Pope Francis on the Environment: Part One

Laudato si’ is the encyclical of Pope Francis on the environment. The title is not in Latin, but in an early version of the Italian language as it was in the process of developing from Latin. It’s in-between Latin and Italian. The first sentence of the encyclical is a quote from a canticle of Saint Francis of Assisi, praising God for the beauty of creation: “Praise be to you, my Lord”.

My summary of each section of the encyclical follows.

1. Praise God, for the gift to us all of the beautiful earth.

2. We have harmed the earth “by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her.”

3. “Now, faced as we are with global environmental deterioration…. I would like to enter into dialogue with all people about our common home.”

4. Pope Francis quotes Pope Paul VI: “Due to an ill-considered exploitation of nature, humanity runs the risk of destroying it and becoming in turn a victim of this degradation”

5. “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…. Authentic human development has a moral character. It presumes full respect for the human person, but it must also be concerned for the world around us….”

6. Pope Benedict asked us to recognize that the natural environment has been gravely damaged by our irresponsible behaviour.

7. After quoting several past Popes on the environment (n. 1-6), Pope Francis writes: “These statements of the Popes echo the reflections of numerous scientists, philosophers, theologians and civic groups, all of which have enriched the Church’s thinking on these questions.”

8. Pope Francis quotes Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, head of the Greek Orthodox Church, who “has spoken in particular of the need for each of us to repent of the ways we have harmed the planet, for ‘inasmuch as we all generate small ecological damage’, we are called to acknowledge ‘our contribution, smaller or greater, to the disfigurement and destruction of creation’.”

9. “At the same time, Bartholomew has drawn attention to the ethical and spiritual roots of environmental problems, which require that we look for solutions not only in technology but in a change of humanity.”

10. Saint Francis: “shows us just how inseparable the bond is between concern for nature, justice for the poor, commitment to society, and interior peace.”

11. “If we approach nature and the environment without this openness to awe and wonder, 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.”

12. “Through the greatness and the beauty of creatures one comes to know by analogy their maker” (Wis 13:5); indeed, “his eternal power and divinity have been made known through his works since the creation of the world” (Rom 1:20).

13. “Particular appreciation is owed to those who tirelessly seek to resolve the tragic effects of environmental degradation on the lives of the world’s poorest.”

14. “Regrettably, many efforts to seek concrete solutions to the environmental crisis have proved ineffective, not only because of powerful opposition but also because of a more general lack of interest. Obstructionist attitudes, even on the part of believers, can range from denial of the problem to indifference, nonchalant resignation or blind confidence in technical solutions.”

Pope Francis is saying that believers must not deny the problems affecting the environment. I think that some political conservatives tend to deny or discount environmental issues because the political left, their opposition, promotes and sometimes exaggerates these problems. The solutions proposed by liberals are not necessarily best, but conservatives should not deny the problem or refuse to seek solutions.

15. This encyclical is part of the Church’s social teaching. But the encyclical also draws upon “the results of the best scientific research available today.” I add that those scientific conclusions are not of the Magisterium, but of human reason and knowledge. The faithful can disagree with points in the encyclical which are not teachings of the Magisterium.

16. Pope Francis writes: “I will point to the intimate relationship between the poor and the fragility of the planet, the conviction that everything in the world is connected, the critique of new paradigms and forms of power derived from technology, the call to seek other ways of understanding the economy and progress, the value proper to each creature, the human meaning of ecology, the need for forthright and honest debate, the serious responsibility of international and local policy, the throwaway culture and the proposal of a new lifestyle. These questions will not be dealt with once and for all….”

The moral wisdom of the Church is applied, in this encyclical, to various fields of human endeavor. Many of the points in the encyclical are not doctrinal teachings, but a commentary and critique of problems in modern society.

17. “faith brings new incentives and requirements with regard to the world of which we are a part”

18. “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.”

Pope Francis accepts the theory of evolution as an integral part of nature. I see no problem with this view. The Magisterium has not taught that evolution is fact or dogma. However, evolution can be seen by believers as one way that God governs His creation. And if any points within the theory of evolution conflict with belief, those points can be criticized, modified, or rejected on the basis of faith. [See my book: Adam and Eve versus Evolution]

19. “Our goal is not to amass information or to satisfy curiosity, but rather to become painfully aware, to dare 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.”

I. POLLUTION AND CLIMATE CHANGE

20. “Exposure to atmospheric pollutants produces a broad spectrum of health hazards, especially for the poor, and causes millions of premature deaths. People take sick, for example, from breathing high levels of smoke from fuels used in cooking or heating. There is also pollution that affects everyone, caused by transport, industrial fumes, substances which contribute to the acidification of soil and water, fertilizers, insecticides, fungicides, herbicides and agrotoxins in general.”

The above assertion on pollution is a well-established scientific fact. The Magisterium, in teaching on our moral responsibilities, must often take into account the current circumstances of society. However, when Pope Francis criticizes some aspect of society, whether it is the overuse of fertilizers, insecticides, etc. or the misuse of money and capitalism, he is not suggesting that we never use fertilizers or money. The criticism of an area of human endeavor does not imply its utter condemnation.

21. “Account must also be taken of the pollution produced by residue, including dangerous waste present in different areas.” The holy Pontiff observes that society is producing much waste, and harm results from the resultant pollution. “Frequently no measures are taken until after people’s health has been irreversibly affected.”

22. The holy Pontiff recommends “preserving resources for present and future generations, while limiting as much as possible the use of non-renewable resources, moderating their consumption, maximizing their efficient use, reusing and recycling them. A serious consideration of this issue would be one way of counteracting the throwaway culture which affects the entire planet….”

23. “The climate is a common good, belonging to all and meant for all.” That assertion is doctrinal. God created nature and gave it to mankind for our use and stewardship.

“A very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climatic system.” That assertion is observational, not doctrinal. It is a fact that a scientific consensus exists on the warming of the climate. The Pope is not making himself chief scientist, to judge every scientific theory and conclusion. He is stating what we know, at this point in time, from human research.

“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.” The Pontiff states that global warming is partially caused by human activity. He goes on to cite some natural causes of global warming, which also contribute.

24. The Pope summarizes the scientific consensus on global warming. He then writes: “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. A rise in the sea level, for example, can create extremely serious situations, if we consider that a quarter of the world’s population lives on the coast or nearby, and that the majority of our megacities are situated in coastal areas.”

I don’t see any problem with Pope Francis’ words on climate change. He is not trying to turn scientific conclusion into dogma. Our scientific knowledge is not infallible. But we have sufficient moral certitude about global warming and its causes to act so as to mitigate any harm that might result.

25. Pope Francis expresses concern for the disparate effect of climate change on the poor of the world. “They have no other financial activities or resources which can enable them to adapt to climate change or to face natural disasters, and their access to social services and protection is very limited.”

26. The Popes criticizes “current models of production and consumption” of the world resources, particularly energy. He favors renewable energy sources over fossil fuels. “Worldwide there is minimal access to clean and renewable energy.” He notes the need to develop better ways to store energy produced by renewables.

So far, the Pope is taking a point of view that is similar to the political left. But conservatives should not reject this position out of hand. Concern for the environment should not be seen as a liberal or conservative issue, but as a moral issue, based on our concern for our neighbors, near and far.

II. THE ISSUE OF WATER

27. “We all know that it is not possible to sustain the present level of consumption in developed countries and wealthier sectors of society, where the habit of wasting and discarding has reached unprecedented levels. The exploitation of the planet has already exceeded acceptable limits and we still have not solved the problem of poverty.”

28. “Fresh drinking water is an issue of primary importance, since it is indispensable for human life and for supporting terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems. Sources of fresh water are necessary for health care, agriculture and industry.” Pope Francis is supportive of industry and commerce. But he is concerned for the poor as well. “Water poverty especially affects Africa where large sectors of the population have no access to safe drinking water or experience droughts which impede agricultural production.”

The holy Pontiff avoids a common error on the political left when speaking of the environment. The left sometimes speaks as if the environment were an end in itself, subjugating all human needs to that end. But the Pope repeatedly makes the point that harm to the environment results in harm to humanity, especially to the poor. Nature was given to us for our use, for the good of humanity. Jesus said: “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath.” (Mk 2:27). And so we can also say that Nature was made for man, not man for Nature.

29. “One particularly serious problem is the quality of water available to the poor. Every day, unsafe water results in many deaths and the spread of water-related diseases, including those caused by microorganisms and chemical substances. Dysentery and cholera, linked to inadequate hygiene and water supplies, are a significant cause of suffering and of infant mortality.”

30. “Our world has a grave social debt towards the poor who lack access to drinking water, because they are denied the right to a life consistent with their inalienable dignity.”

31. “Some studies warn that an acute water shortage may occur within a few decades unless urgent action is taken.” Yes, we are already seeing this problem in the United States, with the on-going drought in California. And the problem is occurring in other states and nations as well. A recent study by NASA found that underground aquifers throughout the world are being severely depleted; water is being removed much faster than it can be replenished by precipitation. [Source]

The Pope is citing human research and knowledge, and then he draws conclusions as to our moral responsibility. The scientific and environmental information is not presented to us as if it were dogma. And he is entirely right that this knowledge, despite its lack of absolute certitude, should compel us to action. For we have moral certitude that action is needed to avoid grave harm to our lives and the lives of our neighbors.

— More on the topic in future posts —

by
Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and
translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

Please take a look at this list of my books and booklets, and see if any topic interests you.

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2 Responses to Pope Francis on the Environment: Part One

  1. MM says:

    Where is the “DONATE” button to compensate you for this work?

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