The encyclical is a prophetic call to the leaders of nations and to all people of good will to act to protect the planetary community of life. It challenges the church to a profound ecological conversion. Building on the earlier work of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, it brings ecology to the centre of Catholic Social Teaching, along with commitment to poor and vulnerable human beings. I will highlight just four themes from this wonderfully rich, important and beautiful document.
- Earth as our Common Home
Pope Francis sees Earth as our common home, a beautiful gift of God, a home to be shared by humans and other creatures, a home for future generations, which we are meant to care for and protect. But wounded by sin, we have treated Earth with violence and laid waste to it. Pope Francis invites us all into a dialogue about the way in which we might respond to what is happening to our common home.
In particular he offers an analysis of pollution and global warming, the looming crisis of fresh water, the loss of biodiversity, along with the decline in the quality of human life, breakdown of society, and global inequality. He calls all of us into a deep recognition that we need to respond to these issues as part of the one community of life on Earth.
- The Universal Communion of Creation
The biblical teaching on creation, Pope Francis tells us, points to the goodness of the whole creation. It tells us that other creatures have value in themselves, because they have value in God’s eyes. God loves them. The psalms sing of the community of all creatures joined together in praising God. All creatures have their own place and their own meaning. Each is the expression of divine love. All are our brothers and sisters – none are excluded: “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 fond affection with brother son, sister moon, brother river and mother earth.” (par 92).
God’s love for creation finds its deepest expression in the self-giving of the incarnation, in the Word made flesh in Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus loved the creatures of Earth he found around him: birds, flowers, seeds growing into trees, and he loved human beings. He loved us all to the very point of death on a cross. Through his death and resurrection, the risen Christ draws to final fulfilment not only human beings but the whole of creation.
- Integral Ecology
Integral Ecology can be seen as the central idea of the encyclical. We face not two crises, the ecological crisis and a human crisis of the poor and the excluded, but one inter-related crisis that involves both. Our response will need to be holistic, based on a broad vision of reality that involves human beings as well as the other creatures of our planet.
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. As Pope Francis has said right from the beginning of his pontificate, we are called to protect creation, and to protect our human brothers and sisters, above all those who are poor and excluded.
We human beings are part of the natural world. Our ecological vocation is to act for the good of the whole community of creation: “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).
- Political and Personal Action
Pope Francis engages political leaders in dialogue, asking them to accept responsibility for protecting the environment and calling them to support international agreements aimed at limiting carbon emissions and at lifting people out of poverty.
He also points to 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). He calls us all to an ongoing ecological conversion, to a spirituality of love and respect for other animals, and their habitats, for the land, the seas, the rivers, in the one community of life on Earth.
Professor Denis Edwards is a Professorial Fellow, Faculty of Theology and Philosophy at the Australian Catholic University. He is one of Australia’s leading Catholic theologians with international standing. He has written a number of books on theological and ecological concerns.