I find myself renewed in hope, taken by joy at the beauty of Francis’ vision, sobered by the challenges we face and summoned again to see my life as an ecological vocation, radically committed to Earth and all its creatures.
This encyclical represents a new moment in Catholic social teaching. Since the 1980s Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI have made important contributions that call the church and the world to an ecological conversion. But with this far more developed work of Pope Francis, the protection of God’s creation is now formally and permanently brought to the centre of Catholic social teaching, along with the church’s long-standing commitment to inter-human justice and peace. In what follows, I will highlight some key theological positions taken by Pope Francis.
A theology grounded in what is happening to our ‘common home’
Laudato Si’ begins with a clear-eyed discussion of what is happening to our planet. Pope Francis sees Earth as our common home, to be shared by humans and other creatures, a home for future generations. It’s a home we are meant to care for and protect, but one we have treated with violence. In particular Pope Francis offers a careful analysis of major issues, particularly pollution and global warming, the looming crisis of fresh water and the loss of biodiversity, along with a decline in the quality of human life, the breakdown of society and global inequality.
The way of dialogue
A striking feature of Laudato Si’ is that it consistently puts into practice the way of dialogue advocated by the Second Vatican Council’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World. The encyclical is fully dialogical in both structure and content. Pope Francis writes, “Now, faced as we are with global deterioration, I wish to address every living person on this planet…In this encyclical, I would like to enter into dialogue with all people about our common home” (par 3).
The Universal Communion of Creation
In his second chapter, Pope Francis turns to the Bible to articulate a theology of the whole of creation as one interrelated community before God. Here he offers us a new theology of the natural world, involving three aspects.
Firstly, he insists that other creatures have meaning and value not simply because of their use to human beings, but in themselves. They have intrinsic value. Why? Because God is present to each of them, God loves each of them, and each has a future in God.
Secondly, each creature is a word of God to human beings. Creation is a kind of revelation, a manifestation of God, a book of God alongside the Scriptures. “Nature is filled with words of love.”
Thirdly, human beings are part of nature, and together with other creatures we form a sublime communion in God. As St Francis has shown, other creatures are our kin. “Everything is related, and we human beings are united as brothers and sisters on a wonderful pilgrimage, woven together by the love God has for each of his creatures and which also unites us in affection with brother son, sister moon, brother river and mother earth” (par 92). Francis tells us that the risen Christ is already present to the whole creation, bringing it to its final fulfilment.
Integral ecology is at the centre of Pope Francis’ encyclical. Ecological commitment and commitment to our human brothers and sisters, above all the poor, are held together in one vision. These two commitments are united as aspects of one ecological vocation. Our response to the crisis we face will need to be holistic, based on a broad vision of reality that involves not only plants, animals, habitats, the atmosphere, rivers and seas, but also human beings and their culture. We find inspiration for this kind of integration in St Francis of Assisi, in his love for the poor and his love for the other creatures of the natural world.
From his first homily as pope, Pope Francis has made this same link clearly and strongly, calling us to protect creation and our human brothers and sisters; above all, those who are poor and excluded. In his new encyclical he writes, “Everything is interconnected. Concern for the environment thus needs to be joined to a sincere love for our fellow human beings and an unwavering commitment to resolving the problems of society” (par 91).
An integral ecology involves love and respect for animals and plants, but also for human history, art and architecture. Integral ecology involves protecting the cultural treasures of humanity. It involves respect for the cultures of indigenous peoples, “They are not merely one minority among others, but should be the principal dialogue partners, especially when large projects affecting their land are proposed. For them land is not a commodity but rather a gift from God and from their ancestors who rest there, a sacred space with which they need to interact if they are to maintain their identity and values (par 146).
Political and Personal Action
Pope Francis prophetically engages political leaders in dialogue, asking them to accept responsibility for protecting the environment and calling them to support international agreements to lift people out of poverty, limit carbon emissions and protect biodiversity.
He also points to the fundamental importance of “civic and political love”, including the indispensable role of ecological education in our families and schools. He insists on the importance of embracing ways of acting, “such as avoiding the use of plastic and paper, reducing water consumptions, separating refuse, cooking only what can reasonably be consumed, showing care for other living beings, using public transport or car-pooling, planting trees, turning off unnecessary lights” (par 211).
Pope Francis calls us all to an ongoing ecological conversion, to a spirituality of love and respect for animals and their habitats, for the land, the seas, the rivers, in the one community of life on Earth. All of this culminates in our Sunday of rest and in the Eucharist that embraces all creation and is a source of light and motivation.