I urgently appeal, then, 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.
-Pope Francis, Laudato Si’, 15-
We are faced not with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather with one complex crisis which is both social and environmental. Strategies for a solution demand an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature.
-Laudato Si’, 139-
Five years ago, Pope Francis published Laudato Si’—an encyclical addressed not just to the leaders of the Church, but to all Catholics, all Christians, all people of faith, and all women and men of good will. Reading the signs of the times through the lens of Scripture, Laudato Si’ proclaims that issues of ecological justice—including climate change, diminishment of biodiversity, deforestation, water scarcity, and the unjust control and distribution of natural resources—are not tangential issues for women and men of faith, but are essential subjects for all who believe in the Creator God, in the Incarnate Jesus, and in the living Spirit. God is revealed in the gospel of Creation, and to ignore the crisis of the created world is to ignore this foundational element of the gospel.
Speaking of the world as “our Common Home,” Francis calls the Church to reflect on an “integral ecology”—in which we see that the justice we owe to every woman and man, the justice needed for human flourishing, and the justice we owe to the earth are two parts of a single whole: “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” (139).
This month, from the 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time to the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi (5 September - 4 October), the universal Church is invited to remember the lessons of Laudato Si’ and to integrate these teachings more fully into our personal lives and our societal structures. How are we serving the needs of our Common Home? How are we undoing the sinful structures and the personal habits that lead to deepening drought and melting ice-caps, to rising oceans and the impoverishment or displacement of indigenous peoples? How are we confronting our consumer ideology, which wounds both the earth and her people; and how are we encouraging the graces of sustainable community and the common good? How are we shaping our discernment and prayer towards the God who, as St. Ignatius notes, “labors in creations” and calls us as companions in mercy?
With the whole Church, and all women and men of good will, St. Ignatius Parish joins in this Season of Creation. With special prayers and activities, inspired and led by the St. Ignatius Laudato Si’ Circle, we hope to deepen in ourselves the lessons of Pope Francis, and go further—becoming part of the redemption of the earth, which Christ calls us to be.
We invite all members of the Parish, and family and friends, as well, to join us in this labor of love and hope.
Since he first walked onto the balcony following his election, unencumbered by the ermine cape of his predecessors and seeking to receive the blessing of the people gathered in the square before he gave them his own, Jorge Bergoglio—Pope Francis—has sought to blow into a flame the ember of the Church; to show that the faith and tradition Catholicism, carried through two millennia, is not an artifact for a museum but a living body, that still has much to say to the world. Through his tenderness and accessibility, his humor and his hospitality, his scuffed black shoes and his tendency to call those who seek him out, Francis has put a decidedly human face and voice on the institution of the Church. He has, intentionally and powerfully, opened the doors of the Church to let the air of the world flow in and the faith of Christ flow out. For Francis, the Church is not a citadel of truth, but a home and hospital, where the poor of the world and the God who loves them encounter one another to find a path of healing and hope.
This last week, with the publication of his first independent encyclical, Laudato Si’—On Care for Our Common Home, Francis takes his most important step thus far in guiding the Catholic Church out of the fortress of dogmatic defensiveness and into the city square. An encyclical is one of the highest forms of Church teaching—surpassed only by the documents of an Ecumenical Council or by a dogmatic declaration spoken ex cathedra— and it entails an obligation on the part of all the Catholic faithful to study and reflect. In the recent history of the Church, encyclicals have often had profound affects on the development of the Church and its intersection with civil society—e.g. Rerum Novarum, by Leo XIII, which spoke of the rights of labor in the 19th century; Pacem in Terris, by John XXIII, which decried nuclear proliferation and the danger of war in the 1960’s; Populorum Progressio, by Paul VI, which supported the aspirations of the poor in developing countries. In choosing this form to speak about “integral ecology” (as he calls it), Francis indicates the importance of the subject for the faith and formation of all Catholics, and indeed, for the life of all people.
Addressed not just to the bishops of the world, nor to Catholic faithful alone, but to all the peoples of the earth, Laudato Si’ intends to apply Scripture and Tradition to what Francis sees as perhaps the most crucial issue of our day: environmental exploitation and degradation, and its affects upon the poor. Laudato Si’ (the name comes from a hymn of St. Francis of Assisi) brings the rich heritage of the Church into dialogue with scientists and sociologists, with humanists and atheists, with those of other religious traditions and with those who profess nothing but the desire to end suffering or protect the planet on which we live. Like the Incarnation itself, this letter determines not to shelter the mystery of God from the problems and passions of human life; determines to see our God in the midst of Creation, and to proclaim that this God cares intimately about the choices and actions we make as members of this Creation.
Because of its concern for the realities of human existence, Laudato Si’ has already been accused of lacking a spiritual focus: of sanctifying a partisan political agenda rather than proclaiming the profound truths of the Catholic tradition. Asserting that Francis meddles in areas not consistent with papal authority or expertise—e.g., with economics and global warming, with matter of science and financial policy—some critics have, even before the publication of the document, called for the Pope to keep quiet, or have denied the teaching authority of this encyclical. Indeed, tales of intrigue, worthy of a Dan Brown novel, have surrounded leaks and rumors coming from within the Vatican itself and reported in the media, as opponents of Francis’ teaching sought to dull the power of this letter before it came out. Even within the hierarchy, some have sought to mollify critics by smoothing the sharp edges of the Pope’s analyses, suggesting that the letter offers nothing new or that it can be easily ignored. Yet, in the end the encyclical speaks for itself, and will stand or fall as a teaching instrument to the degree it expresses the faith of the living Church and helps that Church to come to know the God in whom “we live and move and have our being.”
Though it is a long document (246 paragraphs) and covers a wide swath of topics—from addictive consumption to biodiversity, from Genesis to the rights of property v. the right of the common good—it is vital that we engage Laudato Si’ and prayerfully discern its teachings and its call. In often beautiful and passionate prose, Francis summons us to reflect not on abstract moral precepts, but on a dynamic moral vision which will affect how we live our lives, care for our neighbors, renew our earth, and form our government. If taken seriously, this letter will change us as individuals and as a community of faith: change the way we gather and the way we pray; the way we share with the poor and the way we educate our young; the way we reach out to our partners in the Church and our partners of other faiths; it will change us in our understanding of the mystery of God, played out in the richness of God’s Creation.
But first, we must commit ourselves to reading the document, and reflecting upon it!
In the next few weeks, in this column, I hope to help us in that enterprise by taking Laudato Si’ section by section and offering some reflections and (perhaps, at times) explication. This will not be a definitive or scholarly interpretation of the document, but a chance for us to read it together and, I hope, a spark to the conversations we will be having in the coming months as a Parish and as a Church. I hope, through these manageable bits, all will be able to read this important gift of Pope Francis, and prepare ourselves for what is to come, through God’s grace and the power of the Spirit, alive in the People of God.