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.
“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.
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).
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.
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.
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. I urgently appeal, then, for a new dialogue about how we are shaping the future of our planet.
Pope Francis, Laudato Si’, 13-14
In the wee hours of a June morning in 2015, I awoke at 4 o’clock to begin furiously reading Laudato Si’. As a father with young children, giving up sleep is not a choice I made lightly — I was making a commitment! As I began to sift through the text, I could not help but think about how my three boys, ages three, three, and six at the time, would experience the legacy of this document. How would this collection of words influence a new generation to “care for our common home”? After just a few paragraphs, it was obvious to me that Pope Francis was thinking about this, too.
Good education plants seeds when we are young, and these continue to bear fruit throughout life.
Laudato Si’, 213
In our work at the Ignatian Solidarity Network, we are constantly reflecting on how we can invite a new generation of Catholics to respond to the realities of injustice as contemplative people of action. Laudato Si’ has provided us with a framework to do just this.
Pope Francis frames his invitation in section II of the document to educate “for the covenant between humanity and the environment” by noting that young people “have a new ecological sensitivity and a generous spirit” (209). However, he also cautions that the presence of “extreme consumerism and affluence” create an “educational challenge” (ibid.).
In late 2015, two faculty members from Cheverus High School, a Jesuit coeducational college preparatory school in Portland, Maine, approached our staff with an idea to develop a program to challenge high school students and their institutions to more deeply reflect on the themes of Laudato Si’. As they began to share their ideas for the themes and structure of the program, I was in awe of the ways that the pope’s document was taking hold of these educators and leading them to respond to this “educational challenge” in ways that could impact young people and their schools for generations to come.
Grounded in various themes of Laudato Si’, the resulting Ignatian Carbon Challenge responds to our current ecological context, the needs of the global community, and Pope Francis’s call to practice responsible stewardship for creation by demonstrating care for it. The program invites both individuals and institutions to address climate change and environmental justice through a series of monthly challenges arranged in eight categories that coincide with themes of Laudato Si’: consumerism, transport, person-to-person interaction, relationship with the earth, energy, food, intellectual understanding, and prayer.
To date, nearly 4,000 students and upwards of 35 Catholic high schools across the United States and Canada are participating. Program leaders are collecting, analyzing, and sharing the results of participants’ ability to meet the challenges so that others can learn from their commitment. Will these young men and women change the world with their actions alone? Likely not. However the Ignatian Carbon Challenge is responding to the invitation to “plant seeds” and engage young people in a “new dialogue” of care for our common home and one another.
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.
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.
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.