Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si’ (Praise be), was predictably covered in the press as an endorsement of climate change. But the encyclical goes far beyond that to offer fundamental insights that the media has glossed over or simply ignored. I will highlight three.
The question which drives Laudato Si is, “What kind of world do we want to leave to those who come after us, to children who are now growing up?” (Laudato Si, 160). This question is one that I have heard frequently from parents today as they think about their children’s future. To answer it, one has to grapple with the bigger questions like, “What is the meaning and purpose of our life?” “Who or What is my God?” and “What is our relationship to all of creation?”
The first idea I want to emphasize comes from Pope Francis’ response to these questions. He answers them by pointing to Genesis and the Psalms, where we learn that creation is an expression of God’s love for humanity, and that “all creatures are moving forward, with us and through us, towards a common point of arrival, which is God” (83). In other words, the meaning and purpose of our lives comes from being made by and for God, and the same is true for creation. This shared goal and our common origin point to “three fundamental and closely intertwined relationships: with God, with our neighbor and with the earth itself” (66).
Understanding this interconnectedness should change how we see the world and lead to what Pope Francis calls an “integral ecology,” which is the second idea that I would like to underscore. It is important to note that Pope Francis begins with our relationship with God, which is the foundation for our relationships with our neighbor and creation. It means that if I sin against my neighbor, creation or God, I impact all the other spheres of life, whether by hardening my heart or by carrying out an action that harms what the pope calls “our common home.”
In this context, the Holy Father introduces the concept of an “integral ecology,” which takes into account that the “health of a society’s institutions affects the environment and the quality of human life” (142). In other words, Pope Francis is saying that an integrated understanding of the environment includes nature, economics, culture and our fellow man, and that any analysis of environmental problems must look at all these aspects.
This is why he challenges those who justify abortion and human embryonic research while also campaigning for the protection of nature (120, 136). And it is the reason that he decries the failure to protect and invest in employees (124-126), the destruction of cultures by relativism (144), and the confusion of those who do not accept their biological gender (155).
One short illustration that the pope used might be helpful for grasping this integrated way of seeing the world. He writes in number 149, “The extreme poverty experienced in areas lacking harmony … can lead to incidents of brutality and to exploitation by criminal organizations. In the unstable neighborhoods of mega-cities, the daily experience of overcrowding and social anonymity can create a sense of uprootedness which spawns antisocial behavior and violence.”
Pope Francis therefore concludes that, “We are not faced with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather one complex crisis which is both social and environmental” (139). This insight has great value for all who are seeking to bring the Gospel to the modern world, and it should be pondered.
The third insight that the Holy Father offers in Laudato Si’ that I would like to point out is one that affects many of us. Drawing upon the famous theologian Romano Guardini, he speaks about the “technological paradigm” in which the user of a technology seeks to employ its power to control and possess an object.
But what is often forgotten in our desire to have the latest gadget is that technology is not neutral. In fact, the pope argues that it creates “a framework which ends up conditioning lifestyles and shaping social possibilities along the lines dictated by the interests of certain powerful groups” (107).
If technology is not used as merely a tool but becomes a kind of unquestionable force, then we end up losing sight of the human impact that economic, cultural or political decisions have. As Pope Francis explains, “Life gradually becomes a surrender to situations conditioned by technology, itself viewed as the principal key to the meaning of existence” (110). This view ignores the dignity of the human person, of creation itself, and ultimately God.
Laudato Si’ is, above all, a hopeful encyclical. Citing his namesake, St. Francis of Assisi, the Holy Father draws his encyclical to a close by saying, “In the heart of this world, the Lord of life, who loves us so much, is always present. He does not abandon us, he does not leave us alone, for he has united himself definitively to our earth, and his love constantly impels us to find new ways forward. Praise be to him!” (245). The Lord of life became man for our sake, died on the Cross for us, and rose from the dead. He alone gives meaning to human life.
I pray that all persons of good will may encounter the Lord of life and come to receive his love so that we all regain “the conviction that we need one another, that we have a shared responsibility for others and the world, and that being good and decent are worth it” (229).
Laudato Si’ can be read in its entirety at: http://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/encyclicals/documents/papa-francesco_20150524_enciclica-laudato-si.html