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The EditorsOctober 04, 2023
Pope Francis listens during an ecumenical prayer vigil before the assembly of the Synod of Bishops in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican Sept. 30, 2023. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

The release eight years ago of “Laudato Si’” marked an important moment in history: For the first time, a pope had devoted an entire encyclical to the relationship between Christian faith and environmental ethics. No longer were issues like climate change and environmental devastation matters only for scientists to parse or politicians to debate; they were now definitively included among the moral concerns of a global church. The release on Oct. 4 of an apostolic exhortation, “Laudate Deum,” which renews and extends “Laudato Si’,” makes it clear that these issues remain at the forefront of Pope Francis’ concerns—and should remain at the forefront of ours as well.

But has “Laudato Si’” been heard? Will “Laudate Deum” be heard?

Pope Francis noted that we are not lacking for solutions: What we lack is any political will to address this crisis. Only a few months after the pope published “Laudato Si’” in 2015, 196 countries adopted the Paris Agreement, which aims to limit global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) by the end of the century. To reach that goal, the industrialized nations of the world would have to work together to stop growth in greenhouse gas emissions by 2025. But eight years later, we are still not on track. The Financial Times estimates signatory nations have committed less than a fifth of the estimated $4 trillion needed to achieve the Paris Agreement’s goals. All the while, ecological disasters increase in number and scope every year.

The release on Oct. 4 of an apostolic exhortation, “Laudate Deum” makes it clear that climate change remains at the forefront of Pope Francis’ concerns—and should remain at the forefront of ours as well.

While from the early 1970s through the papacy of Pope Benedict XVI (who rightly earned the title of “the Green Pope” for his advocacy in parts of “Caritas in Veritate” for the care of creation), Vatican documents have addressed environmental concerns more explicitly, the church has not done as much as it could. On the local level, many parishes and dioceses have undertaken efforts toward ecological stewardship, and many theologians and nonprofit leaders have incorporated “Laudato Si’” into their work. Nonetheless, climate change has failed to penetrate the moral imagination of Catholics in the way that other pro-life issues have.

The pope writes in “Laudate Deum,” “I feel obliged to make these clarifications, which may appear obvious, because of certain dismissive and scarcely reasonable opinions that I encounter, even within the Catholic Church” (No. 14). More than 40 percent of U.S. Catholics reject the idea that human beings are responsible for climate change, according to a 2023 Pew Research survey; many also shrug and say, “There’s nothing to be done”—a sentiment rarely expressed on issues like abortion or immigration.

“Laudato Si’” did not address only the overwhelming data showing the scope and effects of climate change but also stressed the moral dimension of caring for our common home. Pope Francis grounded his analysis in integral ecology, presenting climate change as more than a merely technical or scientific problem; it is also a profoundly human one.

Francis reminds us in “Laudate Deum” of two convictions he repeats frequently: “Everything is connected” and “No one is saved alone.” He reminds us that even in the face of such intractable challenges, we have to work not only toward better policies and more effective implementation, but also toward greater solidarity: “To say that there is nothing to hope for would be suicidal, for it would mean exposing all humanity, especially the poorest, to the worst impacts of climate change” (No. 53). It is only by renewing our hope that a better world is indeed possible that we can begin to build it.

For Francis, care for our common home is also an issue of human dignity. He calls for the conversion of our “throwaway culture,” in which anything fragile is crushed under the weight of the deified market. That economic system is amoral if not immoral, only concerned with feeding itself and progress for progress’s sake. Francis points to this cultural myopia as the central sin of the climate crisis: “When we fail to acknowledge as part of reality the worth of a poor person, a human embryo, a person with disabilities...it becomes difficult to hear the cry of nature itself” (“L.S.,” No. 117).

Francis offers the church as an interlocutor in the scientific and political conversation, suggesting a moral vision to a society dominated by a technocratic paradigm centered on profit, power and growth at all costs. The pope is not a Luddite, but he insists that we place technological innovation in service of a healthier view of progress that prioritizes human flourishing. He writes in “Laudate Deum”: “Let us stop thinking, then, of human beings as autonomous, omnipotent and limitless, and begin to think of ourselves differently, in a humbler but more fruitful way” (No. 68).

“Laudato Si’” and “Laudate Deum” are remarkably deft in their integration of science and theology. Pope Francis takes up the Second Vatican Council’s charge for the church to read the signs of the times and interpret them in light of the Gospel. If we are to care for our common home, we cannot stand by amid ecological devastation that threatens the grandeur of God’s creation and human livelihood. We must act.

During this coming election cycle, Americans (including Catholics) need to hear far more about the moral duty to protect the environment, which includes standing up to industry efforts to overturn or gut environmental regulations. We also need reminders that slogans like “America First” deny the reality Pope Francis states time and again—that all people, all of creation, are connected in one ecology. Those reminders need to come from the pulpit and the chancery too.

Pope Francis closes “Laudate Deum” by using the United States as an example of how the reality of interconnection demands particular conversion from some. Because “emissions per individual in the United States are about two times greater than those of individuals living in China, and about seven times greater than the average of the poorest countries,” he writes, “we can state that a broad change in the irresponsible lifestyle connected with the Western model would have a significant long-term impact” (No. 72).

Pope Francis’ choice to publish “Laudate Deum” at all is striking. If a follow-up is made to an encyclical, it is usually not done until decades later (see “Quadragesimo Anno,” published 40 years after “Rerum Novarum”). For this exhortation to be published a mere eight years after “Laudato Si’” underscores the pressing reality at hand: We are running out of time to act on the climate crisis.

For too long, we have paid for our lifestyle with a kind of ecological credit, watching the seas rise and the gasses accumulate in the atmosphere with the sinking feeling that soon, the bill will come due. It is due.

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