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”.
As Thanksgiving draws near, I find myself thinking about the various people and things for which I am thankful. Identifying the good and being grateful for it keeps me grounded. It keeps me from distorting the bad or wallowing in it. God might not, as Fr. Brian J. Lehane, S.J., suggests, “want us always to be saying ‘thank you’.”  But he does want us “to be noticing how much we are loved and cared for by Him and, in turn, respond[ing] by living a life of gratitude.”
A life of gratitude. Isn’t that what Pope Francis lives, models and asks of us as well? It is not surprising that Pope Francis, formed in Ignatian tradition, approaches his ministry with a sense of gratitude. We can see this in how he greets each person who approaches him in his travels, how he seeks out the most vulnerable to remind them that their lives have as much dignity as anyone’s life, and how he has prioritized caring for creation in Laudato Si’: “Creation is not a property, which we can rule over at will; or, even less, is the property of only a few: Creation is a gift, it is a wonderful gift that God has given us, so that we care for it and we use it for the benefit of all, always with great respect and gratitude.”
But in the two years since publication of Laudato Si’, it feels as if the world has hardened toward the earth and its inhabitants. Nativist groups no longer lurk in the shadows, but openly shout their messages of hate and violence. Politicians seem singularly focused on withdrawing healthcare and support from the poorest among us. Wars rage. Nations shut their borders to desperate refugees. Even the climate seems to be flexing its muscle with a series of wildfires, hurricanes, earthquakes; many of these events hit the most vulnerable.
But being surrounded by a hardening world does not mean we have to be hard. Now more than ever, the light of Christ is needed. For me, connecting with that light comes most easily when focusing on what I am grateful for each day, using the Ignatian Examen as a way to encounter that gratitude. It’s “a simple life-changing prayer,” as Jim Manney says.
It first asks you to review your day and to discern within it the people and things for which you are grateful. Before your thoughts turn to where you might have strayed, you intentionally identify things that made you happy. It sounds so simple. But too often we fail to notice, really notice, the things that make us happy: the help of a co-worker, a woman walking the largest and smallest dogs I’ve ever seen at the same time, a clear blue sky, or a comforting shoulder in a moment of sorrow.
Calling these things to the top of my mind and saying thank you for them helps remind me just how real Christ’s presence is in my day. What is more important, it helps me be more generous with my actions, maybe offering that shoulder or helping another co-worker the next day. It also grounds me in my faith. I am grateful not for these lovely moments in and of themselves, but because Christ is in them. Christ walks with me every day. Not just with me, though, but with everyone, especially the poor and vulnerable who are suffering most right now. And as His hands and feet on earth, I must also walk with them.
Gratitude is no small thing. It can help us soften and brighten the world.
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!
Pope Francis’s Laudato Si is a groundbreaking publication for our time; a kind of ‘Magna Carta’ from the Church to society! Continuing a practice starting with Pope John XXIII in Pacem in Terris in 1963, Pope Francis addressed Laudato Si to ‘All people of good will’. The content of this encyclical needs little elaboration, interpretation, exegesis or paraphrasing. Its succinct, down-to-earth and readable text speaks to a broad range of ‘people of good will’ through the mind, heart, conscience, and soul. However, it would help the encyclical to be more impactful if it had a much broader dissemination and application for people and institutions across numerous social milieus.
Dissemination and Diverse Application of Laudato Si
Laudato Si has shaped and transformed my conviction, attitude, mind-set, and deep consideration of relationships in and between the environmental and social domains and my personal utilization of both public and private goods. My teenage daughter read Laudato Si with ease when I persuaded her to do so and we have since had useful discussions on her perspectives. I am looking forward to her return home from high school on holidays so that I can learn from her about application of Laudato Si in a public boarding school environment.
As a social and development worker for the Church, I am constantly exploring other spaces and arenas for the dissemination and application of Laudato Si. Recently, as part of the Ghana Catholic Bishops’ Conference advocacy against land grabbing in Ghana, we held a two-day policy dialogue meeting with governmental actors on this subject. Caritas Ghana’s report—Unmasking Land Grabbing in Ghana; Restoring Livelihoods; Paving Way for Sustainable Development Goals (available at www.caritas-ghana.org)—which was the basis for the policy engagement, considered (in chapter 2) the menace of land grabbing from the lens of Laudato Si. I was amazed at the number of government officials—Catholic and non-Catholic—who requested copies of Laudato Si. Caritas Ghana had intended to distribute only a few copies as gifts to key functionaries at the event. However, the demand for copies provided us the opportunity to disseminate Laudato Si on the second day of the event as well.
Laudato Si is also central for Caritas Ghana’s advocacy strategy to help the country implement the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). We are about to publish an assessment report on Ghana’s readiness to implement the SDGs framework. At a national validation meeting on the report with representatives of government ministries, departments and agencies, civil society organisations, university researchers and intergovernmental organisations, we again demonstrated how principles that Pope Francis invokes in Laudato Si are essential to implementing the SDGs framework. The principles of leave-no-one-behind, inclusion, participation, policy coherence and respect for ecology and environment aligned well with this framework.
Another example of such dissemination and application of this message involving the Ghana Catholic Bishops’ Conference occurred during the group’s 2016 Plenary Assembly, which just concluded in Ghana’s Northern Region city of Tamale. The theme was ‘Reconciliation with God, Humanity and Nature in the Year of Mercy’. Participants devoted the whole of 11 October to issues related to integral human development and public policy in Ghana. Notable issues they discussed included the phenomenon of land grabbing, ecology, national cohesion and peace, the upcoming general elections in December, and human security. In all these discussions, Laudato Si was at the centre of the reflections and thus provided an opportunity to disseminate its message. The text of the culminating communiqué (available at www.caritas-ghana.org) amply demonstrates the centrality of the teaching of Laudato Si for the bishops.
This post has presented concrete examples of ways for Laudato Si truly to be a message to all people of good will. Laudato Si will benefit from application and dissemination in diverse contexts to develop creative responses to today’s social and environmental questions. The encyclical reflects Pope Francis’s plain-spoken approach to the relevant issues: the ‘signs of the times’. The availability of translations of the document into multiple languages broadens such access and opportunity. There is no need for those who distribute it or those who read it to overthink its direct moral appeal and factual exposition; what will be most helpful will be for all reciprocally to bring to the dialogue the very qualities that Pope Francis models in this text and his leadership generally: good will, honesty, and care. Perhaps, going forward, the compilation of a compendium of case studies of Laudato Si’s application in diverse and varied contexts could be a befitting gift to Pope Francis on the fifth anniversary of its publication in 2020.
When I was a child, some 60 years ago, I felt the world heavily unjust. Born poor, and competitive, I misunderstood my roles, and was mostly angry. I had not yet discovered the brilliance in praise, the strength in teams, and how mercy and generosity work in our world.
When I was 16, I met a surrogate father, Mr. Charles Plummer, who asked me to read Marcus Aurelius and his 12-book Meditations. I spent three years studying that text in relationship to the New and Old Testaments, then in relation to the Judaic traditions of our fathers, and then with the books that my mother had kept at home, and knew I needed to know —namely, the St. James version of the Bible.
When Aurelius helped me see how small I was, and that my family was the first circle of protection for me, then my neighborhood, then further protection and value in my competitive realms in sports and work; and then when he taught me to laugh at myself in praising the Logos, things became more controllable. Some of my rage and anger lessened, and I could focus on working to improve the life around me.
Of course, this is where St. Francis began, too, improving the life around him, and this is where his namesake, Pope Francis, builds from. That is part of the miracle in the Pope’s 200-plus passages in Laudato Si’.
In addressing poverty and the wealth of nature, in addressing science and its usefulness, and in questioning our current responses to the threats of pollution and climate change, our Pope Francis is tackling something larger than the former Francis’s wolf of Gubbio. I say this because our Francis is facing the whole world now, not just a few Italian hills, manageable by foot, and shared over time with the help of special folks we have come to call Sister Clare and Friar Bonaventure. I love not St. Francis less, in saying this, but these natural problems more.
Today, in the science of climate change, and in the issue of world markets, and the rampant consumerism, we face an increasingly urgent crossroads. It is the industrial cultural equivalent to walking up the hills of Assisi, but every day. The only messages that can last in this predicament, I predict, are phrased as learning to “do more with less” and learning to “do more with teams.”
This is the most procedurally and practically consistent way to answer the call of our Pope, and of the many scientists behind the Paris Accord.
Here is the good news: The Paris Accord is a major turning point in history, equivalent, in my mind, to the brilliance of our Pope. If there is such a thing as natural supernaturalism (as my Ph.D. mentor, M. H. Abrams, shows as real in social history), then I think the Paris Accord answers both our needs for teams and innovation, and our needs for competitive frugality. Every five years, the Paris Accord will readjust our expectations in relationship to environmental, social, and governance matters. There is a magic in that kind of humility and its collective view of what I call “social response capitalism.” These are concepts not unheard of in Catholic social tradition.
But today, these concepts can outlast and be heard anew in a fashion deeper than politics, media, and keeping up with the Joneses. There is something sacred that happens when a team extends our individual needs, and there is something sacred and something satisfying when we learn: “Doing more with less is success in the 21st century.” This is a mantra, not a prayer, a practical way to frame the objectives of his reflections on poverty and climate change.
Now that I am much older, I see a web of relationships in nature, science, and corporate behavior. This is the reality of living in our century. I have lessened my rage, and increased my faith. You might say I have “arrived,” however slowly, to something St. Francis knew from the start. Answers are available, every day.
I hope these reflections help, and sing some praise and ground a framework as we march forward in a carbon- and capital-constrained world.
The 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP 21), which occurred in Paris last December, resulted in an agreement to try to stop climate change. Six months earlier, Pope Francis published the encyclical, Laudato Si’. This document immediately commanded respect for contributing an essential voice to discussions and debates about climate change for four points it made.
First, the Pope brought environmental issues into a spiritual and religious plane. He invited leaders from other faiths to engage with the subject from within the spiritual and intellectual frameworks of their traditions, and to call on the faithful to generate and achieve impactful changes, beginning with individual lifestyles.
Second, he reinforced the idea of a common home, proposing in religious terms the finite nature of human space, and, therefore, the limitations that this imposes on us. Recognizing that we inhabit a single planet and are living in an interdependent manner obligates us to accept one of ecology’s premises: for now, we cannot live anywhere else. In other words, we must take care of the means that sustain our life, even more so if we believe the planet to be a divine creation. In addition, we must take others into account, including human beings and other forms of life on Earth, as well as the biotic and physical environment that supports all. The idea of a whole, of completeness, is one of the assumptions of the pope’s ecological discourse and is the foundation of the notion of a common home.
Third, he reinforced the outstanding point of individual responsibility, the call to reflect on what the Patriarch Bartholomew calls “small ecological damage,” and, therefore, to recognize, in the patriarch’s words, “our contribution, smaller or greater, to the disfigurement and destruction of creation” (quoted in Laudato Si’, 8). The subject of individual responsibility is vital for us to able to feel that we are part of an effective response. A first assumption is that our actions generate impacts, some visible, some less evident. If we reflect on small daily examples—where the waste that we generate goes, or the emissions from our cars, in addition to our fuel consumption—we can carry out an exercise that guides our behavior. At the levels of states and individuals there are common but distinct responsibilities, and we can categorize them, but, in the end, each action produces an effect and these effects are what call us to think about reparation or mitigation.
Fourth, the encyclical recognized demands from developing countries regarding the existence of an “ecological debt” that industrialized countries generated vis-à-vis the poorest countries, and it also affirmed that the economy and science cannot be the sole foundations for responding to the many forms of inequality. A diversity of perspectives and experiences in the context of ways of life for persons and cultures will be necessary to inform impactful responses. However, such responses cannot engender another elitism: an “environmentalism” according to which only the people with economic resources can live in places that are friendly to nature and can consume products that are friendly to the environment.
Once again, the encyclical adhered to the calls of ecological movements inviting us to transform consumption patterns, to change the culture that impels us to discard, throw away, and buy again, that is, conduct based on speed, and that which is consumable and disposable. Such an imperative falsely aligns human security with accumulation of material objects, and a lifestyle and mentality according to which everything is replaceable, including human beings.
Pope Francis touches on many issues that, as environmentalists, we should revisit and implement to reaffirm the discourse that calls for change, and in the case of climate change, to work to slow and reverse the process. Such creative thought and courageous action now—in our time—would be the best gift for the future, the truest way to honor our commitment to care for our common home and one another.