Remarks at the National Press Club
Laudato Si: Encyclical on the Environment
National Press Club
June 18, 2015
Accompanying the embargoed copy of his encyclical letter, Laudato Si (Praised Be You), was Pope Francis’ hand-written note to the bishops. Typical of his pastoral style, the message was a short but warm reference to our bond of unity, charity and peace and a request for prayers for himself. Here he notes that the focus of the letter is On Care of Our Common Home. For me, this sums up the substance of the encyclical.
As I read Laudato Si which was released today, what first comes to mind is the magnificence of God’s creation and how it is destined to be shared by all people in every generation. It is also clear that we have to care for it in order that it is not exploited and debased so that future generations may also enjoy the blessings of our common home.
It is in this light that the Pope sees that “the urgent challenge to protect our common home includes concern to bring the whole human family together to seek a sustainable and integral development, for we know that things can change” (13).
Clearly as a pastor and teacher the Pope underlines that he is speaking out of a longstanding tradition of applying Catholic faith to current conditions and the circumstances of our day. He is, in effect, reading “the signs of the times.” The encyclical is also an invitation. He offers “an urgent 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” (14).
As has been the case with every one of the social encyclicals going back to Rerum novarum, On the Condition of Human Labor, in 1891 our Holy Father describes the current issues. Here we find what he calls the starting point for a “fresh analysis of our present situation” (17).
I find that the Pope’s decision to start with empirical data and the conclusions based on scientific research to be most helpful. The document cannot be dismissed as simply “abstract.” The encyclical reflects on pollution and climate change, access to fresh water and the global problems arising from “greater scarcity of water” (31). It speaks as well of a loss of biodiversity, manifest in the desertification of significant portions of the earth. In this opening chapter, our Holy Father points out the decline in the quality of human life and the breakdown of society, for example, that is associated with what he recognizes as “the disproportion and unruly growth of many cities which have become unhealthy to live in not only because of pollution caused by toxic emissions but also as a result of urban chaos, poor transportation and visual pollution and noise” (44).
While one may prioritize differently the range of problems that plague our world today, what our Holy Father is lifting up is a series of facts that beg for some coherent moral analysis and direction for the good of all of us on this planet and the planet itself.
Thus our Holy Father finds his starting point in the dignity of the human person as part of God’s plan in creation. Pope Francis highlights that “human life is grounded in three fundamental and closely intertwined relationships: with God, with our neighbor and with the earth itself” (66). We are called to cooperate with God’s design in our relationship with one another and with the natural world.
An “authentic human ecology” brings a Catholic worldview to the environmental discussion which helps us see more clearly the moral lesson woven into the story of creation. Men and women are called to live in peace with God and in the natural world. There should be an increasingly clear harmony between efforts on behalf of the environment and those who promote integral, including economic, human development. This is the human ecology that is part of the focus of this encyclical (cf. 5).
None of us can claim absolute ownership over the goods of the earth – God gave us his creation to share. We are grateful to Pope Francis for giving us this encyclical to further explore our responsibilities toward the common good of our local communities, our country and our global neighbors.
Our Holy Father speaks to us as a pastor offering moral guidance, not a set of policy proposals. Touching on the themes of human ecology, care for creation, climate change, the throwaway culture and the call to build a culture of solidarity and encounter, he voices a concern that we are losing the attitude of wonder, contemplation and listening to creation (cf. 225). The encyclical also provides us the opportunity to examine our lifestyle to see what we can do to live in right relationship with God and with the natural world.
The Pope returns again in Chapter 6 to one of his recurring themes, our “throwaway culture.” Here he calls on all of us to resist this mentality in action by taking small steps towards simpler fuller lives. His hope is that we would arrive at a new “awareness of our common origin, our mutual belonging and of a future to be shared with everyone.”
Three principles stand out as deserving special attention as the letter examines the Church’s role in economic, scientific, cultural and political arenas. The first principle is the dignity of the human person whose inherent worth and immortal destiny is the very rational for environmental action. The second is an emphasis on the moral imperative to protect the natural order. And the third is the recognition that protecting the environment need not compromise legitimate economic progress.
In Laudato Si, Pope Francis is gently calling us to consider these moral teachings prayerfully, thoughtfully and humbly. He is challenging us to rethink how we treat the resources God has entrusted to us. For example, he has spoken often about the food we waste as food stolen from the table of the poor.
Rather than feeling overwhelmed by the enormity of some of our biggest ecological challenges, Pope Francis tells us that we can take some small steps that will help our children and grandchildren enjoy clean air and water. In little ways, we can leave the world a better place than we found it. Our Holy Father is asking that we orient our hearts to others, and renew our commitment to the practice of solidarity and interdependence.
In seeking to apply the lessons of this teaching to our own lives, it is Christ himself who is our teacher. Jesus taught us that we should not selfishly seek earthly treasures (Matt. 6:19). When we share property generously, show special solicitude for the poor and afflicted, and seek to structure our human life in harmony with God’s gift and design of creation, we see the kingdom of God beginning to appear in our midst. Thus we can also claim that as we respect and care for creation as well as for one another we actually do carry out our religious imperative to help manifest God at work in all of us – realizing his kingdom in our world.