“Laudato Si” focuses on the heart of man and the disorders of our age

The central thesis is that the fallen nature of the human heart and the resulting brokenness of human relations is the cause of the crises in our lives, families, nations, and now the life-sustaining ecosystems that form our common home

With the long wait over, the release of Laudato Si’ will shift conversations from what Pope Francis might say in his encyclical on the environment to more important ones of what he has said. It is likely that many in Rome hope that now that the document has been released, its words will ease much of the anxiety that has saturated these past months.

That said, there are statements in the encyclical that will successively upset, delight, and challenge most everyone, which shouldn’t come as a surprise. The Gospel and the Church’s social teachings do similarly and have always done so. But because so much of the pre-release commentary of Laudato Si’attempted to spin the narrative along predictable ideological lines—referring to it (positively or negatively) as a “climate change encyclical” or expressing worries that the Holy Father would place a papal seal of approval on specific political or economic ideologies—it will take some time before the Holy Father’s words can be processed, discussed, and appreciated.

What’s in it

Laudato Si’ is translated “Praise be to you.” The title comes from St. Francis’s Canticle of the Creatures, which addresses Christ in gratitude for the goodness of nature. The encyclical is divided into a prologue and six chapters. The first chapter examines the problems of our age—environmental, yes, but also the breakdown of social relations. As did Saint John Paul II, with his concept of “human ecology,” and Benedict XVI, most especially Caritas in Veritate, Pope Francis stresses the link between human and environmental crises, which he says “are ultimately due to the same evil: the notion that there are no indisputable truths to guide our lives, and hence human freedom is limitless.” (6).

The remaining five chapters plot a course through and beyond the symptoms and causes of these problems. “The Gospel of Creation,” offers a brief catechesis on the environment as seen from the “very good” creation accounts of Genesis and then through the incarnational proclamation of the Gospels—which highlights the relationship in Jesus Christ between God and creation.

In the third chapter, “The Human Roots of the Ecological Crisis,” Pope Francis examines the role of sin in the modern age. A Catholic response to all this follows in the concluding three chapters on “Integral Ecology, “Lines of Approach and Action,” and “Ecological Education and Spirituality.” This final chapter concludes with a rich array of Catholic theology and spiritually to conclude a tale that, for Christians, should sound familiar.

In other words, Laudato Si’ follows the arc of salvation history to understand and offer a way out of the personal, communal, and planetary disorders of our age.

Climate as a common good

It is in the opening chapter that the Holy Father discusses climate change, a topic he pairs with the general issues of pollution, waste, and a “throwaway culture.” He follows this with a look at the issues of water pollution and species extinction. Highlighting the link between people and nature, he then follows those discussions with the “Decline in the Quality of Human Life and the Breakdown of Society” as well as “Global Inequality.”

Pope Francis takes a wide, sobering view of all these topics. As a scientist he is conversant with the technicalities but he prefers to write as a pastor. With regard to climate change, he maintains that humanity is playing a role in a warming climate, but (like his predecessors when discussing the topic) he is balanced in doing so, knowing that some in his flock are wary of the topic. He writes,

[a] very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climatic system. In recent decades this warming has been accompanied by a constant rise in the sea level and, it would appear, by an increase of extreme weather events, even if a scientifically determinable cause cannot be assigned to each particular phenomenon. Humanity is called to recognize the need for changes of lifestyle, production and consumption, in order to combat this warming or at least the human causes which produce or aggravate it. It is true that there are other factors (such as volcanic activity, variations in the earth’s orbit and axis, the solar cycle), yet a number of scientific studies indicate that most global warming in recent decades is due to the great concentration of greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrogen oxides and others) released mainly as a result of human activity.” (23)

While such statements will not sit well with some, others will cheer. Either way, it must be remembered that no matter whether or not you accept the science of anthropogenic climate change, the Holy Father has not written a “climate change encyclical.” The topic is the principle subject of only four out of 246 paragraphs.

The heart of the encyclical

The focus of Laudato Si’ is the human person. The central thesis is that the fallen nature of the human heart and the resulting brokenness of human relations is the cause of the crises in our lives, families, nations, and now the life-sustaining ecosystems that form our common home.

The Holy Father laments throughout the encyclical how mentalities that seek instant gratification do not take into account “effects on human dignity and the natural environment” (56). That said, the problems of our age are not the result of this or that political or economic system. Rather they are rooted in how we may corrupt those systems within a wider “culture of consumerism, which prioritizes short-term gain and private interest.” (184)

The central solution to all this is not reworked political or economic ideologies. Ultimately, the pope tells us, the answer is Jesus Christ and our relationships with Him, our neighbors, and the created order, which “is of the order of love.” (77) He writes that

[w]hen people become self-centered and self-enclosed, their greed increases. The emptier a person’s heart is, the more he or she needs things to buy, own and consume. It becomes almost impossible to accept the limits imposed by reality. In this horizon, a genuine sense of the common good also disappears. As these attitudes become more widespread, social norms are respected only to the extent that they do not clash with personal needs. So our concern cannot be limited merely to the threat of extreme weather events, but must also extend to the catastrophic consequences of social unrest. Obsession with a consumerist lifestyle, above all when few people are capable of maintaining it, can only lead to violence and mutual destruction. (204)

True to such social encyclicals and to the long-held understanding of the relationship between the Church and the world, the Holy Father does not demand specific actions or polices (although he does criticize the concept of “carbon credits” as a means to lower fossil fuel use).

“On many concrete questions,” he writes, “the Church has no reason to offer a definitive opinion” (61). Such statements are made in number of locations because the Holy Father is aware that we live in a fallen world and that we are dealing with complicated issues. He also understands that specific problems come with specific, often regional, solutions. And so rather than dictate specific economic or political solutions, Pope Francis offers ways to discern and achieve them. To do that, he offers something more basic.

Relationships and Dialogue

“I urgently appeal, then, for a new dialogue about how we are shaping the future of our planet. We need a conversation which includes everyone, since the environmental challenge we are undergoing, and its human roots, concern and affect us all.” (14)

Pope Francis’s examination of the human causes of environmental and social ills returns often to the problem of “rampant individualism” (162). This individualism is rooted in improper understanding of the nature, place, and final goal of the human person, who is made in the image of the Triune God. The Holy Father says that forgetting this reality of who we are—of Whose image we are made in—brings ruin to the Garden of life and the relationships that God gave us to care for. The consequences of all this are far reaching.

“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. Once the human being declares independence from reality and behaves with absolute dominion, the very foundations of our life begin to crumble.” (117)

The call to dialogue—to right relationships with God, neighbor, and all creation—is a constant plea within Laudato Si. The Holy Father, aware of the (often heated) debates within his flock and in the world, devotes the fifth chapter to proposed arenas in which this dialogue must occur—dialogue about the environment itself, national and local polices, within governmental decision-making roles, as well as between politics and economics, and between religion and science.

In its varied forms, this call to communal discourse may prove to be one of the most important contributions of this encyclical. Breaking down the current logjam of back-and-forth, Right-Left hostilities over issues like climate change, dioceses, parishes, universities, schools, and anyone else can serve their local community by arranging gatherings—formal or informal. Those with varying opinions (expert or otherwise) can meet, talk, and (one hopes) learn that they share much in common with those that they may disagree with—including the honest desire to do what is right and just.

Given what we do know about the array of issues that we face—populations without water or adequate food supplies, government corruption, human trafficking, euthanasia and elder abuse, abortion, care for the unemployed, the mentally ill, and on the list goes—no one person can have all the answers. When we try to solve problems alone we can and do unintentionally cause others.

If the present ecological crisis is one small sign of the ethical, cultural and spiritual crisis of modernity, we cannot presume to heal our relationship with nature and the environment without healing all fundamental human relationships … A correct relationship with the created world demands that we not weaken this social dimension of openness to others, much less the transcendent dimension of our openness to the “Thou” of God. Our relationship with the environment can never be isolated from our relationship with others and with God. Otherwise, it would be nothing more than romantic individualism dressed up in ecological garb, locking us into a stifling immanence. (119).

Integral Ecology

In March, Cardinal Peter Turkson gave a speech that many saw as a prelude to pope’s encyclical. In it he stressed the term “integral ecology.” The term expands Saint John Paul II’s concept of “human ecology” in a way that includes all relationships—natural, personal, communal, organizational, and so on. Pope Francis devotes an entire chapter of Laudato Si’ to integral ecology—although it presents itself in different ways throughout the encyclical.

The implications of integral ecology provide us with even more reasons to heed the Holy Father’s call to dialogue: the connections mentioned earlier between natural and social ills can shift simplistic understandings of the secular environmental movement in helpful ways.

“Since everything is interrelated,” Pope Francis writes, “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?” (120) 

What’s next

Generally speaking, many conservative Catholics were wary of what the encyclical might say. Liberal Catholics were, generally, happy that Pope Francis was writing an entire encyclical on ecology. Over the next few days and weeks, some who read Laudato Si’ could end up questioning their expectations—or, likewise, they will selectively read it to maintain them.

There are certainly many passages and phrases that one might use to prove this or that view of Pope Francis and this encyclical. But a full and, yes, integral reading of what we now have before us provides a more nuanced picture than what we may have expected. In sum, Laudato Si’ shows us that the secular environmental movement, with its often anti-human mentalities, is not entering and altering the Church. On the contrary. The Church is entering environmental discussions to elevate them with a full appreciation of the human person.

Going forward, Catholics especially should read Laudato Si’ for themselves. Better yet, they should read it with others—in parish study groups, in religious education classes, or while having coffee with a friend. The encyclical’s call to dialogue and the building of relationships is one that applies particularly to the reception of this latest contribution to the social teachings of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.

• “Encyclical Letter ‘Laudato Si’ of the Holy Father Francis on Care for Our Common Home” (Vatican website) 

• Ignatius Press hardback edition of “Laudato Si'”, available for pre-order (available in August)

About William L. Patenaude 28 Articles

William L. Patenaude MA, KHS is a columnist for the Rhode Island Catholic and writes at CatholicEcology.net. He is an engineer with Rhode Island’s Department of Environmental Management and is a special lecturer in theology at Providence College.