In May of 2015, Pope Francis released his encyclical Laudato Si’, the Italian title taken from St. Francis of Assisi’s beautiful “Canticle of the Creatures”: “Praise be to you, my Lord, through our Sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us, and who produces various fruit with colored flowers and herbs.”
Early in the encyclical, Pope Francis raises an alarm: “This sister 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. This is why the earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor; she ‘groans in travail’ (Romans 8:22).”
The impending climate crisis is the major focus of Laudato Si’.
“Climate change is a global problem with grave implications: environmental, social, economic, political and for the distribution of goods,” the pope writes. “It represents one of the principal challenges facing humanity in our day. Its worst impact will probably be felt by developing countries in coming decades.”
Laudato Si’ is an important and approachable document that every Catholic should read.
The first of its six chapters outlines problems that have been well documented: climate change, lack of access to clean water, a “throwaway culture,” loss of biodiversity and global inequality.
The relationship between the climate crisis and global inequality is a consistent theme: “Many of the poor live in areas particularly affected by phenomena related to warming, and their means of subsistence are largely dependent on natural reserves and ecosystemic services such as agriculture, fishing and forestry. They have no other financial activities or resources which can enable them to adapt to climate change or to face natural disasters, and their access to social services and protection is very limited.”
As our world continues to degrade because of climate change, the poor will be most affected. Unlike many of us, the chronically poor cannot easily replace their meager rations of food and water when they become scarce. And unlike many of us who have the luxury of insurance policies and extra money in the bank, the poor cannot simply buy their way out of neighborhoods ravaged by floods, fires, pollution and hurricanes. What is left but for them to try to leave their homes for a better life? Thus, the pope notes, “There has been a tragic rise in the number of migrants seeking to flee from the growing poverty caused by environmental degradation.”
Yes, climate change and environmental destruction are intractably linked to poverty, inequality and migration. These are not separate issues, but different sides of the same issue: our impending climate crisis! Laudato Si’ is as much about the mistreatment of people as the mistreatment of our ecosystems.
“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.”
In the second chapter, climate change, inequality and related issues are tied to creation.
“The word ‘creation’ has a broader meaning than ‘nature,’ for it has to do with God’s loving plan in which every creature has its own value and significance,” the pope writes.
Pope Francis firmly repudiates the idea that being given “dominion” over the earth justifies absolute domination over God’s creation: “Each community can take from the bounty of the earth whatever it needs for subsistence, but it also has the duty to protect the earth and to ensure its fruitfulness for coming generations.”
Elsewhere in Laudato Si’, the pope addresses the human roots of the ecological crisis, the idea of an integral ecology in which everything is interconnected, a spiritual basis for engagement, and the noteworthy “lines of approach and action.” Laudato Si’ is a call to what the Holy Father refers to as an “ecological conversion.”
“It must be said that some committed and prayerful Christians, with the excuse of realism and pragmatism, tend to ridicule expressions of concern for the environment,” the pope notes. “Others are passive; they choose not to change their habits and thus become inconsistent. So what they all need is an ‘ecological conversion,’ whereby the effects of their encounter with Jesus Christ become evident in their relationship with the world around them.
This ecological conversion is not just for ecologists and climate scientists, but for all of us: “Living our vocation to be protectors of God’s handiwork is essential to a life of virtue; it is not an optional or a secondary aspect of our Christian experience.”
In Laudato Si’, Pope Francis implores each of us to take action. Our response should follow an ever-expanding set of circles.
Start with your own actions. Are you doing enough to reduce your personal ecological footprint? Consider the ecological impact of your daily choices, including your use of energy, your diet, your transportation, and the things you purchase.
Next, widen your circle to your family: Have a family meeting to discuss how you can better care for our common home.
From there, move to the community level: Look for ways to suggest changes to your parish, school and place of work to reduce your carbon footprint. Think about how you might serve the poor and marginalized at your local food bank or St. Vincent de Paul conference.
Finally, widen your circle further to include your city, state and country, and exercise your civic duty to hold your elected leaders to account on climate change — demand real, significant and sustainable change to preserve God’s creation for our children and grandchildren, while improving the lives of today’s poor and marginalized. And vote with your wallet as well as your ballot, supporting companies selling sustainably and ethically produced products, and withholding your support from companies lacking a social conscience.
Laudato Si’ is a seminal document that takes a sobering look at today’s climate crisis, summons us to an ecological conversion and calls us to real and sustained action. Will you heed the call?
Paul Litwin is a member of St. John the Evangelist Parish in Seattle, where he started the St. Francis of Assisi group, which brings together individuals who are concerned about the sanctity of the earth and all life that God has placed on it.