The eco-pope at year four

Pope Francis has supercharged his predecessor’s eco-teachings, but not everyone is on board

At the four-year anniversary of the pontificate of Pope Francis, there's much to celebrate, much to ponder, and a couple of concerns.

There were worries in the Catholic eco-sphere when Benedict XVI, the Green Pope, announced his abdication of the papacy in 2013. Would the next pope continue his teaching on environmental protection? Would the Vatican continue its sustainability mission?

I was certain that Benedict’s predecessor wouldn’t disappoint us, but I didn’t expect the far-reaching impact of Pope Francis.

From his homily at the Mass of his installation, on the Feast of Saint Joseph, to Laudato Si’ and onward to this very day, Pope Francis has firmly engrained ecology within the life of Catholic Social Teaching.

Just a few months into his pontificate, Francis introduced what would become a central theme to his eco-teachings and his understanding of the global human condition. At his June 5th, 2013 General Audience, he spoke of the “culture of waste” in a way that seamlessly linked with his predecessors' teachings, and that would foreshadow the concept of integral ecology that two years later would take flight in Laudato Si’.

Then in November of that year he wove ecology into his apostolic exhortation on joy, and then opened 2014 with his message for the World Day of Peace that spoke heavily of creation—as had Benedict XVI and Saint John Paul II.

2014 saw the beginning of an ongoing series of eco-themed conferences at the Pontifical Academy of Sciences and increased ecological news by Vatican media outlets. Again, much of this began before Francis, but his pontificate certainly fueled the momentum far beyond where it had been.

Also in 2014, two of Francis’s most influential global voices—Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana and Luis Tagle of Manila—began a series of local events and international talks that continued shining ever brighter spotlights on the Catholic Church’s eco-engagement.

Then came 2015—the year of Laudato Si’, which took the eco-frameworks of Saint John Paul II and Benedict XVI and added substantial insights into the first papal encyclical devoted to ecology. Even before its release, the eco-encyclical had galvanized Catholics (and non-Catholics) in the trenches of ecological protection and climate change advocacy. Once it hit the internet, Laudato Si’ became one of the most well-known, studied, and debated encyclicals since Humane Vitae.

If the Church is going to be an effective prophet and advocate for the kind of changes needed to protect God’s creation and life, we all need to be on board. Catholic eco-efforts cannot be taken on solely by half the Church.

And from there, the drumbeat has not slowed. From the Church’s formidable presence at international eco talks to a massively important climate statement by representatives of bishops from all the continents, the Francis effect has mainstreamed the subject of ecology within the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.

But all has not been as smooth as it could have been—in part because of Francis’s trust in, as he once said, “making a mess.”

Pope Francis’s apostolic exhortation on marriage, Amoris Laetitia, exemplifies part of the problem. Many conservative Catholics are furious—and many others are simply confused—with mixed messages that that document seem to be offering about marriage and divorce—matters discussed and settled by Francis's predecessors.

While that debate rages, there are the occasional bouts of trepidation and frustration with some of Francis’s often off-the-cuff statements, which can lack the precision that many expect of a pontiff, rightly or wrongly. [See this recent commentary in Catholic World Report, for instance.]

The problem for Catholic ecologists is that all the good that Pope Francis has said and done to advance environmental protection is being cheered mostly by those who already saw the environment as an issue worth fighting for. Sure, there has been some welcome adoption of the Church's eco-concerns by Catholics who may not have given much thought to the topic. But for the reasons mentioned above, and others, those on the ideological right, who are often not on the eco-bandwagon, are beginning not to trust the Holy Father on any topic—much like some on the left did not trust Benedict XVI. It is precisely this group that needs to hear and grow comfortable with the Catholic engagement of ecology, but it is again precisely this group that seems increasingly happy tuning out anything Pope Francis has to say.

This worries me. If the Church is going to be an effective prophet and advocate for the kind of changes needed to protect God’s creation, which includes life, we all need to be on board. Catholic eco-efforts cannot be taken on solely by half the Church.

And so, going forward, much needs to be done to build unity so that the Church can fulfill her proper role in guiding people to Christ, who the world needs now more than ever.

Let us pray that as 2017 advances, divisions in the Church will subside and heal, so that we can all rally behind the great ecological advances made by Pope Francis—the ones he’s already fulfilled and the many, many more that are sure to come.

Saint Joseph and Saint Michael, pray for us.

Saint Francis of Assisi and Saint Kateri Tekakwitha, pray for the Church’s ecologists.

And Mary, Mother of God, pray for the protection and the health of Pope Francis, now and in all the time granted to him in the Chair of Saint Peter.

May God bless our pontiff!

Photo: Flicker/Long Thiên

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About the Blog

Catholic Ecology posts my regular column in the Rhode Island Catholic, as well as scientific and theological commentary about the latest eco-news, both within and outside of the Catholic Church. What is contained herein is but one person's attempt to teach and defend the Church's teachings - ecological and otherwise. As such, I offer all contents of this blog for approval of the bishops of the Church. It is my hope that nothing herein will lead anyone astray from truth.