Climate Change & Adaptation / Guest Posts

Pope Francis’ Environmental Appeal: Care for Our Common Home

On occasion of historic papal visit to the U.S., CFE/Save the Sound boardmember Edwin Matthews contemplates what Pope Francis could do for the climate.

Below, find excerpts from Edwin’s essay on Laudato Si, the Pope’s encyclical on climate change. You can read his entire essay here.

In this discouraging time, we have been given a clear and hopeful voice. Just as we are about to be overtaken by the four horsemen of an environmental apocalypse comes Pope Francis, inspired by his namesake, a twelfth century monk, St. Francis of Assisi, and asks us to embrace, honor and protect the earth, our common home. The earth, he says, should be like a sister for us.

The Pope’s environmental message is contained in a recent papal letter, or encyclical, entitled Laudata Si: On Care for Our Common Home. Although usually a statement of doctrine addressed to bishops of the church, this letter is an appeal to “every living person on this planet.” He invites us to have a “dialogue with all people about our common home” and offers us a way forward.

The document is noteworthy not only because it will influence members of the Catholic Church everywhere, but because it is an inclusive examination of the current environmental crisis and its roots. Francis lays the responsibility for our environmental disasters squarely at our feet. His indictment of human irresponsibility is burning, as his analysis probes and provokes. Yet Francis provides in his encyclical a challenging but hopeful alternative.

What does this remarkable, nearly two-hundred-page letter say? There is far too much to summarize in a short essay, and I invite its study. Francis finds that what is happening to our common home is “unprecedented in the history of humanity.” He states that we are “laying waste to our planet.” He finds a “violence present in our hearts [that is] also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life.” Pope Francis minces no words. He challenges each of us “to become painfully aware” so that we can “dare to turn what is happening to the world into our own personal suffering” and “discover what each of us can do about it.” (19).

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Francis asserts that poverty is linked to environmental decay. The deterioration of the environment always disproportionately affects those most vulnerable. And, although they are in the majority, “there is little awareness of problems which especially affect the excluded.” (49). This collective blindness supports “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.” (50).

Pope Francis argues that we must be guided by the principles of ecology in all our actions that he calls “integral ecology.” Ecology studies the relationship between living organisms and the environment. We must therefore have a “reflection and debate about the conditions required for the life and survival of society, and the honesty needed to question certain models of development, production and consumption.” (138).

The Pope appeals for a “fresh analysis of our present situation”, without which he admits that theological and philosophical reflections can seem “tiresome and abstract.” (17). His recommendations are specific, based upon what he sees is happening to us all right now.  His message is not doctrinaire. His encyclical calls for a frank dialogue to develop comprehensive solutions, a dialogue that recognizes that a variety of proposals are possible.

Francis’s searing message is upsetting, but hopeful, because he offers specific solutions to the environmental crisis we face, as well as solutions that depend on us. It is addressed not just to Catholics, but to us all.  His text merits a close reading. His appeal is for nothing short of an ecological conversion, a change of heart in us and our communities towards a “loving awareness that we are not disconnected from the rest of creatures,” (220) each of which “reflects something of God and has a message to convey to us.” (221). Francis asks us to reflect on why we are here and urges us to take “decisive action here and now.” (161).

The essence of Francis’s message is almost captured by a 9th Century Muslim poet, Ali al-Khawas, who Pope Francis paraphrases towards the end of his letter: There is a mystical meaning to be found in a leaf, in a mountain trail, in a dewdrop, in a poor person’s face.” (233).

Even though he recognizes that human beings have been, and remain “capable of the worst,” Francis believes that “all is not lost” and that we “are also capable of rising above ourselves, choosing again what is good, and making a new start, despite [our] mental and social conditioning.” (205). “We are able to take an honest look at ourselves, to acknowledge our deep dissatisfaction, and to embark on new paths to authentic freedom,” which for Francis implies our free will and responsibility.  For Pope Francis, this is not merely a choice, but is our moral imperative.

Are we listening?

Posted by Edwin Matthews, boardmember of CFE/Save the Sound. His full essay can be found hereEdwin, a member of CFE’s Board since 2012, is a respected environmental thinker, effective environmental warrior, and remarkable attorney. Among his accomplishments: spearheading the ground-breaking litigation that saved the beautiful Shepaug River (in Litchfield County) from desecration; serving on the Earth Justice national Board of Trustees; leading successful death penalty appeals; and producing  the first draft of a written constitution for a post-Saddam Iraq. 

For more on the Pope’s encyclical and the moral imperative to address climate change, please read our previous blog on the topic

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