Untying the Knots

by Emilie Bouvier

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© Michele Jokinen

“I… I had no idea what the Doctrine of Discovery was. It’s unbelievable, really, it meant that land could be taken if there were no baptized Christians there.” I was jolted out of a moment of distractedly gazing at the stained glass windows during announcements. It was a Sunday morning in early September, and I was visiting a deep suburban congregation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) that I didn’t know well, but had worked with to coordinate an eco-stewardship project.

There he was, on a blue carpeted footstool at the pulpit microphone, leaning in with a pause: an entirely typical member of the congregation—certainly not the “peace-with-justice-committee” type—unable to hold back the passion welling up about an issue that was entirely new to him. In jolting sentences, clearly still processing, he shared what he was learning with the congregation in what would otherwise be a rather dry report about the Churchwide Assembly. The crack in his voice mid-phrase betrayed the vulnerability he felt at uncovering anguish in a history he claimed as his own. He was expecting just to show up as a delegate for a large-scale church meeting. Little did he know a resolution passed there on Repudiating the Doctrine of Discovery would cause a radical shift. Our social statements as church bodies matter. They can be transformational in unnoticed corners where we wouldn’t even anticipate.

I felt much hope listening to this lay member’s reflections, because I saw colonial history as being deeply related to our environmental crisis.

Having spent time at Standing Rock last fall, I was very aware of how pipeline routes in the Midwest exemplify the ways environmental degradation harms those who are already poor and marginalized, the undying chorus to Pope Francis’s plea for greater care for this earth. Oppression of people and exploitation of the land are integrally related, parallel parts of the structural sin we carry in our world today.

As people and institutions of faith, we have often been on the wrong side of history. As a religion that came from the margins, we’ve historically been awfully comfortable in siding with Empire for the sake of safety and economic benefit. It takes slow and careful work to untie these knots, to seek reconciliation with our sisters, brothers, and the land; and ultimately to mend ourselves and our faith. I believe that social statements on the part of faith leaders and church bodies are critical in recognizing these histories—in naming these knots—and empowering people of the church to get to work unbinding their hold on us.

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© Emilie Bouvier

I have found Laudato Si’ to be one of the most profound examples of a social statement doing just that: addressing the harm and empowering action. Its reverberations have been far-reaching. When I first spent time with the document, I was moved by such a deep and faithful challenge to business as usual of overconsumption and extraction. I found grounding in Pope Francis’s abiding gratitude that stands counter to commodification and in his unabashed stand with the marginalized whose resources others are decimating. Even more, the authoritative weight of Pope Francis’s words has strengthened faith communities and church leaders well beyond the Catholic Church and invigorated me.

As an environmental justice organizer for a Lutheran bishop (ELCA), I can’t even tell you the number of times after the encyclical’s release in 2015 that I found congregation members or pastors in Lutheran churches excitedly asking me “Have you read the pope’s encyclical yet?” Countless more times I, or Bishop Ann Svennungsen, started a statement to elected officials or community leaders with, “Given Laudato Si’, we’re clearly at a kairos in the religious community’s response to the environment….” The encyclical has marked a turning point for how people of faith, across traditions, have engaged environmental justice in the public sphere. We have stood up to match the tenor the pope set: that we are here, and we have work to do.

What has that work looked like? It has looked like the following:

  • confirmation groups cleaning out and stenciling neighborhood storm drains, in efforts to keep trash out of our rivers and streams
  • members from seven congregations showing up in a packed room downtown to get commitments from mayoral candidates on clean energy and equity
  • running energy audits and incorporating green principles in renovations
  • following in the footsteps of indigenous leader Sharon Day on a “Nibi Walk” (water walk), with each step as a prayer for the healing of the water
  • adult forums and creative worship services that invite congregations to learn, pray, and sing their way into environmental practices
  • writing letters to members of an energy utility board of a rural electric cooperative, advocating to expand clean energy options for members
  • a meet-up at a local watershed district, learning the basics of water stewardship and heartily belting of “Shall We Gather at the River” through rain gardens to the bank of the Mississippi to read scripture and bless the water

This is resounding: the methods are many, but the essential feature is that we find opportunity in our own communities and contexts, always in relationship with our neighbors. It has profoundly impacted how we think about being “church together” in the synod of Lutheran congregations I serve. It falls in line with the sort of “EcoReformation” for which many are calling, as the Lutheran Church celebrates the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.

It’s at this 500-year moment that we also are seeing a coming together of Lutheran and Catholic judicatories. Last fall, I witnessed Bishop Ann Svennungsen, Archbishop Bernard Hebda, and Bishop Patricia Lull plan a joint worship service in recognition of this milestone anniversary. What’s striking to me is the way that we’re able to come together on social issues, even amid theological differences, to work the common good. In the current political realities, it fills me with hope to see people of faith work ecumenically on issues bound to the heart of our faith—care for the disenfranchised, the immigrant, and the earth. We have an opportunity at hand to imagine a different future together—a world that honors this earth from which “our very bodies are made up… [whose air] we breathe… [and from whose waters we] receive life and refreshment” (Laudato Si’, 2).

For Generations To Come: The Questions That Bind

By Rabbi Jennifer E. Krause

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What are we?

What is the meaning of our lives?

What is our kindness? 

What is our righteousness? 

What is our liberation? 

What is our strength?

In the Jewish liturgical tradition, these are the questions we ask ourselves every morning at prayer.  It is with these questions that we not only begin our days, but the questions by which we shape our lives.

In reading and reflecting upon Pope Francis’s encyclical on integral ecology, Laudato Si’, the passage about what Pope Francis calls “justice between the generations” brought these core questions from my own inherited tradition to mind.  Pope Francis writes:

What kind of world do we want to leave to those who come after us, to children who are now growing up? . . . .What is the purpose of our life in this world? Why are we here? What is the goal of our work and all our efforts? What need does the earth have of us? (Laudato Si’, 160)

How true that how we choose to answer these questions, whatever their source, becomes in aggregate the signature we leave as individuals during our short time on the earth.  How true all the more so that our answers to these questions as one human family leave an indelible inscription upon the earth in our generation and for all generations.

As Pope Francis asserts, the planet’s present and future health and well-being are inextricably bound up in the lives of each and every person, present and future, who calls it home.  The earth’s dignity and our dignity are connected.  What we see when we take a conscious look at ourselves, at our friends and loved ones, at neighbor and stranger alike; what we see when we look at our communities, our countries, the world, also is reflected in the visage of the planet we share—the planet gifted to us, placed in our hands by our Creator, that we do not own but that we have the ability to nurture or destroy.  The world, and all the inhabitants thereof, rise and fall by how we answer these questions and build lives in accordance with our daily response.

As we read in Laudato Si’, “Nothing in this world is indifferent to us.” Yet, without a deep understanding of the human ecosystem, of how we are connected to and through one another by how we choose to lead our lives in even the smallest of ways, it is within the realm of our choices to be indifferent to the world.  When we forget that our lives matter, that we count, that we are here to make something of our lives and to serve a purpose that transcends the tiny borders of our individual existence, how can we possibly see the big picture of a planet that is counting on us to preserve its existence?

Without a daily commitment to what is truly at stake in the details of how we live our lives—not just for ourselves but for all, we cannot fathom, let alone heed, the clarion call of Creation crying out to us all to be the tender, trusted, proactive, and stolid stewards of the environment that we, the descendants of Adam, were placed on earth to be.

Surely it could be said that we live in a moment in the history of the world in which we have never been more connected or more disconnected. The screens we use to link ourselves to others can be the same screens that become a barrier between ourselves and the world. With myriad devices we can hear the voices of people across oceans and continents, bearing witness to the lives of those we might never otherwise have the chance to meet; and yet far too easily those voices can become little more than background noise as we turn our attention to everything and nothing at all.

Part of that noise is the din of hopelessness and negativity, the sound of too many in need and too much to be healed for us to believe that it is within our power to make a difference.  When we lose our faith in ourselves and what we can do to change the lives of our brothers and sisters for the better, we are all diminished.  When we cede that faith to futility, the planet also pays the price.

Yet somewhere in all of that noise, I must say that in nearly two decades of being a rabbi, of serving Jews of all different backgrounds, ages, movements, and religious practice, never before have I heard more talk of social justice; and, what is most important, never have I seen more engagement in social action.

Never before have I seen more Jewish organizations created for the sole purpose of putting the word and the spirit of Jewish teaching and tradition to work in the world.  Never before have I seen more passionate people, young and old, fan out into their communities to make a difference in all aspects of the human ecosystem.  Be it Avodah: The Jewish Service Corps, Bend the Arc, American Jewish World Service, Repair the World, Keshet, or Hazon to name but a few; whether focusing on gender-based violence, immigration, homelessness, food insecurity, poverty, fair labor practices, racial inequality, sustainability, and the environment they demonstrate through the daily unwavering pursuit of justice in all its forms that every positive step we take begins with seeing ourselves in the other—walking with the awareness that every human being is created in the image of G-d, imbued with infinite value, possibility, and unique purpose.

As Pope Francis affirms in Laudato Si’, and as I am heartened to see happening in my own community, when we see our lives, the contours of our kindness, the quality of our integrity, our decisions to redeem or degrade, and the way we use (and when necessary choose not to use) our power and freedom as having a direct and lasting impact on everything and everyone around us, we can do the sacred work of making a healthier planet that thrives and sustains us all.

Can Market Forces Be Aligned with the Vision of Laudato Si’?

by Stu Dalheim

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Perhaps no environmental challenge calls for more urgent action than climate change. If we are to avoid dangerous climate change, science tells us we must dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions during the next decades.

Of course, Pope Francis addresses this topic directly in his 2015 encyclical, Laudato Si’:

“Climate change is a global problem with grave implications: environmental, social, economic, political and for the distribution of goods. It represents one of the principal challenges facing humanity in our day” (Laudato Si’, 25).

I work in the investment industry and know many people who have welcomed Pope Francis’s clear and forceful call for changes in the way we live as a global community and produce and consume goods in order to slow and very quickly reverse the widespread harm to the environment.

We have seen that the goal of maximizing short-term profits far too often has driven business and investment decisions, with little attention to long-term sustainability or impacts to communities, employees, and the environment.

During my time in the field, however, I have seen a change in how business and investors think about their relationships with the people whose lives they touch and the natural environment.

Take climate change: increasingly business and investors recognize that climate change represents a risk to their own firms and to the global economy. However, they also understand it as a huge opportunity. Growth in renewable energy and energy efficiency is stimulating investment, driving innovation and creating hundreds of thousands of jobs, while also curbing the threat of global warming and reducing harmful air pollution.

Stu Dalheim 3As the risks and opportunities that climate change represents come into sharper focus, market participants have begun to develop products, change processes, and make commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and invest in renewable energy. An inspiring example is the business coalition RE100, made up of large companies that have “committed to 100% renewable electricity, working to massively increase demand for—and delivery of—renewable energy.”

It is critical that members of the private sector also have become more willing to make their views public. Since November 2016, more than 1,000 businesses (including major global brands) and investors have signed the Business Backs Low-Carbon USA statement calling on the Trump administration and the new Congress to maintain and strengthen policies that drive clean energy development and arrest climate change.

The Natural Capital Coalition, made up of representatives from a diverse set of fields—including conservation, research, science, accounting, finance, corporate responsibility, and civil society—has come together to facilitate a “vision of a world where business conserves and enhances natural capital.”

The group seeks to help business understand the value of natural capital, including plants, animals, air, water, soils, and minerals, in part by underscoring the benefits that natural capital provides: clean air and water, nutritious food, renewable energy, shelter, medicine, and the raw materials for sustainably designing, producing, and distributing products on which the economy and business depend.

However, one can address a central theme of Laudato Si’ by asking whether these corporate and investor environmental initiatives simply make us feel better without driving the true change we need. Are we simply reducing the harm, while not addressing the underlying problem of an economic system that treats people and the environment simply as exploitable commodities?

While these are important questions to ask, here in the United States, where there cannot be confidence that government will act to protect the environment and uphold human rights, private sector progress in addressing these challenges deserves our attention, support, and encouragement.

Respect for the strengths and limitations of public and private institutions, and their respective spheres of responsibility, is an important part of the vision of Laudato Si, too. We can welcome Pope Francis’s message as an invitation to dedicate talent and tools from the social sciences, including business, alongside the natural sciences, to support his urgent appeal on behalf of integral ecology.

Private sector practices can and must complement governmental, civil society, religious, and other approaches to caring for our common home and one another.

Refugees and Migrants – Are they part of Our Common Good?

By Msgr. Robert J. Vitillo, M.S.W., A.C.S.W., Secretary General, International Catholic Migration Commission

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A group of refugee schoolgirls in Malaysia participating in ICMC’s awareness-raising activities aimed to prevent gender- and sexual-based violence. © ICMC/WEI Chien Tee

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’[1]. 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.”[2]

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,”[3] 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.[4]” 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.

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Monsignor Vitillo visits with refugee children at the ICMC Refugee Service Centre in Istanbul, Turkey. © ICMC

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!


[1] Pope Francis, Laudato Si’, 24 May 2015, available at http://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/encyclicals/ documents/papa-francesco_20150524_enciclica-laudato-si.html.

[2] Idem, Apostolic Journey to Mexico, Homily during Mass at Ciudad Juarez Fairgrounds, 17 February 2016, available at https://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/homilies/2016/documents/papa-francesco_20160217_omelia-messico-ciudad-jaurez.html.

[3] Idem, Message for The World Day of Migrants and Refugees 2017 (“Child Migrants, the Vulnerable and the Voiceless”), Vatican City, released 8 September 2016, available at https://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/ messag[15 January 2017], es/migration/documents/papa-francesco_20160908_world-migrants-day-2017.html.

[4] Pope Pius XII, Exsul Familia Nazarethana, 1952, available at http://www.papalencyclicals.net/Pius12/ p12exsul.htm.

Reactions to Laudato Si

By The Rev. Peter J. Henriot, S.J., Ph.D., with Lester A. Myers, Ph.D., J.D., CPA, CFF, CGMA

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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:

  1. I am a Jesuit, not a Franciscan.
  1. I’ve lived in Africa for the past three decades, not in the United States.
  1. 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.