Peace: an unexpected reaction to 'Laudato Si'

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

Peaceful. That is the only word that fully describes how I feel after reading "Laudato Si', on Care for Our Common Home," the encyclical on the environment released by Pope Francis this morning.

For the past six years, I have worked within the Catholic church to address the pressing issue of human-forced climate change. During that time, I have experienced some hopeful glimpses of how the church might animate effective responses to this challenge.

Pope Benedict XVI addressed human-forced climate change in his 2009 encyclical Caritas in Veritate (#50) and 2010 World Day of Peace Message (#4, 7, 10), just as Saint John Paul II did in 1990 (#6) and 1999 (#10). In 2009 and 2010, Benedict also offered support for an international, U.N.-brokered climate change agreement.

In 2013, the Loretto Community of women religious in Kentucky opposed construction of the Bluegrass Pipeline that would have carried fracking byproducts like ethane, butane xylene and other chemicals across their land. In 2014, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) supported a national carbon pollution standard, and the University of Dayton divested fossil fuel holdings from its $670 million endowment based on Catholic mission. And throughout all of these events and more, my colleagues at the Catholic Climate Covenant have worked tirelessly to support the USCCB and share Catholic teaching on climate change with the U.S. church.

If I am really honest with myself, however, I have to admit that deep down I don’t think I ever really expected the world to ultimately avoid the tipping point of atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations that most climate scientists believe will lead to runaway, essentially irreversible climate chaos. For as often as I saw positive action on climate change, I have also seen exponentially more failures to systemically address the climate crisis.

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Many Catholics and non-Catholics adamantly continued to deny the reality of human-forced climate change. The United Nations climate change negotiations failed to produce science-based political accord. Most institutions still obstinately continue to invest in whatever corporations will maximize short-term profit regardless of their ecological harm. States like Ohio have frozen existing renewable energy portfolio standards and energy conservation measures. And well-funded think tanks and lobbying firms pour seemingly endless amounts of money into campaigns designed to undermine climate science and climate change mitigation/adaptation.

In the face of these failures, my work and the Covenant’s work often felt like sitting in a leaking boat with only a teaspoon for a bailer. To say the least, there have been many times that I have felt anxious about the future of both our planet and our human family.

Hope in a Pope Named Francis

Then came Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the first pope in the history of the Catholic church to take the name Francis and honor “the poor man of Assisi,” who was named by John Paul II as patron of those who promote ecology.

When the first Jesuit selected as pope chose the name of Francis on March 13, 2013, I immediately felt a glimmer of hope kindle inside of me. Would he represent the fullness of St. Francis, the man of peace, the man of the poor, the lover of creation? The spark was fanned the next day when the new pope acknowledged just that.

From that first day to today, his words, and more importantly his actions, provided ever greater confidence that calling attention to ecological degradation be a key part of his legacy. Then came the announcement in January 2014 that the pope would write an encyclical on ecology. My hope and excitement reached a new level -- What more could I have asked for? What more could the world hope for?

Now, after finally reading Laudato Si, I am absolutely convinced that Francis will indeed inspire humanity to save ourselves from ourselves and avoid catastrophic climate change. And I am unexpectedly peaceful about it.

Laudato Si

In the first section of the first chapter of Laudato Si, “Pollution and Climate Change,” Francis identifies the ecological challenges that threaten our common home. In particular, he cites human-forced climate change wrought by anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions that threaten to cause systemically-reinforcing climate change (#20-26); contamination and lack of fresh water (#27-31); and “loss of biodiversity” (#32-42).

He emphasizes the interrelatedness between all parts of creation and points out that human flourishing is inexorably connected to the flourishing of all creation. In particular, he laments the physical illness, economic inequality and war that accompany ecological harm (#20-21, 48-52, 57). Moreover, he denounces some of the human attitudes and behaviors contributing to environmental degradation and climate change, including distorted notions of freedom (#6); “powerful opposition” and apathy (#14); the “throwaway culture” (#22).

In light of these ecological maladies, Francis affirms the “urgent need to develop policies so that, in the next few years, the emission of carbon dioxide and other highly polluting gases can be drastically reduced” (#26). In his blunt and honest style, Francis bemoans the “weak international responses” to climate change that have been repeatedly undermined by “economic interests [that] easily end up trumping the common good and manipulating information” (#54).

Then the kicker: he laments that "the most one can expect is superficial rhetoric, sporadic acts of philanthropy and perfunctory expressions of concern for the environment, whereas any genuine attempts by groups within society to introduce change is viewed as a nuisance based on romantic illusions or as an obstacle to be circumvented” (ibid).

In the second chapter, Francis turns to the Christian vision of creation. He recounts the Christian beliefs that God created everything with intrinsic goodness (#65, 69); that humans are uniquely created and called to exercise responsible stewardship over creation on behalf of the loving Creator (#67-68); that all creation is a mystery the diversity and unity of which both reflect and mediate the Creator (#76-92); that the right to private property is not “absolute or inviolable” but “subordinat[ed] … to the universal destination of goods” (#93); and that “the destiny of all creation is bound up with the mystery of Christ” (#99).

Animated by Christian faith, Francis moves to address “the human roots of the ecological crisis” in Chapter Three. There repeats many of the themes articulated in Chapter 1. He adds the world’s “dominant technocratic paradigm” (#101-109); “excessive anthropocentricism” and a misunderstanding of the call to exercise “dominion over creation” (#116); “practical relativism” regarding non-human creation (#122); the devaluing of human labor (#124); and exclusive concern for “greater short-term financial gain” (#128). He reiterates the interconnectedness of all creation and, as such, connects ecological stewardship to the protection of human life and dignity -- especially in connection to abortion, the poor, those with disabilities and testing on “living human embryos” (#117, 120, 137).

In Chapter Four, Francis considers the concept of integral ecology. He asserts (and this appears throughout) that “it cannot be emphasized enough how everything [in creation] is interconnected” (#138). This, he says, is true of all creation of which humanity is a part, as well as the various aspects of human life: academics, economics, health, governance, culture and every part of “daily life” (#139-155). In particular, he reiterates the reality that care for creation is intimately connected to the promotion of a preferential option for the poor since those with the least are most harmed by ecological degradation (#158). He affirms that in light of ecological degradation and climate change, justice and solidarity must be understood as “intergenerational” (#159).

After this attention to integral ecology, Francis considers “Lines of Approach and Action” in Chapter Five. First, he asserts that “technology based on the use of highly polluting fossil fuels -- especially coal, but also oil and, to a lesser degree, gas – needs to be progressively replaced without delay” (#165). At the same time, he recognizes that “until greater progress is made in developing widely accessible sources of renewable energy, it is legitimate to choose the lesser of two evils or find short-term solutions” (ibid).

In order to expedite access to affordable renewable energy, Francis insists on the need for “subsidies which allow developing countries access to technology transfer, technical assistance and financial resources,” and points out that “the costs of this would be comparatively low, given the risks of climate change” (#171). He points out that the atmospheric life of greenhouse gas emissions means that “even if stringent [greenhouse gas reduction] measures are taken now, some countries with scarce resources will require assistance in adapting to the effects already produced” (#170). He notes the "need for common and differentiated responsibilities," and approvingly cites the bishops of Bolivia who said in 2012 that “the countries which have benefited from a high degree of industrialization, at the cost of enormous emissions of greenhouse gases, have a greater responsibility of providing a solution to the problems they have caused” (#170).

In order to address the causes and consequences of human-forced climate change, Francis insists that "enforceable international agreements are urgently needed” (#173). In the area of international climate change policy, however, Francis laments that “the advances have been regrettably few” and that “reducing greenhouse gases requires honesty, courage and responsibility, above all on the part of those countries which are more powerful and pollute the most" (#169).

In the wake of the failed 2012 U.N. climate negotiations in Rio, however, Francis observes that "international negotiations cannot make significant progress due to positions taken by countries which place their national interests above the global common good" (#169). The pope asserts that “the strategy of buying and selling ‘carbon credits’” will be unable to effectively mitigate climate change (#171), and cites the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace that “’the environment is one of those goods that cannot be adequately safeguarded or promoted by market forces’” (#190). In support of this claim, he quotes Pope Benedict in Caritas in Veritate that economic systems must be made to account for the “’the economic and social costs of using up shared environmental resources’” (#195).

In sum, Francis says in Chapter Five that, “there is urgent need for politics and economics to enter into a frank dialogue in the service of life, especially human life” (#189). In particular, Francis says that such deliberations must be guided by the “precautionary principle” which insists that, “if objective information suggests that serious and irreversible damage may result, a project should be halted or modified, even in the absence of indisputable proof” (#186). This description of the precautionary principle is essentially the understanding of prudence that the USCCB articulated in their 2001 pastoral statement Global Climate Change: A Plea for Dialogue, Prudence and the Common Good.

Following what is arguably the most prophetic chapter of the document, Francis concludes with Chapter Six on “Ecological Education and Spirituality.” He calls for “personal and communal” conversion away from consumerism and “’collective selfishness,’” and invites persons toward lifestyles animated by sound ecological virtues that must be inculcated by both secular and faith communities (#202-215). Sacraments and the Sabbath are essential to Christians’ right relationship with creation (#233-237) he reminds us. He reflects on the relationships of the Trinity, Mary and Joseph to creation, and concludes with “a prayer for our earth” and “a Christian prayer in union with creation” (#238-246).

Conclusion: Peace

Over the past 18 months waiting for Laudato Si, I am not sure that I ever stopped to wonder what my initial reaction to the document might be. Given my passion for the pressing issue of climate change and my increasing love for Pope Francis, however, it is doubtful that, if asked, I would have said anything like the sort of peace I feel right now. If anything, I would have guessed that in this moment my mind would be racing with ideas about how best to begin implementing the document -- especially in light of Pope Francis’ global popularity and the incredible amount of excitement that the document’s anticipated release has caused among all people of goodwill.

Additionally, I would have expected myself to be filled with a certain level of anxiety about whether or not the world would heed Francis’ prophetic message. Yet here I am, overcome with peace rooted in the trust that through Francis and Laudato Si, God has graciously offered a bold gift to humanity that I believe will unite and inspire all of us -- or at least enough of us -- to work for climate stability and so save ourselves from catastrophic climate change. Adequate reception of the gift, of course, will require fortitude, cooperation and hard work -- especially from Catholics in the United States.

But for the first time in a long time -- perhaps ever -- I am at peace in the prospect that, moved by Pope Francis’ leadership and moral vision, humanity might yet effectively address climate change.

Laudato si, mi' Signore!

[Daniel R. DiLeo is Project Manager of the Catholic Climate Covenant. He is also a Flatley Fellow and Ph.D. student in theological ethics at Boston College. He is grateful to Daniel J. Misleh, Executive Director of the Catholic Climate Covenant, for helpful feedback on an earlier draft of this essay.]

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