— Laudato Si
Fr. Seán McDonagh, SSC
The title of Pope Francis’ new encyclical is Laudato Si ( Praised be). The words are taken from a popular prayer of St. Francis of Assisi. Francis was giving thanks to God for “Brother Fire,” “Sister Moon.” and “Mother Earth.”
Rerum novarum and Populorum progressio
Laudato Si is one of the most important documents to come from a Pope in the past one hundred-and-twenty years. It can be compared with two other important encyclicals. The first was Rerum Novarum (New Things), written by Pope Leo XIII in 1891. That document criticised the central thesis of liberal capitalism which was that “labour is a commodity to be bought at market prices determined by the laws of supply and demand rather than by the human needs of the workers.” (RN 16-17, 33-34).
In Populorum progressio (On the Development of Peoples), published in 1967, Pope Paul VI wrote about authentic human development which for him went beyond economic development. He considered it “a transition from less human conditions to those which are more human.”
Laudato Si widens the Church’s perspective even further to embrace, not just humans, but all creation. Though previous popes had written about ecology, Pope Francis is the first to acknowledge the magnitude of the ecological crisis, the urgency with which it must be faced and the irreversible nature of ecological damage. He writes “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.”( No.15). He continues “never have we so hurt and mistreated our common home as we have in the last two centuries. (No. 53).
As in all his documents, Pope Francis acknowledges the work and witness of others. These include other Christian Churches and religions (No 7). There is a special word of praise for the Greek Orthodox, Patriarch Bartholomew who has spoken “persuasively, challenging us to acknowledge our sins against creation.” (No. 7). Conferences of Bishops from many countries are mentioned in the text. Many might be surprised by his words of gratitude to “the worldwide ecological movement that has already made considerable progress and led to the establishment of numerous organisations committed to raising awareness of these challenges.”( No. 14).
Laudato Si examines what is happening to the land, air, oceans and in every part of the world. He deals emphatically with climate change and the destruction of biodiversity. His quotation from St. Thomas Aquinas, a man who did not have access to a microscope or telescope, is marvellous. “Saint Thomas Aquinas wisely noted that … inasmuch as God’s goodness “could not be represented fittingly by any one creature”. Hence we need to grasp the variety of things in their multiple relationships.” (48). Pope Francis also shows the “intimate relationship between (caring for) the poor and the fragility of the planet. (No.16.).`
Education is key to having the vision of this document implemented across the Catholic and wider religious world. On January 1st 1990, Pope John Paul II published a statement on ecology, entitled “Peace with God the Creator: Peace with All Creation.” In the second paragraph he acknowledged that “a new ecological awareness is beginning to emerge which, rather than being downplayed, ought to be encouraged to develop into concrete programmes and initiatives.” (No.1). Very little happened to fulfill this wish of Pope John Paul II.
Once again in Laudato Si Pope Francis has emphasised the importance of education. “Ecological education can take place in a variety of settings: at school, in families, in the media, in catechesis and elsewhere. Good education plants seeds when we are young, and these continue to bear fruit throughout life. (No. 213).” Pope Francis is particularly concerned that: “All Christian communities have an important role to play in ecological education. It is my hope that our seminaries and houses of formation will provide an education in responsible simplicity of life, in grateful contemplation of God’s world, and in concern for the needs of the poor and the protection of the environment. Because the stakes are so high, we need institutions empowered to impose penalties for damage inflicted on the environment. But we also need the personal qualities of self-control and willingness to learn from one another. “(No. 214).
Despite this wonderful document Catholics must remember that, to date, care for the earth is still only at the periphery of Catholic experience. For example, there are very few ‘care of the earth’ ministries in dioceses or parishes world-wide. That needs to change radically if the vision in Laudato Si is to come to fruition.
One effective way of educating people would be through a traditional Church process, called a Synod. A Synod is a period of listening and reflecting, a journey together by men and women in a diocese, seeking answers to issues which are important for the life of the Church and the world. It is based on a notion of partnership among Catholics, sharing their various gifts in a particular diocese in order to shape the mission of the Church for the future.
A Synod will involve study, robust sharing, prayer and liturgical celebrations. Since all environments are local and different, the first year would be at local diocesan level. During this period the Church would learn about the local environment using the skills of people working with heritage and wildlife programmes. All the countries which have signed the UN Convention on Biodiversity (CBD) are expected to have publications on the natural habitats in their country. These would help introduce Catholics to the flora and fauna of their special place. In the words of the encyclical we are called to encounter our ‘common home’. Young people, especially those who have studied science, have much to offer in this area. Older people will have a special contribution as they remember how things were 40 or 50 years ago. The Synod at diocesan level can also examine issues such as climate change, the destruction of biodiversity, air pollution and water contamination and other issues which are dealt with in the encyclical. During this period it can begin to articulate an effective theology and spirituality that might help underpin the new way of viewing creation and the role humans might have in this new context. Local liturgies, prayers, hymns and pilgrimages could be organised to celebrate God’s creation and to ask for pardon for destroying it through ignorance or greed. This might be a good at time to reconnects our sacraments with both the Christian community and the natural world.
This exercise could be an extraordinary time of learning for everyone. This might lead to a more collegial Church at the local level and the Synod could be a catalyst for change in the wider world as well.
The second phase would pursue much the same process, but this time the focus would be national. A country such as the Philippines might discuss why the rainforests were destroyed so thoughtlessly. A country like Ireland might ask what is happening to its bogs and whether our plans to expand milk production would damage our common home?
The final phase would be a global synod with suggestions for action coming in from across the globe. The whole Synod experience would be a learning process for everyone, so that the participants would become more and more aware of what is happening ecologically in the world. Solutions would also begin to emerge.
I repeat, this is a most exciting document, but it is only a beginning. Real efforts and resources have to be placed behind it if this concern is to find its rightful place at the heart of Christian ministry.
Sean McDonagh, SSC,
St. Columban’s, Dalgan Park, Navan, Co. Meath.
visit my blog at http://earthcaremission.wordpress.com
— Laudato Si