Summary of Pope’s Environmental Encyclical
Pope Francis has released the first ever papal encyclical focused solely on the environment. The document titled, “Praised Be: On Care for Our Common Home” describes environmentalism as a moral duty for everyone — not just a religious duty for Catholics, or a matter of politics or economics. The much-anticipated, hotly debated, and hugely influential 184-page encyclical puts the heart back into the environmental movement and calls for us all to take action.
Here is a summary of some of the key points from the Pope’s environmental encyclical:
Praised be to You
“’LAUDATO SI’, mi’ Signore’ – ‘Praise be to you, my Lord’. In the words of this beautiful canticle, Saint Francis of Assisi reminds us that our common home is like a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us. “Praise be to you, my Lord, through our Sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us, and who produces various fruit with coloured flowers and herbs”
St. Francis of Assisi, Pope Francis’s namesake and the patron saint of ecology, composed this canticle to praise elements of creation such as Brother Sun and Sister Mother Earth. But this famous 13th-century canticle isn’t only noteworthy because it relates to the environment. The canticle was also written in a vernacular Italian. Because traditional encyclicals are written in Latin, which is still the official language of the Holy See, Francis’s decision to use a more modern language for the title and opening of the encyclical indicates that he intends this to be a message for the whole, modern world, not just Catholics who understand the language of Cicero.
A Call to Everyone
“Now, faced as we are with global environmental deterioration, I wish to address every person living on this planet. In my Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, I wrote to all the members of the Church with the aim of encouraging ongoing missionary renewal. In this Encyclical, I would like to enter into dialogue with all people about our common home.”
Pope Francis is clear in his message. Although he represents the head of the Roman Catholic Church, he hopes his encyclical will reach everyone — Catholics and non-Catholics — because we all share a common home.
Reference to Other Popes
As if he’s citing legal precedent to make his case, Pope Francis references previous popes’ calls for moral action. He mentions John XXIII, who wrote an encyclical that rejected war and offered a proposal for peace as the world teetered on the brink of a nuclear crisis. He talks about Paul VI, who talked about the tragic consequence of our environmental actions. He quotes the ecological portions of John Paul II’s first encyclical. And he praises Benedict XVI’s proposal to eliminate the dysfunctions of the world economy which have proved detrimental to the environment.
Reference to Other Religious Leaders
Pope Francis uses his friend, the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of the Eastern Orthodox Church, as an example of the deep concern those outside of the Roman Catholic Church have expressed about our environment. By referencing Bartholomew, Francis bolsters his argument that environmentalism is a moral duty we all share.
A Message of Hope
“The urgent challenge to protect our common home includes a concern to bring the whole human family together to seek a sustainable and integral development, for we know that things can change. The Creator does not abandon us; he never forsakes his loving plan or repents of having created us. Humanity still has the ability to work together in building our common home.”
In a study conducted last year, most Americans do not believe that God would intercede to prevent human destruction of our planet. Here, Pope Francis challenges that belief and places the burden on us to work together to protect creation.
Sickness, Filth, and Disconnect
In these paragraphs, Pope Francis describes what is currently happening in our common home. People — especially the poor — are getting sick and the “earth, our home, is beginning to look like an immense pile of filth.” He acknowledges that most of these problems are linked to our “throwaway culture,” but that our over-reliance on technology to solve our problems results in “no measures being taken until after people’s health has been irreversibly affected.”
Climate Science Is Correct and Humans Are to Blame
“A very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climatic system. In recent decades this warming has been accompanied by a constant rise in the sea level and, it would appear, by an increase of extreme weather events, even if a scientifically determinable cause cannot be assigned to each particular phenomenon. Humanity is called to recognize the need for changes of lifestyle, production and consumption, in order to combat this warming or at least the human causes which produce or aggravate it. It is true that there are other factors (such as volcanic activity, variations in the earth’s orbit and axis, the solar cycle), yet a number of scientific studies indicate that most global warming in recent decades is due to the great concentration of greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrogen oxides and others) released mainly as a result of human activity.”
In the United States, climate deniers often question the scientific credibility of climate change and the fact that human action is to blame. Pope Francis takes a clear stance in opposition to climate deniers: the science is right, humans are causing climate change.
“Many cities are huge, inefficient structures, excessively wasteful of energy and water. Neighbourhoods, even those recently built, are congested, chaotic and lacking in sufficient green space. We were not meant to be inundated by cement, asphalt, glass and metal, and deprived of physical contact with nature.”
According to the New York Times, this is an odd passage likely to provoke argument from many urban thinkers who see well-developed cities as an answer to many environmental problems. But this passage fits within Pope Francis’s general theme that humans have become disconnected from nature. In large cities it is easy to forget your actions have consequences — that the latest iDevice or new, luxury condominium high-rise require natural resources.
Information Pollution, Social Disconnect
“True wisdom, as the fruit of self-examination, dialogue and generous encounter between persons, is not acquired by a mere accumulation of data which eventually leads to overload and confusion, a sort of mental pollution. Real relationships with others, with all the challenges they entail, now tend to be replaced by a type of internet communication which enables us to choose or eliminate relationships at whim, thus giving rise to a new type of contrived emotion which has more to do with devices and displays than with other people and with nature.”
Here, Pope Francis is identifying another aspect of our modern lives which has removed us from nature. It’s not immediately apparent that things like the Internet and social media could hurt the environment, but when a real life is replaced with a virtual life, humans can disconnect from the world around them.
Environmental Degradation Hurts the Poor
“Today, however, we have to realize that a true ecological approach always becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.”
Pope Francis repeatedly links the environment with humanity. He discusses the environmental impacts that will hurt the poor and vulnerable first. He decries leaders who espouse “green” policies that are disconnected from the reality of impoverished communities. In paragraph 91, Pope Francis makes the example that it is inconsistent to “combat trafficking in endangered species while remaining completely indifferent to human trafficking.”
“To blame population growth instead of extreme and selective consumerism on the part of some, is one way of refusing to face the issues.”
Both environmentalists and conservative Catholics have argued that the only way to protect the environment is to reduce the population. Pope Francis is very critical of this argument. He stays true to the Catholic prohibition of birth control and family planning by pointing the finger at consumerism, not population growth.
Acceptance of the Global Community
“If we are truly concerned to develop an ecology capable of remedying the damage we have done, no branch of the sciences and no form of wisdom can be left out, and that includes religion and the language particular to it.”
This is striking. The head of the Roman Catholic Church is encouraging different religions and beliefs — some quite divergent from Catholicism — to bring their ideas to the table. And Pope Francis is making this call in a document traditionally designed to inform Catholic beliefs.
Dominionists Are Wrong
“Although it is true that we Christians have at times incorrectly interpreted the Scriptures, nowadays we must forcefully reject the notion that our being created in God’s image and given dominion over the earth justifies absolute domination over other creatures.”
Some believe that the Bible gives humans the right to dominate and subdue nature. Pope Francis is clear — this is a misinterpretation of the scriptures and must be rejected. As he says in paragraph 116, “our ‘dominion’ over the universe should be understood more properly in the sense of responsible stewardship.”
Abortion Is a Disconnect From Nature
“Since everything is interrelated, concern for the protection of nature is also incompatible with the justification of abortion. How can we genuinely teach the importance of concern for other vulnerable beings, however troublesome or inconvenient they may be, if we fail to protect a human embryo, even when its presence is uncomfortable and creates difficulties?”
Make no mistake; Pope Francis’s argument for moral environmentalism may be breaking ranks with some Catholic conservatives, but the Pope still upholds traditional Catholic beliefs, such as the right to life.
“It is difficult to make a general judgement about genetic modification (GM), whether vegetable or animal, medical or agricultural, since these vary greatly among themselves and call for specific considerations. The risks involved are not always due to the techniques used, but rather to their improper or excessive application.”
Francis runs into the same problem with genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in food that other religious thinkers have encountered: there is no right approach. While experimenting with nature isn’t wrong, unchecked and unmindful interference can cause harm. The Pope encourages those on the left and right of the issue to debate with an open mind.
Generation to Generation
“Doomsday predictions can no longer be met with irony or disdain. We may well be leaving to coming generations debris, desolation and filth.”
Keeping creation for future generations involves more than planting trees. Pope Francis urges us to consider our ecological values and how our decisions as parents will affect the choices and world left to our children. His discussion of the divide between generations on environmental issues is also discussed in the beginning of the encyclical when he notes that “young people demand change.”
Carbon Credits Don’t Work
“The strategy of buying and selling ‘carbon credits’ can lead to a new form of speculation which would not help reduce the emission of polluting gases worldwide.”
While Europe, which operates the world’s largest carbon credit system, ran into problems with loose rules and market manipulation, the system is operating effectively in California and the Northeastern United States according to the New York Times. Pope Francis may see some criticism about this passage from environmental economists.
Boycotts and Divestment
“When social pressure affects their earnings, businesses clearly have to find ways to produce differently. This shows us the great need for a sense of social responsibility on the part of consumers.”
Last year, Archbishop Desmond Tutu called for an anti-apartheid-style boycott and divestment campaign against the fossil fuel industry for driving global warming. Echoing Tutu’s sentiments, Pope Francis calls on consumers to wield their power to affect change. Ironically, the Roman Catholic Church has yet to divest from fossil fuels, despite numerous petitions and letters from concerned citizens of the world.
Featured Image: Pope Francis’ Address in Plenary by Martin Schulz available on Flickr
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