Q: Dear Father Joe: The pope’s new encyclical on the environment contains assertions I don’t believe, specifically that we humans have anything to do with climate change. What’s this encyclical all about?
A: There’s a lot of discussion around the pope’s new encyclical, which is always a good thing. There are numerous excellent (and some not so excellent) summaries of Laudato Sì’ out there and, in an article of this length, there really is no way for me to do any summary justice.
That’s my disclaimer.
I’ll do a hyper-brief description of the encyclical and then offer some comments to help us process it. The encyclical is broken down into six chapters:
Chapter One: What is happening to our common home
In this chapter, Pope Francis invites us “to become painfully aware, to dare to turn what is happening to the world into our own personal suffering and thus to discover what each of us can do about it.” He cites specific examples of the problems we face: pollution, climate change, safe, drinkable water, disappearance of thousands of plant and animal species, the decline in the quality of human life and the breakdown of society.
Chapter Two: The Gospel of Creation
Here, the pope digs deep into our faith tradition, showing us the responsibility of mankind for creation, the connection all creation shares and how that connection involves each of us, recognizing our responsibility to all that God has made, including each other.
Chapter Three: The human roots of the ecological crisis
This chapter is a tough and challenging one. The Holy Father points to human behavior and the philosophies behind it that contribute to the problem. He goes after the tendency to assess all reality through an exclusively human perspective, and points to the dehumanizing approach to labor and money-making as examples of the ways we contribute to the problems.
Chapter Four: Integral ecology
This is really what the Pope Francis has been building up to. We are called, as lovers of Jesus, to shift our thinking in order to understand our proper place in creation and act according to that place.
Chapter Five: Lines of approach and action
In this chapter, the pope moves into a more practical approach: How we can dialogue as nations and peoples and change international policies in order to better reflect a commitment to play our part in creation well.
Chapter Six: Ecological education and spirituality
The Holy Father closes this out by pointing to the need for education and awareness to be the muscle behind changing cultural biases and the behavioral patterns needed for us to embrace ecological conversion. He invites us to add an element to our examination of conscience each day: looking at how we have lived our communion with all that God has made.
So, there’s the hyper-brief, skeleton summary. What do we do now? I poked around the Internet, looking at people’s responses to Laudato Sì’ and was surprised at many of these responses. It seems we have no small number of Catholics who don’t like a pope who says anything that challenges what they currently believe. I’ve only been alive for five popes (three that I was old enough to be aware of) and I’ve got to say: each one shook me hard one way or the other and challenged me to allow God to change my heart and mind. Each one of those “shakings” was a gift. It’s really strong in my heart as I type this that we may need some challenges/reminders here in response to this encyclical, and so I’d like to close out my article by offering them now:
First, remember who Pope Francis is. He is our pope. He is the man God entrusted with the care of the Church. We trust that God is leading this Church, and we pray for the grace to live that trust well. It is not the pope’s job to affirm everything we believe; it is one of his jobs to help God get us to heaven.
Second, be open. No one reading this article holds within themselves the entirety of the truth. We are all sinners, we are all broken, we are all in need of conversion. Reading this encyclical in order to “debunk” areas where we disagree is not the way to approach it. Pray and ask God to guide your reading and change your heart where it needs to be changed.
Third, remember that we Americans are a small part of the massive, worldwide Catholic family. Our concerns as Catholics may not be reflective of the needs of most Catholics in the world. To put it bluntly, we forget that, for many Catholics, having enough food and avoiding death at the hands of terrorists or government troops is the sign of a successful day. Pope Francis did not write his encyclical to you personally, he wrote it to us all, and his place in the world gives him a view of issues that we are not aware of, but that are affecting many.
Fourth, don’t let your politics guide your thoughts on this; let your faith inform and change those politics where they do not match up to the faith.
Fifth, consider getting together with other Catholics and doing a small group study on Laudato Sì’. Let the Holy Spirit guide your discussions. Make decisions together about how to live the challenges of this encyclical well. Within the group, see what changes you and your fellow Catholics can make to your lifestyle in order to show your commitment to obedience.
That’s about it for me. I hope you find this helpful and I pray that each and every one of us who bears the name Catholic live that faith well: with deep faith, hope and charity.
Enjoy another day in God’s presence!
What Can We Do?
In Laudato Si’ (211) Pope Francis provides us a list of a few of the “little daily actions” we can take to fulfill our duty to care for creation:
- Avoid the use of plastic and paper
- Reduce water consumption
- Separate refuse
- Cook only what we can reasonably consume
- Use public transportation or carpool
- Plant trees
- Turn off unnecessary lights
For additional ideas and resources, visit tinyurl.com/FM0915-SR
By the Numbers
An encyclical letter is a high-level teaching document that expresses the pope’s thoughts on matters of faith and morals. Encyclicals may be to the entire Church, a particular church or people or to all people of goodwill. Encyclicals do not constitute ex cathedra (“from the chair”) pronouncements, i.e., they do not have infallible authority. However, they are important in that the pope is fulfilling his role as pastor and teacher.
Here is a look at the number of encyclicals issued by recent popes:
Pope Francis: March 2013 – present | 2
Pope Benedict XVI: April 2005 – Feb. 2013 | 3
Pope Saint. John Paul II: Oct. 1978 – April 2005 | 14
Pope John Paul I: Aug. 1978 – Sept. 1978 | 0
Pope Paul VI: June 1963 – Aug. 1978 | 8
Pope Saint. John XXIII: Oct. 1958 – June 1963 | 12
Food for Thought
Albert Einstein (1879-1955) was the most influential physicist of the 20th century and probably is best known for developing the theory of relativity. Here is what he had to say about life and humanity’s place in the world – thoughts that line up remarkably well with Pope Francis’ message in Laudato Si’:
There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle …
A human being is part of a whole … He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separated from the rest – a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circles of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty. Only a life lived for others is worth living.