Laudato Si’, Pope Francis’s recent encyclical on the environment drew both praise and condemnation. While Christians may justifiably hesitate to embrace some of the economic and scientific positions he takes, we should take heart in his use of those topics to address some of our deadliest social illnesses. Because the opinion of the Pope carries great weight across the world as well as in our own communities, and many of us will not have time to read the full 184 page document (which can be found here), we have attached a summary of some of the important topics he addressed.
The foundation of Pope Francis’s discussion of social issues in an environmental encyclical is his argument that “the human environment and the natural environment deteriorate together.[i]” Environmental concerns are united with social concerns because they are both “ultimately due to the same evil: the notion that there are no indisputable truths to guide our lives, and hence human freedom is limitless.[ii]” According to the encyclical’s logic, fighting for the environment means fighting against moral relativism and this condemnation of relativism is manifested in several ways throughout the document. Pope Francis reaffirms “valuing one’s own body in its femininity or masculinity” and gives especially harsh condemnation of abortion and the destruction of human embryos.[iii] He also warns against weakening social institutions and the family in particular.[iv] As an alternative to modern relativism, the encyclical offers a “Gospel of Creation,[v]” which describes humanity’s unique worth in nature and emphasizes our responsibilities. In contrast to radical consumerism, commodification of reality, and utilitarianism, the “poverty and austerity” of Saint Francis is held up as an example for the world to follow.[vi]
Pope Francis states that “a true ecological approach” must “hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.[vii]” The dignity of the poor, he says, requires the rights, guaranteed in fact as well as law, to “ownership of property…technical education, credit, insurance, and markets.[viii]” Giving money, though, “must always be a provisional solution in the face of pressing needs.[ix]” Instead, the goal “should always be to allow them a dignified life through work.[x]” Among nations, Pope Francis argued for the existence of an “ecological debt,” created by the “disproportionate use of natural resources by certain countries over long periods of time.[xi]” Paying back this debt requires developed countries to assist poorer countries in creating programs for development and to “accept decreased growth…in order to provide resources for other places to experience healthy growth.[xii]” The encyclical speaks little about personal obligations to the poor except to condemn wasteful consumption, especially of food. It also discusses morality in business, commending business as a “noble vocation,[xiii]” but condemning “the principle of maximization of profits” for reflecting “a misunderstanding of the very concept of the economy.[xiv]” Pope Francis calls for producers to adopt “less polluting means of production” and criticizes decisions “to stop investing in people, in order to gain greater short-term financial gain” for its dangers to social stability. [xv]
On the individual level, Pope Francis calls Christians to live lives of moderation and sobriety in their lives and roles as consumers. Recognizing what he describes as “a fragile world, entrusted by God to human care,[xvi]” Christians are called to demonstrate their faith in how they relate to the natural world: “living our vocation to be protectors of God’s handiwork is essential to a life of virtue; it is not an optional or secondary aspect of our Christian experience.[xvii]” The encyclical does not spend much time on specific lifestyle changes, calling instead for “environmental education” which critiques utilitarianism and promotes “ecological equilibrium.[xviii]” However, it does list what he hopes this education will instill: “avoiding the use of plastic and paper, reducing water consumption, separating refuse, cooking only what can reasonably be consumed, showing care for other living things, using public transport or car-pooling, planting trees, turning off unnecessary lights, or any number of other practices.[xix]” He calls this spiritual motivation to protect the environment an “ecological conversion.[xx]”
In handling scientific matters, the encyclical is clear that the church does not settle scientific debates or replace political processes.[xxi] However, many of the concerns in the document are based on “a very solid scientific consensus” that the earth is experiencing a “warming of the climatic system” for which humans are at least partially responsible.[xxii] Without setting out a specific plan, Pope Francis criticizes a weak international response and calls for agreements to reduce the production of greenhouse gasses and use fossil fuels with exceptions for poorer countries. In solving the problems laid out in the encyclical, Pope Francis praises local and individual groups who are acting, but ultimately calls for “more efficiently organized international institutions, with functionaries…empowered to impose sanctions.[xxiii]” Notably, the encyclical condemns population control as “one way of refusing to face the issues,[xxiv]” and also cap and trade as “a ploy which permits maintaining the excessive consumption of some countries and sectors.[xxv]”