With Laudato Si, “Everything is connected”

Exclusive: Pope Francis integrates concerns, hope in game-changing eco-encyclical

With the release of Pope Francis’s long-anticipated encyclical at noon today in Rome, Catholic Ecology is providing one of your first reviews of the text using the approved English version.

After today, stay tuned for a series of daily posts connecting key passages within Laudato Si to ongoing eco-issues and activities. But first, the basics:

Reading Laudato Si

"I urgently appeal, then, for a new dialogue about how we are shaping the future of our planet. We need a conversation which includes everyone, since the environmental challenge we are undergoing, and its human roots, concern and affect us all." (Pope Francis, Laudato Si, 14)

In seven sections (six chapters and an introduction) spanning 246 paragraphs and covering nine central themes, Pope Francis provides a game-changing contribution to the Church and the world—although not always for the reasons many might have expected.

The Holy Father’s overall goals with Laudato Si is to build relationships, foster dialogue, and offer to the world the Gospel and the grace of Jesus Christ. In doing so he builds on and makes his own the teachings of Saint John Paul II and Benedict XVI that connect environmental concerns with social issues and those of human life.

"Since everything is interrelated, concern for the protection of nature is also incompatible with the justification of abortion." Pope Francis in Laudato Si

In fact, that term “connected” is one that Pope Francis wants us to especially remember.

Ultimately, he says, it’s all about relationships—our interconnectedness. The problem is that because of sin, our relationships are easily broken. And broken relationships cause the grave problems of our age, most especially short-sighted business practices and governmental policies that enable quick profits over long-term care of ecosystems and people, especially the very poor.

In his introduction, Pope Francis explains that he focuses on nine themes that weave throughout the encyclical: “the intimate relationship between the poor and the fragility of the planet, the conviction that everything in the world is connected, the critique of new paradigms and forms of power derived from technology, the call to seek other ways of understanding the economy and progress, the value proper to each creature, the human meaning of ecology, the need for forthright and honest debate, the serious responsibility of international and local policy, the throwaway culture and the proposal of a new lifestyle.” (16)

The Holy Father adds that “these questions will not be dealt with once and for all, but reframed and enriched again and again.” (16)

Human life, society, and the natural environment

There were persistent (and rather strange) complaints by some Catholics in recent weeks that the Holy Father and Vatican officials were working to closely with secular environmental groups and so would somehow embrace abortion and artificial contraception as solutions to the world's ecological ills. Countering those rumors are some of the Holy Father’s actual words in Laudato Si:

"The culture of relativism is the same disorder which drives one person to take advantage of another, to treat others as mere objects," Pope Francis in Laudato Si

"When we fail to acknowledge as part of reality the worth of a poor person, a human embryo, a person with disabilities—to offer just a few examples—it becomes difficult to hear the cry of nature itself; everything is connected." (117)

“Since everything is interrelated, concern for the protection of nature is also incompatible with the justification of abortion. How can we genuinely teach the importance of concern for other vulnerable beings, however troublesome or inconvenient they may be, if we fail to protect a human embryo?” (97)

One of the more defining passages of Laudato Si comes in an introductory overview of the eco-thoughts and writings of Pope Francis’s predecessors. In his discussion of Benedict XVI, the Holy Father summarizes that both the social ills of our age and environmental ones “are ultimately due to the same evil: the notion that there are no indisputable truths to guide our lives, and hence human freedom is limitless.” (120)

It's not all relative

Pope Francis also advances his predecessor’s concerns about relativism—a term that describes the belief that truth is only true if it agrees with whatever I want it to be.

The culture of relativism is the same disorder which drives one person to take advantage of another, to treat others as mere objects, imposing forced labour on them or enslaving them to pay their debts. The same kind of thinking leads to the sexual exploitation of children and abandonment of the elderly who no longer serve our interests. It is also the mindset of those who say: Let us allow the invisible forces of the market to regulate the economy, and consider their impact on society and nature as collateral damage. In the absence of objective truths or sound principles other than the satisfaction of our own desires and immediate needs, what limits can be placed on human trafficking, organized crime, the drug trade, commerce in blood diamonds and the fur of endangered species? Is it not the same relativistic logic which justifies buying the organs of the poor for resale or use in experimentation, or eliminating children because they are not what their parents wanted? This same “use and throw away” logic generates so much waste, because of the disordered desire to consume more than what is really necessary. (123)

Climate as a common good

While the mainstream media and other commentators would (favorably or unfavorably) refer to the document as “the pope’s climate change encyclical,” it is not devoted to that issue. Indeed, climate change is the central topic of only four out of the 246 paragraphs.

Still, Pope Francis is concerned about it, maintains that humanity is playing a role in a warming climate, and he expects action.

A very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climatic system. In recent decades this warming has been accompanied by a constant rise in the sea level and, it would appear, by an increase of extreme weather events, even if a scientifically determinable cause cannot be assigned to each particular phenomenon. Humanity is called to recognize the need for changes of lifestyle, production and consumption, in order to combat this warming or at least the human causes which produce or aggravate it. It is true that there are other factors (such as volcanic activity, variations in the earth’s orbit and axis, the solar cycle), yet a number of scientific studies indicate that most global warming in recent decades is due to the great concentration of greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrogen oxides and others) released mainly as a result of human activity.” (23)

The climate conversation is part of the first chapter, devoted to discussion on the problems of our age. The issue is incorporated into a section on pollution, waste, and a “throwaway society.”

There’s also a well-presented summary around issues of water and biodiversity.

Many people will deny doing anything wrong because distractions constantly dull our consciousness of just how limited and finite our world really is." Pope Francis in Laudato Si

“Each year sees the disappearance of thousands of plant and animal species which we will never know, which our children will never see, because they have been lost forever” (33). Pope Francis implores that they are not just any exploitable “resource”, but have a value in and of themselves because they, too, were made by God.

Also within this chapter are discussions on specific social and human issues that, true to what has already been noted, show the connections between people, places, and priorities. And too often, it is the poor who suffer beyond what most people reading this on an electronic device (myself included) might be able to understand.

In some places, rural and urban alike, the privatization of certain spaces has restricted people’s access to places of particular beauty. In others, “ecological” neighbourhoods have been created which are closed to outsiders in order to ensure an artificial tranquillity. Frequently, we find beautiful and carefully manicured green spaces in so-called “safer” areas of cities, but not in the more hidden areas where the disposable of society live. (45)

Pope Francis shows himself to be deeply affected by the “weak responses” in the face of the drama besetting many peoples and populations. Even though positive examples are not lacking (58), “a complacency and a cheerful "recklessness” prevail (59). An adequate culture is lacking (53) as is a willingness to change life style, production and consumption (59), but fortunately efforts are being made “to establish a legal framework which can set clear boundaries and ensure the protection of ecosystems” (53).

Why does the pope care about nature?

And to those who worry that ecology is not really Catholic, Pope Francis offers an entire chapter on "The Gospel of Creation," a catechesis on why the Judeo-Christian faith accepts the inherent goodness of the created order. In part he concludes that because of what has been revealed to us in sacred scripture, we know that

a spirituality which forgets God as all-powerful and Creator is not acceptable. That is how we end up worshipping earthly powers, or ourselves usurping the place of God, even to the point of claiming an unlimited right to trample his creation underfoot. The best way to restore men and women to their rightful place, putting an end to their claim to absolute dominion over the earth, is to speak once more of the figure of a Father who creates and who alone owns the world. Otherwise, human beings will always try to impose their own laws and interests on reality. (75)

The way forward

Pope Francis devotes much of Laudato Si to plotting passages through the darkness. He concludes with our final answer in Christ—with our relationship with the God that is love and relationship. This concluding chapter has some of powerful and stirring theological images.

The human person grows more, matures more and is sanctified more to the extent that he or she enters into relationships, going out from themselves to live in communion with God, with others and with all creatures. In this way, they make their own that trinitarian dynamism which God imprinted in them when they were created. Everything is interconnected, and this invites us to develop a spirituality of that global solidarity which flows from the mystery of the Trinity. (240)

There is much that we will unpack in future posts. But this cannot replace your reading of the encyclical—either online or in the old-fashioned, human-scale book form, which will be published in English by Ignatius Press. Whichever way you read it, read and discuss it with others—with a small community, with your parish, with friends, with family. You’d make the Holy Father happy if you did.

And stay tuned for much more as Laudato Si forever changes the way we talk about Catholic ecology.

Encyclical image courtesy of Ignatius Press. All quotations from Laudato Si taken from the official embargoed English version.

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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.