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What You Need to Know About the Pope’s Encyclical on the Environment

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John Burger - published on 06/18/15

Experts weight in on Laudato Si', and the reaction is anything but monolithic
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Reaction to Pope Francis’s encyclical letter Laudato Si’ (Praised Be), on care for our common home, is anything but “monolithic.”

The encyclical, dated May 24 (Pentecost Sunday) and released June 18, has 246 paragraphs and six chapters, with themes such as “The human roots of the ecological crisis” and “Integral ecology.” It is giving critics much fodder for commentary and environmentalists much to rejoice about.

Aleteia solicited comment from several experts in academia, think tanks and the mission field. We will be adding to the symposium below as more comments come in.

Father Shenan J. Boquet, president of Human Life International
On a quick perusal it does appear that the encyclical’s theme is consistent with Pope Francis’s strong indictment of today’s “throwaway culture,” where anything and anyone inconvenient is disposed of without regard for its value, the greatest example of which is the objectification and destruction even of human life. This theme has been consistently presented by the Church in different ways at least since Pope Saint Leo XIII in the late 19th century, and is entirely appropriate as a frame to discuss both the abuse of the natural environment and the much graver abuses perpetrated against human persons in the name of protecting the environment.

Laudato Si’ presents a strong condemnation of abortion and the other destructive manifestations of the population control movement, and we hope that this crucial aspect of Pope Francis’ message is understood by the leaders of the United Nations and its leading member states and NGO partners, most of whom promote these evils in the push for what they call “sustainable development,” a term that appears multiple times in the encyclical. In the lead-up to the encyclical’s release, however, several advisors to the Holy See responded with derision and vicious condescension when these issues were respectfully raised by pro-lifers, which has caused a great deal of concern.

We will prayerfully and carefully consider the encyclical and its recommendations, and we join all the Church in praying for Pope Francis and his intentions, especially that we will all help to end the throw away culture and its worst effects as soon as possible.

Joyce Coffee, managing director of the Notre Dame Global Adaptation Index
The papal encyclical released today focuses on the moral obligation to safeguard the earth and mankind’s common good. In it, Pope Francis defines “the urgent challenge to protect our common home” and reminds us of our shared humanity, our shared risk, and our shared responsibility to save lives and improve livelihoods in the face of climate change.

His opus defines the issue about us as humans and notes that climate change is “one of the principal challenges facing humanity in our day.” Although many were expecting an encyclical on the environment, his emphasis on climate change helps us to see that specific issue as a humanitarian crisis, not just an environmental problem.

The biblical proportion of climate change’s shocks and stress are causing disproportionate harm to those already suffering from poverty, illness and other inequities.  Increasingly, droughts, food insecurity, superstorms and civil conflicts impact poverty and injustice.   Notre Dame Global Adaptation Index quantifies the  disproportionate risk the Pope describes when he repeatedly returns to his message about global inequities in a climate changed world. He specifically identifies Africa as a continent impacted by climate change, defining a “debt” that exists between the global south and north.

Please see this

graphic, which supports these thoughts.

Peter Lawler, Dana Professor in Government at Berry College
Laudato Si’ is a long, hugely ambitious, and even rather sprawling document that doesn’t, in truth, read as if it had only one author. Its quality is uneven, and the more specific it gets in its policy prescriptions, the easier it gets to criticize and even dismiss.

Yet no one can deny that its eloquent intention in its most thoroughly theological and anthropological moments is to restate in a most relevant way the enduring wisdom of Catholic thought, especially as found in the writing of the predecessors of Pope Francis. At this level, my big criticism might be the assumption that the natural world we’ve been given is a fixed resource for us to consume. It’s surely part of who we are, persons as made in the image of the creative, relational, and personal God, to be able to add to what we’ve been given by mixing our labor with it. Those who write with mistaken confidence about “limits to growth,” after all, often say, quite wrongly, that we’ve somehow sinned against nature through overpopulation.

Now the encyclical is clear that we shouldn’t blame all the people for the planet becoming unsustainable, and it firmly prioritizes protecting every human life—including those in the womb—over the environment or species in general. Still, a more challenging encyclical would have highlighted the faithless pathology of the sophisticated advanced West, which combines a kind of excessive concern with the sustainability of nature—including sometimes a return of the pantheistic divinization of nature as an undifferentiated whole—with a lack of concern with the birth dearth that might threaten the very future of our species.  The encyclical does display in many ways the interdependence of natural and human (or moral/cultural) ecology, but it might have done so to put our sophisticates more outside their comfort zone than it already does. Our libertarians who say that growing the economy and unleashing technological ingenuity can solve every problem both natural and human that comes our way are thoroughly and properly chastened in this document.  But it’s not completely wrong to think that technological ingenuity might do better in addressing the issues climate change will present us than we can see right now.

The Bible is all about being faithful stewards of the natural gifts we’ve been given, but that includes being fruitful and multiplying. The encyclical is certainly correct that we shouldn’t be ironically dismissive of those who claim not facing up to the challenge of out-of-control anthropogenetic climate change is a blindly greedy and otherwise sinful mistake that could lead to either the end of human life on earth or the plunging of most human lives into a new era of undignified deprivation. But perhaps there’s room for a little irony: It’s not quite true that God left the fate of being or, better, particular human persons in our sinfully wounded hands. It seems these days to be the case that obsession with the extinction of our species is intertwined, for those who don’t believe in the living, personal, relational, and providential Trinitarian God, with an obsession about personal extinctionism. The encyclical, of course, counters that view with the words and spirit of St. Francis: Nature—and all the particular creatures—are to be joyfully celebrated as a good and gratuitous gift beyond our full comprehension and control. But someone might say that nature can be unreservedly celebrated as a “sister” and not a cruel and random mother who’s no respecter of persons if we have faith in a God who provides for each person in particular.

The creative accomplishment that is our providential technology—which is also a gift of God—that makes particular lives longer, more secure, and more comfortable can’t free us from our anxious desire for more, for the freedom that comes through love and not through control. Technological progress is only progress if subordinated to the one true progress that occurs over the lives of particular persons in this life, lives full of promise and destined to continue beyond their biological demise. That’s a truth we know through both faith and reason. Theories about “the process of evolution” might well be true to a point, but each human being “possesses a uniqueness that can’t be explained by the evolution of other open systems….Each of us has his or her own personal identity and is capable of entering into dialogue with others and with God himself.”  And not, I have to add, with even a Dolphin. We have “signs”—including “the capacity to reason” and “to be inventive” that are “of a uniqueness which transcends the spheres of physics and biology.” After all, “The sheer novelty involved in the emergence of a personal being…presupposes the direct action of God.” That doesn’t mean, of course, that we should regard the rest of God’s creatures—who might more perfectly be accounted for by some theory of evolution—“as mere objects subjected to arbitrary human domination.”  God never does anything arbitrarily, and when he seems to dominate, it’s really service out of love. But still, the other creatures aren’t “subjects” either.

So the encyclical does particularly well to almost begin with the words of Saint John Paul II. A key task of the Church is to “safeguard to moral conditions for an authentic human ecology.” And maybe there’s no other beginning than remembering that “The entire material universe speaks of God’s love”; the logos that governs the universe is personal all the way down. By thinking of all of nature as the gift of a personal Creator, “Judeo-Christian thought demythologized nature.” Nature isn’t divine, but it’s given to us for our free and responsible personal enjoyment and use. And so we have two duties: the first is to “develop its potential.” The second to “protect it.” Nature is both valuable and fragile. And those twin insights “leave behind the modern myth of unlimited material progress,” but they don’t negate the truth that “our God-given abilities” are for, among other things, material progress. It turns out that technology is both a wonderful revelation of our freedom and an intricate challenge to our free will. And we are challenged “to devise intelligent ways of directing, developing and limiting our power.”

So there’s lots, lots more. But this encyclical is certainly evidence that genuine fundamentals of our magisterial teaching are still sound, and it’s only a half truth that the devil is in the details.

Professor Geoffrey Hunt, Director for the Centre for Bioethics & Emerging Technologies at St. Mary’s University, Twickenham, London
As a specialist in the ethics of technology and healthcare, I personally welcome the fact that the Pope has grounded the climate change issue in the moral question of responsibility. He affirms that the problem is largely man-made, that it is connected with consumerist inegalitarianism and that the responsibility to start putting it right is to some degree one for all human beings. But the heaviest moral burden lies on those policy-makers, nations and organizations who pursue consumption as though there were no environmental limits.

The root of his moral stance seems to be that in contemporary society many of us, perhaps most, have the wrong attitude to “nature.” Many of us still see it as morally neutral, as something to be used to serve our narrow human interests and to be consumed willy-nilly. Instead, nature is imbued with moral and aesthetic value, and indeed we ourselves are part and parcel of this thing we call “nature.” Thus we need “an ecological conversion.”

I see nothing at all that is surprising about the content of his letter. If anything is surprising it is that at last someone with great moral authority has spoken out truthfully. He poses the right questions, and he opens a debate about the moral dimensions of the economic models that are inevitably linked to climate change and how to promote greater justice for the global poor. Of course, there are those who will feel uncomfortable, even angry, and the onus is now on them to engage in rational and kindly discussion about those economic and technological models with a presumption in favor of human welfare in the long term.

The encyclical will probably cause some rifts in the Church, but that may not be a bad thing. For it may also cause some re-consolidation and revitalizing of faith in the Church as moral leader of the poor, the vulnerable and the weak. At least now we know what the debate is about—it’s a moral one.
Dr. Chad C. Pecknold, associate professor of theology at the Catholic University of America
Pope Francis acknowledges a scientific consensus that climate change is occuring, and that a large number of human factors are contributing to a self-destructive path. But he explains that science only gives a part of the picture, and is anti-modern enough to say that only a return to a harmony between God and creatures can save us, and that this harmony is visible in St. Francis, whose harmony with creation is unintelligible apart from his conversion to Christ, his prayers, his participation in the Eucharist as the joining of our earthly home to God the Father in heaven.

Like most encyclicals, many hands make a contribution. Pope Francis, and thus St. Peter, can be heard, and at different levels. The Holy Father spells out how the papal teaching has been unfolding on both natural and human ecology since Paul VI to St. John Paul II, and Benedict XVI. It is practically a love-letter to these latter two popes, as their names appear in the footnotes to practically every other page.

The Holy Father explicitly says the Church is not providing a set of political policy prescriptions which would not be its proper place, but rather wants to provide a comprehensive framework, a way of thinking about how we can move ourselves away from a self-destructive path, not only with respect to climate change, but also with respect to the human person, the human family, and those institutions which must carry out a human vocation to protect and serve life, so that we can have something to pass on to our kids and our grandkids.

Environmentalists are not anonymous Christians in this encyclical. They see something, though, which the Church also sees from a different height. The Holy Father asks us to recognize that creation itself is not a policy battle, but our common home. To care for creation is to care for what all of us depend on for our existence. It is a genuinely pre-political common good.

The vast majority of people on this planet recognize that this world has a Creator, which we call God. This encyclical is addressed to all people of good will, but its most basic thesis is that our turn away from God is at the root of our self-destructive path. We must return to God. He calls the world to conversion. Conversion to God as cause, but then conversion to Christ, who has united this whole world to himself so that we can enter into that original harmony between God and creation. In this alone, he says, will we find survival “beyond the sun.”

Enjoy the encyclical, and feel free to debate, critique, praise. But be respectful of one another, and deferential to the Holy Father.

Greg Erlandson, editor of Our Sunday Visitor
In many ways, Laudato Si’ is quintessential Francis, bringing a global perspective to an issue on which many Catholics, particularly those in the West, tend to look through a more narrowed lens. As such, elements of the encyclical are guaranteed to be challenging regardless of who is reading. The encyclical no doubt will be shrugged off by some for being idealistic, inconsequential or focused on the wrong priorities. But Pope Francis is prophetically calling on us to engage the world and understand our God-given bond with our fellow men and women and all creation.
For both conservatives and liberals, there will be a temptation to either dismiss or exploit the encyclical to serve one’s own agenda. We strongly caution against this and instead encourage Catholics and Catholic parishes to both reflect on it and pray over it. In this way, we do justice to what will surely become one of the Church’s great social texts.

Kishore Jayabalan, director of the Acton Institute in Rome
I welcome the Pope’s attempt to raise our awareness about environmental degradation and how it affects the poor. Anyone who has been to the megacities of the developing world knows that it is a serious problem.

It is unfortunate, however, that market economics, finance and consumption are blamed for it repeatedly in the encyclical. Most of these countries are trying to achieve what the West has and it seems unfair to deny them the same opportunities that we enjoy just because we are now more environmentally sensitive. I think it is possible to be environmentally aware and want to help the poor, but sometimes there are trade-offs and hard decisions have to be made. Helping human beings who lack food, water and shelter would seem to take priority over our concern for other creatures but sometimes we treat our pets better than other people.

After hearing the Pope say he thought the first draft of the encyclical was too long and too technical, I was surprised by the length and the technical detail it contains. It’s almost 200 pages long and not an quick read. And who knew that the Pope would have an opinion about carbon trading permits and air-conditioning?

The market economy really comes under attack in the encyclical. Financial speculation, over-consumption, economic interests, the profit motive—all these are seen as causing environmental degradation. And when the Pope refers to “countries which are more powerful and pollute the most” in n. 106, he certainly seems to have the United States in mind, so it’s particularly American-style capitalism that’s to blame. It’s hard to avoid the impression that the Pope has singled out the U.S. for criticism but I doubt that most Americans will hold it against him. Everyone wants to be with the Pope, even if they don’t agree with what he says. There’s something mystical about the office.

Dr. Samuel Gregg, research director at the Acton Institute
The encyclical makes a number of profound points about the relationship between the moral ecology and the natural law which God has endowed man and the way we think about the natural environment. This is central to the way in which Pope Francis underscores the way in which some people who purport to care about the natural world have a cavalier view of unborn human life. That will not please some people in the environmental movement, nor will the Pope’s critique of those who see population growth as a threat to the environment.

That said, the economic lens through which the encyclical views the world leaves much to be desired. It makes some good points about, for instance, the failure to reform the international finance system. But the view of the free market will strike many as un-nuanced. It speaks, for instance, of people deifying the market. I don’t know many people who favor free markets who ascribe them with god-like qualities or who deny the need for some regulation. Skepticism about some effects of regulation doesn’t translate into a complete rejection of any regulation whatsoever. The encyclical is also inattentive to the fact that it is integration into global markets that has lifted millions out of poverty in the developing world. A good many Catholics, including many who are perfectly orthodox on questions of faith and morals, seem to have enormous difficulty accepting this, especially those who live in or come from continental Western Europe and some developing countries. Lastly, it does seem to me that the encyclical enters into the technical details—even the micro-details—of a number of subjects that, whatever one thinks of the encyclical’s particular take on a given issue, really are questions that the magisterium has no special competence to address.

Steven Mosher, president of the Population Research Institute
I was struck by Paragraph 50, in which the Holy Father says:

Instead of resolving the problems of the poor and thinking of how the world can be different, some can only propose a reduction in the birth rate. At times, developing countries face forms of international pressure which make economic assistance contingent on certain policies of “reproductive health”. Yet “while it is true that an unequal distribution of the population and of available resources creates obstacles to development and a sustainable use of the environment, it must nonetheless be recognized that demographic growth is fully compatible with an integral and shared development”.[28] 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. Besides, we know that approximately a third of all food produced is discarded, and “whenever food is thrown out it is as if it were stolen from the table of the poor.” Still, attention needs to be paid to imbalances in population density, on both national and global levels, since a rise in consumption would lead to complex regional situations, as a result of the interplay between problems linked to environmental pollution, transport, waste treatment, loss of resources and quality of life.

Here Pope Francis follows in the footsteps of Saint John Paul by pointing out that some wrongly propose to cure poverty by “reducing the birth rate” and by conditioning economic aid on “reproductive health” programs. He is right to imply that you don’t eliminate poverty by forced-pace population control programs that eliminate the children of the poor, although I wish he had put the point more forcefully. There are currently billions of dollars being spent to abort, sterilize and contracept poor people around the world, often without their foreknowledge or consent. This is being done in a misguided effort to bring population into alignment with currently available resources, and is a grave violation of the natural right of parents to decide for themselves the number and spacing of their children.

But here’s the problem: The Holy Father apparently believes, because he has been told, that the earth’s resources are fixed and finite. They are not. As science and technology advance through the action of human intelligence, available resources increase. The problems caused by our numbers—pollution, transportation, and waste are some that the Pope mentions—can and have been solved the same way.

Even more troubling, he also apparently believes that the only way that the poor can be lifted out of poverty is by reducing the standard of living of the wealthy. Thus he criticizes “extreme consumerism.” But who is to decide how much one is permitted to consume? The government? New international organizations with “the power to sanction?” And are these the same agencies that will redistribute “the excess?” As someone who has lived in a one-party dictatorship where everyone was “equal,” I can tell that, in practice, this kind of redistributionism would mean a quick descent into tyranny.

The poor need to be encouraged to become the agents of their own development. The only way that poor countries and poor peoples can escape poverty is by producing more goods and services themselves. I wish the Holy Father had encouraged the poor to work harder, produce more, and lift themselves out of poverty. That is, after all, how the peoples of Europe, North America, Australia, and Asia became wealthy. This is how the people of Africa, Latin American and, yes, Argentina, will one day escape poverty as well. Instead, he complains that those who have already, through generations of hard work, escaped poverty are consuming too much. Don’t they have a right to the fruits of their labor? 
On our farm we have a large kitchen garden. Each year we till the soil, we plant the seed, and we fertilize the plants and water them. We eat some of the produce ourselves, and some we give away to the needy. Occasionally, we have to throw some overripe vegetables away. To be told that “the food that we throw away is like stealing from the table of the poor” is an insult to all hardworking, generous Catholics.

Bill Patenaude, co-founder of the Global Catholic Climate Movement and author of
As a true spiritual father, Pope Francis has forcefully and lovingly reminded his family—and all people of goodwill—that our ecological and social ills are rooted in a broken notion of ourselves and our relationships. Even more, Laudato Si’ offers us a road map to heal those relationships—to offer peace to each person and healing to the world.

[A press release from the Global Catholic Climate Movement added the following comments:]
The release of Pope Francis’s long awaited encyclical on ecology has triggered celebrations in Catholic communities across the globe as it lays out the definitive moral case for climate action. The Global Catholic Climate Movement (GCCM)—which represents over 100 Catholic global organizations working on climate justice in all continents—thanks His Holiness, through its statement for his leadership and inspiring message on the importance of caring for creation, protecting human dignity and safeguarding our common home.

The GCCM joins Pope Francis in his call to create a new and universal solidarity that recognizes those integral relationships between the social and economic ills of our age. To achieve this universal solidarity—this communion—a new and better paradigm of socio-economic development is necessary, one that is sustainable and includes intergenerational solidarity.

The GCCM regards the encyclical as an urgent call to the whole human family to act on the ecological crisis, so the GCCM today reinforced its climate petition asking world leaders to keep global average temperatures within 1.5 degrees Celsius of pre-industrial levels.  At least 1 million signatures are expected to be handed to world leaders at the UN Climate Change Conference in Paris (COP 21) in early December 2015. The GCCM petition was endorsed by Pope Francis himself a month ago when he met with GCCM representatives in the Vatican.

Dr. Pablo Canziani, GCCM co-founder and principal investigator of CONICET (the National Scientific and Technical Research Council of Argentina)
Environmental policies throughout Latin America are the result of years of local misguided or absent development policies and associated foreign investments that resulted in an extractive economy that includes such practices as mega mining and deforestation.  Pope Francis’ encyclical proposes the necessary and urgent paradigm change that is required not just in the region but globally. We are all asked to change, to make sacrifices for the most vulnerable.  This is necessary so that we may all live.

Sister Pat McDermott, president of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas
We welcome Pope Francis’ critique of the current, dominant economic model that prioritizes the market, profit and unharnessed consumption and regards Earth as a resource to be exploited. We hope that world leaders, at the United Nations Summit on the Sustainable Development Goals in September and international climate talks in Paris in December, will take heed of the Pope’s moral imperative to work for a more just and sustainable world.

Voice of the Family, an international lay coalition of major pro-life and pro-family organizations

The international coalition Voice of the Family is deeply concerned by the omission from the encyclical letter Laudato Si of a reaffirmation of the Church’s teaching against contraception and on procreation as the primary end of the sexual act.

The encyclical, published this morning, contains the welcome assertions that “concern for the protection of nature is also incompatible with the justification of abortion” (No. 120) and “that demographic growth is fully compatible with an integral and shared development” (No. 50).

However the omission of any reference to Church teaching on the use of contraception leaves Catholics ill-prepared to resist the international population control agenda.

“God commanded man to ‘increase and multiply, and fill the earth’ (Gen 1:28)” said Voice of the Family manager Maria Madise, “but the environmental movement commonly regards population growth as a threat.” Madise continued: “Developing nations are being flooded with contraceptives and subjected to pressure to legalize abortion. Given that contraception and environmentalism so often go hand-in-hand, it is deeply troubling that Church teaching on the primacy of procreation is not reaffirmed.”

Patrick Buckley, UN lobbyist for the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children (SPUC), noted that “The encyclical calls for increased international environmental action in paragraphs 173-175, while neglecting to prepare Catholics for what such action will undoubtedly involve: renewed attempts to further impose contraception and abortion on the developing world.”

Professor Hans Schellnhuber was among those chosen by the Holy See to present the encyclical to the press this morning. Schellnhuber has previously stated that the “carrying capacity of the planet” is “below 1 billion people.” The global population would have to be reduced by more than 80% to meet this target.

John-Henry Westen, co-founder of Voice of the Family and editor-in-chief of LifeSiteNews, commented, “Professor Schellnhuber is an advocate of the establishment of a supreme global government that would have the power to take action to resolve the perceived environmental crisis, which in his view requires population reduction. In this context the references in the encyclical to the need for a ‘world political authority,’ which should have the power to ‘sanction,’ is deeply troubling.”

Yesterday it was revealed that Professor Schellnhuber has been appointed a member of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences (PAS) by Pope Francis. In November 2015 the PAS will be holding workshops to discuss how to use “children as agents of change.” The program involves strategizing on how to deploy children to advance the environmental agenda worldwide. Such efforts seem to be endorsed by the encyclical in paragraphs 209-215. Some of those involved in the workshops, such as Jeffrey Sachs, are among the most vehement promoters of contraception and even abortion as necessary elements of population control.

John Smeaton, co-founder of Voice of the Family and Chief Executive of SPUC, stated “The international environmental movement often seeks to convince children that the world is overpopulated and that this must be resolved by controlling reproduction through contraception and access to abortion. There is now grave danger that our children will be exposed to this agenda under the guise of education on environmental concerns. The proposed plans of the PAS, and the lack of clear teaching on these dangers in the encyclical, put us on our guard. Catholic parents must resist all attacks on our children, even when they emanate from within the Vatican.”

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