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Francis' encyclical an urgent call to prevent world of 'debris, desolation and filth'

  • Trucks and cars make their way along the Columbia River in Oregon on Feb. 21. (CNS/Nancy Wiechec)
  • Pope Francis kisses a baby as he arrives to lead his general audience Wednesday in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican. (CNS/Reuters/Max Rossi)
  • A statue of St. Francis of Assisi and a wolf in the town of Gubbio, Italy (CNS/Octavio Duran)
Vatican City

Pope Francis has clearly embraced what he calls a "very solid scientific consensus" that humans are causing cataclysmic climate change that is endangering the planet. The pope has also lambasted global political leaders for their "weak responses" and lack of will over decades to address the issue.

In what has already been the most debated papal encyclical letter in recent memory, Francis urgently calls on the entire world's population to act, lest we leave to coming generations a planet of "debris, desolation and filth."

"An outsider looking at our world would be amazed at [our] behavior, which at times appears self-destructive," the pope writes at one point in the letter, titled: "Laudato Si', on Care for Our Common Home."

Addressing world leaders directly, Francis asks: "What would induce anyone, at this stage, to hold on to power only to be remembered for their inability to take action when it was urgent and necessary to do so?"

Francis writes, "As often occurs in periods of deep crisis which require bold decisions, we are tempted to think that what is happening is not entirely clear. ... Such evasiveness serves as a license to carrying on with our present lifestyles and models of production and consumption. This is the way human beings contrive to feed their self-destructive vices: trying not to see them, trying not to acknowledge them, delaying the important decisions and pretending that nothing will happen."

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Such sharp words on the situation facing humanity pervade the more than 40,000-word letter, which has a far-ranging scope -- first reviewing scientific conclusions on climate change and other environmental degradation before going into deeper implications for both the church and the global international system.

The document also shows a notable reorientation of the church's understanding of the human person, from a being that dominates to one that responsibly serves creation.

The title Laudato Si' comes from St. Francis of Assisi's famous 13th-century prayer "The Canticle of the Creatures." Translated into English as either "Be praised" or "Praised be," it is an Umbrian-Italian phrase used throughout the prayer to give thanks to God for creation.

The Vatican's Thursday launch of the encyclical -- which has already drawn public criticism from two Catholic U.S. presidential candidates and from right-wing groups that deny climate change science -- was preceded by some controversy Monday when a draft version of the document was leaked by the Italian newsmagazine L'Espresso.

The final version of the text does not seem to deviate in any substantial way from the leaked copy. In fact, the official English translation presents some matters more forcefully than the leaked Italian draft, adding sharper words, especially in the pope's call for action on the part of global leaders.

Tackling climate change in the first of its six chapters, Francis states bluntly: "A very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climatic system."

He continues, "Humanity is called to recognize the need for changes of lifestyle, production and consumption, in order to combat this warming or at least the human causes which produce or aggravate it. It is true that there are other factors (such as volcanic activity, variations in the earth's orbit and axis, the solar cycle), yet a number of scientific studies indicate that most global warming in recent decades is due to the great concentration of greenhouse gases ... released mainly as a result of human activity."

Among other main issues and themes touched upon by the letter:

  • Environmental degradation causing lack of access to drinking water, loss of biodiversity, and decline in quality of human life;
  • Pervasive global inequity that leaves billions experiencing "ecological debt";
  • The search for long-term solutions to replace fossil fuels and other unsustainable energies;
  • Tying together the ecological crisis with a global social crisis that leaves the poorest in the world behind and does not make them part of international decision-making;
  • Changes in global lifestyle that could "bring healthy pressure to bear on those who wield political, economic and social power."

Starting his letter with a short preamble on the purpose for his writing, Francis refers to his predecessor John XXIII, who famously addressed his 1963 encyclical Pacem in Terris to "all men and women of good will."

"Now, faced as we are with global environmental deterioration, I wish to address every person living on this planet," Francis states. "In this Encyclical, I would like to enter into dialogue with all people about our common home."

"I urgently appeal, then, for a new dialogue about how we are shaping the future of our planet," he says. "We need a conversation which includes everyone, since the environmental challenge we are undergoing, and its human roots, concern and affect us all."

Related: US church grateful for Pope Francis' 'marvelous' encyclical

Climate change, loss of biodiversity, global inequity

Before addressing scientific matters, Francis first acknowledges work done in ecology by his predecessors since Pope Paul VI and also quotes at length Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew.

The pope then dives deeply into recent scientific research to present a picture of what is happening to the environment around the world. He cites extensively from statements and appeals by many of the world's bishops' conferences -- at least 16 -- and also cites heavily from earlier work on the issue done by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace.

Writing in the first chapter -- titled "What is happening to our common home" -- Francis says that because of waste from homes and business, construction and demolition, "the earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth."

After addressing the scientific evidence on climate change, the pope says that it "is a global problem with grave implications: environmental, social, economic, political and for the distribution of goods. It represents one of the principal challenges facing humanity in our day."

"Its worst impact will probably be felt by developing countries in coming decades," he writes. Less developed communities tend to depend more on the earth for their sustenance, he says, noting that there are already populations who have been forced to migrate from their homes because of effects of climate change.

"Sadly, there is widespread indifference to such suffering, which is even now taking place throughout our world," the pope states. "Our lack of response to these tragedies involving our brothers and sisters points to the loss of that sense of responsibility for our fellow men and women upon which all civil society is founded."

Francis also clearly identifies a right to water: "Access to safe drinkable water is a basic and universal human right, since it is essential to human survival of and, as such, is a condition for the exercise of other human rights."

On the issue of biodiversity, he is likewise clear: "Because of us, thousands of species will no longer give glory to God by their very existence, nor convey their message to us. We have no such right."

Criticizing how some cities have been built in ways that waste resources, the pope says that "many cities are huge, inefficient structures, excessively wasteful of energy and water."

"We were not meant to be inundated by cement, asphalt, glass and metal, and deprived of physical contact with nature," he writes.

Francis also sharply laments how the poorest have been left out of decision-making power in environmental debates. Decision-makers, he states, "being located in affluent urban areas, are far removed from the poor, with little direct contact with their problems."

"Today ... we have to realize that a true ecological approach always becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor," he writes.

Francis fiercely rejects arguments made by the United Nations and other international agencies that population growth should be limited to curtail use of resources.

"To blame population growth instead of an extreme and selective consumerism on the part of some, is one way of refusing to face the issues," the pope writes. "It is an attempt to legitimize the present model of distribution, where a minority believes that it has the right to consume in a way which can never be universalized, since the planet could not even contain the waste products of such consumption."

Francis says issues of inequity can no longer be addressed at the individual level.

"Inequity affects not only individuals but entire countries; it compels us to consider contemplate an ethics of international relations," the pope writes. "A true 'ecological debt' exists, particularly between the global north and south, connected to commercial imbalances with effects on the environment, and the disproportionate use of natural resources by certain countries over long periods of time."

Outlining what he calls the "weak responses" of global leaders to the environmental crisis, Francis states:

The problem is that we still lack the culture needed to confront this crisis. We lack leadership capable of striking out on new paths and meeting the needs of the present with concern for all and without prejudice towards coming generations. The establishment of a legal framework which can set clear boundaries and ensure the protection of ecosystems has become indispensable, before the new power structures based on the techno-economic paradigm overwhelm not only our politics but also freedom and justice.

It is remarkable how weak international political responses have been. The failure of global summits on the environment make plain that our politics are subject to technology and finance. There are too many special interests, and economic interests easily end up trumping the common good and manipulating information so that their own plans will not be affected.

Reinterpreting human dominance, private property

Stepping back to evaluate how Christian teaching has impacted humanity's relationship with the earth, Francis forcefully rejects any interpretation of Scriptures that would find men and women as "dominators" over nature.

Human life, the pope writes, is grounded by three relationships -- those between God, neighbor and earth. "We are not God," he states. "The earth was here before us and it has been given to us."

Addressing interpretations of the Genesis stories that give full license to humans to be domineering and destructive, the pope states: "This is not a correct interpretation of the Bible as understood by the Church. Although it is true that we Christians have at times incorrectly interpreted the Scriptures, nowadays we must forcefully reject the notion that our being created in God's image and given dominion over the earth justifies absolute domination over other creatures."

He says, "In our time, the Church does not simply state that other creatures are completely subordinated to the good of human beings, as if they have no worth in themselves and can be treated as we wish. The German bishops have taught that, where other creatures are concerned, 'we can speak of the priority of being over that of being useful.' "

Francis also poetically writes of Christian understandings of why God created the universe, saying, "The world came about as the result of a decision, not from chaos or chance, and this exalts it all the more."

"When nature is viewed solely as a source of profit and gain, this has serious consequences for society," the pope writes later. "This vision of 'might is right' has engendered immense inequality, injustice and acts of violence against the majority of humanity, since resources end up in the hands of the first comer or the most powerful: the winner takes all. Completely at odds with this model are the ideals of harmony, justice, fraternity and peace as proposed by Jesus."

Francis proposes that what is needed is a new "universal communion" among all.

We should be particularly indignant at the enormous inequalities in our midst, whereby we continue to tolerate some considering themselves more worthy than others. We fail to see that some are mired in desperate and degrading poverty, with no way out, while others have not the faintest idea of what to do with their possessions, vainly showing off their supposed superiority and leaving behind them so much waste which, if it were the case everywhere, would destroy the planet. In practice, we continue to tolerate that some consider themselves more human than others, as if they had been born with greater rights.

Francis also says that it has become a common agreement that the earth is "essentially a shared inheritance" of all, and that, therefore, rights to private property are not absolute.

"The Christian tradition has never recognized the right to private property as absolute or inviolable, and has stressed the social purpose of all forms of private property," the pope writes.

"The natural environment is a collective good, the patrimony of all humanity and the responsibility of everyone," he continues later. "If we make something our own, it is only to administer it for the good of all."

Related: Francis' encyclical is a step in the right direction, those outside the church say

Calling for global, local actions

Launching into a larger section that tries to examine the "human roots" of the current environmental crisis, Francis calls on societies to recognize the possible dangers of some technologies, such as nuclear energy and biotechnology.

The pope also strongly speaks against abortion: "Since everything is interrelated, concern for the protection of nature is also incompatible with the justification of abortion. How can we genuinely teach the importance of concern for other vulnerable beings, however troublesome or inconvenient they may be, if we fail to protect a human embryo, even when its presence is uncomfortable and creates difficulties?"

After developing thoughts on what he calls "integral ecology," Francis asks: "What kind of world do we want to leave to those who come after us, to children who are now growing up?"

"It is no longer enough ... simply to state that we should be concerned for future generations," he writes. "We need to see that what is at stake is our own dignity."

"Doomsday predictions can no longer be met with irony or disdain," he says. "We may well be leaving to coming generations debris, desolation and filth. The pace of consumption, waste and environmental change has so stretched the planet's capacity that our contemporary lifestyle, unsustainable as it is, can only precipitate catastrophes."

Providing what he calls some "lines of approach and action," Francis calls for a new global consensus on environmental issues that chooses renewable and sustainable forms of energy, food, and use of nature.

The pope also calls for immediate replacement of fossil fuels.

"We know 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," he writes.

Lamenting that advances against climate change have been "regrettably few," the pope says that reducing greenhouse gas emissions "requires honesty, courage and responsibility, above all on the part of those countries which are more powerful and pollute the most."

"International negotiations cannot make significant progress due to positions taken by countries which place their national interests above the global common good," he states. "Those who will have to suffer the consequences of what we are trying to hide will not forget this failure of conscience and responsibility."

He continues, "We believers cannot fail to ask God for a positive outcome to the present discussions, so that future generations will not have to suffer the effects of our ill-advised delays."

Francis criticizes schemes that would create marketplaces where countries or companies could sell and buy credits to regulate their outputs of gas, known commonly as the "carbon credit" system.

"The strategy of buying and selling 'carbon credits' can lead to a new form of speculation which would not help reduce the emission of polluting gases worldwide," he writes. "This system seems to provide a quick and easy solution, under the guise of a certain commitment to the environment, but in no way does it allow for the radical change which present circumstances require. Rather, it may simply become a ploy which permits maintaining the excessive consumption of some countries and sectors."

Tying together ecological devastation with poverty, Francis says, "The same mindset which stands in the way of making radical decisions to reverse the trend of global warming also stands in the way of achieving the goal of eliminating poverty. A more responsible overall approach is needed to deal with both problems: the reduction of pollution and the development of poorer countries and regions."

The pope suggests that countries and people conserve energy, modify their material consumption to limit waste, protect endangered species, diversify agriculture, and invest in rural infrastructure and sustainable farming.

"Once more, we need to reject a magical conception of the market, which would suggest that problems can be solved simply by an increase in the profits of companies or individuals," Francis states. "Is it realistic to hope that those who are obsessed with maximizing profits will stop to reflect on the environmental damage which they will leave behind for future generations?"

Ending the letter with a call for a new lifestyle and an ecological conversion, Francis says, "No system can completely suppress our openness to what is good, true and beautiful, or our God-given ability to respond to his grace at work deep in our hearts. I appeal to everyone throughout the world not to forget this dignity which is ours. No one has the right to take it from us."

The encyclical is dated May 24, the Catholic feast of Pentecost. It concludes with two prayers: "A prayer for our earth" and "A Christian prayer in union with creation."

At the beginning of the text, the pope also reflects on the choice of his papal name, saying St. Francis "helps us to see that an integral ecology calls for openness to categories which transcend the language of mathematics and biology, and take us to the heart of what it is to be human."

"Just as happens when we fall in love with someone, whenever [St. Francis] would gaze at the sun, the moon or the smallest of animals, he burst into song, drawing all other creatures into his praise," the pope writes.

"His response to the world around him was so much more than intellectual appreciation or economic calculus, for to him each and every creature was a sister united to him by bonds of affection."

MORE: What Francis has said about the environment since he was elected pope

[Joshua J. McElwee is NCR Vatican correspondent. His email address is Follow him on Twitter: @joshjmac.]


A version of this story appeared in the July 3-16, 2015 print issue under the headline: A call to all to save 'our common home' .

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