Young people demand change. They wonder how anyone can claim to be building a better future without thinking of the environmental crisis and the sufferings of the excluded.
Pope Francis, Laudato Si’, 13
I held this quote in my heart the first time I read it. I held it in my heart as I prepared to take on a new role as Youth Engagement Officer at Catholic Earthcare Australia, the ecological agency for the Catholic Church in that country. Since accepting this responsibility, I have travelled around Australia, and sometimes the world, as I shared the news of Laudato Si’ with young Catholics like myself. As a 16-year-old, I came to the environmental movement frustrated and heartbroken by the inability of adults to secure for my generation a safe climate future. At 21, I joined the team at Catholic Earthcare Australia, elated to find that Australia was the first country to have a church agency dedicated to care for creation. At 22 and at the end of my initial contract, Jacqui Rémond, the director of Catholic Earthcare Australia, and I created a new role, promoting me as a speaker in Australian Catholic schools, linking care for creation to faith and social justice.
Young Australian Catholics are exactly as Pope Francis described them in Laudato Si’. We are buzzing and aching for change. When I speak with my peers about politics, climate change, and the destruction of the Great Barrier Reef, they are irate, as I was, that adults can claim to be creating a better future without properly tackling the anthropocentrism and selfishness that are leading to climate change. They ask me why others are selling us a narrative that we can live lives that so clearly damage the planet, and that these lives are not only desirable and necessary, but also inevitable. When we speak about our lifestyles and how our lives are having progressively stronger impacts on the planet, they don’t ask me, “How can I change?” They ask me, “How can we change?”
Laudato Si’ not only affects what I say, but how I say it. When I can easily get caught up in frustration where I feel like I am screaming into an abyss and where no one is listening or changing, I find comfort in Pope Francis’s words:
How wonderful is the certainty that each human life is not adrift in the midst of hopeless chaos, in a world ruled by pure chance or endlessly recurring cycles! The Creator can say to each one of us: “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you” (Jer 1:5). We were conceived in the heart of God, and for this reason “each of us is the result of a thought of God. Each of us is willed, each of us is loved, each of us is necessary” (Laudato Si’, 65).
When we run up against the challenge of a lifestyle that others sell us—and that we sometimes sell ourselves—that things and possessions make us happy and define who we are, it is easy for us to feel insignificant and lost. It’s easy to feel that our actions are futile and that we might succumb to what Pope Francis calls the temptation toward indifference. However, there is nothing like the warm embrace of our loving God to fortify and renew one in the fight for justice and to inspire us towards the globalisation of hope.
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.
One Sunday about 20 years ago, I was sitting in a pew in the Episcopal church my family and I had joined when we moved to San Francisco. I had an epiphany. Yes! Right in the church with my eyes closed praying for a reverence for the earth. Eyes popped open; I sat up realizing that I and all the people around me, including any who said they loved God and their neighbor and were praying for the earth, were hypocrites. We needed to get off our knees and really show a reverence for the earth along with behaving as if we loved our neighbors.
You see, I was on the board of a national environmental organization and I knew what humans were doing to the planet. How could we say we love God and our neighbors and then proceed to pollute their air, water, and land? We could not! And in that moment I decided that I would proclaim to the Episcopal Church that we have a moral responsibility to protect creation. In the mid-eighties and early nineties, few, if anyone, had heard a clergy person speak from the pulpit about what humans were doing to the planet.
It wasn’t long before I entered college (I didn’t go right after high school the way most people do). Then, I went on to seminary to study the disconnect between what we Christians say we believe in and how we behave toward our neighbors and our environment (the God-given garden). I was ordained a priest in 1997 and, at the same time, founded a nonprofit, The Regeneration Project, which now is home to the Interfaith Power and Light Campaign, a religious response to global warming. With agreement from my board that climate change is the most challenging issue of our time, we have focused on that campaign since 2000. We have reached over 18,000 congregations and we are an affiliated network with 40 state programs.
Our goal is to raise awareness of the moral responsibility that all people, but particularly people of faith, have to protect the vulnerable among us. Those who contribute the least to the problem, but suffer the most, are worthy of protection. For 15 years, we have preached this message to an enthusiastic audience. A little over one year ago, Pope Francis in his encyclical, Laudato Si, confirmed our message and gave a big boost to the Interfaith Power and Light campaign.
We are grateful to the pope for amplifying this message for a modern audience. This will help to inform millions more people about the climate crisis and the duty of the faith community to do all in its power to help respond meaningfully to the problem.
I am very hopeful that the warming trend will stop and humanity will correct itself by showing more reverence for the sacred earth. The numbers of people who are now aware that the climate is changing due to human activity are growing rapidly. In December 2015, when 190 countries came together to agree that, as a global society, we had to work together to right this wrong, my hope for creation took flight. From then on the Paris treaty, coupled with Pope Francis’s message, has inspired me to keep moving forward, never to give up, and to keep looking toward that light that shines so brightly when we are doing the right thing.
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.
The Gospel challenges each of us to respond to today’s refugee crisis of unprecedented proportions. Michael Jackson popularized the song, “Man in the Mirror.” Whom do you see when you look at yourself in the mirror? Pope Francis has challenged us all in this Jubilee Year of Mercy to become “merciful, like the Father.” The person you see in the mirror determines your window to the world. Can you see out of your windows those who have borne the burden of human suffering and social injustice? “Biblical revelation urges us to welcome the stranger; it tells us that in so doing, we open doors (and windows) to God and that in the faces of others we see the face of Christ himself (Pope Francis, “Message for World Day of Migrants and Refugees,” 2016).
What is your window to the world? Your outlook? Pope Francis locates this encounter with oneself, others, and the world in the concept of “integral ecology”: “a relationship . . . between nature and the society which lives in it. Nature cannot be regarded as something separate from ourselves or as a mere setting in which we live. We are part of nature, included in it and thus in constant interaction with it” (id., Laudato Si’, 139). His vision calls for an ecological conversion with nature as its root, humanity as its heart and compassion as its core principle: “Humanity still has the ability to work together in building our common home” (ibid., 13). “Men and women are still capable of intervening positively” (ibid., 58). “All is not lost. Human beings, while capable of the worst, are also capable of rising above themselves, choosing again what is good and making a new start” (ibid., 205).
One of the key features of this nexus is security in harmonious community, both as to a physically safe and healthy place to live and as to economic, political, and social circumstances that reflect and respect the dignity of the human person and foster human flourishing. At a minimum, this requires individual and joint efforts to guarantee basic rights. However, as Pope Francis reminds us, it requires that we look beyond protecting rights and do more. It requires that we care. Indeed, if we are to take integral ecology seriously, we must care for “our common home” as well as one another.
There have been many deprivations of such security in harmonious community, but the current refugee crisis signals one of the worst, with a record 65.3 million displaced men, women, and children who have fled war, political persecution, and lawlessness around the world, leaving their homes, livelihoods and, at times, other family members and friends behind. Of these, almost 20 million have undergone vetting by the United Nations as refugees and are ready to immigrate now.
If we who are people of faith are to rise above the madding crowd, we need to inform ourselves enough to counter negative attitudes about immigrants and refugees, beginning with the person we see in the mirror. How do we confront the enemy of misinformation and wrong assumptions, beginning with ourselves and then taking it to others? What changes might we make if we are to do more than stand on the sidelines to one of the greatest tragedies in human and ecological history? What concrete steps can we take individually and jointly through local, national, and global institutions, to respond impactfully? Integral ecology, and the judgment of history, rule out looking away. In short, we need to care, and to act upon the indissoluble links among us as we see the world, and ourselves, through the mirrors of their eyes: