Wednesday, September 30, 2015

"Distractions constantly dull our consciousness": Laudato Si', 53-59

Throughout Laudato Si, Francis exhorts his readers to think seriously about changes in lifestyle that are required to care for our common home and for the poor. In the excerpts that follow, he castigates the often half-hearted efforts which characterize too much of our response to ecological problems. (Calling it like he sees it = vintage Francis!)


53. These situations [of unsustainable consumption and ecological damage] have caused sister earth, along with all the abandoned of our world, to cry out, pleading that we take another course.... We are called to be instruments of God our Father, so that our planet might be what he desired when he created it.... The problem is that we still lack the culture needed to confront this crisis. We lack leadership capable of striking out on new paths and meeting the needs of the present with concern for all and without prejudice towards coming generations....

54. It is remarkable how weak international political responses have been.... There are too many special interests, and economic interests easily end up trumping the common good and manipulating information so that their own plans will not be affected.... The alliance between the economy and technology ends up sidelining anything unrelated to its immediate interests. Consequently the most one can expect is superficial rhetoric, sporadic acts of philanthropy and perfunctory expressions of concern for the environment, whereas any genuine attempt by groups within society to introduce change is viewed as a nuisance based on romantic illusions or an obstacle to be circumvented.

55. ...People may well have a growing ecological sensitivity but it has not succeeded in changing their harmful habits of consumption which, rather than decreasing, appear to be growing all the more....

56. ...Economic powers continue to justify the current global system where priority tends to be given to speculation and the pursuit of financial gain, which fail to take the context into account, let alone the effects on human dignity and the natural environment. Here we see how environmental deterioration and human and ethical degradation are closely linked. Many people will deny doing anything wrong because distractions constantly dull our consciousness of just how limited and finite our world really is. As a result, "whatever is fragile, like the environment, is defenceless before the interests of a deified market, which become the only rule".[33]

57. It is foreseeable that, once certain resources have been depleted, the scene will be set for new wars, albeit under the guise of noble claims. War always does grave harm to the environment and to the cultural riches of peoples, risks which are magnified when one considers nuclear arms and biological weapons.... Politics must pay greater attention to foreseeing new conflicts and addressing the causes which can lead to them. But powerful financial interests prove most resistant to this effort, and political planning tends to lack breadth of vision....

58. In some countries, there are positive examples of environmental improvement: rivers, polluted for decades, have been cleaned up; native woodlands have been restored;... advances have been made in the production of non-polluting energy.... 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.

59. At the same time we can note the rise of a false or superficial ecology which bolsters complacency and a cheerful recklessness. As often occurs in periods of deep crisis which require bold decisions, we are tempted to think that what is happening is not entirely clear. Superficially, apart from a few obvious signs of pollution and deterioration, things do not look that serious, and the planet could continue as it is for some time. Such evasiveness serves as a licence to carrying on with our present lifestyles.... This is the way 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.


[33] Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (24 November 2013), 56.

Monday, September 28, 2015

"A true ecological approach always becomes a social approach": Laudato Si', 48-52

Having previously considered the current ecological state and some current social ills, in the excerpts below Francis now turns his attention to one particular social issue: inequality. It is a theme which permeates the entire document, as he argues that the poor are often those who are most harmed by environmental degradation. Moreover, it is the same callous spirit which causes us to neglect both the poor and the environment. But I'll let you read Francis's own account.


48. 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. In fact, the deterioration of the environment and of society affects the most vulnerable people on the planet....

49. It needs to be said that, generally speaking, there is little in the way of clear awareness of problems which especially affect the excluded. Yet they are the majority of the planet's population, billions of people. These days, they 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.... This is due partly to the fact that many professionals, opinion makers, communications media and centres of power, being located in affluent urban areas, are far removed from the poor, with little direct contact with their problems. They live and reason from the comfortable position of a high level of development and a quality of life well beyond the reach of the majority of the world's population. This lack of physical contact and encounter... can lead to a numbing of conscience and to tendentious analyses which neglect parts of reality. At times this attitude exists side by side with a "green" rhetoric. Today, however, we have to realize that a true ecological approach always becomes a social approach....

50. 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".... 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....

51. Inequity... compels us to consider an ethics of international relations. A true "ecological debt" exists, particularly between the global north and south, connected to commercial imbalances with effects on the environment, and the disproportionate use of natural resources by certain countries over long periods of time....

52. ...Developing countries, where the most important reserves of the biosphere are found, continue to fuel the development of richer countries at the cost of their own present and future.... The poorest areas and countries are less capable of adopting new models for reducing environmental impact because they lack the wherewithal to develop the necessary processes and to cover their costs. We must continue to be aware that, regarding climate change, there are differentiated responsibilities....

Friday, September 25, 2015

"The growth of the past two centuries has not always led to an integral development": Laudato Si', 43-47

In the excerpts below, Pope Francis shifts his attention from the survey of ecological degradation to other forms of pollution - visual, mental, etc. - that are poisoning the human environment and go hand-in-hand with damage to the natural environment.


43. Human beings too are creatures of this world, enjoying a right to life and happiness, and endowed with unique dignity. So we cannot fail to consider the effects on people’s lives of environmental deterioration, current models of development and the throwaway culture.

44. Nowadays, for example, we are conscious of the disproportionate and unruly growth of many cities, which have become unhealthy to live in, not only because of pollution caused by toxic emissions but also as a result of urban chaos, poor transportation, and visual pollution and noise…. We were not meant to be inundated by cement, asphalt, glass and metal, and deprived of physical contact with nature.

45. In some places, rural and urban alike, the privatization of certain spaces has restricted people’s access to places of particular beauty. In others, “ecological” neighbourhoods have been created which are closed to outsiders in order to ensure an artificial tranquility….

46. …The effects of technological innovations on employment, social exclusion, an inequitable distribution and consumption of energy and other services, social breakdown, increased violence and a rise in new forms of social aggression, drug trafficking, growing drug use by young people, and the loss of identity… are signs that the growth of the past two centuries has not always led to an integral development and an improvement in the quality of life….

47. …When media and the digital world become omnipresent, their influence can stop people from learning how to live wisely, to think deeply and to love generously. In this context, the great sages of the past run the risk of going unheard amid the noise and distractions of an information overload…. True wisdom, as the fruit of self-examination, dialogue and generous encounter between persons, is not acquired by a mere accumulation of data which eventually leads to overload and confusion, a sort of mental pollution. Real relationships with others, with all the challenges they entail, now tend to be replaced by a type of internet communication which enables us to choose or eliminate relationships at whim, thus giving rise to a new type of contrived emotion.… We should be concerned that, alongside the exciting possibilities offered by these [new] media, a deep and melancholic dissatisfaction with interpersonal relations, or a harmful sense of isolation, can also arise.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

"Witnesses to terrible injustices": Laudato Si', 27-36

Having previously discussed pollution and climate change, in the excerpts below Francis wraps up his survey of current ecological woes and also references topics he will subsequently cover in greater detail: the social consequences (both direct and indirect, via ecological damage) of contemporary economic models, and the theological dimension of ecological concern.


27. Other indicators of the present situation have to do with the depletion of natural resources…. The exploitation of the planet has already exceeded acceptable limits and we still have not solved the problem of poverty….

30. Even as the quality of available water is constantly diminishing, in some places there is a growing tendency, despite its scarcity, to privatize this resource, turning it into a commodity subject to the laws of the market. Yet access to safe drinkable water is a basic and universal human right, since it is essential to human survival and, as such, is a condition for the exercise of other human rights….


32. …The loss of forests and woodlands entails the loss of species which may constitute extremely important resources in the future….

33. It is not enough, however, to think of different species merely as potential “resources” to be exploited, while overlooking the fact that they have value in themselves. 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 forever. 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.

34. …Human beings must intervene when a geosystem reaches a critical state. But nowadays, such intervention in nature has become more and more frequent. As a consequence, serious problems arise, leading to further interventions; human activity becomes ubiquitous, with all the risks which this entails. Often a vicious circle results, as human intervention to resolve a problem further aggravates the situation. For example, many birds and insects which disappear due to synthetic agrotoxins are helpful for agriculture: their disappearance will have to be compensated for by yet other techniques which may well prove harmful. We must be grateful for the praiseworthy efforts being made by scientists and engineers dedicated to finding solutions to man-made problems. But a sober look at our world shows that the degree of human intervention, often in the service of business interests and consumerism, is actually making our earth less rich and beautiful…. We seem to think that we can substitute an irreplaceable and irretrievable beauty with something which we have created ourselves….

36. Caring for ecosystems demands far-sightedness, since no one looking for quick and easy profit is truly interested in their preservation. But the cost of the damage caused by such selfish lack of concern is much greater than the economic benefits to be obtained…. We can be silent witnesses to terrible injustices if we think that we can obtain significant benefits by making the rest of humanity, present and future, pay the extremely high costs of environmental deterioration….

Monday, September 21, 2015

"Humanity is called to recognize the need for changes of lifestyle": Laudato Si', 23-26

While the media latched on to Pope Francis's claim that climate change is indeed happening, I think they missed his bigger argument in the following passages, which nests within one of his overarching arguments, namely that climate, like the entire natural world, is a common good and that its degradation most affects the poor, for whom we should have particular concern.

Climate as a common good

23. 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. In recent decades this warming has been accompanied by a constant rise in the sea level and, it would appear, by an increase of extreme weather events, even if a scientifically determinable cause cannot be assigned to each particular phenomenon. Humanity is called to recognize the need for changes of lifestyle, production and consumption, in order to combat this warming or at least the human causes which produce or aggravate it. It is true that there are other factors (such as volcanic activity, variations in the earth’s orbit and axis, the solar cycle), yet a number of scientific studies indicate that most global warming in recent decades is due to the great concentration of greenhouse gases released mainly as a result of human activity…. The problem is aggravated by a model of development based on the intensive use of fossil fuels, which is at the heart of the worldwide energy system. Another determining factor has been an increase in changed uses of the soil, principally deforestation for agricultural purposes.

24. Warming… creates a vicious circle which aggravates the situation even more, affecting the availability of essential resources like drinking water, energy and agricultural production in warmer regions, and leading to the extinction of part of the planet’s biodiversity…. A rise in the sea level… 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.

25. 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. Its worst impact will probably be felt by developing countries in coming decades. Many of the poor… are largely dependent on natural reserves and ecosystemic services such as agriculture, fishing and forestry…. There has been a tragic rise in the number of migrants seeking to flee from the growing poverty caused by environmental degradation. They are not recognized by international conventions as refugees…. Sadly, there is widespread indifference to such suffering, which is even now taking place throughout our world. Our lack of response to these tragedies involving our brothers and sisters points to the loss of that sense of responsibility for our fellow men and women upon which all civil society is founded.

26. Many of those who possess more resources and economic or political power seem mostly to be concerned with masking the problems or concealing their symptoms…. However, many of these symptoms indicate that such effects will continue to worsen if we continue with current models of production and consumption. 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…. Some countries have made considerable progress…, but these good practices are still far from widespread.

Friday, September 18, 2015

"We require a new and universal solidarity": Laudato Si', 14-22

In the excerpts below, Francis wraps up his introduction with an appeal to all men and then launches into an overview of what is happening to our planet. Although much of the information in this section is well known, and therefore I've left out some of the details, as Francis explains, "Our goal is not to amass information or to satisfy curiosity, but rather to become painfully aware, to dare to turn what is happening to the world into our own personal suffering and thus to discover what each of us can do about it."

My appeal

14. I urgently appeal… for a new dialogue about how we are shaping the future of our planet. We need a conversation which includes everyone, since the environmental challenge we are undergoing, and its human roots, concern and affect us all. The worldwide ecological movement has already made considerable progress and led to the establishment of numerous organizations committed to raising awareness of these challenges. Regrettably, many efforts to seek concrete solutions to the environmental crisis have proved ineffective, not only because of powerful opposition but also because of a more general lack of interest. 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….


17. Theological and philosophical reflections on the situation of humanity and the world can sound tiresome and abstract, unless they are grounded in a fresh analysis of our present situation…. So, before considering how faith brings new incentives and requirements with regard to the world…, I will briefly turn to what is happening to our common home.

18. The continued acceleration of changes affecting humanity and the planet is coupled today with a more intensified pace of life and work which might be called “rapidification”. 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. Moreover, the goals of this rapid and constant change are not necessarily geared to the common good or to integral and sustainable human development….

19. …Let us review, however cursorily, those questions which are troubling us today…. Our goal is not to amass information or to satisfy curiosity, but rather to become painfully aware, to dare to turn what is happening to the world into our own personal suffering and thus to discover what each of us can do about it.


Pollution, waste and the throwaway culture

20. Some forms of pollution are part of people’s daily experience. Exposure to atmospheric pollutants produces a broad spectrum of health hazards, especially for the poor, and causes millions of premature deaths…. Technology, which, linked to business interests, is presented as the only way of solving these problems, in fact proves incapable of seeing the mysterious network of relations between things and so sometimes solves one problem only to create others.

21. …Each year hundreds of millions of tons of waste are generated, much of it non-biodegradable, highly toxic and radioactive…. In many parts of the planet, the elderly lament that once beautiful landscapes are now covered with rubbish. Industrial waste and chemical products… can lead to bioaccumulation in the organisms of the local population…. Frequently no measures are taken until after people’s health has been irreversibly affected.

22. These problems are closely linked to a throwaway culture which affects the excluded just as it quickly reduces things to rubbish. To cite one example, most of the paper we produce is thrown away and not recycled…. We have not yet managed to adopt a circular model of production capable of preserving resources for present and future generations…. A serious consideration of this issue would be one way of counteracting the throwaway culture which affects the entire planet, but it must be said that only limited progress has been made in this regard.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

"Replace consumption with sacrifice, greed with generosity, wastefulness with a spirit of sharing": Laudato Si', 7-12

Following up on his review of recent papal teachings, Pope Francis now turns his attention to two further examples of Christian thinking on the environment: Patriarch Bartholomew, the head of the Greek Orthodox Church, and St. Francis of Assisi (d. 1226). (The inclusion of Bartholomew is quite striking; I don't know when a pope last quoted an Orthodox patriarch; Catholic-Orthodox relations have not been this good since... the 10th century?)

United by the Same Concern

7. These statements of the Popes echo the reflections of numerous scientists, philosophers, theologians and civic groups, all of which have enriched the Church’s thinking on these questions…. To give just one striking example, I would mention the statements made by the beloved Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, with whom we share the hope of full ecclesial communion.

8. Patriarch Bartholomew has spoken in particular of the need for each of us to repent…, for “inasmuch as we all generate small ecological damage”, we are called to acknowledge “our contribution, smaller or greater, to the disfigurement and destruction of creation”.[14]… “To commit a crime against the natural world is a sin against ourselves and a sin against God”.[16]

9. At the same time, Bartholomew has drawn attention to the ethical and spiritual roots of environmental problems, which require that we look for solutions not only in technology but in a change of humanity; otherwise we would be dealing merely with symptoms. He asks us to replace consumption with sacrifice, greed with generosity, wastefulness with a spirit of sharing…. “It is a way of loving, of moving gradually away from what I want to what God’s world needs. It is liberation from fear, greed and compulsion”.[17] As Christians, we are also called “to accept the world as… a way of sharing with God and our neighbours on a global scale…. The divine and the human meet in the slightest detail in the seamless garment of God’s creation, in the last speck of dust of our planet”.[18]

Saint Francis of Assisi

10. …Saint Francis is the example par excellence of care for the vulnerable and of an integral ecology lived out joyfully and authentically…. He loved, and was deeply loved for his joy, his generous self-giving, his openheartedness. He was a mystic and a pilgrim who lived in simplicity and in wonderful harmony with God, with others, with nature and with himself. He shows us just how inseparable the bond is between concern for nature, justice for the poor, commitment to society, and interior peace.

11. Francis helps us to see that an integral ecology calls for openness to categories which transcend the language of mathematics and biology, and take us to the heart of what it is to be human. Just as happens when we fall in love with someone, whenever he would gaze at the sun, the moon or the smallest of animals, he burst into song, drawing all other creatures into his praise…. His response to the world around him was so much more than intellectual appreciation or economic calculus, for to him each and every creature was a sister united to him by bonds of affection…. Such a conviction cannot be written off as naive romanticism, for it affects the choices which determine our behaviour. 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. By contrast, if we feel intimately united with all that exists, then sobriety and care will well up spontaneously. The poverty and austerity of Saint Francis were no mere veneer of asceticism, but something much more radical: a refusal to turn reality into an object simply to be used and controlled.

12. What is more, Saint Francis, faithful to Scripture, invites us to see nature as a magnificent book in which God speaks to us and grants us a glimpse of his infinite beauty and goodness. “Through the greatness and the beauty of creatures one comes to know by analogy their maker” (Wis 13:5); indeed, “his eternal power and divinity have been made known through his works since the creation of the world” (Rom 1:20)….


[14] Message for the Day of Prayer for the Protection of Creation (1 September 2012).

[16] Address in Santa Barbara, California (8 November 1997); cf. John Chryssavgis, On Earth as in Heaven: Ecological Vision and Initiatives of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, Bronx, New York, 2012.

[17] Lecture at the Monastery of Utstein, Norway (23 June 2003).

[18] “Global Responsibility and Ecological Sustainability”, Closing Remarks, Halki Summit I, Istanbul (20 June 2012).

Monday, September 14, 2015

"We have forgotten that man does not create himself": Laudato Si', 1-6

When Pope Francis's encyclical letter Laudato Si' came out, I was a bit befuddled by the media coverage, which claimed that the pope had suddenly become an environmentalist, and also wrote about the poor, with a sprinkling of traditional Catholic condemnations of things like artificial birth control.  Frankly, it sounded like a pretty schizophrenic document (which, in any case, I didn't have time to read).

But I was again reminded of
Laudato Si' when I came across a Financial Times article about Yellowstone that asked, "Are humans part of nature, or above it?  Why do we care about setting aside 'wild' lands such as Yellowstone?  Why do we care about the survival of wolves in the first place?  Does nature and wildlife have intrinsic value?"  So I picked up the document and was pleased to discover both insight and coherence.

I've excerpted some passages and will be sharing them a few times a week.  Below is the first installment, in which Francis traces some of the origins of his thinking in the work of his predecessors (and implicitly argues that, although the emphasis may be new, the Church's concern for the environment is not).

1. “LAUDATO SI’, mi’ Signore” – “Praise be to you, my Lord”. In the words of this beautiful canticle, Saint Francis of Assisi reminds us that our common home is like a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us.[1]…

2. This sister now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her. We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will. The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life. This is why the earth herself, burdened and laid waste... “groans in travail” (Rom 8:22). We have forgotten that we ourselves are dust of the earth (cf. Gen 2:7)…. 

Nothing in this world is indifferent to us

3. …Faced as we are with global environmental deterioration, I wish to address every person living on this planet….  I would like to enter into dialogue with all people about our common home.
4. In 1971,… Blessed Pope Paul VI referred to the ecological concern as “a tragic consequence” of unchecked human activity: “Due to an ill-considered exploitation of nature, humanity runs the risk of destroying it and becoming in turn a victim of this degradation”.[2] He... stressed “the urgent need for a radical change in the conduct of humanity”, inasmuch as “the most extraordinary scientific advances, the most amazing technical abilities, the most astonishing economic growth, unless they are accompanied by authentic social and moral progress, will definitively turn against man”.[3]

5. Saint John Paul II became increasingly concerned about this issue. In his first Encyclical he warned that human beings frequently seem “to see no other meaning in their natural environment than what serves for immediate use and consumption”.[4]…  At the same time, he noted that little effort had been made to “safeguard the moral conditions for an authentic human ecology”.[6] The destruction of the human environment is extremely serious, not only because God has entrusted the world to us men and women, but because human life is itself a gift which must be defended from various forms of debasement. Every effort to protect and improve our world entails profound changes in “lifestyles, models of production and consumption, and the established structures of power which today govern societies”.[7] Authentic human development has a moral character. It presumes full respect for the human person, but it must also be concerned for the world around us and “take into account the nature of each being and of its mutual connection in an ordered system”.[8]…

6. My predecessor Benedict XVI likewise proposed “eliminating the structural causes of the dysfunctions of the world economy and correcting models of growth which have proved incapable of ensuring respect for the environment”.[10] He observed that the world cannot be analyzed by isolating only one of its aspects, since “the book of nature is one and indivisible”, and includes the environment, life, sexuality, the family, social relations, and so forth. It follows that “the deterioration of nature is closely connected to the culture which shapes human coexistence”.[11] Pope Benedict asked us to recognize that the natural environment has been gravely damaged by our irresponsible behaviour. The social environment has also suffered damage. Both are ultimately due to the same evil: the notion that there are no indisputable truths to guide our lives, and hence human freedom is limitless. We have forgotten that “…man does not create himself…”.[12] With paternal concern, Benedict urged us to realize that creation is harmed “where we ourselves have the final word, where everything is simply our property and we use it for ourselves alone. The misuse of creation begins when we no longer recognize any higher instance than ourselves…”.[13]


[1] Canticle of the Creatures, in Francis of Assisi: Early Documents, vol. 1, New York / London /Manila, 1999, 113-114. 

[2] Apostolic Letter Octogesima Adveniens (14 May 1971), 21.

[3] Address to FAO on the 25th Anniversary of its Institution (16 November 1970), 4.

[4] Encyclical Letter Redemptor Hominis (4 March 1979), 15.

[6] Encyclical Letter Centesimus Annus (1 May 1991), 38.

[7] Ibid., 58.

[8] Encyclical Letter Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (30 December 1987), 34.

[10] Address to the Diplomatic Corps Accredited to the Holy See (8 January 2007).

[11] Encyclical Letter Caritas in Veritate (29 June 2009), 51.

[12] Address to the Bundestag, Berlin (22 September 2011).

[13] Address to the Clergy of the Diocese of Bolzano-Bressanone (6 August 2008).