'Laudato Si' ' at 2: Have Francis' words been taken seriously?

Nancy Lorence, parishioner at St. Francis Xavier Church, New York City is seen during the People's Climate March in Washington April 29. (CNS/Dennis Sadowski)

It's been two years since the release of 'Laudato Si', on Care for Our Common Home," the first encyclical in the history of the Catholic Church to focus on ecology and care for creation. Yet in those two years, the appreciation for this document among the Catholic faith community is not entirely evident.

Nor is the gravity of the social and environmental issues about which Pope Francis so eloquently exhorts, including the exploitation of natural resources, our " 'throwaway' culture of consumerism," and climate change — a grave issue that is already impacting the lives of millions worldwide.

Two years later, care for creation is highlighted as an important aspect of Catholic social teaching within environmental justice organizations. Sadly, however, it seems not much has really changed when it comes to "mainstream" Catholics.

Of the 177 dioceses in the U.S., only a handful have actually made environmental justice and issues like climate change a priority, or have pursued efforts to reduce energy and resource consumption. While there has been acknowledgement by some in the church that care for the environment is a "life" issue, the full body and its most visible structures have yet to truly recognize this connection.

Likewise, there has been no rejection of government leaders who promote exploitation of natural resources, purportedly for the sake of the economy and jobs. In fact, claiming to be pro-life (sans pro-environment) has become the only "litmus test" for a candidate's qualification for office.

And climate change is still something to be doubted and even challenged, as if the objective observations and the thousands of scientists around the world are somehow mistaken.

As Francis pointed out in his encyclical, the environment needs to be protected in order to protect life itself. Furthermore, he makes clear that not caring for God's creation is tantamount to sin.

It's like the strange dichotomy that I heard in a homily once: It is hard to believe that a hospital that performs abortions can in one room save a life, and in another take it. Likewise, Catholics seem inconsistent in respecting human life and yet opposing, or simply being indifferent to, protecting the very systems that sustain life. In fact, destruction of the environment is metaphorically like unplugging a medical life-support system.

Could it be that it's possible to take the words of Francis too seriously? Could it be that it doesn't matter if we destroy our air, water and forests for the sake of the jobs and the economy? Or that the intrinsic value of creation and its connection with life can be ignored for our own selfish interests or those of big business?

I doubt that the pope intended for his encyclical to be simply good bedtime reading.

Rather, it is to be taken seriously in its call for each of us, including our leaders, to respect life by respecting the environment and protecting it for future generations. If we as Christians call ourselves "pro-life," then we must necessarily be pro-creation.

Climate change in particular is a grave issue that now requires urgent action after years of uninformed neglect, indifference and active defiance. As Francis stated, "The climate is a common good, belonging to all and meant for all. At the global level, it is a complex system linked to many of the essential conditions for human life" (Laudato Si', 23).

Our dependence on fossil fuels is fundamentally impacting God's creation, putting at risk the life-sustaining environment on which all life depends.

Unfortunately, the Trump administration's now-stated intention to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris climate accord has introduced a new variable into the climate equation. By dismissing climate change and its significant impacts to life, what little momentum that had been built in fostering solutions is now suppressed, at least by the federal government.

Beyond the shortsightedness, irresponsibility and immorality of the president's planned withdrawal, what message is it sending to our young people about ethical social responsibility, and to "deniers" who don't understanding the gravity of climate change? What message is it sending about care for creation, the common good, environmental justice and the importance of the natural environment for life itself?

"The pace of consumption, waste and environmental change," the pope explains, "has so stretched the planet's capacity that our contemporary lifestyle, unsustainable as it is, can only precipitate catastrophes, such as those which even now periodically occur in different areas of the world. The effects of the present imbalance can only be reduced by our decisive action, here and now" (Laudato Si', 161).

Protecting the environment is, in fact, one of the key tenets of Catholic social teaching that has its roots in Scripture in the calls to do unto others as to ourselves, to love thy neighbor, to feed the hungry and care for the poor, and to promote the common good.

In caring for our environment, and particularly the climate, we not only help protect it for ourselves but also for our children and those most vulnerable — from those suffering the ravages of extreme weather in our own country, to those already suffering from drought, flooding and famine elsewhere in the world. If all we care about are our own interests, including living high-consumption lifestyles, then we are shortchanging our brothers and sisters who depend on a healthy environment for their very survival.

Beyond the human cost, Francis points out that nature has intrinsic value. Because God created the natural world and reveals himself through it, this is reason enough to appreciate and preserve it. As the pope says, "When nature is viewed solely as a source of profit and gain, this has serious consequences for society. ... Completely at odds with this model are the ideals of harmony, justice, fraternity and peace as proposed by Jesus" (Laudato Si', 82).

If we really want to help the poor and needy, we can reduce emissions that contribute to climate change by reducing our own energy use and by speaking out against policies that support fossil fuels.

The saints laid the foundation of our faith through their individual actions in defending the faith, and as examples of Christ's love. Likewise, the new "saints" of today are those who care for creation, and are not afraid to speak up for the environment as a value for the common good, if not in its own right as part of God's creation. Said Francis, "Reducing greenhouse gases requires honesty, courage and responsibility" (Laudato Si', 169).

We, too, can help care for creation in our daily lives by choosing — and using — our own energy and resources wisely.

"We must regain the conviction that we have a shared responsibility for others and the world, and that being good and decent are worth it," the pope wrote. "We have had enough of immorality and the mockery of ethics, goodness, faith and honesty. ... When the foundations of social life are corroded, what ensues are battles over conflicting interests, new forms of violence and brutality, and obstacles to the growth of a genuine culture of care for the environment" (Laudato Si', 229).

On this second anniversary of Laudato Si', let us take Francis' words to heart in our own lives, for the sake of life itself.

[Michael Wright is author of 10 Things Pope Francis Wants You to Know About the Environment and Catholic Update: Pope Francis and the Environment (both from Liguori Publications). A NASA civil servant, he holds degrees in space sciences and space technology, and leads the environmental justice ministry at St. John the Baptist Catholic Church in New Freedom, Pennsylvania.] 

Join the Conversation

Send your thoughts and reactions to Letters to the Editor. Learn more here