It’s been a year since the launch of Laudato Si’, Pope Francis’ environmental encyclical. The encyclical is credited with expanding the conversation on the enviromental degradation we have done to our planet. Photo by Michael Swan

One year later 'Laudato Si' gets to the heart of the matter

  • June 11, 2016

Revolution was once a bad word — even The Beatles were against it. But ever since the late Steve Jobs got hold of it and applied it to every new gadget to come off the Apple assembly line, the word has lost its threat and most of its meaning.

Pope Francis does not toss around idle talk about revolution. But a year ago, in Laudato Si’, his environmental encyclical that laments the degradation we have wreaked on our world, he started one.

“People often talk about it as ‘Oh, the encyclical on climate change?’ ” said Dennis Patrick O’Hara, director of Toronto’s Elliott Allen Institute for Theology and Ecology. “I say, ‘Why do you limit it so much?’ Yes, it talks about climate change. But it’s not about climate change per se. It’s about care for our common home.”

The key word is “integral.”

“The word integral, when he speaks of integral ecology, reminds us that whatever we do to another we do to ourselves,” said O’Hara. “Respect others as you would respect yourself. That’s pretty biblical to me. That’s integral.”

Twenty or 30 years ago, trying to apply theology to ecology brought snickers and scorn even at Catholic universities, said O’Hara. In the last year, he has been asked to speak about Laudato Si’ to parish groups at least 50 times, and at high schools and colleges.

The ecotheologian finds his most enthusiastic audiences among ordinary, faithful parishioners who feel Pope Francis has connected their common-sense understanding of Catholic morality to the world they’re living in.

“This is no longer something that is outside of your faith, or something only those fringe elements in our tradition are talking about. No. This is bringing it front and centre,” said O’Hara. “If you want to be a good Catholic and a good Christian you have to take this seriously. He (Pope Francis) didn’t give any leeway on that.”

In 2013 and 2014 the Pope had followed round after round of United Nations climate negotiations and decided the world deserved better than mealy-mouthed, lawyerly bureaucratic talk offered up in the teeth of a global crisis. People are dying. Refugees wander the globe. Entire species are slipping off into geological history. The pontiff decided it was time somebody said something real, urgent and true.

Issued June 18 last year, but symbolically dated to the first Christian revolution on Pentecost Sunday, the encyclical was a call to arms. Pope Francis intended to overthrow our lethargy, passivity, fatalism and selfishness when it comes to how we treat our planet. His revolution would require a renewed sense of right and wrong as it applies to the entire human family.

“Every effort to protect and improve our world entails profound changes in ‘lifestyles, models of production and consumption, and the established structures of power which today govern societies.’ ” wrote Francis.

He wasn’t talking about business as usual. He addressed Laudato Si’ to every human being and his subject was “Care for our Common Home.”

“The timing of it a year ago, anticipating the Paris climate conference (in December), that was very important,” said John Dillon, ecological economy program co-ordinator for Canada’s ecumenical social justice agency KAIROS. “Because people were looking for moral leadership going into the Paris conference.”

In Paris both scientists and diplomats talked about the power of Pope Francis’ moral vision to pull humans back from the brink of self-destruction.

Former U.S. Geological Survey director and Science magazine editor Marcia McNutt said the scientific arguments on climate change are insufficient without the moral argument Francis provided in Laudato Si’. 

“You can argue the science until cows come home, but that just appeals to people’s intellect,” McNutt said. “The Pope’s argument appeals to someone’s heart. Whenever you appeal to someone’s heart that’s a much more powerful message.”

Veerabhadran Ramanathan of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego talked about the need for a moral revolution on climate. The world will not act enough on climate change, Ramanathan said, “until we teach this in every church, every mosque, every synagogue, every temple.”

By the end of the Paris conference countries had agreed to produce plans, policies and laws that would limit global warming to less than two degrees and aim for a 1.5-degree difference in 2050.

If you really were looking for controversy, note the Pope’s insistence and clarity on economics, said Dillon.

“You can’t really talk about doing something about climate change without talking about the broader economic context,” Dillon said. “There wasn’t much that was new to Catholic social teaching. The problem is that Catholic social teaching is not well known.”

On science and on economics, Pope Francis applied a moral lens that got people talking well beyond the Catholic world.

“It has reached audiences that maybe would not otherwise have been reached,” Dillon said.

“It was so new, something that was bridging across social sectors and speaking to non-Catholics in a very accessible way,” said Josianne Gauthier, director of in-Canada programs for the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace.

Laudato Si’ has revolutionized Gauthier’s job.

“It’s actually been an incredible educational tool,” she said. “It’s made it a lot easier to have conversations with people, and make them feel that they do have access to the social teachings of the Church — that it’s not just for people studying in theology departments... It’s about real life.”

Development and Peace was active on climate change long before Laudato Si’. Canada’s Caritas agency has been hearing about climate change from its partners for more than a decade. After Laudato Si’, it became easier to get Canadians to see the connections and moral consequences rather than a series of isolated disasters that always seem to happen to the poor in far-off places.

“He’s found new words to explain these things to us,” said Gauthier. “It’s about the culture of disposal. We’re in this environment of very individualistic behaviour and he has undone that. He’s given us a new challenge.”

It’s not a new challenge that sweeps away all the moral challenges we have known in our times. War, extreme poverty, oppression of women, racism, parasitic profiteering and abortion all find their way into the Pope’s sweeping application of Catholic moral reasoning to the world we live in.

“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?” Francis wrote.

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