Pope Francis has fully joined the battle to save the planet from the current ecological crises by releasing his encyclical, Laudato Si': On the Care of the Common Home. While both John Paul II and Benedict XVI expressed concern about the environment and climate change, and committed the Vatican State to being carbon neutral, this will be the first time a pope has dedicated an entire encyclical on them. It is one of a number of interventions initiated by the pontiff during the course of this year. 

Encyclicals are the most authoritative documents that a pope can issue. It is addressed not only to Catholics, but to all the people of the world. Catholics are expected to read the document with an open mind and heart, and only dissent from it in good conscience after careful reflection. The dismissing “pre-buttals” by some Catholics (previously champions of obedience to the pope) prior to the release were disrespectful of accepted Catholic practice.

"AN IMMENSE PILE OF FILTH": Pope Francis says the hundreds of millions of tons of waste generated annually are significantly impacting our environment. PICTURE: John Nyberg/www.freeimages.com

"Pope Francis is critical of growth as a goal for wealthy economies, indeed he recommends that they deliberately decrease the rate of growth. Because of their excesses, the wealthy have an “ecological debt” to poor countries and should assist them with technology transfer so they can develop with the use of renewable sources of energy as far as possible."

 

“Integral ecology” a central theme
In the encyclical, His Holiness conveys eloquently his prayerful sense of connection with Creation. “Our common home is like a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us” (paragraph 1) but “she now cries out to us” because her goods have been plundered. 

He speaks of the inseparable “bond between concern for nature, justice for the poor, commitment to society, and interior peace” (10). “Integral ecology” is the central concept. That is, the human person’s fundamental relationships are with God, with one’s self, with other human beings and with creation.”

“If we approach nature and the environment without openness to awe and wonder...our attitude will be that of masters, consumers, ruthless exploiters, unable to set limits on their immediate needs.” (11)

Pope Francis repeatedly draws attention to the impacts of environmental crises on the world’s poor. Both the cry of the poor and the cry of the earth (his emphasis) are not being heard. Quoting Benedict XVI, he says that at the same time, wealthy societies have “‘a sort of ‘superdevelopment’ of a wasteful and consumerist kind which forms an unacceptable contrast with the ongoing situations of dehumanising deprivation.’” (109) 

Pope Francis is critical of growth as a goal for wealthy economies, indeed he recommends that they deliberately decrease the rate of growth. Because of their excesses, the wealthy have an “ecological debt” to poor countries and should assist them with technology transfer so they can develop with the use of renewable sources of energy as far as possible.

Politics and businesses slow to act
He admonishes governments that have been slow to act and powerful elites who are resistant to doing the right thing. He says that the pursuit of profit, regardless of all other considerations shows that “environmental deterioration and human and ethical degradation are closely linked... As a result, ‘whatever is fragile, like the environment, is defenceless before the interests of a deified market which become the only rule.’”(56)

His Holiness repeatedly conveys a sense of urgency. Having listened to results of the best scientific research, he writes, “Doomsday predictions can no longer be met with irony and disdain.” (161) 

“There is an urgent need to develop policies so that, in the next few years, the emission of carbon dioxide and other highly polluting gases can be drastically reduced, for example, substituting for fossil fuels and developing sources of renewable energy. Worldwide there is minimal access to clean and renewable energy.”(26)

The link with the burning of fossil fuels is inescapable. Coal, in particular, is singled out as particularly problematic.  “We know that technology based on the use of highly polluting fossil fuels - especially coal, but also oil and, to a lesser degree, gas - has to be progressively replaced without delay...Politics and business have been slow to react in a way commensurate with the urgency of the challenges facing our world.” (165)

The release of this encyclical has been deliberately timed with a view to influencing the outcome of the United Nations Climate Change Conference to be held in Paris in December. Pope Francis therefore comments on how these talks have been proceeding. “Reducing greenhouse gases requires honesty, courage and responsibility, above all on the part of those countries which are more powerful and pollute the most...International negotiations cannot make significant progress due to positions taken by countries which place their national interests above the common good. Those who will have to suffer the consequences of what we are trying to hide will not forget this failure of conscience and responsibility.” (169)

“Enforceable international agreements are needed...Relations between states should respect each other’s sovereignty, but must also lay down mutually agreed means averting regional disasters which will eventually affect everyone.” (173) 

The implications for Australia’s role at climate talks are unmistakable, given that our negotiators have been blocking consensus in order to protect our narrowly defined short-term national self-interest.

Responsibility at an individual and community level
Pope Francis’ teaching is not focused solely on societal structures driving the environmental crisis. Individuals and communities are also challenged to consume less, to recycle, use public transport, use less heating and wear warmer clothes,  and so on. He encourages environmental education. On no less than seven occasions does Pope Francis praise environmental organisations. 

While not endorsing divestment from fossil fuels explicitly, the divestment movement can take heart from much of this document, for example, where it encourages consumer boycotts. “They prove successful in changing the ways businesses operate, forcing them to consider their environmental footprint and their patterns of production. When social pressure affects their earnings, businesses clearly have to find ways to produce differently...” (206)

"(T)his encyclical on the environment will undoubtedly provide encouragement to Catholics - and other people of faith - to engage with environmental action."

"(T)his encyclical on the environment will undoubtedly provide encouragement to Catholics - and other people of faith - to engage with environmental action."

Potential impact of the encyclical
Given the gravity of the subject being treated, it would be reasonable to compare this encyclical with the first major encyclical on Catholic social teaching, Rerum Novarum, issued by Pope Leo XIII in 1891. Faced with an emerging labour union movement, Leo’s encyclical provided both encouragement for and an endorsement of Catholic engagement with unions. It provided a moral legitimation for unions as a response to the widespread exploitation of labour in the workplace. 

So, too, this encyclical on the environment will undoubtedly provide encouragement to Catholics - and other people of faith - to engage with environmental action. 

Detractors have tried to invalidate the teaching by claiming that Pope Francis is speaking outside his expertise. However, Pope Francis is not doing more than previous pontiffs who have spoken about the ethical implications of economic and political matters. He is prudently drawing on the best science offered internationally, and is legitimately pondering its ethical implications. 

Three-pronged papal focus for 2015
The publication of the encyclical is the first of a three-pronged papal focus on climate change during 2015. Pope Francis has already hosted a summit in Rome, bringing together leaders from the world’s major faiths, scientists, economists such as Jeffrey Sachs and prominent people such the secretary general of the United Nations, Ban Ki-Moon.

Finally, in September he has been invited by Ban Ki-moon to address the general assembly of the United Nations on the issue. All this activity is intentionally in support of building a global and binding agreement on limiting greenhouse gas emissions at the Paris climate talks. The secretary general clearly hopes the pope’s moral authority will sway the outcome. 

The impact of this on Australian politics is hard to predict. A number of senior parliamentarians are Catholic, yet their climate credentials are less than impressive. Tony Abbott’s claim that coal is “good for humanity” is the antithesis of Pope Francis’ message. His opponents will now be able to quote chapter and verse of a papal encyclical calling his policies into question.

Thea Ormerod is president of the Australian Religious Response to Climate Change.

The text of Laudato Si in English can be found here.