How do I react to the monumental encyclical of Pope Francis, Laudato Si? Well, thinking about how to respond to that question brought to my mind three things I should be very clear about from the start:
- I am a Jesuit, not a Franciscan.
- I’ve lived in Africa for the past three decades, not in the United States.
- I’m a political scientist, not an ecological scientist.
First of all, I’m not much of a “brother sun,” “sister moon,” “mother earth,” sort of person. To be honest, I probably had never read the Canticle of Francis of Assisi until it began appearing everywhere on the Internet after Pope Francis released his encyclical. My formation in Jesuit spirituality seemed a lot less “poetic” than the lyrical expressions of the poor man of Assisi. But recently I’ve been challenged to go deeper into the Ignatian view of our created order. A Spanish Jesuit ecologist, José Antonio García, S.J., opened for me the environmentalist reading (and praying!) of the “Foundation” and the “Contemplation” of Ignatius’s Spiritual Exercises.
Simply expressed, the created world deeply reveals God’s loving presence and calls for a respect and cooperation in every aspect of my life. While our Jesuit Pope does not cite Ignatius in Laudato Si, he–and I–cannot help but be influenced by what is really a radical Ignatian ecological spirituality.
Second, my understanding of today’s environmental crisis is influenced by my experience of climate change in Africa in recent years. While some prominent people might deny climate change, no one who lives in the midst of the environmental disasters of drought and flood such as I have experienced in Malawi in recent years can be blind to such a reality.
Paragraphs 25 and 26 of Laudato Si especially speak of the consequences of climate change to the livelihoods of the poor in the so-called “developing countries.” Pope Francis notes that the means of subsistence of these poor “are largely dependent on natural reserves and ecosystemic services such as agriculture, fishing and forestry.” And these are the realities most threatened by the climate change affecting the people I know in Africa.
Third, by training I look at the responses that Laudato Si recommends primarily in political terms – and I’m pleased that Pope Francis is very much aware of the need for political action and the relationship between such action and our joint and collective economic decisions about consumption, savings, and investment. He repeatedly emphasizes that the changes that will really respect our common home require actions by citizens that will especially influence economic decisions: “Unless citizens control political power – national, regional and municipal – it will not be possible to control damage to the environment” (179).
Certainly this political emphasis is urgently needed in these days of transition of leadership in the United States. A president who denies the reality of climate change and promises to withdraw from international agreements to promote economic growth is a threat to cumulative gains, however modest these have been. As Pope Francis notes, there is an overwhelming body of scientific research supporting the conclusions that (1) climate change is real and (2) human activity is its principal cause. To suggest otherwise, e.g, through the Orwellian substitution of “climate contrarian” for “climate change denier,” is to practice a modern form of misology. Likewise, to discount the credibility of scientific researchers and the legitimacy of their work by imputing political or financial bias to them is intellectually dishonest in the face of the enormous political and financial interests that have everything to gain through such denials.
However, even the political realm is only part of the story and Catholic social tradition recognizes a pluralism of institutions: multiple centers of gravity for reinforcing salutary policies and practices. It is telling that corporations have joined civil society organizations, universities, faith-influenced organizations, and even the military and intelligence communities to hold fast to the scientific conclusions about climate change and to support global collaboration through public and private institutions to mitigate and try to reverse this threat.
When Pope Francis asks such hard questions through the lenses of the Canticle, chemistry, and cosmology, he brings us to an encounter with both sobering truths and venerable tools of Catholic social tradition for engaging with them. This is very much in the spirit of Pope Pius XI’s call for subsidiarity in the wake of the Great Depression, Pope John XXIII’s invocation of socialization after the Cuban missile crisis, and John Paul II’s exhortation to solidarity in building a global millennial consciousness in the wake of the Cold War. Pope Francis, in voicing an ethic of care for our common home and one another in Laudato Si, enlarges our ethical vision, our willingness to see afresh the challenging signs of the times, and our resolve to think differently and to act differently to build a future worthy of our principles and our promise.