Pope Francis’ Creation Care Encyclical

By John Humphreys

So – the Pope has finally spoken about Creation Care! “If you want to cultivate peace, protect creation!” He goes on, ‘The quest for peace by people of good will surely would become easier if all acknowledge the indivisible relationship between God, human beings, and the whole of creation. …’

Oh – wait a minute – that was his predecessor, Benedict XVI…….quoted in an entire BOOK filled with his pronouncements on the subject – The Environment (published by Our Sunday Visitor, www.osv.com).

Here’s the current Pope on the topic:

“In our own time we are witnessing a growth of an ecological awareness which needs to be encouraged… a fuller sense of the importance of the relationship between human beings and the natural environment, which is God’s creation and which God entrusted to us to guard with wisdom and love …”

Oops, my mistake again – that was the “Venice Declaration” by Pope John Paul II and the Patriarch His Holiness Bartholomew I (Common Declaration on Environmental Ethics – http://www.columban.com/veniced.htm)

Get the picture? Despite what the Catholic faithful will have heard – or not heard – from the pulpit, the Catholic Church has for decades spoken loud and clear on the need for responsible stewardship of our world . Yet even the most regular attendee at Mass will have been in the dark as to what has actually been said.

So why the big deal about Pope Francis’ encyclical?

Because I think he has been so engaged and engaging, so potent an energizer of the Catholic Church in these last couple of years – so personable and jovial – that people are listening more. Even about Creation Care.

At the same time, he has not been afraid to challenge the rich and powerful – and most reading this would fall into that category – as to our consideration, or lack of it, towards the poor. And that is the main driver for his encyclical, Laudato si. As Dan Misleh, head of Catholic Climate Covenant, said, “He’s a pope from a developing country who has enormous passion for the poor … he wants us …to live our faith in service to [people on the margins]”. Certainly climate change will hit them first, and hardest. But the encyclical addresses all of the ecological crises we face, not just that.

So what has Pope Francis written? The following is a short commentary, but I commend the full document to you, as it deals with every aspect of creation care.

Firstly, he quotes his namesake, St. Francis, in the title. Laudato si is the start of the saint’s ‘Canticle of the Creatures’, where he praises God while alluding to his creation – ‘Praised be my Lord for sister water … greatly helpful … precious and pure…’ – not omitting the punch line, ‘Praise ye and bless ye my Lord, and give Him thanks, and be subject to Him with great humility.’

“[St. Francis’ canticle] is not just a flowery song about how we should live with nature. It is challenging us to revise our entire way of living our lives …if someone is starving somewhere in the world, we are responsible,” as U.S. Father Michael Perry, minister general of the Order of Friars Minor, said recently. “The obligations it carries are very realistic and concrete: to defend human dignity, especially the dignity of the poor; to promote dialogue and reconciliation to end war; to safeguard the earth and all living creatures; and to learn to live with just what one needs, not all that one wants.”

The Pope, then, chose well; the saint praises nature as a reality we must care for as part of God’s kingdom.

Secondly, the encyclical is a big document – over 100 pages. It isn’t a sound bite, to be tossed aside by politicians. It is a scholarly treatise; a thoughtful and prayer-filled cri de coeur. “Faced as we are with global environmental deterioration, I wish to address every person living on this planet,” the Holy Father starts, digging deeply into the previous Popes’ writings – Paul VI, John Paul II, and Benedict XVI. As I mentioned above, this is not a new concern for Catholics. Neither is it just about climate change; inspired by St. Francis, the Pope writes, “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.” He returns to this theme again and again – and this is the message that will unsettle the most.

Thirdly, Pope Francis is hopeful. The encyclical is not just a warning, a condemnation. “The Creator does not abandon us; he never forsakes his loving plan or repents of having created us. Humanity still has the ability to work together in building our common home. Here I want to recognize, encourage and thank all those striving in countless ways to guarantee the protection of the home which we share. 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.” Yet, he speaks out, clearly, against short-sighted greed or a foolish dismissal of ecological problems: “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. We require a new and universal solidarity”. We are already seeing many such voices on the media.

Chapter One of the document describes the ‘Anthropocene’ and the multiple threats facing the natural world – not ‘just’ climate change. “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 details the various sources of pollution, many of which are more immediately noxious to human health than carbon dioxide. And he speaks very eloquently about our throwaway culture: “It is hard for us to accept that the way natural ecosystems work is exemplary: plants synthesize nutrients which feed herbivores; these in turn become food for carnivores, which produce significant quantities of organic waste which give rise to new generations of plants. But our industrial system, at the end of its cycle of production and consumption, has not developed the capacity to absorb and reuse waste and by-products…” – alluding to the need for a ‘Cradle to Cradle’ approach (to quote the book by William McDonough and Michael Braungart).

He then turns to describe the issue of greenhouse gases – “The climate is a common good, belonging to all and meant for all. At the global level, it is a complex system linked to many of the essential conditions for human life. A very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climatic system …The melting in the polar ice caps and in high altitude plains can lead to the dangerous release of methane gas, while the decomposition of frozen organic material can further increase the emission of carbon dioxide. Things are made worse by the loss of tropical forests which would otherwise help to mitigate climate change. Carbon dioxide pollution increases the acidification of the oceans and compromises the marine food chain. 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 …”.

Remember, the Pope is a chemist by training; no fool he. Neither does he forget those who will feel the brunt of this – the poor in developing countries, who “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.”.

The issue of water is close to his heart, as it was for Saint Francis. “…access to safe drinkable water is a basic and universal human right, since it is essential to human survival of and, as such, is a condition for the exercise of other human rights. Our world has a grave social debt towards the poor who lack access to drinking water…”

But I am most cheered by the Pontiff’s urgent pleas for biodiversity. This is one of the most impassioned and heartbreaking passages:

“Each year sees the disappearance of thousands of plant and animal species which we will never know, which our children will never see, because they have been lost for ever. The great majority become extinct for reasons related to human activity. Because of us, thousands of species will no longer give glory to God by their very existence, nor convey their message to us. We have no such right.”

And technological fixes often fail. “The degree of human intervention, often in the service of business interests and consumerism, is actually making our earth less rich and beautiful, ever more limited and grey, even as technological advances and consumer goods continue to abound limitlessly. We seem to think that we can substitute an irreplaceable and irretrievable beauty with something which we have created ourselves.”

He particularly calls out the fate of African and Amazonian forests: “The ecosystems of tropical forests possess an enormously complex biodiversity which is almost impossible to appreciate fully, yet when these forests are burned down or leveled for purposes of cultivation, within the space of a few years countless species are lost and the areas frequently become arid wastelands.”

Finally, in this chapter, the Pope considers the oceans, where pollution and over-fishing gravely endanger them.

Pope Francis does not just list the ecological challenges, however. He reminds us that “   the human environment and the natural environment deteriorate together; we cannot adequately combat environmental degradation unless we attend to causes related to human and social degradation.”

The Holy Father rather acidly goes on, “These days, [the ‘excluded’] are mentioned in international political and economic discussions, but one often has the impression that their problems are brought up as an afterthought, a question which gets added almost out of duty or in a tangential way, if not treated merely as collateral damage. Indeed, when all is said and done, they frequently remain at the bottom of the pile…”

But as always with Pope Francis – with censure, comes love and encouragement: “There are positive examples, in some countries, of environmental improvement: rivers, polluted for decades, have been cleaned up; native woodlands have been restored; landscapes have been beautified thanks to environmental renewal projects; beautiful buildings have been erected; advances have been made in the production of nonpolluting energy, or in the improvement of public transportation. These achievements do not solve global problems, but they do show that men and women are still capable of intervening positively. For all our limitations, gestures of generosity, solidarity and care cannot but well up within us, since we were made for love”

These words lead into a wonderful exegesis of Creation Care theology in Chapter Two, ‘The Gospel of Creation’.

The Pope quotes St. John Paul II – “If the simple fact of being human moves people to care for the environment of which they are a part, Christians in their turn ‘realize that their responsibility within creation, and their duty towards nature and the Creator, are an essential part of their faith’”. This chapter reprises all the arguments for Christians to love God’s creation. “The Bible has no place for a tyrannical anthropocentrism unconcerned for other creatures….” And the Catechism states, “Each creature possesses its own particular goodness and perfection… Each of the various creatures, willed in its own being, reflects in its own way a ray of God’s infinite wisdom and goodness. Man must therefore respect the particular goodness of every creature, to avoid any disordered use of things. Any of you who takes the trouble to read this chapter will be captivated by Pope Francis’ words.

But a reminder: “This is not to put all living beings on the same level nor to deprive human beings of their unique worth and the tremendous responsibility it entails. Nor does it imply a divinization of the earth which would prevent us from working on it and protecting it in its fragility.”

Chapter Three analyzes technology’s pros and cons, given the crisis we have.

“Technology has remedied countless evils which used to harm and limit human beings. How can we not feel gratitude and appreciation for this progress, especially in the fields of medicine, engineering and communications? How could we not acknowledge the work of many scientists and engineers who have provided alternatives to make development sustainable?”. I am a scientist, so those words are cheering.

Yet it is difficult to disagree with the corollary: “… our immense technological development has not been accompanied by a development in human responsibility, values and conscience. Each age tends to have only a meager awareness of its own limitations. It is possible that we do not grasp the gravity of the challenges now before us.”

The Holy Father speaks eloquently about moral relativism here.

Chapter Four – ‘Integral Ecology’ – reminds us that “Nature cannot be regarded as something separate from ourselves or as a mere setting in which we live. We are part of nature, included in it and thus in constant interaction with it.” This section of the encyclical is fairly highbrow, expounding on protecting our individual societies’ cultural heritage, and describing the forces at work in degraded environments, particularly cities – but yet again, with hope – “In the unstable neighborhoods of the mega-cities, the daily experience of overcrowding and social anonymity can create a sense of uprootedness which spawns antisocial behavior and violence. Nonetheless, I wish to insist that love always proves more powerful. Many people in these conditions are able to weave bonds of belonging and togetherness which convert overcrowding into an experience of community in which the walls of the ego are torn down and the barriers of selfishness overcome.”

Chapter Five – Lines of Approach and Action – is the section that is bound to cause the most controversy, for, after so movingly and intelligently describing what’s wrong, the Holy Father wishes to discuss how to put it right. In response to this, I am sure there will be a lot of ‘willful blindness’ and self-interest … as well as, to be fair, respectful disagreement.

His Holiness summarizes his position as follows: “Interdependence obliges us to think of one world with a common plan. Yet the same ingenuity which has brought about enormous technological progress has so far proved incapable of finding effective ways of dealing with grave environmental and social problems worldwide. A global consensus is essential for confronting the deeper problems, which cannot be resolved by unilateral actions on the part of individual countries. Such a consensus could lead, for example, to planning a sustainable and diversified agriculture, developing renewable and less polluting forms of energy, encouraging a more efficient use of energy, promoting a better management of marine and forest resources, and ensuring universal access to drinking water.”

As you have already seen, this document is not just about climate change – it touches on all that organizations like BirdLife International, the Nature Conservancy, and the World Wildlife Fund have been speaking out on for years.

But even when focusing on global warming, the data are clear enough for the Pope to say, “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.” Realistically, he adds, “Until greater progress is made in developing widely accessible sources of renewable energy, it is legitimate to choose the lesser of two evils or to find short-term solutions…”, while bemoaning the lack of political will to solve the fundamentals.

He considers what options we have to reduce greenhouse gases – carbon credits, helping poor countries adopt non-polluting alternatives, and so on – but makes the perceptive comment that a “politics concerned with immediate results, supported by a consumerist sectors of the population, is driven to produce short-term growth. In response to electoral interests, governments are reluctant to upset the public with measures which could affect the level of consumption or create risks for foreign investment. The myopia of power politics delays the inclusion of a farsighted environmental agenda within the overall agenda of governments”.

But think global, act local! – “While the existing world order proves powerless to assume its responsibilities, local individuals and groups can make a real difference. They are able to instill a greater sense of responsibility, a strong sense of community, a readiness to protect others, a spirit of creativity and a deep love for the land. They are also concerned about what they will eventually leave to their children and grandchildren.”

One passage will irk those who refuse to act until cast-iron proof of runaway global warming is seen:

“[A] precautionary principle makes it possible to protect those who are most vulnerable and whose ability to defend their interests and to assemble incontrovertible evidence is limited. If objective information suggests that serious and irreversible damage may result, a project should be halted or modified, even in the absence of indisputable proof. Here the burden of proof is effectively reversed, since in such cases objective and conclusive demonstrations will have to be brought forward to demonstrate that the proposed activity will not cause serious harm to the environment or to those who inhabit it.”

Pope Francis goes on, “This does not mean being opposed to any technological innovations which can bring about an improvement in the quality of life. But it does mean that profit cannot be the sole criterion to be taken into account.” Amen!

I appreciated this passage very much, considering that some green organizations can be quite parochial:

“An open and respectful dialogue is also needed between the various ecological movements, among which ideological conflicts are frequently encountered. The gravity of the ecological crisis demands that we all look to the common good, embarking on a path of dialogue which demands patience, self-discipline and generosity”.

Chapter Six – Ecological Education and Spirituality – starts forcibly – “Many things have to change course, but it is we human beings above all who need to change”. Here, he deals again with self-centeredness and rampant consumerism.

“An awareness of the gravity of today’s cultural and ecological crisis must be translated into new habits. Many people know that our current progress and the mere amassing of things and pleasures are not enough to give meaning and joy to the human heart, yet they feel unable to give up what the market sets before them. In those countries which should be making the greatest changes in consumer habits, young people have a new ecological sensitivity and a generous spirit, and some of them are making admirable efforts to protect the environment. At the same time, they have grown up in a milieu of extreme consumerism and affluence which makes it difficult to develop other habits. We are faced with an educational challenge.”

  • And I personally believe that it is this call for a kinder, less self-indulgent, more environmentally sensitive capitalism that is one of the most important messages of the encyclical, and the one that will most irritate some politicians and commentators.

After some profound theological discussions, Pope Francis ends with a prayer:

All-powerful God, you are present in the whole universe

and in the smallest of your creatures.

You embrace with your tenderness all that exists.

Pour out upon us the power of your love,

that we may protect life and beauty.

Fill us with peace, that we may live

as brothers and sisters, harming no one.

O God of the poor,

help us to rescue the abandoned and forgotten of this earth,

so precious in your eyes.

Bring healing to our lives,

that we may protect the world and not prey on it,

that we may sow beauty, not pollution and destruction.

Touch the hearts

of those who look only for gain

at the expense of the poor and the earth.

Teach us to discover the worth of each thing,

to be filled with awe and contemplation,

to recognize that we are profoundly united

with every creature

as we journey towards your infinite light.

We thank you for being with us each day.

Encourage us, we pray, in our struggle

for justice, love and peace.                                                        



About John: John is a biochemist working in pharmaceutical software. He has been mad about natural history since the age of 5, is an ardent conservationist, pragmatic environmentalist and a longtime friend of A Rocha

Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of A Rocha.


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