Is it fair to say that Pope Francis’ encyclical, Laudato Si took us by surprise? I have personally never known a papal document to be so anticipated, both within the Church and well beyond its membership. And when it was published, I could almost hear the sharp intake of breath from scientists, politicians, theologians and charities engaged in humanitarian work. Everyone seemed to find passages that included them, their work and their aspirations.
Perhaps it is the term “integral ecology” that best describes the overall vision of the text. Everyone and everything is drawn into a single great tapestry of creation, of which we are reminded that we are stewards. But our stewardship has not been good. We have exploited so much of our worldly resource and exploited people, too. We have become caught up in an obsession with industrial growth, profit and material wealth to the point that we have lost sight of the well-being of creation and the need to provide for ourselves, and all peoples, in a sustainable way. We have not been aware of the consequences of our actions, and only now is the extent of the damage becoming clear. Pope Francis connects us together as a single family with a single common home. We are responsible for one another but we have forgotten about the care that we need to have for each other and for the animal kingdom and the plant life of the world in which we live.
The encyclical describes something of the destruction that we have imposed upon our planet, the extermination of thousands of species of animals and wild-life, the destruction of so many varieties of plant-life and how, through the unwitting and now uncaring promotion of climate change we have put our whole planet in danger. We are reminded that ‘each organism, as a creature of God, is good and admirable in itself’ (LS:140). The sorry truth is that the people who have done least to advance this destruction and waste are the very people most likely to directly suffer as a consequence. It is the peoples of some of the poorest countries who find themselves affected by pollution, over-farming, and rising sea levels. Pope Francis does not hide the severity of his observations. He says that we have made much of our planet resemble a mountain of filth.
The skill of the encyclical is that it connects everything and everyone together. The environmentalist is placed in close association with the agriculturalists, the conservationists, the animal –lover, the politicians and the scientists. Each, working in their own field, is shown to have connections with and an impact on the work of others. Skills are to be shared, ideals and aspirations placed in a single coherent vision. And the connection of all creation is also made clear: Each local ecosystem has its own regenerative ability and by our care we allow the earth to heal itself. “Integral Ecology” is a comprehensive approach to environmental problems. As Pope Francis says “We are part of nature, included in it”, so “we are faced not with two separate crises, one environmental and another social, but rather with one complex crisis which embraces us all. (LS:139).
Cleverly, Pope Francis had already put important foundation stones for his encyclical in place. In his previous encyclical Evangelii Gaudium – The Joy of the Gospel – he had reminded all the members of the Church that we are all, without exception, called to be “missionary disciples”. Our Faith is not to be just something that we observe privately in our lives, but something that we are challenged to employ in all our actions and choices. There can be nothing timid in our profession of Faith. We are to be “other Christs” in the way that we live, preaching the love of God and neighbour in our actions. As St Francis of Assisi has been portrayed as saying: “Preach the Gospel always. Sometimes use words”. Pope Francis has reminded us that Christianity is a way of life, not something that is merely abstract and limited to a sterile type of spirituality or prayer. In addition to reminding us that we are “missionary disciples”, Pope Francis has called for a Year of Mercy during which we endeavour to develop all those channels of mercy which not only concern our relationship with god and neighbour but which reach all humanity and creation. It is in Laudato Si that he combines all these elements into a coherent unity – a tapestry where everything is intricately connected and the many strands weave together to make one single picture.
The complexity of the challenge that Pope Francis lays before us is not to be under-estimated. He speaks of the Earth as our common home, where we are all one family. There is great need to understand the destructive consequences of industrialisation and the false demands of market forces that crave ever greater profit. We need first to understand the enormity of the problem and then consider the various ways in which we may begin to reverse the damage done. This includes everyone, from the multi-national corporations who threaten plant life and animal survival with deforestation and industrial farming and mineral extraction, to each of us as private individuals with our daily involvement in producing unnecessary waste in a throwaway society.
The world is entrusted to us, with its rich diversity of animal and plant life. We must care for one another, maintaining the dignity of each and restoring that dignity when it has been lost. We must care, too, for every creature, and protect their place in the extraordinary balance of Nature. Having stated his warning to us all in no uncertain terms, Pope Francis speaks with hope and enthusiasm for all that we can achieve and the health that we can restore to our global family and our common home.
Let us be grateful for the warning given by Pope Francis and pledge our best efforts to steward well all that is entrusted to us, for the sake of our children and future generations.
Bishop John Arnold is the Bishop of Salford and also Spokesman on the Environment for the Bishops Conference of England and Wales. He is Chair of CAFOD.