On June 18, Pope Francis published his much-anticipated encyclical on the environment, “Laudato Si’,” which begins with a line from St. Francis of Assisi’s “Canticle of Creatures.” America asked several experts to respond to this historic document. Excerpts from their responses are below. Their full responses, along with additional coverage, can be found at americamagazine.org.
Follow the Footnotes
In addition to the use of gender-inclusive language, a first in official Catholic social encyclicals, one of the most amazing aspects of “Laudato Si’” is the footnotes. Francis departs from the tradition of Catholic social encyclicals by citing national bishops’ conferences and several sources that are not official Catholic sources, including U.N. documents and, most surprisingly, a Sufi mystic!
Now, while this may seem somewhat pedantic to most readers, footnotes in papal teaching have functioned as a way to alert the reader to the text’s continuation of a tradition. The footnotes in “Caritas in Veritate” (2009), for example, the social encyclical of Pope Benedict XVI, refer mostly to the official social teachings of other popes. This tradition reflects a specific theology of the papacy that understands the pope to be the primary teacher of Catholic doctrine, with a strict division of roles between teacher and student. As such, the pope would never need to learn from sources “below” him, not even from statements by national conferences of Catholic bishops. Under the pontificates of Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, the social statements of national bishops’ conferences and synods were perceived to be lacking the competency for authoritative (magisterial) teaching. In “Evangelii Gaudium,” Pope Francis addressed this point as he called for the development of the “juridical status of episcopal conferences” with “genuine doctrinal authority” to better serve the mission of the church (No. 32).
While not welcomed by everyone, “Laudato Si’” affirms the authority of these regional structures, with 20 citations of statements from 18 national and regional bishops’ conferences. The selection of statements from multiple regions of the world appears to make a point about the concerns expressed by bishops about the problems at hand. Indeed, it constructively shows how the fostering of an integral ecology is not simply the concern of Pope Francis. Although subtle, this is also a nod to an inductive and more decentralized vision of church, where the statements of bishops’ conferences have value in the formation of universal Catholic social teaching.
Kevin Ahern is a theological ethicist and an assistant professor of religious studies at Manhattan College, Bronx, N.Y.
A Cosmic Family
The encyclical offers both ethical and policy solutions to the environmental evils and injustices the pope has described. But I would like to note two religious remedies he offers that address social isolation as a source of environmental injustice. One is theological, the other spiritual.
The theological vision is of a cosmic family of creatures of the one God. “All of us are linked,” writes Pope Francis, “by unseen bonds and together form a kind of universal family, a sublime communion which fills us with a sacred, affectionate and humble respect” (No. 89). It is in that lived vision, as in St. Francis’ fraternity of God’s creatures (Brother Sun, Sister Moon), that we can overcome alienation from one another, especially alienation of the advantaged from the poor, and the estrangement of humanity from our earthly home.
Finally, the avenue to environmental and social harmony is found through the cultivation of peace: inner peace and peace with creation. The encyclical sees environmental degradation and social injustice as the results of imbalances within ourselves, among humans and between humans and the natural world.
Inner peace, Pope Francis writes, “is reflected in a balanced lifestyle together with a capacity for wonder which takes us to a deeper understanding of life. Nature is filled with words of love, but how can we listen to them amid constant noise, interminable and nerve-wracking distractions, or the cult of appearances?” (No. 225).
Drew Christiansen, S.J., a former editor in chief of America, holds the title Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Global Human Development at Georgetown University. He advised the U.S. bishops in the drafting of their 1991 pastoral statement on the environment, “Renewing the Earth,” and later designed and oversaw the bishops’ environmental justice program.
The Communion of Creation
In many ways, Pope Francis’ long-awaited “Laudato Si’” continues and develops the tradition that St. John Paul II and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI established, yet in significant ways it also marks a bold and fresh direction for Catholic social teaching on ecology. As we have seen from this pope in other areas, there is also a shift in tone and a movement toward a vision that many Catholic eco-theologians have been articulating for several years. More than previous papal documents, “Laudato Si’” fervently rejects anthropocentrism (No. 67), stresses “a sense of deep communion with the rest of nature” (No. 91) and celebrates rapturously the goodness of creation and of each creature, loved in its own right by God.
The text begins with St. Francis of Assisi, whose name the pope has taken, and his famous “Canticle of the Creatures,” in which Earth, “our common home,” is not simply a resource but “a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us” (No. 1). Every creature, Francis insists, is “the object of the Father’s tenderness,” and even if a creature has only “a few seconds of existence, God enfolds it with his affection” (No. 77). Human beings are called to mirror this love, to “love and accept the wind, the sun and the clouds, even though we cannot control them.” Indeed, Francis even says that “we can speak of a universal brother- and sister-hood” (No. 228).
While St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI affirmed the intrinsic value of nonhuman creatures and exhorted us to respect the grammar of creation, Pope Francis incorporates the goodness of the cosmos into the core of a Catholic approach to ecology (No. 236). Reverence for creation allows awe and wonder (No. 11) to penetrate into our hearts and calls us to a “universal communion” (No. 76), to kinship with all creatures, to a sense of belonging and rootedness (No. 151) and to joy in the cosmos. After all, the final aim of an encyclical on ecology is not just sustainable economies and immediate international action on climate change but also the praise and worship of the Creator (No. 87).
Daniel P. Scheid is an assistant professor of theology at Duquesne University. His forthcoming book, The Cosmic Common Good: Religious Grounds for Ecological Ethics (Oxford), explores ecologically oriented principles of Catholic social thought in dialogue with other religious traditions.
The View From the Global South
Coming from a fragile archipelago where the rise in sea level is the highest in the world, and extreme weather events are predicted to further increase this century, I worry for our future and fervently hope that the call of Pope Francis will be heeded. The encyclical underlines that everyone can do something for our common home. In response to this call, each diocese of the church in the Philippines, in collaboration with other faiths and civil society organizations, can plan to educate and mobilize communities to protect the environment and the threatened resources and species in the area. This without doubt would leave a trail of ecological martyrs. The Global Witness reports that almost 1,000 environmental activists opposing mining, deforestation, etc., around the world were killed between 2002 and 2013, with the number jumping 20 percent in 2014, a sign that we are in the midst of a global environmental crisis.
To sustain this commitment as “ecological citizens” therefore necessitates a spirituality that inspires, nurtures and provides ultimate meaning to our personal and communal acts. Though “Laudato Si’” explicitly speaks of spirituality only in the last chapter, the whole encyclical is distinctively about an integrative eco-spirituality based on an integral ecology that links labor and technological and social development with care for creation and the diversity of life forms and cultures, and with a special concern for the poor and the vulnerable. The pope elaborates that in the Christian tradition this spirituality finds its deep source in the gospel of creation, the Trinitarian communion and the world as sacrament of this communion.
Agnes M. Brazal teaches at the St. Vincent School of Theology-Adamson University in the Philippines.
The Franciscan Character of 'Laudato Si''
Pope Francis clearly “gets” both the letter and the spirit of the Franciscan theological and spiritual tradition. One of the most striking and apparently controversial dimensions of “Laudato Si’” is the explicit connection the pope makes between abject poverty and environmental degradation. The truth is that this is not a new idea but goes back as far as Francis of Assisi, if not earlier. Pope Francis writes early on that “the poverty and austerity of Saint Francis were no mere veneer of asceticism, but something much more radical: a refusal to turn reality into an object simply to be used and controlled” (No. 11). This statement points to the heart of St. Francis’ embrace of evangelical poverty as a means toward deepening solidarity. What the saint from Assisi recognized in his time was how not just things but also women and men were coming to be valued in financial terms. One’s worth came to be determined by how much money one had rather than by the inherent value that comes with being lovingly created by God.
Pope Francis draws our attention to the interrelationship between the reality of global climate change (largely caused by the affluent and powerful of our time) and the poor, who suffer the devastating effects disproportionately. The category of “the marginalized” extends beyond the human species to include our very planet. As the pope says, “The earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor” (No. 2). For Francis of Assisi, radical lifestyle change was required to authentically follow the Gospel. Embracing evangelical poverty as a means of protest against social injustices and a means toward closer solidarity led him among the poor and outcast of his day.
Daniel P. Horan, O.F.M., is the author of several books, including The Franciscan Heart of Thomas Merton. He is currently writing a doctoral dissertation titled “Imagining Planetarity: Toward a Postcolonial Franciscan Theology of Creation.”
The Diversity of Creaturely Life
While “Laudato Si’” affirms Catholic teaching against artificial birth control and abortion, the only specific comment on gender or sexual identity is brief and somewhat oddly positioned at the close of a section on the “ecology of daily life.” Following a more substantial treatment of urban planning and the realities faced by the poor comes a reflection on bodily interaction with one’s environment as a facet of “human ecology.” Then this: “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. In this way we can joyfully accept the specific gifts of another man or woman, the work of God the creator, and find mutual enrichment” (No. 155).
How should we read this rather broad claim about gendered identity and interaction? Francis ends the paragraph with a clue, citing his general audience on April 15 of this year: “It is not a healthy attitude which would seek ‘to cancel out sexual difference because it no longer knows how to confront it’” (No. 155). In that address, Francis criticized gender theory when laying out “the difference and complementarity between men and women” as a basis for reflecting on the sacrament of marriage within “the beauty of the Creator’s plan.” It would therefore be a mistake to see the seeds of any radical departure from magisterial teaching on gender and sexuality in Francis’ text. A general, natural law-based statement in favor of gender essentialism is unsurprising. Nevertheless, interpretation must attend to specific silences or, in this instance, relative quiet on sexuality against the resounding demand for economic and ecological justice, cultivated at both personal and political levels. In a sense, then, the cards are drawn but the hand is not played. Within the development of papal teaching on “integral ecology” this may be a notable move.
Elizabeth Pyne is a doctoral candidate in theology at Fordham University, Bronx, N.Y.