Much will be written in the coming days, weeks and years about the second encyclical of Pope Francis, titled Laudato Si’: On the Care of Our Common Home. The lengthy and ambitious 184-page letter, addressed to “all people” who inhabit the planet, covers a lot of ground.
The Holy Father touches on everything from the invasiveness of technology in our daily lives to climate change to a very specific mention of the increased use of air conditioning. He even makes an unexpected and welcome reference to St. Thérèse of Lisieux and her doctrine of the “Little Way.”
While the more specific points are covered well in many summaries already published, here are four simple themes that can serve as a quick framework for understanding the first Papal encyclical on ecology.
1. Everything is connected
The Holy Father uses words such as connection, interrelation, unity, relationship and harmony dozens of times throughout the encyclical, thus promoting the idea of an “integral ecology” that brings together an “ecology of nature” with an “ecology of man.”
Using St. Francis as an “example par excellence” of living out an “integral ecology,” the Pope notes that the saint “was a mystic and a pilgrim who lived in simplicity and in wonderful harmony with God, with others, with nature and with himself.”
“Our relationship with the environment can never be isolated from our relationship with God, and with others,” the Holy Father states in making the point that the “justification of abortion” is incompatible with a concern for nature.
Additionally, Pope Francis underlines that every single person on earth is connected by the very fact that we all inhabit the earth, which is our “common home.”
The encyclical itself is addressed to “all people,” every single resident of earth, and it seeks “a new dialogue about how we are shaping the future of our planet.” The dialogue includes every person, because we are all connected, and it requires “a new and universal solidarity.”
2. We are broken
The root of the problem that we commonly face together, The Pope states, is disunity.
“The creation accounts in the book of Genesis contain, in their own symbolic and narrative language, profound teachings about human existence and its historical reality,” the Pope writes. “They suggest that human life is grounded in three fundamental and closely intertwined relationships: with God, with our neighbor and with the earth itself.
“According to the Bible, these three vital relationships have been broken, both outwardly and within us. This rupture is sin. The harmony between the Creator, humanity and creation as a whole was disrupted by our presuming to take the place of God and refusing to acknowledge our creaturely limitations.”
The Holy Father repeatedly mentions “excessive anthropocentrism,” which gives rise “to a wrong understanding of the relationship between human beings and the world.”
Instead of “mastery” or “domination” of the world, the Pontiff states, “our ‘dominion’ over the universe should be understood more properly in the sense of responsible stewardship.”
The Pope also expresses a particular concern for the fragmentation of knowledge, particularly of the disconnect between the sciences and technology and philosophy and theology.
3. The earth cries out
When man breaks his connection with God, neighbor and creation, he eventually does injury and violence to himself, others, and to the earth.
In the nearly poetic introduction to the letter, Francis writes of the earth as our sister: “This sister now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her. We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will.
“The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life.”
Instead of caring for the earth, which is our “home,” we have made it “look more and more like an immense pile of filth,” the Pope writes.
Pope Francis includes several pointed paragraphs on the role of mankind in the warming of the climatic system, which he says is due in large part to “intensive use of fossil fuels.” He argues for a reduction of carbon emissions, in addition to other measures that would alleviate stress on the earth’s resources.
He advocates seeking clean and renewable energy sources, a “basic and universal human right” to drinkable water, and more far-sighted practices that respect the earth’s biodiversity and seek to protect species that are close to extinction.
Then there is the social destruction. Pope Francis points to several signs of “real social decline, the silent rupture of the bonds of integration and social cohesion.”
As an example, he points to media and the digital world that contribute to a sort of “mental pollution” through the production of “noise and distractions of an information overload.”
“The human environment and the natural environment deteriorate together; we cannot adequately combat environmental degradation unless we attend to causes related to human and social degradation,” he states.
4. A call to conversion
“The external deserts in the world are growing, because the internal deserts have become so vast,” the Pope writes, quoting Benedict XVI. “For this reason, the ecological crisis is also a summons to profound interior conversion.”
In a powerful statement on what the Pope terms “ecological conversion,” the Holy Father calls all Christians, even those who “tend to ridicule expressions of concern for the environment,” to allow the “effects of their encounter with Jesus Christ [to] become evident in their relationship with the world around them.”
“Living our vocation to be protectors of God’s handiwork is essential to a life of virtue,” he asserts. “It is not an optional or a secondary aspect of our Christian experience.”
He proposes “cultivating sound virtues” through “little daily actions” to help people grow in a “selfless ecological commitment.” He suggests cutting down on the use of paper and plastic, reducing water consumption, using public transportation and planting trees.
The Pope suggests an examination of our lives and attitudes, particularly those connected with consumerism and a “throw-away culture,” and move toward “heartfelt repentance and desire to change.”
Pope Francis seeks with the encyclical that all people approach nature with an “openness to awe and wonder,” and to view creation as a gift of the Creator, and to speak of creation with the “language of fraternity and beauty.”
“If we feel intimately united with all that exists,” he states, “then sobriety and care will well up spontaneously.”