The Contribution of Laudato Si’
to Catholic Social Doctrine
The enthusiastic reception of Laudato si’, Pope Francis landmark encyclical on care for our common home, in the civil society, and among academics, policy makers, and activists has been nothing short of remarkable. Soon after the publication of the encyclical, Dale Jamieson, professor of environmental studies at New York University, went on to hail it as the most important environmental text of the twenty-first century. Laudato si’ appears to have had a greater impact outside the Church than among the Catholics!
What appears to be often lost sight of, or at least not sufficiently appreciated, is the significant contribution of Laudato si’ to Catholic social doctrine. As Pope Francis himself explicitly mentions in the Preamble of the encyclical, the text “is now added to the body of the Church’s social teaching” (Laudato si’, 15). The encyclical – one of the highest forms of papal magisterium and next only to the Apostolic Constitution – is enwrapped within the solid tradition of more than a century and a quarter of Catholic social teachings, inaugurated by the first social encyclical, Rerum Novarum of Pope Leo XIII in 1891. Pope Francis brings together in Laudato si’ decades of Catholic social doctrine in the arena of creation care, enriching in the process the Church’s body of social teachings. He writes: “The development of the Church’s social teaching represents such a synthesis with regard to social issues; this teaching is called to be enriched by taking up new challenges.” (63)
In the present paper, I shall attempt to situate Laudato si’ within the wider context of the Church’s social doctrine. I shall dwell on some of the salient themes of Catholic social teachings incorporated into the encyclical, evidencing in this regard both elements of continuity as well as those of novelty and development. I will limit myself to highlighting seven themes which throw light on the contribution of Laudato si’ to Catholic social doctrine. They are: Laudato si’ as a response to the “signs of the times”, its rootedness in scripture, its continuity with the Church’s magisterium, the pursuit of the common good, the emphasis on human dignity, the preferential option for the poor, and an integral vision of reality. The list is by no way exhaustive.
1. Reading and Responding to the Signs of the Times
Reading and responding to the “signs of the times” is at the core of Catholic social doctrine. The inspiration in this regard goes back to Jesus himself who was critical of the religious authorities of his time, the Pharisees and Sadducees, precisely for their inability to perceive the “signs of the times”. (Matthew 16:3) The expression became popular in the wake of the Second Vatican Council and found a special echo in Pope Paul VI’s celebrated social encyclical Populorum Progressio.
Rerum Novarum, the first of the social encyclicals, was a courageous attempt by Pope Leo XIII to read and respond to the cries of the masses of workers who were toiling under the sudden change in the industrialization of labour, driven by modern capitalism. The genius of Leo XIII was to recognize the new and unprecedented challenges to human dignity on account of the “new things” or res novae that were emerging in the economic and social sphere and respond to them effectively. Rerum Novarum (On Capital and Labour) not only shed light on the pitiable conditions of the workers but also championed their inalienable human rights. Ever since, the Church’s social doctrine has acted as a moral compass that guides the living out of Christian faith in the historical context of human and social existence.
In the encyclical Laudato Si’, Pope Francis speaks of the “new era” in which humanity has entered (102) and seeks to respond to one of the greatest challenges of our times, namely, the alarming state of our common home. “Now, faced as we are with global environmental deterioration,” the Pope writes in Laudato Si’, “I wish to address every person living on this planet … I would like to enter into dialogue with all people about our common home”. (3) As he says in the introduction to the encyclical, the protection of our common home is an “urgent challenge”. (13)
The precarious state of the earth, a totally “unprecedented” (17) situation we find ourselves in, is the starting point of the encyclical of which the very first chapter is poignantly titled “What is Happening to Our Common Home”. The Pope begins with a physical description of the crisis of our common home, basing himself on solid scientific evidence and carefully selected empirical data, as he himself states: “drawing on the results of the best scientific research available today”. (15) In Laudato Si’ Pope Francis offers a masterly synthesis of the manifold manifestations of the contemporary ecological crisis, the crisis of our very home: pollution and waste, climate change, depletion of natural resources, especially water, and biodiversity loss. These “several aspects of the present ecological crisis” (15) are what Pope Francis calls “cracks in the planet that we inhabit”. (163) According to the Pope, “we need only take a frank look at the facts to see that our common home is falling into serious disrepair”. (61)
As Pope Francis points out the problem is precisely with the “rapidification” of changes that human activities are causing to the sustainability of our home planet. “Although change is part of the working of complex systems, the speed with which human activity has developed contrasts with the naturally slow pace of biological evolution.” (18)
Laudato si’ thus finds itself situated in the solid tradition of Catholic social doctrine, as it responds to a grave and unprecedented challenge of the times, the precarious state of our common home today. In this regard, the encyclical comes very close to Pope John XXIII’s Pacem in Terris issued in 1963, in which the “good Pope” invoked world peace, as the planet was on the brink of a nuclear war. Today, our common planetary home is falling into ruin. We are on the brink of an unprecedented global challenge regarding the sustainability of our common home, which places a question mark on the very future of human civilization. We are indeed playing a reckless gamble with our common home, and ultimately with our own destiny and survival. Our actions today will determine the future not only of the present generations but also of future generations for millennia.
In the encyclical Laudato Si’, Pope Francis urges the Catholic Church, the Christian communities around the world, followers of other religious tradition, and all people of good will, to earnestly begin to care for our common home that is beginning to crumble. In doing this, he has also moved the Catholic Church from the periphery of global engagement with ecology right to the very heart of the debate. This is probably an element of novelty brought in by the encyclical. While the Catholic social doctrine on creation care in the last few decades were important but sparse - one may recall in this regard the two messages from Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict on the occasion of the World Day of Peace and Chapter X of the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church entitled “Safeguarding the Environment” – we have for the first time in the history of Catholic social teachings, an entire encyclical, in fact, the longest of all papal encyclicals to date, dedicated to the vital theme of care for our common home. The encyclical is indeed a solid and timely response to the “signs of the times”.
2. Rooted in Scripture
While open to constant development, the Catholic social doctrine is firmly rooted in Scripture. In Laudato si’, Pope Francis dedicates an entire chapter to lay down the solid scriptural foundations of creation care. The title of the second chapter of the encyclical is highly significant: “The Gospel of Creation”. The encyclical affirms that creation is truly gospel, evangelion, i.e., “good news”. The encyclical reminds us of a fundamental truth of Christian faith that the natural world is above all creation, and as such is “good news”. Laudato Si’ is radical not only as social teaching but also as theology of creation. According to Carmody Grey, with the phrase “Gospel of creation” alone, Pope Francis “inaugurates a new era in the Catholic Church’s approach to the natural world. The world of animals, forests, mountains and waters are inextricably part of God’s good news for us; they express and participate in the mystery of salvation.”
In Laudato si’, Pope Francis draws a magnificent canvass of a true theology of creation, drawing abundantly from the Old and New Testaments. He begins with the Genesis account of creation and extolls the goodness of all creation. “God saw everything that he had made, and behold it was very good” (Genesis 1:31). (65) According to the Pope: “The universe did not emerge as the result of arbitrary omnipotence, a show of force or a desire for self-assertion. Creation is of the order of love. God’s love is the fundamental moving force in all created things.” (77)
In Laudato si’, Pope Francis takes forward the Catholic theology of creation and Catholic social teachings with regard to creation care. We may cite two examples here. The first is regarding the intrinsic worth of all created things, apart from mere utility for the humans, precisely for the fact of having been created by God. If God created the world, then the world and everything in it, including all forms of animate and inanimate matter, must have value. According to Pope Francis: “Each organism, as a creature of God, is good and admirable in itself; the same is true of the harmonious ensemble of organisms existing in a defined space and functioning as a system”. (140)
Secondly, Pope Francis goes beyond and revokes once and for all the so called theology of domination which cast a long shadow over the relationship of human beings with the natural world over the centuries. Significantly, even the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church echoes such a brand of theology while quoting from the Vatican II Constitution Gaudium et Spes.
For man, “created in God's image, received a mandate to subject to himself the earth and all that it contains, and to govern the world with justice and holiness, a mandate to relate himself and the totality of things to him who was to be acknowledged as the Lord and Creator of all. Thus, by the subjection of all things to man, the name of God would be wonderful in all the earth.”
According to Pope Francis, since “the earth is the Lord’s” (Ps 24:1) and to him belongs “the earth with all that is within it” (Dt 10:14), it is clear that we are not proprietors of the earth. “The earth was here before us and has been given to us.” (67) This fundamental realization “allows us to respond to the charge that Judaeo-Christian thinking, on the basis of the Genesis account which grants man “dominion” over the earth (cf. Gen 1:28), has encouraged the unbridled exploitation of nature by painting him as domineering and destructive by nature”. (67) The Pope states clearly that “this is not a correct interpretation of the Bible as understood by the Church” and adds that “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”. (67) The Pope reminds us that “our ‘dominion’ over the universe should be understood more properly in the sense of responsible stewardship”. (116)
Laudato si’ has a clear Christological ring about it. Pope Francis reminds us that “in the Christian understanding of the world, the destiny of all creation is bound up with the mystery of Christ, present from the beginning as “All things have been created though him and for him” (Col 1:16). (99) The Pope reminds us that Earth is home not only for humanity and the rest of the biotic community. It is also God’s home where the Word “became flesh and dwelt among us” (Jn 1:14). “One Person of the Trinity entered into the created cosmos, throwing in his lot with it, even to the cross. From the beginning of the world, but particularly through the incarnation, the mystery of Christ is at work in a hidden manner in the natural world as a whole.” (99)
The chapter on the “gospel of creation” ends with the “gaze of Jesus”. Pope Francis highlights various elements of the gaze of “the earthly Jesus and his tangible and loving relationship with the world”. (100) Jesus reminded his disciples of the Father’s loving tenderness and care for all creatures and how “each one of them is important in God’s eyes: ‘Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? And not one of them is forgotten before God’ (Lk 12:6). ‘Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them’ (Mt 6:26).” (96) The Pope points out as Jesus “made his way throughout the land, he often stopped to contemplate the beauty sown by his Father, and invited his disciples to perceive a divine message in things”. (97) Jesus did not despise “the body, matter and the things of the world”. (98) For most of his life “Jesus worked with his hands, in daily contact with the matter created by God, to which he gave form by his craftsmanship.” (98)
The earthly Jesus, risen and glorious, is “present throughout creation by his universal Lordship”, reconciling to himself all things (cf. Col 1:19-20). (100) As Pope Francis writes in the encyclical, “Christ has taken unto himself this material world and now, risen, is intimately present to each being, surrounding it with his affection and penetrating it with his light”. (221) So we need “to direct our gaze to the end of time, when the Son will deliver all things to the Father, so that ‘God may be everything to everyone’ (1 Cor 15:28).” (100) The gaze of Jesus has profoundly transformed the whole of creation.
Thus, the creatures of this world no longer appear to us under merely natural guise because the risen One is mysteriously holding them to himself and directing them towards fullness as their end. The very flowers of the field and the birds which his human eyes contemplated and admired are now imbued with his radiant presence. (100)
3. In Continuity with the Magisterium
While responding to the “signs of the times” and in being rooted in the Scriptures, Catholic social doctrine develops in continuity with the long tradition of Church’s magisterium. While Laudato si’ blazes a new trail in the area of creation care, Pope Francis goes to great lengths to show his continuity with his papal predecessors, the fathers and doctors of the Church.
In the preamble to the encyclical, Pope Francis offers a synthetic presentation of the Church’s magisterium in the area of creation care. He remembers his own predecessors in the first place. The Pope begins with Pope Paul VI who had “referred to the ecological concern as ‘a tragic consequence’ of unchecked human activity”. (4) Paul VI had admonished way back in 1971: “Due to an ill-considered exploitation of nature, humanity runs the risk of destroying it and becoming in turn a victim of this degradation”. (4)
Pope John Paul II was particularly sensitive on ecological issues and had proclaimed St Francis of Assisi as the model of ecologists already in 1979. John Paul II has left a rich heritage of teachings regarding humanity’s relationship with the natural world. Pope Francis makes a succinct summary of it in Laudato Si’, part of which we will cite here.
Saint John Paul II became increasingly concerned about this issue. In his first Encyclical he warned that human beings frequently seem “to see no other meaning in their natural environment than what serves for immediate use and consumption”. Subsequently, he would call for a global ecological conversion. At the same time, he noted that little effort had been made to “safeguard the moral conditions for an authentic human ecology”. The destruction of the human environment is extremely serious, not only because God has entrusted the world to us men and women, but because human life is itself a gift which must be defended from various forms of debasement. Every effort to protect and improve our world entails profound changes in “lifestyles, models of production and consumption, and the established structures of power which today govern societies”. (5)
Pope Benedict had been a steady voice in the defence of creation during his pontificate to merit him the appellative of a ‘green pope’. With profound theological acumen Pope Benedict had pointed out that the deepest roots of the ecological crisis are to be found in humanity’s attempt to usurp absolute centrality for itself, refusing any other higher instance. According to Pope Benedict, “the misuse of creation begins when we no longer recognize any higher instance than ourselves, when we see nothing else but ourselves”. (6) Pope Francis evidences the integral approach of Pope Benedict on ecological questions when he cites:
He [Pope Benedict] observed that the world cannot be analyzed by isolating only one of its aspects, since “the book of nature is one and indivisible”, and includes the environment, life, sexuality, the family, social relations, and so forth. It follows that “the deterioration of nature is closely connected to the culture which shapes human coexistence”. Pope Benedict asked us to recognize that the natural environment has been gravely damaged by our irresponsible behaviour. The social environment has also suffered damage. Both are ultimately due to the same evil: the notion that there are no indisputable truths to guide our lives, and hence human freedom is limitless. (6)
Significantly, Pope Francis does not limit himself to his predecessors in developing the social doctrine of the Church on creation care. In the preamble to Laudato Si’, Pope Francis takes pains to evidence the significant contribution also of the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, known as the “green Patriarch” for his commitment to ecological questions for nearly a quarter of a century. The Pope dedicates two extensive paragraphs to present some of the key ecological intuitions of Bartholomew like the concept of ecological sin, the need for repentance, the spiritual and theological roots of the problem, and the vital importance of asceticism in responding to the crisis. The Pope retains as highly important the Patriarch’s teachings on the concept of ecological sin, namely that abuse of creation from the part of humanity is truly a sin against humanity and against the very Creator. For “to commit a crime against the natural world is a sin against ourselves and a sin against God”. (8)
Apart from the magisterium of his own immediate predecessors and of the “green patriarch” Bartholomew I, there is yet another significant source from which Pope Francis has drawn extensively. It is the rich and varied corpus of the statements of Catholic Bishops’ Conferences around the world in the last few decades on the problem of the current ecological degradation and on the importance of creation care. In his encyclical on creation care, Pope Francis allows the papal magisterium to be fed from the teachings of his brother bishops around the world, in a way totally unprecedented in the history of Catholic social doctrine. Laudato Si’ carries citations from several national and regional bishops’ conferences, as many as twenty-one of them, spread across the five continents.
Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si’ draws from a huge repertoire of sources on ecological reflection within the Catholic and Christian communities, in other religions, and in the wide spectrum of empirical, human and social sciences. It is a fitting approach for an encyclical eager to dialogue with all people of good will on the destiny of our planetary home. As the Pope himself acknowledges in the encyclical, “the reflections of numerous scientists, philosophers, theologians and civic groups” have “enriched the Church’s thinking on these questions”. (7)
4. Concern for the Common Good – Care for Earth, Our Common Home
A constant concern of Catholic social doctrine is the pursuit of the common good. Pope Francis echoes in the encyclical the fundamental principle in Vatican Council’s document Gaudium et Spes: “God has destined the earth and everything it contains for all peoples and all nations”. (cf. 158) The “common destination” of created goods means that Earth’s goods “are meant to benefit everyone”. (93) Pope Francis reminds that as Pope John Paul II wrote in 1991: “God gave the earth to the whole human race for the sustenance of all its members, without excluding or favouring anyone”. (93)
In Laudato si’, Pope Francis outlines an economic and political vision for the care of our common home, integrating and further developing the Catholic social doctrine expounded during the last six decades by previous popes. A clear criteria that Pope Francis proposes in Laudato Si’, in line with the Catholic social teachings, is that both politics and economics should be at the service of the common good, and of human life, in particular. (189)
First of all, Pope Francis reiterates the call of his predecessors for a radically new way of managing our common home. Today, in the context of the contemporary ecological crisis, economics (oikos + nomos) needs to reinterpret itself as the art and science of managing our common planetary home. The Pope is critical of modern economics precisely for its one-dimensional view of the natural world as a storehouse of resources for human consumption and isolated from social and environmental concerns. He writes:
The principle of the maximization of profits, frequently isolated from other considerations, reflects a misunderstanding of the very concept of the economy. As long as production is increased, little concern is given to whether it is at the cost of future resources or the health of the environment; as long as the clearing of a forest increases production, no one calculates the losses entailed in the desertification of the land, the harm done to biodiversity or the increased pollution. In a word, businesses profit by calculating and paying only a fraction of the costs involved. (195)
According to the Pope current free market economic theories are totally inadequate for the protection of our common planetary home. He cites from the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church in this regard: “environmental protection cannot be assured solely on the basis of financial calculations of costs and benefits. The environment is one of those goods that cannot be adequately safeguarded or promoted by market forces.” (190) Market economy, according to Pope Francis, is totally inadequate for the protection of the natural world and safeguarding the needs of the poor. (190) According to the Pope, a reorientation of economy calls for “redefining our notion of progress”. (194) “A technological and economic development which does not leave in its wake a better world and an integrally higher quality of life cannot be considered progress”. (194)
For a new economics, understood as the art of managing our common planetary home, an adequate political culture is also vitally important. As Pope Francis points out, “unless citizens control political power – national, regional and municipal – it will not be possible to control damage to the environment”. (179)
In Laudato Si’, Pope Francis is critical of the present political culture. Present day politics, according to the Pope, often lacks a long-term view of environmental protection, as it is mostly driven by the consumerist trend for immediate gratification. As he writes, the culture of consumerism “prioritizes short-term gain and private interest” (184) which does not facilitate far-sighted policies for the protection of our common home.
Against the current political culture which is subservient to vested economic interests and contributes to the ravaging of our common planetary home, Pope Francis calls for a politics at the service of the common good. As he points out, “society as a whole, and the state in particular, are obliged to defend and promote the common good”. (157) According to the Pope, the principle of subsidiarity, well enshrined in the Catholic social teachings, demands “a greater sense of responsibility for the common good from those who wield greater power”. (196) Pope Francis’ insists on “the inclusion of a far-sighted environmental agenda within the overall agenda of governments”. (178) According to him, “true statecraft is manifest when, in difficult times, we uphold high principles and think of the long-term common good”. (178)
As Pope Francis notes in Laudato Si’, “the notion of the common good also extends to future generations,” “those who come after us”. (159) According to the Pope, “we can no longer speak of sustainable development apart from intergenerational solidarity. Once we start to think about the kind of world we are leaving to future generations, we look at things differently; we realize that the world is a gift which we have freely received and must share with others.” (159)
Given the global character of the contemporary ecological crisis, Pope Francis calls for “a true world political authority”, renewing an appeal that was already made by his predecessors Pope John XXIII and Pope Benedict XVI. We need such a global institution “to manage the global economy; to revive economies hit by the crisis; to avoid any deterioration of the present crisis and the greater imbalances that would result; to bring about integral and timely disarmament, food security and peace; to guarantee the protection of the environment and to regulate migration”. (175) In the encyclical, Pope Francis also calls for international agreement and governance on a whole range of so-called “global commons” like the oceans, the problem of marine waste, etc. (174) According to the Pope, the protection of Earth, our common home, the most primary of all common goods, requires a common plan as a common human family. “Interdependence obliges us to think of one world with a common plan.” (164)
5. Human Ecology: Concern for Human Dignity
Human ecology is a term that was introduced by Pope John Paul II nearly a quarter of a century ago. Pope Francis recovers this expression in Laudato Si’ in the preamble to the text, in order to evidence the link between the degradation of our common planetary home and the deterioration of the human environment. According to him, “the destruction of the human environment is extremely serious, not only because God has entrusted the world to us men and women, but because human life is itself a gift which must be defended from various forms of debasement”. (5)
Pope Francis dedicates the third chapter of the encyclical to explore the “human roots” of the ecological crisis. He notes that these conceptual roots have ultimately to do with a mind-set, a worldview, a particular way of perceiving the natural world and relating with it. He calls it the dominant technocratic paradigm:
A certain way of understanding human life and activity has gone awry, to the serious detriment of the world around us. Should we not pause and consider this? At this stage, I propose that we focus on the dominant technocratic paradigm and the place of human beings and of human action in the world. (101)
The problem according to the Pope is the globalization of the technocratic paradigm which tends to dominate various spheres of human life: social, economic, ethical, etc.” (107) The technocratic paradigm ends up determining “the kind of society we want to build”. (107) Pope Francis notes with sadness that we live in a world deprived of “genuine ethical horizons to which one can appeal. Life gradually becomes a surrender to situations conditioned by technology, itself viewed as the principal key to the meaning of existence.” (110)
At the heart of the dominant technocratic paradigm lies a conceptual paradigm is modern anthropocentrism which exalts the individual over everything else. According to Pope Francis, modern anthropocentrism is ultimately based on a false anthropology and a distorted view of the relationship between humanity and the natural world. “An inadequate presentation of Christian anthropology gave rise to a wrong understanding of the relationship between human beings and the world,” namely, “a Promethean vision of mastery over the world”. (116)
In Laudato Si’, Pope Francis warns that modern anthropocentrism is detrimental ultimately to humans themselves.
When human beings fail to find their true place in this world, they misunderstand themselves and end up acting against themselves: “Not only has God given the earth to man, who must use it with respect for the original good purpose for which it was given, but, man too is God’s gift to man. He must therefore respect the natural and moral structure with which he has been endowed”. (115)
According to Pope Francis, an authentic ecology stands in need of an adequate anthropology. “There can be no renewal of our relationship with nature without a renewal of humanity itself. … There can be no ecology without an adequate anthropology.” (118)
In line with the rich repertoire of decades of Catholic social teaching, Laudato si’ recovers an integral conception of the human being who is at the same time both imago mundi (2) and imago Dei (65). Right at the beginning of the encyclical the Pope reminds us that “we ourselves are dust of the earth (cf. Gen 2:7); our bodies are made up of her elements, we breathe her air and we receive life and refreshment from her waters”. (2). At the same time, referring to the Genesis account of creation, the encyclical points out that “every man and woman is created out of love and made in God’s image and likeness (cfr. Gen 1:26)”. (65)
Pope Francis speaks of a deeper level of human ecology, namely the recognition of the moral law inscribed in our very human nature. Respect for the totality of nature presupposes respect for our own human nature. According to the Pope: “Human ecology also implies another profound reality: the relationship between human life and the moral law, which is inscribed in our nature and is necessary for the creation of a more dignified environment”. (155) He quotes in this regard Pope Benedict who spoke of an “ecology of man”, based precisely on the fact that “man too has a nature that he must respect and that he cannot manipulate at will”. (155) An essential element of human ecology is the acceptance and care of our own physical bodies which establishes us “in a direct relationship with the environment and with other living beings”. (155)
Pope Francis affirms clearly in Laudato si’ that at the heart of the Catholic social doctrine on creation care lies an integral human ecology based on “respect for the human person as such, endowed with basic and inalienable rights ordered to his or her integral development.” (157) The grounding principle of Catholic social teaching is respect for the life and human dignity of every individual, an “immense dignity” (65) due to the “inalienable worth of a human being” (136). Linked to the inalienable human dignity are fundamental human rights of which Pope Francis speaks in the encyclical, including the universal right to clean water (30), the rights of workers (128), and the right of the poor campesinos to own land (94), just to cite a few.
6. Preferential Option for the Poor
A distinguishing characteristic of the Church’s social doctrine from the time of the Rerum Novarum has been the preferential option for the poor, a special concern that models Christ’s own care for the poor and suffering. It is significant that while outlining the significant and recurring themes of the encyclical in the introduction (16), Pope Francis enumerates “the intimate relationship between the poor and the fragility of the planet” as the very first among them. Significantly, such a concern is mentioned also in the closing paragraph of the encyclical, as we read in the concluding prayer: “the poor and the earth are crying out”. (240) The prominence awarded to this question is not just casual. The concern for the poor - and as the Pope mentions “the earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor” (2) - is at the heart of the encyclical, and as it is evident by now, at the heart of Pope Francis’ own personal vision and universal mission. Laudato Si’ is, in fact, a social encyclical than one on climate change. “Climate” is mentioned just 14 times in the text, while “the poor,” 59 times.
In the first chapter of the encyclical, Pope Francis follows up the description of the alarming state of our common home on account of pollution, climate change, depletion of natural resources and loss of biodiversity with the equally worrying situation of the concrete living surroundings of many of our fellow sisters and brothers around the world. He speaks of the dehumanizing urban landscapes and of the uninhabitable conditions of many of our cities where the poor people, “the disposable of society live”. (45) The Pope notes that “the deterioration of the environment and of society affects the most vulnerable people on the planet”. (48)
Pope Francis decries the fact that on the global arena “there is little in the way of clear awareness of problems which especially affect the excluded”. (49) The poor are conveniently forgotten or ignored at the High Table of world affairs. Yet, as the Pope points out, “they are the majority of the planet’s population, billions of people”. (49) The Pope speaks in very powerful terms of the amnesia or negligence of the poor on the part of the rich and powerful minority elite who are at the helm of world economy and politics. We quote him:
Indeed, when all is said and done, they [the poor] frequently remain at the bottom of the pile. This is due partly to the fact that many professionals, opinion makers, communications media and centres of power, being located in affluent urban areas, are far removed from the poor, with little direct contact with their problems. They live and reason from the comfortable position of a high level of development and a quality of life well beyond the reach of the majority of the world’s population. (49)
Pope Francis strongly opposes some of the false arguments put forward by those who evade the question of the poor with reference to the ecological crisis and attempt to place the blame on population growth in the developing countries. According to the Pope: “To blame population growth instead of extreme and selective consumerism on the part of some, is one way of refusing to face the issues. 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.” (50) The Pope’s defence of population growth and critique of unbridled consumption has raised the eyebrows of some critics, especially those who have believed and perpetuated the myth that the ecological crisis is caused by the large numbers of people in the developing countries, while forgetting that the real problem is the unbridled consumption by the rich world. The most recent studies, however, solidly back Pope Francis’ analysis in this regard. Overconsumption by the rich few is the key problem, rather than overpopulation of the poor.
One of the important contributions that Pope Francis makes in the encyclical is to integrate the concerns of the planet and of the poor. This is a watershed moment, a sort of paradigm shift in Catholic social doctrine in creation care. The Pope reminds us that ecological crisis is not so much talk about the extinction of polar bears and exotic pandas, but about the plight of millions of our less fortunate brothers and sisters, members of our common household. “Today, however, 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”. (49 – italics as in the original)
In the encyclical, Pope Francis raises his voice in defense of some particular groups who are disproportionate victims of the crisis of our common home. One such group are the indigenous communities. We cite a passage in this regard:
In this sense, it is essential to show special care for indigenous communities and their cultural traditions. … When they remain on their land, they themselves care for it best. Nevertheless, in various parts of the world, pressure is being put on them to abandon their homelands to make room for agricultural or mining projects which are undertaken without regard for the degradation of nature and culture. (146)
The sad paradox about the contemporary ecological crisis is that it is caused mainly by the rich minority, but whose early, innocent and disproportionate victims are the poor and vulnerable members of our common family. Such a realization necessitates that the ecological crisis be looked at from a ‘justice’ angle. Pope Francis raises several instances of ecological and social injustices in our present world. The most important among them is the question of “ecological debt”. We may directly cite the Pope on the question of the ecological debt.
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. … The warming caused by huge consumption on the part of some rich countries has repercussions on the poorest areas of the world, especially Africa, where a rise in temperature, together with drought, has proved devastating for farming. (51)
The encyclical’s preferential option for the poor, so central to the Catholic social doctrine, is clearly evident in the following passage from the first of the concluding prayers to the encyclical:
O God of the poor,
help us to rescue the abandoned
and forgotten of this earth,
so precious in your eyes.
Bring healing to our lives,
that we may protect the world and not prey on it,
that we may sow beauty,
not pollution and destruction. (246)
7. Integral Ecology and Integral Human Development
The most remarkable feature about Laudato Si’ is its integral approach. This is also probably the most significant contribution that the encyclical makes to Catholic social doctrine on creation care. As Pope Francis reminds us, “We are faced not with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather with one complex crisis which is both social and environmental”. (139)
The integral approach runs throughout the encyclical. It is also the title of the fourth chapter of the encyclical. The opening paragraph of this chapter is programmatic and provides the essential constituents of the concept of integral ecology offered in the encyclical.
Since everything is closely interrelated, and today’s problems call for a vision capable of taking into account every aspect of the global crisis, I suggest that we now consider some elements of an integral ecology, one which clearly respects its human and social dimensions. (137)
Already in the introduction to the encyclical, while enumerating the main themes of the text, Pope Francis speaks of “the conviction that everything in the world is connected”. (16) The Pope notes that the reality of the interconnectedness of all things is a revealed truth found in the very first chapters of the book of Genesis. While referring to the biblical episodes, the Pope remarks: “These ancient stories, full of symbolism, 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”. (70)
The truth of the interdependence of all reality is the core of Christian belief and doctrine as affirmed by the Catechism of the Catholic Church which the Pope quotes in the encyclical.
As the Catechism teaches: ‘God wills the interdependence of creatures. The sun and the moon, the cedar and the little flower, the eagle and the sparrow: the spectacle of their countless diversities and inequalities tells us that no creature is self-sufficient. Creatures exist only in dependence on each other, to complete each other, in the service of each other’. (86)
The metaphysical and anthropological vision of Laudato Si’ is that we “human beings are not completely autonomous”. (105) The Pope points to the bonds of our cosmic, biological and human fellowship, enwrapped in God’s infinite love. “Everything is related, and we human beings are united as brothers and sisters on a wonderful pilgrimage, woven together by the love God has for each of his creatures and which also unites us in fond affection with brother sun, sister moon, brother river and mother earth.” (92) The Pope invites humanity to recover our fellowship with the rest of creation, so fundamental for ecological renewal.
The encyclical ends reminding us that “the divine Persons are subsistent relations, and the world, created according to the divine model, is a web of relationships”. (240) Citing the angelic doctor, Thomas Aquinas, the Pope writes: “Creatures tend towards God, and in turn it is proper to every living being to tend towards other things, so that throughout the universe we can find any number of constant and secretly interwoven relationships”. (240) It is in living out our existence as communitarian beings, as interrelated and interdependent that human beings find our true fulfilment, entering “into relationships, going out from themselves to live in communion with God, with others and with all creatures”. (240)
The integral approach adopted by Pope Francis in Laudato Si’ necessitates that we widen the horizons of our talk of the ecological discourse. At times in the past, the ecological discourse ran the risk of being concerned mainly with the ‘environment’ outside, often dealing with issues like the protection of exotic species and the conservation of pristine ecosystems. A society deaf to the cry of the poor will also be equally deaf to the cry of the mother Earth. The Pope writes with a ring of indictment of our contemporary society:
When we fail to acknowledge as part of reality the worth of a poor person, a human embryo, a person with disabilities – to offer just a few examples – it becomes difficult to hear the cry of nature itself; everything is connected. Once the human being declares independence … the very foundations of our life begin to crumble.” (117)
The Pope reminds us in the encyclical that integral ecology essentially entails ‘human’ and ‘social’ dimensions. Pope Francis recalls a fundamental insight from Pope Benedict in this regard, namely, “that the world cannot be analysed by isolating only one of its aspects, since ‘the book of nature is one and indivisible’, and includes the environment, life, sexuality, the family, social relations, and so forth”. (6)
Integral ecology calls for integral human development. Within the framework of integral ecology, the protection of the natural world is intimately linked with other aspects of human existence like economy, social, political and cultural life, and has concrete implications for the common good. Integral human flourishing encompasses the manifold dimensions of life, including the biological, social, cultural, emotional, intellectual, aesthetic, and not least the religious dimensions. Integral ecology opens the door for the “fullness of life” (Jn 10:10) to which every person is invited.
For Pope Francis, the model of integral ecology is Saint Francis of Assisi himself, for his love for creation, love for the poor, and love for the Creator, the triple loves merged into a sublime unity. Francis’s life – simple, compassionate, and saintly – is indeed a beautiful example of integral ecology for our times. Pope Francis writes:
I believe that Saint Francis is the example par excellence of care for the vulnerable and of an integral ecology lived out joyfully and authentically. … He shows us how just inseparable the bond is better concern for nature, justice for the poor, commitment to society, and interior peace. (10)
 See Dale Jamieson, “Why Laudato Si’ Matters,” Environment: Science and Policy for Sustainable Development 57/6 (2015), 19.
 Encyclicals are used primarily for teaching by the Popes. The first encyclical was released by Pope Benedict XIV on December 3, 1740. Since then, the Popes have written over 300 encyclicals.
 Pope Francis is particularly attentive to the warnings from the scientific community in this regard. We may cite in this regard the important study of “planetary boundaries” carried out by a group of scholars associated with the Stockholm Resilience Centre, among them prominent Earth scientists like the Nobel for chemistry Paul Crutzen and James Hansen of NASA. See J. Rockström, et al., “A Safe Operating Space for Humanity,” Nature 461 (24 September 2009), 472-75. For an update of the study see Will Steffen, et al., “Planetary Boundaries: Guiding Human Development on a Changing Planet,” Science 347 (8 January 2015): [DOI:10.1126/science.1259855].
 For example, the emissions of greenhouse gases from human activities causing climate change is at least a hundred times faster than the natural rates. Pontificia Academia Scientiarum, Fate of Mountain Glaciers in the Anthropocene: A Report by the Working Group Commissioned by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences (5 May 2011), 4.
 Seán McDonagh, On Care for Our Common Home Laudato Si’: The Encyclical of Pope Francis on the Environment (New York: Orbis Books, 2016), xiii.
 Pope John Paul II, Peace with God the Creator, Peace with All of Creation (Message for the World Day of Peace, 1 January 1990); Pope Benedict XVI, If You Want to Cultivate Peace, Protect Creation ((Message for the World Day of Peace, 1 January 2010).
 Carmody Grey, “Walk with the Animals,” The Tablet (4 July 2015), 11.
 Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, 456; Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et Spes, 34: AAS 58 (1966), 1052.
 The encyclical here responds to the famous article of Lynn White Jr. in 1967 which laid the blame for our environmental crisis largely on Christianity. See Lynn White Jr., “The Historical Roots of our Ecologic Crisis,” Science 155 (1967), 1203-7.
 Cf. Love for Creation. An Asian Response to the Ecological Crisis, Declaration of the Colloquium sponsored by the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences (Tagatay, 31 January-5 February 1993), 3.3.2.
 Pope Paul VI, Apostolic Letter Octogesima adveniens (1971), 21: AAS 63 (1971), 416-417.
 Pope John Paul II, Apostolic Letter Inter Sanctos (1979): AAS 71 (1979), 1509-10.
 Pope John Paul II, Encyclical Letter Redemptor Hominis (1979), 15: AAS 71 (1979), 287.
 Cf. Pope John Paul II, Catechesis (17 January 2001), 4: Insegnamenti 41/1 (2001), 179.
 Pope John Paul II, Encyclical Letter Centesimus Annus (1991), 38: AAS 83 (1991), 841.
 Ibid., 58: AAS 83 (1991), 863.
 Pope Benedict XVI, Address to the Clergy of the Diocese of Bolzano-Bressanone (6 August 2008): AAS 100 (2008), 634.
 Pope Benedict XVI, Encyclical Letter Caritas in Veritate (29 June 2009), 51: AAS 101 (2009), 687.
 Address in Santa Barbara, California (8 November 1997); cf. John Chryssavgis, On Earth as in Heaven: Ecological Vision and Initiatives of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew (New York: Bronx, 2012).
 The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church has a subsection entitled “The Environment, A Collective Good” (paragraphs 466-471). In the context of climate change it is affirmed that “the climate is a good that must be protected” (Compendium, 470).
 Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World Gaudium et Spes, 69.
 Pope John Paul II, Encyclical Letter Centesimus Annus (1 May 1991), 31: AAS 83 (1991), 831.
 Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, 470.
 Benedict XVI, Encyclical Letter Caritas in Veritate (29 June 2009), 67: AAS 101 (2009).
 Pope John Paul II, Encyclical Letter Centesimus Annus (1 May 1991), 38: AAS 83 (1991), 841.
 Pope John Paul II, Encyclical Letter Centesimus Annus (1 May 1991), 38: AAS 83 (1991), 841.
 Pope Benedict XVI, Address to the German Bundestag, Berlin (22 September 2011): AAS 103 (2011), 668.
 See Mike Hulme, “Finding the Message of the Pope’s Encyclical,” Environment: Science and Policy for Sustainable Development 57/6 (2015), 17.
 For an overview see Joshtrom Isaac Kureethadam, Creation in Crisis: Science, Ethics, Theology (New York: Orbis Books, 2014), 264-65.
 Catechism of the Catholic Church, 340.
 Cf. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, I, q. 11, art. 3; q. 21, art. 1, ad 3; q. 47, art. 3.
 Pope Benedict XVI, Encyclical Letter Caritas in Veritate (29 June 2009), 51: AAS 101 (2009), 687.