. Regrettably, until we have some succinct and short-attention span winning mottos and slogans to broaden a common understanding of sustainability and earth systems, we will have short-sighted goals and meager changes to greater impact. I heartily recommend anyone interested in considering the role of education to review the work of the Children's Environmental Literacy Foundation, who have worked with school districts to infuse this inquiry-based method to critical thinking and creative solutions towards sustainability for the past 12 years.
Alex Finta
2 years 3 months ago

The only thing worse than the ignorance and hypocrisy (“No branch of the sciences and no form of wisdom can be left out … this Encyclical welcomes dialogue with everyone.”) of the encyclical is the fawning nonsense of the comments selected by the Editors.

In spite of Pope Ignorant, there has been no global warming for 18 years, as admitted by the IPCC.

There has been no increase of severe weather for 18 years, as admitted by the IPCC.

Laudato si will have a very short life (let us hope); it will be quietly put away after the collapse of the UN Climate Conference at Paris in December. China, India, Poland, Brazil, Pakistan, to name a few, will have NOTHING to do with this proposed return to the 13th Century.

I suggest the editors listen to Catholics who are informed on this subject, who are trying - in spite of sycophants - to save the Church from embarrassment and ignominy.

Alex Finta
2 years 3 months ago
The Indian Monsoon is late arriving this year, perhaps due to an El Nino (ocean warming) in the Pacific. The holy month of Ramadan, in the Muslim lunar calendar, rotates through the (Western) solar calendar year. During Ramadan, observant Muslims do not eat nor drink water during the day. This conjunction of events causes hardship for those who observe the Ramadan Fast. I read a few days ago (25 June) that there are more than 1000 people dead in Sindh Province, Pakistan, due to the oppressive heat (and lack of water, and lack of artificial cooling). Back in 2012, the New York Times tut-tutted from their air-conditioned Eighth Avenue skyscraper, “Is it a good goal for everyone in the world to have access to air-conditioning — like clean water or the Internet? Or is it an unsustainable luxury, which air-conditioned societies should be giving up or rationing?” So presumably, they’re OK with the death toll in Pakistan, right? In sharp contrast, in her syndicated column this week Michelle Malkin writes, “Unlike Pope Francis, I believe that air-conditioning and the capitalists responsible for the technology are blessings to the world:” While the pope blames commercial enterprises and the “global market economy” for causing “environmental degradation,” it is a worldwide commercial enterprise made in America that solved the human-caused degradation of, and environmental damage to, the Vatican’s most prized art and assets. If the pontiff truly believes “excessive consumption” of modern conveniences is causing evil “climate change,” will he be shutting down and returning the multi-million-dollar system Carrier generously gifted to the Vatican Museums? If not, I suggest, with all due respect, that Pope Francis ....." Well, we can all probably guess what Ms. Malkin suggests for Pope Francis. How about recognizing the benefits of modern technology, instead of the one-sided nonsense his Pontifical Academy put together for him? That's the Pontifical Academy of Sciences and Social Sciences, which seems to not include any scientists. adapted from http://pjmedia.com/instapundit/209342/
Alex Finta
2 years 3 months ago
This just in from the guardian: She is one of the world’s most high-profile social activists and a ferocious critic of 21st-century capitalism. He is one of the pope’s most senior aides and a professor of climate change economics. But this week the secular radical will join forces with the Catholic cardinal in the latest move by Pope Francis to shift the debate on global warming. Naomi Klein and Cardinal Peter Turkson are to lead a high-level conference on the environment, bringing together churchmen, scientists and activists to debate climate change action. Klein, who campaigns for an overhaul of the global financial system to tackle climate change, told the Observer she was surprised but delighted to receive the invitation from Turkson’s office. She is one of the world’s most high-profile social activists and a ferocious critic of 21st-century capitalism. He is one of the pope’s most senior aides and a professor of climate change economics. But this week the secular radical will join forces with the Catholic cardinal in the latest move by Pope Francis to shift the debate on global warming. Naomi Klein and Cardinal Peter Turkson are to lead a high-level conference on the environment, bringing together churchmen, scientists and activists to debate climate change action. Klein, who campaigns for an overhaul of the global financial system to tackle climate change, told the Observer she was surprised but delighted to receive the invitation from Turkson’s office. This makes it very clear that the Pope of Liberation Theology is a thorough-going Marxist.
Leonard Villa
2 years 3 months ago
How can you analyze Laudato Si and not comment on the Pope's withering comments on gender ideology and abortion? -Also, valuing one’s own body in its femininity or masculinity is necessary if I am going to be able to recognize myself in an encounter with someone who is different…It is not a healthy attitude which would seek ‘to cancel out sexual difference because it no longer knows how to confront it’.” -“Since everything is interrelated, concern for the protection of nature is also incompatible with the justification of abortion. How can we genuinely teach the importance of concern for other vulnerable beings, however troublesome or inconvenient they may be, if we fail to protect a human embryo, even when its presence is uncomfortable and creates difficulties?” -“When we fail to acknowledge as part of reality the worth of a poor person, a human embryo, a person with disabilities – to offer just a few examples – it becomes difficult to hear the cry of nature itself; everything is connected.” The bottom line is that while the Pope may favor man-made global warming, this is not Catholic doctrine. Not that long ago we were told about global cooling and the coming ice-age! Plus there is the question about the accuracy of computer-model predictions. Catholics are free to hold either opinion. Some things such as the attack on "air-conditioning" remind you of other papal dislikes. Gregory XVI opposed railroads/gas lights. And there is overblown rhethoric like this "those richly biodiverse lungs of our planet which are the Amazon and the Congo basins." Planet rhetoric tends to be overblown and the notion it is going to take years to appreciate this Encyclical.
RICH BRODERICK
2 years 3 months ago
A sufi teaching instructs that: “To pluck a flower is to trouble a star.” Pope Francis’s Encyclical, Laudato Si, presents a very comprehensive view of the human impact on the the earth community. We, the human species, were the latest to emerge in the evolution of our planet but, we have had the greatest negative impact on the fragile web of life that sustains us. The looming environmental disaster, (the root of the word means separated from the stars), shows that we view the world of nature as a collection of objects that we can use for our consumer purposes rather than a communion of subjects that are interconnected and interdependent for life. Oikos, means household, from which we get the word ‘ecology’. Planet Earth, our home, is the only planet coded for millions of diverse life forms. The Encyclical proposes the question: Why would we continue destroying this beautiful home we live in with millions of other species that provide for us a wide spectrum of beauty and life? Should we not review our consumeristic life-styles. Rich Broderick
Alex Finta
2 years 3 months ago
Evidence of the "looming environmental disaster" ??? Other than a ghostwriter who admits he's as ignorant as his boss?
Alex Finta
2 years 3 months ago
In a recent interview, Bishop Mario Toso, who co-wrote the first draft of the papal encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si’, denied that Pope Francis had any intention of “canonizing” scientific theories regarding climate change, but only wished to assert his authority on the moral level. Toso, who was secretary of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace at the time of the drafting of the encyclical, said that in the encyclical letter the Pope sought to offer “reflections on the anthropological and ethical issues” related to the care of creation, but that he did not wish to “impose” the results of scientific studies on anyone or to confer his moral authority on scientific opinions. “Everyone knows that many opinions today considered ‘scientific’ are not irrefutable or incontrovertible,” he said. “The Church has no competence on the technical and scientific level,” he said, “but rather on the anthropological and ethical levels that relate to scientific phenomenology.” Toso’s comments come at an opportune moment, when many wonder aloud how far the Pope intended to go in endorsing scientific theories regarding the environment in his letter. Follow Thomas D. Williams on Twitter @tdwilliamsrome. I can't wait for the next ghostwriter to come forward and admit they don't know anything about economics either.
Chuck Kotlarz
2 years 3 months ago
Profit is the primary purpose of business, but profit is not the primary purpose of society. Capitalism is not a democracy, yet democracy is perhaps essential to society. The Pope speaks to and perhaps aligns closely with billions of shareholders in society.
Alex Finta
2 years 3 months ago
from para 13 of Laudato si: "Particular appreciation is owed to those who tirelessly seek to resolve the tragic effects of environmental degradation on the lives of the world’s poorest. Young people demand change. They wonder how anyone can claim to be building a better future without thinking of the environmental crisis and the sufferings of the excluded." So...the Pope's ghostwriter admits they are not competent to evaluate the science of global warming (let's permanently SKIP the meaningless "climate change" phrase)... ...but they insist there is an environmental crisis? For this ignorant "sky is falling" claim, a billion people without electricity are supposed to do without? This encyclical is worse than a joke. It's an insult to real science and to the poor it claims to care for.
Lisa Weber
2 years 3 months ago
I am grateful for this encyclical. We Americans have been wasteful in our use of resources for years - characterizing that as "sinful" is a common-sense statement. And global warming looks very real from a local standpoint - a second year of record-breaking hot weather, lately in the range of 20 degrees F. over normal. What will it take to wake us up? Widespread crop failure in the USA?
Bruce Snowden
2 years 3 months ago
I think the following few lines link to "Mother, Sister Earth" so I offer them as a post. I call it, "The Works Of God" (or) "Some Don't Care." We spit upon a snowflake, Or step upon an Ant awake. We pluck at buds assorted, Like fetal life aborted! Yet, how we'd nod and fret, If works we did were rudely met! God's natural wonders we disdain, Ecology is such a pain! A pain for some in careless slink, All gone! No more! in just a wink!

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