Secular society and religious communities find common ground in 'Laudato Si''

This article appears in the Francis: The Environment Encyclical feature series. View the full series.

More than a week out, we can look back and see the ripples caused by the drop of Pope Francis' timely encyclical letter on care for our common home. The bishop of Rome has made just enough waves to leave the world asking: Could this be the thing that brings people of faith and nonreligious together?

I was at a Baskin-Robbins earlier this week and ran into participants of a conference with NextGen Climate, a secular group that fights to bring climate change to the forefront of American politics. The participants said each of the 5,000 participants received a summary of the pope's nearly 200-page encyclical.

A visit to the group's website might make you question the group's secular status: The smiling face of Francis greets you with the words "Our Common Home." Francis' letter seems to have forged an unlikely alliance between environmentalists and Catholics.

This rare coalition was not unexpected to Francis. In fact, he designed it. Knowing that climate change is a problem of global perspective, Francis did not address his letter to bishops or even to "the entire Catholic world and to all men and women of good will" as popes before him have done. Instead, Francis said, "I wish to address every person living on this planet."

No one escapes the call to care for creation.

From the effort for workers' rights during the Industrial Revolution to the struggle for civil rights of this century, faith communities have nearly always been a part of effective social movements. Pope Francis knows that the whole is greater than the part, and religious and nonreligious people alike must come together to create movement on this intractable issue.

In his letter, Francis calls us to a new recognition that "humanity is one people living in a common home," noting that we cannot go about combating this global problem with an isolated or piecemeal approach. Instead, we must put aside the differences that divide us politically and socially and understand that "interdependence obliges us to think of one world with a common plan."

Francis perceives the crucial fact that climate change is an issue of human relationship. We cannot solve this crisis without tackling the rampant selfishness, greed and consumerism that marks modern human interaction. Francis notes that "a certain way of understanding human life and activity has gone awry" in our constant pursuit of progress for its own sake, not taking into account our exploitation of the world in which we live.

This culture of waste is not particular to people of faith, or people of nonfaith, for that matter. This global phenomenon is a challenge we must all face together to reverse the degradation of our planet that will leave future generations ecologically homeless.

Pope Francis may not have envisioned a meeting at Baskin-Robbins, but he would be happy to know that secular society and religious communities are finding common ground in "a new dialogue about how we are shaping the future of our planet. ... A conversation which includes everyone, since the environmental challenge we are undergoing, and its human roots, concern and affect us all."