Seljalandfoss waterfall in Iceland. © RomanSlavik/
Seljalandfoss waterfall in Iceland. © RomanSlavik/

Pope calls for caring for the Earth

June 2015

Pope Francis is calling for radical transformation of politics, economics, and individual lifestyles to confront the degradation of the natural world and global climate. His biting critique of consumerism, idolatry of (economic) growthism and irresponsible development, and his consequent plea for swift and unified global action have not gone unnoticed.

As the American ecological economist Herman Daly states: “At a minimum he has given us a more truthful, informed, and courageous analysis of the environmental and moral crisis than have our secular political leaders.”

Pope Francis’ encyclical on the natural world, titled Laudato Si: Our Care for our Common Home, is creating a rare opening for change. Its message includes the moral imperative to take global action on climate disruption and the mass extinction of species. He is calling for serious systemic change.

At an interfaith event (see full video here) hosted by the University of San Francisco (USF) on the intersection of environment and faith, Dr Mary E Tucker, co-director of the Yale Forum on Religion and Ecology, said: “This encyclical, and its statement on the intrinsic rights of nature, is a breath of fresh air. Efforts to tackle climate change and other environmental issues have been driven by science, policy, economics, technology, and law. But science and policy alone are not going to solve these problems. We need these larger values–religion, art, and philosophy.”

“This is so rich. And that is why people are responding all over the world. It’s poetic. It’s scientific. It’s spiritual. It’s grounded. It’s ecologically sophisticated. And it’s appealing to the sense that we are part of a great mystery, a huge, holy mystery.”
Dr Mary Evelyn Tucker, co-director of the Yale Forum on Religion and Ecology

The vision that Pope Francis outlined in Laudato Si: Our Care for our Common Home is indeed enormous in its ambition and scope, and its courage. He is not shy to name the unscrupulous exploitation and destruction of the living world and points out that general apathy and ignorance are as much to blame as ruthless profit-seeking, excessive faith in technology and political shortsightedness.

By addressing the fact that the most vulnerable victims are the world’s poorest people, he not only aligns with the worldwide climate movement’s call for ‘climate justice’ but also with the concept of a Green New Deal which is gaining momentum across the board of politics in the Western hemisphere.

The encyclical begins with a hymn by St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of animals and the environment, and soon chastizes those who misinterprete Genesis as evidence that man has ‘dominion’ over the Earth in order to justify even the worst practices of using and abusing. On the contrary, according to Francis, the Bible teaches human beings to ‘till and keep’ the garden of the world, and “’tilling’ refers to cultivating, plowing or working, while ‘keeping’ means caring, protecting, overseeing and preserving.”

And of course he addresses the moral, ethical and spiritual dimension of humanity’s ecological predicament. He admits the usefulness of many advances in medicine, science and engineering, but says that “our immense technological development has not been accompanied by a development in human responsibility, values and conscience.”

He attacks the trading of carbon credits for being a mere manouvre of business-as-usual to avoid real systemic change, and generally is highly suspicous of the widespread faith in technology and neoliberal promises of geoengineering, genetical manipulation, etc.

But he is proposing a coalition between faith and science, a renewed, responsible science that is. We are at the dawn of a new movement that weaves science and spirit to find solutions for our social, political and environmental challenges.

The link between poverty and the planet’s fragility is central to Francis’ encyclical, but he still strongly criticizes abortion, thereby dismissing arguments that endless population growth drives poverty and environmental destruction.

With the world’s largest religious denomination – 1.2 billion people – being in his flock, the Pope’s has a huge reach, and other religious leaders have become energized by the encyclical, including more than 400 Jewish rabbis and 20 Muslim scholars, who have responded to this moment of change. The encyclical also came in due time to influence the UN Paris Climate Change agreement (Dec 2015).

His overall message is one of hope: “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.”

A few quotes from the original paper:

[Mother Earth] now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her. We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will. The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life.

Pope Francis, Laudato Si, 2

Rather than a problem to be solved, the world is a joyful mystery to be contemplated with gladness and praise.

Pope Francis, Laudato Si, 12

Each year hundreds of millions of tons of waste are generated, much of it non-biodegradable, highly toxic and radioactive, from homes and businesses, from construction and demolition sites, from clinical, electronic and industrial sources. The earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth.

Pope Francis, Laudato Si, 21

These problems are closely linked to a throwaway culture which affects the excluded just as it quickly reduces things to rubbish.

Pope Francis, Laudato Si, 22

The melting in the polar ice caps and in high altitude plains can lead to the dangerous release of methane gas, while the decomposition of frozen organic material can further increase the emission of carbon dioxide. Things are made worse by the loss of tropical forests which would otherwise help to mitigate climate change. Carbon dioxide pollution increases the acidification of the oceans and compromises the marine food chain.

Pope Francis, Laudato Si, 24

The loss of forests and woodlands entails the loss of species which may constitute extremely important resources in the future, not only for food but also for curing disease and other uses.  […]
It is not enough, however, to think of different species merely as potential “resources” to be exploited, while overlooking the fact that they have value in themselves.

Pope Francis, Laudato Si, 32, 33

The replacement of virgin forest with plantations of trees, usually monocultures, is rarely adequately analyzed. Yet this can seriously compromise a biodiversity which the new species being introduced does not accommodate.

Pope Francis, Laudato Si, 39

In tropical and subtropical seas, we find coral reefs comparable to the great forests on dry land, for they shelter approximately a million species, including fish, crabs, molluscs, sponges and algae. Many of the world’s coral reefs are already barren or in a state of constant decline. “Who turned the wonderworld of the seas into underwater cemeteries bereft of colour and life?”
Pope Francis, Laudato Si, 41, quoting Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines, Pastoral Letter What is Happening to our Beautiful Land? (29 January 1988).

Pope Francis, Laudato Si, 41

This responsibility for God’s earth means that human beings, endowed with intelligence, must respect the laws of nature and the delicate equilibria existing between the creatures of this world […] The laws found in the Bible dwell on relationships, not only among individuals but also with other living beings. […] Clearly, the Bible has no place for a tyrannical anthropocentrism unconcerned for other creatures.

Pope Francis, Laudato Si, 68

Together with our obligation to use the earth’s goods responsibly, we are called to recognize that other living beings have a value of their own in God’s eyes: “by their mere existence they bless him and give him glory.”

Pope Francis, Laudato Si, 69, quoting the Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2416.

The German bishops have taught that, where other creatures are concerned, “we can speak of the priority of being over that of being useful.”

Pope Francis, Laudato Si, 69, quoting the German Bishops’ Conference, Zukunft der Schöpfung – Zukunft der Menschheit, (1980), II, 2.

The Catechism clearly and forcefully criticizes a distorted anthropocentrism: “Each creature possesses its own particular goodness and perfection… Each of the various creatures, willed in its own being, reflects in its own way a ray of God’s infinite wisdom and goodness. Man must therefore respect the particular goodness of every creature, to avoid any disordered use of things.”

Pope Francis, Laudato Si, 69, quoting the Catechism of the Catholic Church, 339.

Modern anthropocentrism has paradoxically ended up prizing technical thought over reality, since “the technological mind sees nature as an insensate order, as a cold body of facts, as a mere ‘given’, as an object of utility, as raw material to be hammered into useful shape; it views the cosmos similarly as a mere ‘space’ into which objects can be thrown with complete indifference”. […] The intrinsic dignity of the world is thus compromised.

Pope Francis, Laudato Si, 115, quoting Romano Guardini, The End of the Modern World, 55.

When human beings place themselves at the centre, they give absolute priority to immediate convenience and all else becomes relative. Hence we should not be surprised to find, in conjunction with the omnipresent technocratic paradigm and the cult of unlimited human power, the rise of a relativism which sees everything as irrelevant unless it serves one’s own immediate interests.

Pope Francis, Laudato Si, 122

That is why the time has come to accept degrowth in some parts of the world, in order to provide resources for other places to experience healthy growth.

Pope Francis, Laudato Si, 193

There can be no renewal of our relationship with nature without a renewal of humanity itself.

Pope Francis, Laudato Si, 118

Read the encyclical in its entirety here.

You can watch The Beloved in Nature, a video co-produced by Green Impact, a strategic sustainability consulting practice that helps companies walk the green talk:

Jim Yardley, Laurie Goodstein. Pope Francis, in Sweeping Encyclical, Calls for Swift Action on Climate Change. NY Times, June 18, 2015.
Daly, Herman: Thoughts On Pope Francis’ Laudato Si, The Daly News, 24 June, 2015.
Deborah Fleischer. 4 Reasons the Pope’s Encyclical Sparks a Rare Chance for Change. Triple Pundit, Sep 22, 2015.

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