The encyclical is first and foremost about human relationships

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

by Allison Walter

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The anticipation for Pope Francis’ newest encyclical on care for creation is something I haven’t seen since the midnight release of Harry Potter books. And rightfully so: Francis’s encyclical addresses one of the most crucial issues of our time: caring for God’s creation. But Pope Francis goes beyond stereotypical “save the whales” rhetoric of reminding people to turn off the lights and to recycle coke bottles. Instead, Francis focuses on why protecting the environment must be human-centered.

While the encyclical is popularly referred to as a climate change encyclical, it first and foremost is about human relationships. Francis makes four claims that set him apart from the debate about climate change:

1. Human interaction is at the heart of ecology. Francis says ecology is not just a relationship between humans and nature. It too is about human relationships: “Human life is grounded in three fundamental and closely intertwined relationships: with God, with our neighbor and with the earth itself.” When we violate any one of these relationships, we offend God, promote injustice, and exploit our home.

That’s why Francis immediately dives into the human role in environmental degradation. He calls out the abuse of humans on the planet, likening us to lords and masters who feel “entitled to plunder [the earth] at will.”

2. Human ecology must include the dignity of work. Because of this anthropocentric perspective, Francis points out that we cannot talk about ecology without talking about dignified work. While the current economy of exclusion focuses on profit over people, Francis says that proper human ecology means that everyone has access to steady employment. He admonishes the current exploitative system saying that “to stop investing in people, in order to gain greater short-term financial gain, is bad business for society.”

3. Poverty is the greatest casualty of failed ecology Francis, who dreams of a poor church for the poor, wastes no time in highlighting the outsized impact of environmental degradation on the poor, especially migrants. He vividly illustrates this harmful reality: “For example, changes in climate, to which animals and plants cannot adapt, lead [the poor] to migrate; this in turn affects the livelihood of the poor, who are then forced to leave their homes, with great uncertainty for their future and that of their children. There has been a tragic rise in the number of migrants seeking to flee from the growing poverty caused by environmental degradation.”

If we want to better human ecology, Francis says, we can’t ignore the cry of poverty.

4. Human greed and consumerism got us here. Politicians can help get us out. Pope Francis has been a harsh critic of the culture of waste and the globalization of indifference. The new encyclical continues this sharp critique noting that, “At the same time, we have “a sort of ‘superdevelopment’ of a wasteful and consumerist kind which forms an unacceptable contrast with the ongoing situations of dehumanizing deprivation,” while we are all too slow in developing economic institutions and social initiatives which can give the poor regular access to basic resources.”

Despite the daunting challenges of unjust socio-economic order and a pervasive, damaging culture, Francis does not let us lose hope. “All is not lost,” he says. “Human beings, while capable of the worst, are also capable of rising above themselves, choosing again what is good, and making a new start.”

While Francis addressed his letter to “every person living on this planet,” he specifically calls on politicians to step up to the plate with new creativity and cooperation:

“Politics and the economy tend to blame each other when it comes to poverty and environmental degradation. It is to be hoped that they can acknowledge their own mistakes and find forms of interaction directed to the common good. While some are concerned only with financial gain, and others with holding on to or increasing their power, what we are left with are conflicts or spurious agreements where the last thing either party is concerned about is caring for the environment and protecting those who are most vulnerable. Here too, we see how true it is that “unity is greater than conflict.”

Among the first questions that God asks humanity in the Bible is “where are you?” and “where is your brother?” God asks the same question of us today. But if Francis is right, we don’t just have familial brothers, but ecological brothers. So when we protect creation, we too serve our sisters and brothers in the words of the pope: “Bear witness to a conviction which we today share, that everything is interconnected, and that genuine care for our own lives and our relationships with nature is inseparable from fraternity, justice and faithfulness to others.”

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