Pope Francis: Caring for our common home
By Joe Robertson
The Papal Encyclical Letter Laudato Si (Praised Be) focuses “on caring for our common home”. It makes clear the too rarely explained link between ecological ethics and a life of faith. For many, it seems like a shift in the politics of how we can or should talk about the climate. But what it makes clear, above all, is that we are intimately connected, through a fabric of resources and relations, in a way that implies a deep and inescapable ethical obligation.
Pope Francis grounds his Encyclical in theology, science, and universal values, and says the letter is meant to open a “dialogue with all people about our common home”. He praises the Creator at the opening, and notes the need to respect “our Sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us”. He cites his predecessors, including Saint John Paul II, who wrote of the increasingly urgent need to “safeguard the moral conditions for an authentic human ecology”.
In a section titled “My appeal”, Pope Francis writes:
“The urgent challenge to protect our common home includes a concern to bring the whole human family together to seek a sustainable and integral development, for we know that things can change. The Creator does not abandon us; he never forsakes his loving plan or repents of having created us. Humanity still has the ability to work together in building our common home.”
He praises those who are working toward an ecologically integral and sustainable future, especially those working on behalf of the poorest and most vulnerable. The Encyclical is not, strictly, a call to political action; it is a treatise on the value of, indeed the urgent need for, a sustained and universal commitment to sustainable, just, spiritual “human ecology”—a way of living in harmony not only with one’s own preferences and aims, or even one’s belief system, but also in harmony with the wellbeing of others, of all of life, and of natural systems.
The Pope’s message, then, centers on a call for universal conversation and collaboration, in service of that sacred goal. He writes:
“I urgently appeal, then, for a new dialogue about how we are shaping the future of our planet. We need a conversation which includes everyone, since the environmental challenge we are undergoing, and its human roots, concern and affect us all.”
He criticizes both “general lack of interest” and deliberately “Obstructionist attitudes” as impeding the efficacy of so many who are already working to foster this more viable, more ethical, more sustainable relationship between human industry and ingenuity and the natural systems that support life. He warns that even believers fall victim to such attitudes, which “can range from denial of the problem to indifference, nonchalant resignation or blind confidence in technical solutions.”
Though we may choose to forget our intimate connections to the web of life, this open letter to the world community insists “Nothing is indifferent to us.”
Pope Francis says we must turn to “the various cultural riches of different peoples, their art and poetry, their interior life and spirituality,” saying “If we are truly concerned to develop an ecology capable of remedying the damage we have done, no branch of the sciences and no form of wisdom can be left out.” He cites St. Francis of Assisi—whose name he adopted on becoming Pope—for an honorable sense of awe and wonder at the Earth’s life and life support systems. He warns that “if we no longer speak the language of fraternity and beauty in our relationship with the world, our attitude will be that of masters, consumers, ruthless exploiters, unable to set limits on their immediate needs.”
97 years after the end of the Great War, 69 years after the founding of the United Nations, 23 years after the adoption of the Rio Conventions—including the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change—in the midst of a global communications revolution built on a world wide web, 3 months before the adoption of new global goals for cooperation rooted in sustainable development, and 5 months before the opening of the Paris climate conference, Pope Francis makes the case that:
“We require a new and universal solidarity.”
He quotes the bishops of Southern Africa, who wrote in their Pastoral Statement on the Environmental Crisis, in 1999, that “Everyone’s talents and involvement are needed to redress the damage caused by human abuse of God’s creation”. In short, says the leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics, “All of us can cooperate as instruments of God for the care of creation, each according to his or her own culture, experience, involvements and talents.” And by “all of us”, he means “the whole human family”.
Francis also cites the Patriarch Bartholomew, who calls for a change in human culture, practice and spirituality, an ecological mindset rooted in “learning to give, and not simply to give up.” Bartholomew says such an ecological ethical standard “is a way of loving, of moving gradually away from what I want to what God’s world needs. It is liberation from fear, greed and compulsion.”
The Encyclical notes “The climate is a common good, belonging to all and meant for all,” and goes on to explain that “At the global level, it is a complex system linked to many of the essential conditions for human life.” The Pope acknowledges the scientific consensus and explains that “Warming … creates a vicious circle which aggravates the situation even more, affecting the availability of essential resources like drinking water, energy and agricultural production.”
On Caring for our Common Home notes that climate change is destabilizing the food supply, undermining biodiversity, and affecting the livelihood of the poor, “who are then forced to leave their homes, with great uncertainty for their future and that of their children.” In it, the Pope also urges “greater investment … in research aimed at understanding more fully the functioning of ecosystems” and devotes an entire section to “decline in the quality of human life and the breakdown of society”.
Another section is devoted to “weak responses”, noting “It is remarkable how weak international political responses have been”. Pope Francis warns that the technocratic approach to problem solving can exacerbate inequalities and environmental degradation, saying “The alliance between the economy and technology ends up sidelining anything unrelated to its immediate interests”. This, he warns, means inadequate attention a mounting global crisis, and the eventual proliferation of armed conflict as societies struggle to cope with the scarcity of basic resources.
The solution, he argues, is collaborative ethical action rooted in “the light offered by faith”. The Encyclical is intended to open a dialogue with all people “so that together we can seek paths of liberation”. The emphasis on praise of Nature, praise of Creation, for honoring our Sister Earth and for working to ensure the safety and sanctity of human life, esepcially the vulnerable, is rooted in ancient scripture’s description of God himself looking with appreciation and awe on his own Creation.
Perhaps most notably, Francis describes our technology as “creativity and power”, and suggests that while we enjoy the good fortune of divine Creation, we also are empowered to seek knowledge and to know. This, he argues, puts down roots for a global ethical collaboration rooted in that knowledge and understanding. We cannot turn our backs on what we know, much less on each other or on the most vulnerable among us. We cannot escape our responsibilities; indeed, this age is characterized, more than ever, by our shared responsibility to work together and to support a dignified role for humanity in the world.
That we value our relationship to natural systems too little, while also valuing our humanity too little, he writes, “has led to a constant schizophrenia, wherein a technocracy which sees no intrinsic value in lesser beings coexists with the other extreme, which sees no special value in human beings.” We cannot do without humanity; nor can we shed our obligations to the web of life.
Francis argues that our humanity is the key to resolving what our human frailty has brought about: “There can be no renewal of our relationships with nature without a renewal of humanity itself. There can be no ecology without an adequate anthropology.” We must seek to understand ourselves, and each other, and to work together for a sustainable future, lived in harmony with Earth’s systems.
Ultimately, Pope Francis calls for what he calls “an integral ecology”—a way of being in harmony with the other that ecompasses ethical collaboration with respect to the environment, the economy and human society.
The text also endorses a number of important moral and legal standards for achieving more just outcomes:
- He endorses the time honored legal principle of the common good, sometimes referred to as the public trust doctrine. It is wrong to destroy what is necessary for all and cannot be replaced.
- He also argues for “justice between the generations”—intergenerational equity. It is wrong for one generation to discount the value of the harm it causes to another; we should ethical to future generations.
- And, he acknowledges the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities” with respect to climate impacts. Those with the power to act cannot impose their unmanageable costs on others.
According to Pope Francis, “Enforceable international agreements are urgently needed, since local authorities are not always capable of effective intervention. Relations between states must be respectful of each other’s sovereignty, but must also lay down mutually agreed means of averting regional disasters which would eventually affect everyone.”
He warns of false solutions and suggests that whether a solution depends on markets, on financing, or on technology, it must be coordinated, integral, ecologically sustainable, capable of creating a more just and dignified outcome for humanity and a more harmonious and resilient relationship between human society and natural systems. It is too late for half-measures or for any proposals that are not aimed at meeting all of those standards.
This historic document opens a new phase in the global conversation about how to heal our relationship with the planet, which gives us life and sustains us. In this new phase, we must recognize that life-giving natural systems are sacred, and must be linked to all that we consider ethical, essential, and human. Our liberty and our ability to exist as a world community depend on whether we respond to this crisis in a way that achieves a more fulfilled, more just, more resilient human ecology.
- Full text of the Encyclical [pdf]
- Knowledge-based Climate Stewardship
- The Moral Truth: We must act on climate
- The Poetry of Climate Ethics
Joe Robertson is Global Strategy Director for Citizens’ Climate Lobby.