The Pope's concerns for the planet

By Steve Atherton

This page will try to give a flavour of the beautiful new encyclical by Pope Francis and to show that the pontiff’s well-known care for the poor is matched by his care for the earth. The actual document is 185 pages long and its title ‘Laudato si': On Care for our Common Home’, is taken from the hymn of Saint Francis, the patron of his papacy: ‘Laudato Si, o mi Signore’ (Praise be to you, O my Lord!).

All the Popes since John XXIII have written about concern for the environment but this is the first time that a pontiff has devoted an encyclical exclusively to the environment. "Faced as we are with global environmental deterioration, I wish to ad­dress every person living on this planet," he says in the third paragraph. 
 
Pope Francis lays out both the scientific and the moral reasons for protecting God's creation, stating strongly that the Church should be as concerned about global warming as it is about poverty, misery, destitution and any other form of injustice. Concern for the "irreplaceable and irretrievable beauty" (paragraph 35) of the earth is a moral issue which must be addressed by the whole world.

He reminds us that “the climate is a common good, belonging to all and meant for all” (par. 23) and says: "Climate change is a global problem with grave implications: environmental, social, eco­nomic, political and for the distribution of goods. It represents one of the principal chal­lenges facing humanity in our day." (par. 25)

He warns about the uses of fossil fuels and calls for policies that develop renewable energy as the main source of the world’s energy. "We know that technology based on the use of highly polluting fossil fuels – especially coal but also oil and, to a lesser degree, gas – needs to be progressively replaced without delay." (par. 165)

The history of "planet abuse" has led to the continual loss of biodiversity in Amazonian rainforests, the melting of Arctic glaciers, the overfishing of the seas, air pollution, the pollution of the world's water supplies, rising sea levels, extreme weather conditions, flooding, storms, crop failure and desertification. All of these disastrous consequences of human behaviour have most impact on the poorest people, on those who have done least to cause the problems. The ones most responsible are the least affected: "We have to realise that a true ecological approach always becomes a so­cial approach; it must integrate questions of jus­tice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor." (par. 49)

Speaking of the exploitation of the global south, he comments in paragraph 51 on "the disproportionate use of natural resources by certain countries over long periods of time" before going on to say that "we need to strengthen the conviction that we are one single human family. There are no frontiers or barriers, political or social, behind which we can hide, still less is there room for the globalisa­tion of indifference." (par. 52)  
 
The Pope’s wish is that people see the need for imminent action and learn "how to live wisely, to think deeply and to love generously" (par. 47). He says: "It is my hope that this Encyclical Letter, which is now added to the body of the Church’s social teaching, can help us to acknowledge the appeal, immensity and urgency of the challenge we face." (par. 15)

There are warnings against ignoring ecological warning signs – "human beings contrive to feed their self-destruc­tive vices: trying not to see them, trying not to acknowledge them, delaying the important deci­sions and pretending that nothing will happen" (par. 59) – and a call for us all to see that "our planet is a homeland and that humanity is one people living in a common home ... Interdependence obliges us to think of one world with a common plan." (par 164)

This plea for change is based on a mystical view of the world. "From the begin­ning of the world, but particularly through the incarnation, the mystery of Christ is at work in a hidden manner in the natural world as a whole, without thereby impinging on its autonomy," he writes in paragraph 99, before adding: "The very flowers of the field and the birds which his human eyes contemplated and admired are now imbued with his radiant presence." (par. 100)

Together we can make a difference. Thank God for Pope Francis.