Pope Francis’ encyclical “Laudato Si’” is a great gift to the Church and the world, calling everyone to an ecological conversion that embraces an ethic of right relationships with God, our bodies, our neighbors and all of creation. Recognizing, with St. Francis of Assisi, that the sun is a “brother” and the water a “sister” requires first embracing God as father.
It will take some time for this profound moral and spiritual teaching document to be fully digested and disseminated so that its countercultural implications may serve as rich fertilizer for the life of faith.
In the meantime, however, there are many who, despite their best intentions, are minimizing the depth and breadth of the encyclical by focusing on short-term politics instead of on the long-term need for an ethical revolution.
Because of political polarization, the prevalence of ideology and people’s aversion to politics generally, an approach to explaining the encyclical that is rooted in right/left political debates risks letting the abundant seeds present within its message fall on rocky ground instead of fertile soil.
More than climate change
For many, “Laudato Si’” is known as the “climate change encyclical.” The mainstream media, political activists and others have relentlessly trumpeted Pope Francis’ exhortation that steps must be taken in the political arena to reduce the effects of greenhouse gases by, among other ways, limiting carbon emissions and using more renewable sources of energy.
On the other hand, in more politically conservative circles, including religious ones, the conversation about “Laudato Si’” has focused almost exclusively on personal stewardship, and the importance of cutting down on paper and plastic usage. In this view, the pope has essentially given us an extended theological meditation on taking shorter showers and raising the thermostat in the summer.
Both approaches highlight important aspects of the encyclical, but both create a climate in which this rich, though admittedly lengthy, text will go unread. Filtered through political lenses, and with heavy demands on their time, people will assume “they have heard all about it,” because they saw a feature on television news or maybe even read a story online that supposedly boiled it all down in a nutshell.
The challenge, however, is to look at the whole message of “Laudato Si’”, not just the parts that speak to us or those consistent with our political views.
Seeing the whole
Pope Francis notes that though the technological advances of modernity have allowed us to see the entire earth from space within a single glance, we lack a vision of the whole, a comprehensive understanding of creation and our mission within it. His reflections, therefore, do not merely raise questions of the preservation of material resources; they ponder the vocation of the human person within a world that we have been created to steward.
Taken as a whole, the encyclical is about creation — more precisely, each creature — drawing our attention to God’s extraordinary care for each creature and its place within an ordered world of relationships.
Pope Francis asks us to meditate on creation and to observe the way God has created and providentially ordered his handiwork. Special attention is given in the encyclical to that most unique of creatures, the human person, but the overall message is that everything in creation is interconnected. The pope calls this “integral ecology”?— an ethic that sees the relationship between human well-being and the well-being of the environment, and seeks to protect both in a way that does justice to each.
Pope Francis challenges the dominant orthodoxy, particularly of the modern West, that all of creation is just “raw material” that can be manipulated for personal gain, often at the expense of the poor and vulnerable. He refers to this mentality as the throwaway culture.
Instead, we must embrace new models of growth, development and progress that are rooted in the perspective of integral ecology, and which nurture healthy communities, protect natural resources, and foster human flourishing.
This message undoubtedly has important personal and political implications, as many of the commentators have noted. But until we undergo this deep conversion and embrace the God-given vocation to foster right relationships throughout creation, the encyclical will have only a marginal impact in saving us from our own destruction.
Clearly, the stakes are high, and, as Catholics, the pope’s encyclical merits our careful, prayerful attention.
Adkins is executive director of the Minnesota Catholic Conference.