Three years ago, the world waited impatiently for the new encyclical letter on integral ecology by Pope Francis. For months ahead of its unveiling, people in the know—social activists, theologians, ecologists—Catholic or not, speculated, theorized, and dreamed of all that this important message might contain. We knew that the words from the Holy Father would be coming at a critical time, in the lead up to the COP21 Climate talks in Paris. Those of us who had been praying for the world to wake up to the urgency of the current ecological crisis put our hopes in the hands of Pope Francis and this encyclical.
When Pope Francis finally shared Laudato Si’ with the world, he did not disappoint those of us who were expecting a powerful moral voice to support the need for an urgent change of course. Indeed, Laudato Si’ not only highlighted the urgency of the ecological crisis but also tied it intrinsically to the social and political crises that surround us. It spoke not only to Catholics but to all people of the earth. We were not referring to an environmental encyclical, as some wanted to describe it, but to teachings on integral human ecology, on the sacredness of our common home and our deep responsibility toward one another and toward the earth.
Pope Francis’s words of daring simplicity and clarity provoked us to go back to the basics: back to the Gospel and back to our solidarity with each other. He called us to take action, to believe that change was possible and that we have the capacity as human beings to do better than we have done so far. Through Laudato Si’, he called us to a profound conversion and to change our destructive lifestyles that are at the heart of political, social, and economic choices that hurt our sisters and brothers around the world as well as the earth (which Pope Francis called our sister and our mother).
This inspiring, moving, and new discourse reinvigorated the Catholic movement for a holistic approach to justice, peace, and reverence for the environment. Pope Francis empowered concerned people around the world with hope and courage to find a stronger voice in public spheres.
Laudato Si’ has had the power to unite social justice activists and environmentalists, scientists, theologians, journalists, and politicians. However, the work is far from finished. In fact, it is just beginning. Three years later, people still need to harness and direct the power of Laudato Si’. We have seen that the early enthusiasm in 2015 in the Paris Agreement slowed to a crawl in Bonn in 2017 at the COP23 Climate Talks.
What has changed since Laudato Si’? Everything. Nevertheless, we need to stay strong. There is greater awareness and greater empowerment among Catholics, but there is also closer collaboration and sharing of knowledge with new friends who cherish the same dream of global social justice and care for our common home and one another.
We have words, we have a book, and we have Catholic social tradition to guide our work to change course and fuel our advocacy toward public and private centers of influence. We have the confidence that we are working together to do good.
However, what is most important, we have each other, the community of people of hope around the world who are already living differently, whose inspiring stories we are sharing. We are many and we believe in each other and in our power to do better. “Truly there is much to do”.
When human pride explodes, it destroys and exploits nature. Think of water. Water is something precious and very important. Water gives life; it helps us in everything. But to exploit the minerals, which leads to the contamination of water, then messes up the environment and creation is destroyed! This is just an example. There are many more.
Pope Francis, February 22, 2017
I read this quote from a homily by Pope Francis in which he emphasized our care for the environment. It had an immediate effect upon me as I was visiting the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan during a school break. I previously worked in Jordan as the pastor of the English Language parish for the Patriarchate of Jerusalem.
The World Health Organization ranks Jordan among the lowest in the world for water resource availability per capita, with water scarcity becoming a more menacing challenge as the population doubles and climate changes make precipitation more uncertain and variable. In addition, the desert kingdom hosts over 1 million Syrian refugees and displaced persons, creating an enormous strain on a fragile water infrastructure.
King Abdullah presses on with responsible stewardship as the kingdom uses its gifts to compensate for its deficiencies. The most abundant vital resource is the sun. Under the King’s directives during the past five years, developers and construction companies have been advancing solar energy technologies to produce clean and efficient energy. With long cloudless days, these photocells produce great quantities of energy in the summer and companies are able to apply the excess production toward credits for their energy bills in the colder seasons. Lobbyists are urging the government to create tax deductions for credit incentives if businesses use solar energy, thereby decreasing taxes. Such governmental regulations will spark increased incentives for companies to switch to cleaner energy consumption methods. Additionally, companies are switching from diesel gas to liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) as a low carbon, cleaner alternative source of energy that emits 35 percent less carbon dioxide than coal and costs 12 percent less than oil.
The kingdom has required builders to designate green space within all new construction projects, including exterior building renovations (even for residential apartments); the builder then must get municipality approval for the green space. Vegetation in the desert is sparse; in the city of Amman, it is not uncommon for one walking along a sidewalk to find a tree planted in the middle of the path. The Jordanians do like their trees and bushes and want them planted wherever their growth can be sustainable.
Construction companies extend their good will to residents of the poorer southern parts of the kingdom by building parks in those areas, creating soccer and playing fields, and then planting trees so the fields are shaded from the sun. The Saudis are installing windmills in the barren Arabian desert, and these conserve the desert lifestyle.
When I left Amman for the United States three years ago, I was lamenting the pervasive habit of littering that tarnished the city. Jordanians were always boastful that Amman was the cleanest Arab city, but this littering became a source for shame as they built up their tourism industry. The Amman municipality within the past two years has doubled its efforts in sanitation and trash collection to return the city to a place of pride. The government has removed abandoned cars from sidewalks and parking areas and the residents are caring for their small corners of the city. They are practicing care for their common home and for one another, a commitment to the common good.
Historical and eco-tourism are burgeoning industries that are showcasing Jordan’s natural resources. The marvels of Petra and Wadi Rum attract foreign visitors to the nation, and smaller gems are appearing on the tourism map, like the Dana Reserve and its Biosphere that sustains a fragile but important arid ecosystem with distinctive threatened wildlife, like Nubian Ibexes, Syrian serins, caracals, and lesser kestrels.
In addition, the Dead Sea will soon come back to life. An extensive project of channeling water from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea will replenish the rapidly evaporating waters. Cooperation between the Israeli and Jordanian governments benefits both nations, and Jordan will get a steady supply of potable water for its residents.
Tourism is drawing attention for sport enthusiasts, some who are able to run the Red to Dead Sea marathon, hang-glide through the mountain terrain, spend a spa weekend at the Ma’in Hot Springs, or wade through the Mujib Dam’s tributaries. Tourism companies like Wild Jordan lead eco-tours and sell products that emphasize Jordan’s new interest in preserving its environment.
The Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature (RSCN) is a big player in setting new environmental standards. Two impressive efforts are the restoration of the Al Azraq Oasis and rain production in Ajloun (the forests of Gilead).
Jordanians also plan to dam the springs that have fed Al Azraq, an oasis at the intersection of three deserts in the eastern part of the country. This was the winter home to Lawrence of Arabia before his attack on Ottoman Damascus. The wetlands have been shrinking as they have become the primary source of drinking water for the growing metropolis of Amman. A wide variety of birds stop at the reserve each year to rest during their migration routes between Asia and Africa, and Jordanians have reintroduced water buffaloes to the area. While the restoration project is in its initial stages, it is the first of its kind in Jordan and is a real attempt to reverse a destructive trend.
Cloud seeding that uses ionizing technology has yielded promising results, virtually doubling rainfall levels in 17 days of December 2016. The technology mimics sun ionization and uses no chemicals. Ionized particles are 100 times more electrically attracted to water vapor and they form vapor clusters that eventually become raindrops. The technology is new and it has been successful in Australia and the United Arab Emirates; it could reap tremendous benefits for this water-starved kingdom.
I am certain that few Jordanians have heard of Laudato Si, but the people know that, in a land with few life-sustaining water resources, they are prudent to conserve and judiciously manage their precious natural resources. Jordan’s geography encompasses a fertile East Bank of the Jordan River that flows into the saline-saturated Dead Sea, which does not sustain many living organisms. From the lowest elevations to barren rugged mountains surrounded by vast deserts, the presence of water means life.
Jordanians long have forged a delicate balance between human society and the natural world. Their pragmatism requires them to work with their neighbors for sustainability, which increases stability, security, and peace for the region. Their innovation helps them reduce levels of poverty, especially as they struggle to provide for the influx of war refugees. Their spirit of determination makes them a model for other nations and serves as a reminder that the survival and flourishing of humanity is intricately linked to the preservation of the world’s natural resources.
In my global advocacy activities, both as the secretary general of the International Catholic Migration Commission (ICMC) and as part-time attaché at the Permanent Mission of the Holy See to the United Nations in Geneva, I have been amazed at the positive response of diplomats and international nongovernmental organization (NGO) advocates to Pope Francis’s landmark encyclical, Laudato Si’. Many who would pass by me at the United Nations when they noticed my Roman collar now greet me warmly and tell me, “I like your Pope and his encyclical!” Despite my joy upon receiving these positive echoes, I am concerned that too many still see the encyclical as focusing on climate change alone (as vital and important as that issue might be) and do not discern the deeper implications of Pope Francis’s call for “integral human ecology,” which requires a profound discernment of our relationship with God, with nature, and with ourselves and each other.
In the sixth chapter of the encyclical, the Holy Father issued a rather curious challenge – that is, to promote “civic and political love”: “We must 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 (220)…. Social love is the key to authentic development (231).” What a contrast between Pope Francis’s admonition and the demeaning political rhetoric that dominated the recent referendum vote in the United Kingdom and the political campaigns in the United States and Europe!
The bitter debate about admission of migrants and refugees into Western countries is literally the most glaring proof of the crying need to promote civil and political love in our world. In February 2016, while standing at the border between Mexico and the United States, Pope Francis described the current situation in this manner: “We cannot deny the humanitarian crisis which in recent years has meant migration for thousands of people, whether by train or highway or on foot, crossing hundreds of kilometers through mountains, deserts and inhospitable zones. The human tragedy that is forced migration is a global phenomenon today. This crisis, which can be measured in numbers and statistics, we want instead to measure with names, stories, families.”
On January 15, 2017, the Catholic Church observes the 103rd World Day of Migrants and Refugees. For this occasion, Pope Francis has decided to focus on “Minor migrants, vulnerable and voiceless,” who often arrive unaccompanied in their destination countries, “are unable to make their own voices heard” and “easily become victims of grave violations of human rights.” In his message for this day, the Holy Father insists on the need to strike a balance between “the right of states to control migratory movement and to protect the common good of the nation … with the duty to resolve and regularize the situation of child migrants.” He reminds us that the migration phenomenon is part of salvation history, which speaks of the providential work of God in history and in the human community, with a view to universal communion.” Echoing dominant themes of Catholic social teaching, and specifically of Laudato Si’, Pope Francis calls for far-sighted perspectives, “capable of offering adequate programmes for areas struck by the worst injustice and instability, in order that access to authentic development can be guaranteed for all,” and reminds us that “this development should promote the good of boys and girls, who are humanity’s hope.”
My own organization, the ICMC, received a mandate from Pope Pius XII, “…to unite and organize existing Catholic associations and committees, and to promote, reinforce and coordinate their projects and activities in behalf of migrants and refugees.” I recently visited the ICMC Refugee Service Centre in Istanbul, Turkey; our staff there are deeply engaged in assisting families to apply for resettlement in the United States. These refugees cannot return home, and their current host country is unable to offer them permanent residence, employment, and long-term safety.
During my visit, I spent time with a group of children who were receiving instruction on life in America. As most children, they were enthusiastic and curious – they grinned from ear to ear and spoke of what they planned to do in their new homes. Each had colored a map of the United States, placed his or her destination state in a special color and spoke with confidence about heading to better and happier lives. But behind their smiling faces, I noticed pain and trauma in their eyes. They had witnessed terrible atrocities; several had lost their loved ones. I am sure that they were experiencing much anxiety and concern about how safe they would be as they boarded an airplane heading for parts of the world that would be very unfamiliar to them. What impressed me most about these children, however, was their sense of hope – they could imagine a better life for themselves and their families despite the many challenges they had experienced so early in life. They, like the Child Jesus, could still imagine the world described by the prophet Isaiah, where “… the wolf shall be a guest of the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat. The calf and the young lion shall browse together, with a little child to guide them (Is. 11:6).”
For me, the time with these child refugees was a real lesson in a way to promote “civic and political love” that seems to be so lacking in our contemporary society and living proof that refugees and migrants are part of our common good!
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.