Pope Francis – Laudato si’: On Care for our Common Home
Reflections and Chapter Summaries
Trevor Thompson, Director of Justice and Peace, St. Francis of Assisi, Raleigh, NC
Pope Francis released his eagerly anticipated encyclical on the environment in June 2015 called Laudato Si’. Many people have read it and have found its content enlightening, challenging, and inspiring. While the document deserves a close reading, it’s not something that many will read in entirely. In order to help more people access Pope Francis’ themes, I offer here section-by-section summaries (originally published in our parish bulletin week-by-week). As with any summary, much of the meaning and context of the original document will be lost. But I hope this will provide you with a starting point for greater engagement with the latest edition to the social teachings of the Catholic Church.
What is an encyclical? An encyclical is a “circular letter” containing authoritative papal teaching.
What is a social encyclical? Laudato si’ is a “social” encyclical, meaning that it teaches about the state of society, building on a tradition that began with Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum in 1891.
What is Catholic Social Teaching? Catholic Social Teaching is body of doctrine developed by the Catholic Church on matters of social justice, involving issues of poverty and wealth, economics, work, family life, social organization, the role of the state, and ecological and environmental concerns.
Laudato si’ Summary: Introduction
Pope Francis lays out his vision of global environmental deterioration and a spirituality of care in Laudato si’: On Care for Our Common Home. There are six chapters and an introduction in this encyclical. The introduction begins with the words that become the title: Laudato si’, mi’ Signore” – “Praise be to you, my Lord.” These are the words of the beautiful poetic song written by St. Francis of Assisi in the 13th century that reminds us that being in relationship with God and all Creation is to live a life of praise to our God for our common home, that is “like a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us” (1). The Pope then makes an earnest appeal, “This sister now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her…” (2). Because St. Francis was able to approach the world around him as a “brother” with affection, wonder, and praise, Pope Francis sees him as the “example par excellence of care for the vulnerable and of an integral ecology lived out joyfully and authentically” (10). If we feel united to nature in a similar way that honors and cares for the interconnected of all things, the Pope has hope that our attitude can shift from being consumers, masters, and exploiters to one that exudes sobriety, care, and joy.
The introduction also shows how care of creation is not new with Pope Francis but is in continuity with his predecessors, including Benedict XVI, and with many other scientists,
philosophers, and theologians. After this encyclical though, concern for the environment will no longer be seen as an “optional” aspect of discipleship but rather an integral and urgent part of the Church teaching. The introduction strongly puts forward a challenge to the people of the world that we can no longer be in denial, indifferent, or blindly confident in technical solutions. Instead, Pope Francis calls “for a new dialogue” and “a new and universal solidarity” so that every person living on this planet might come together and consider how we are shaping the future of our common home (14).
1. Where have you seen harm inflicted on Sister Earth?
2. St. Francis of Assisi has been called the patron saint of the environment. What is attractive about him?
3. What is your response to this urgent appeal for dialogue and a new universal solidarity with others who share this common earth with you?
Laudato si’ Summary: Chapter One, “What is Happening to Our Common Home”
The first chapter of the encyclical is a frank look at the facts of our world so that the reader might “become painfully aware” of the ways we have not been providing protection and care of the very place we call “home.” This chapter is not meant to be abstract analysis but to “turn what is happening to the world into our own personal suffering and thus to discover what each of us can do about it” (19).
The bulk of this chapter paints in detail a somewhat dire diagnostic picture of what’s happening: a variety of forms of pollution, increasing deforestation, a disturbing warming of the climate, depletion of natural resources (especially quality drinking water), loss of biodiversity, the decline of quality of human life and relationships, and the global inequality gap between the poor and the rich (20-52). There is consensus among scientists that this picture is not fabricated but a real glimpse into the unsustainable state of our world. For most of us, our daily lives are lived in a far remove from these stark realities of our world.
While other chapters elaborate on root causes that the Pope sees linked to these symptoms, this first chapter begins to name them. First and foremost is a “throwaway culture” that ruthlessly consumes, exploits, and discards human life and our natural resources. He also indicts the all-pervasive “techno-economic paradigm” of the last two hundred years that emphasizes above all things efficiency, speed, technology, commodification of goods and services, and quick and easy profit. While it seems that we lack a culture and leadership to confront this cultural crisis, this chapter ends with the Pope asking us to cast off the distractions that dull our consciousness, listen the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor, and begin to dialogue about solutions.
1. Where and how do we hear the “cry of the earth and the cry of the poor”? Does this awareness affect our habits? What do we do with our feeling of powerlessness and indifference?
2. Why has leadership been weak to the world’s environmental crisis?
3. What can we do this week to participate less in the throwaway culture and techno-economic paradigm?
Laudato si’ Summary: Chapter Two, “The Gospel of Creation”
After the Pope’s diagnostic chapter about what’s happening to our “common home,” the second chapter of the Pope’s encyclical argues that our faith convictions can and should motivate Christians to assume their responsibility as caretakers of creation. It is often the case that many Christians feel that environmental stewardship is secondary or tangential to living out the faith, but the Pope wants to wipe this sentiment away. Science has a role to play in the conversation about the future of the world but so does our Christian faith. To make this argument, Pope Francis begins by highlighting the many biblical narratives that speak of the love and wisdom of a God who is Creator and sustainer of all Creation. The biblical narratives, he says, “suggests that human life is grounded in three fundamental and close intertwined relationships: with God, with our neighbor, and with earth itself” (66). While all of these relationships have been riddled by brokenness in our assertion of power and dominion, our particular calling as people of faith is for wholeness, reconciliation, and peace. This calling will in effect challenge us to be the kind of people who will not let the earth be despoiled and people forgotten.
The Pope also meditates on the mystery of the universe, which he sees as a continuing revelation of the divine, “a gift from the outstretched hand of the Father of all” (76). It is our faith in Christ that “allows us to interpret the meaning and mysterious beauty of what is unfolding” (79). Referencing the medieval Franciscan thinker St. Bonaventure, Pope Francis points to an ancient understanding of the world as the “book of creation,” God’s precious book “whose letters are the multitude of created things present in the universe” (85). In this way, the Pope asks us to re-learn how to “read” Creation in order to discover the message and meaning inherent within it. One of the key messages that Pope Francis reads in the “book of creation” is that we are “linked by unseen bonds and together form a kind of universal family” (89). In another place, he echoes this by saying that in God’s created order “everything is connected” (91).
The Pope ends this chapter with reference to Jesus who embodies the tenderness, the contemplative awareness, the in-touch-ness with nature and people, the wonder and awe before God’s gifts, and the reconciliation that the Creator so desires for all of Creation.
1. According to Francis, the Bible teaches that the harmony between the creator, humanity, and creation was disrupted by our presuming to take the place of God and refusing to acknowledge our creaturely limitations. What does it mean to presume to take the place of God? How are our lifestyle and the ethics of our workplace overreaching creaturely limits?
2. How can our attitudes and actions this week be more like Jesus?
Laudato si’ Summary: Chapter Three, “The Human Roots of the Ecological Crisis.”
Chapter three further explicates the Pope’s exploration for why we are where we are in our ecological crisis. First off, it must be reiterated that the Pope’s vision of our relationship with Creation is rooted in a traditional Catholic interpretation of Scripture, theology of creation, and theological anthropology. Throughout chapter three, the Pope refers back to this holistic vision and uses it as a lens through which to see and interpret the “human roots of the ecological crisis.”
Pope Francis points most directly to the “dominant technocratic paradigm” as the root of our crisis and the breakdown of a holistic vision of humanity and Creation. Acknowledging that we are beneficiaries of the technological change of the last two hundred years, Pope Francis, nevertheless, sees a dark side to this so-called “progress.” The tremendous power, even dominance, of the world in the hands of technocratic human beings is both amazing and risky. It is risky precisely because of the Pope’s basic anthropological vision: we are sinful people and have not proven to use power well. But it is also risky because this technological growth has not been “accompanied by a development in human responsibility, values and conscience” (105). In other words, using technology for noble ends requires an ethical framework, a spiritual culture, and a vision of the purpose of life, none of which our world seems to exude.
Thus, what we are left with in this technocratic paradigm is this rather dark, ambiguous world where:
We look to gain control and mastery over all objects that serve one’s own immediate interests (106, 122);
We seek to exploit resources as if they are unlimited in order to gain more advantage and power (106, 109, 116);
We believe that science and technology and market forces will solve all problems, that they provide the very meaning of existence (109, 110);
We operate within a highly specialized, fragmented, superficial, and rationalistic framework of knowledge (110, 117, 120);
We ignore any objective, natural order and begin to push boundaries of research and creativity (123, 131-134);
We focus exclusively on economic profit for a few and ignore humanity’s search for meaning through work, the complexity of ecosystems and regional economies, and the plight of poor and future generations (134-135).
While the stark picture of the world might leave one feeling pessimistic about our common home, the Pope also fills the chapter with repetitious challenges to humanity “to develop a new synthesis capable of overcoming the false arguments of recent centuries” (121). He is not asking us to return to the Stone Age, but he is asking us to look at reality from our spiritual vision, recover the values and goals of our tradition, and with freedom and beauty, “to generate
resistance to the assault of the technocratic paradigm” (111, 114). He even points to a couple creative examples of this new synthesis: a) cooperatives of small producers adopt less polluting means of production and b) Christians opting for non-consumerist models of life, recreation, and community (112). These efforts and others will no doubt feel countercultural in today’s world, but Pope Francis has helped us see that perhaps there’s no greater call to Christians today than to discern what is ours to do.
1. In which ways do we feel our lives overrun by technology? What might we do this week as a little gesture or by next year with a larger goal in order to to reclaim a posture of silence, wonder, human connection, meaningful and creative work for the good of the world, respect for life?
Laudato si’ Summary: Chapter Four, “Integral Ecology
After a substantial critique of our “technocratic paradigm” in chapter three, Pope Francis now presents an alternative vision capable of addressing every aspect of the global crisis. Pope Francis calls this vision an “integral ecology.” This might feel like an odd phrase for a Christian leader to use, but it manifests a theme that he’s been repeating throughout the encyclical. That theme, rooted in Christian theology (see chapter two) and now in environmental studies, is that everything is connected and interrelated.
Another way of putting it is that when scientists look at the way nature works (from big concepts like time and space to the smallest realities of study like subatomic particles), they do not see things acting independent from each other. They instead see relationships (and network of relationships) between living organisms and their environment. Although we usually function without being aware of it, we always depend on larger systems for our own existence (138-140). This relational aspect of nature causes scientists then to seek only comprehensive and integrated explanations or solutions.
Chapter four unpacks what this comprehensive, integrated, and relational vision might look like if we applied its principles to our complex, global crises. The whole chapter is filled with examples of realities usually considered in isolation but should rather be brought together and seen in a more comprehensive, integral view:
The relationship of global economics with local cultures, customs, and values (143-146)
The relationship between our living spaces (like the architecture of our homes and the design of our neighborhoods and cities), our daily life, and our own behavior/happiness (147-154)
The relationship of the way we think about our bodies and the way we think about the rest of creation (155)
The relationship of our current generation with future generations (159-162)
This chapter leaves the reader thinking that solutions to our global crises can no longer be credible that do not respect the relational and integral realities that are part of the way things
work. For Pope Francis, the only solution is one that “demands an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature” (139).
Reflection Question: How does seeing everything as connected change the way you see the world? Do you see your happiness related to others’? Do you see the way your choices affect the quality of others? Make a couple choices this week that more deeply honor the interrelated reality of the world.
Laudato si’ Summary: Chapter Five, “Lines of Approach and Action”
The previous chapters of Pope Francis’ encyclical offered a more diagnostic look at our state of our planet. They emphasized the human, economic, and cultural causes of the crises before us – from pollution and climate change to consumerism and the impoverishment of people. The previous chapters also outlined some core themes from our faith tradition and from recent scientific study that could offer some way forward in rethinking how we live on the planet in a more life-giving and integrated manner. Chapters five and six now begin to outline more concrete steps and opportunities for dialogue which, as Pope Francis says, “can help us escape the spiral of self-destruction” (163). Chapter five focuses on the political and economic paths for dialogue.
Straight away in chapter five, Pope Francis calls for the immediate replacement of “technology based on the use of highly polluting fossil fuels – especially coal, but also oil and, to a lesser degree, gas” (165). He acknowledges that the international community has not been able to agree on how to transition to more renewable energy but challenges us to move from a place of irresponsibility to a state of generous and noble dialogue. Francis references throughout the chapter a number of global meetings where countries have in fact come together and put the global common good above national interests through negotiations, treaties, and public commitments.
He challenges nations and their leaders to move beyond short-term gain and results to what he calls “true statecraft,” that is when leaders “uphold high principles and think of the long-term common good” (178, 181). He also challenges the economic sector to move beyond thinking about maximization of profit at the expense of our planet and the poor. The market should serve life in the Church’s long-standing teaching about the economy. Thus, investing for a more life-giving future will require, according to the Pope, creativity in coming up with models of development, a redefinition of our notion of progress, and a farsighted and interdisciplinary approach (189-198).
While acting political prudent seems to be difficult for the countries which are more powerful and pollute the most, Francis, nevertheless, cites the virtues of “honesty, courage, and responsibility” as what will be required of leaders in order to move forward into a positive future (169).
Reflection Question: How might we seek and elect leaders that have proven capable of considering long-terms results, environmental risks and impacts, and the kind of courage and responsibility Pope Francis names as necessary to protect life? What would our presidential candidate look like who embodied this?
Laudato si’ Summary: Chapter Six, “Ecological Education and Spirituality”
Last chapter looked at the global and local policy solutions needed to avoid the spiral of self-destruction. For most of us, while we might see the importance of these polices, they do not engage our daily lives. This final chapter, chapter six, now turns directly to this very local reality: our own particular lifestyles, attitudes, and convictions. As he puts it in the opening paragraph, “Many things have to change course, but it is we human beings above all who need to change” (202).
In other words, Pope Francis ends this important encyclical with a very challenging message – if we don’t personally change our attitudes and lives, the solutions to our global ecological crisis will never really arrive. In fact, the Holy Father even uses traditional religious language to describe what’s most needed: an ecological conversion (217).
What aspects of our lives need this conversion? Pope Francis begins right away with how easily we “get caught up in a whirlwind of needless buying and spending” (203). Rather than acting as unconscious consumers, often riddled with a feeling of emptiness and anxiety, Francis challenges us instead to adopt a lifestyle that conveys greater sobriety, namely less obsessiveness, more moderation and inner peace, and ultimately greater fulfillment (222-225). “Less is more” is a biblical mantra, Pope Francis even suggests (222). In other words, to know Jesus might mean we seek out simpler yet far more fulfilling pleasures, like a walk in the woods or encounters with friends or enjoying the arts. Also, as we continue to participate in the economic reality of our times, Pope Francis challenges us to see every act of consuming as a moral act that involves gifts of creation (air, land, and water) and the dignity of workers and local cultures (206). It’s this kind of awareness and the small, daily gestures that flow from it that create the “culture of care” that Pope Francis imagines transforming our world (231).
For those of us steeped in Catholicism, Pope Francis ends this encyclical with an important section translating some deeply traditional aspects of our faith into relevant guidance for us to live out this Christian spirituality in our everyday lives. Two prime examples are the centrality of the Sacraments, especially the Eucharist, and the model of the Sabbath. The former shapes our awareness to see God through our material, created world, and the latter in carving out a day of rest and celebration to renew our relationship with our neighbor, Creation, and God. In the end, this God, whom we believe remains deeply present to us, united to our earth in love, will give us strength and light needed to find our way and “impel us to find new ways forward” (245).
1. How might our Christmas shopping season and our grocery shopping habits change if we lived into this ecological conversion that Pope Francis calls for? How might “less is more” guide our lifestyle choices?
2. How might our Sabbath day reclaim a sense of rest, celebration, and reconnection with things and people that matter most? What would it look like to unplug from the technocratic/consumerism paradigm one day a week?
“Being A Part of Climate Talks in Paris”
By Trevor Thompson, Director of Justice and Peace
Over the last couple months, we’ve published short chapter summaries of Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato si’. Hopefully you’ve had the opportunity to follow along and reflect on its main themes. This document challenges us to no longer be in denial or indifferent to the state of our earth and the lives of the poor. Instead, Pope Francis calls “for a new dialogue” and “a new and universal solidarity” so that every person living on this planet might come together and consider how we are shaping the future of our common home.
One of the best opportunities for this dialogue and solidarity begins on Monday at the Paris Climate Summit (called COP21) where governments of more than 190 nations will gather to discuss a possible new global agreement on climate change, aimed at reducing global greenhouse gas emissions and thus avoiding the threat of dangerous climate change. Why is this important? A very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climatic system, and that if present trends continue, this century may well witness extraordinary climate change and an unprecedented destruction of ecosystems, with serious consequences for all of us. Current global commitments on greenhouse gas emissions run out in 2020, so the hope is that governments will come to an agreement on what happens for the decade after that at least, and potentially beyond.
How might you be a part of this global conversation about the state of our common home? First, I would encourage you to engage God in prayer, praying for the world’s leaders to have the courage and farsighted vision to address this global problem. Second, don’t be afraid to create spaces for dialogue with your family, friends, and neighbors about climate change and why we should care about the future of our common home and future generations. Oddly, we have done more in our country and probably in our personal lives to avoid this conversation than to initiate it and engage it with humility and grace. Lastly, write your federal and local legislators, letting them know that you would like to see more productive and civil conversation about this important issue of our day.
If nations can meet and agree equitable goals on the climate, on economic development, on social and environmental issues, and do so in a spirit of cooperation, it will be a huge achievement. I’m trying to be hopeful. Waking up each day and seeing what I can do might be the best way to be part of this movement. In light of our Pope’s encyclical, I feel inspired to be bold and take scary but exciting steps towards lessening our own fossil fuel usage, disengaging from our consumerist culture, and living an alternative way in a throwaway society.
Pope Francis – “Laudato si chapter summaries”
Pope Francis – Laudato si’: On Care for our Common Home