WASHINGTON D.C.: The vision behind Pope Francis’ newest encyclical is one that offers a holistic proposal of stewardship rooted in faith, offering a lens through which to view the environment, said several Catholic theologians and ecologists.
“I think what he is telling Catholics in the center of this encyclical is ‘you’ve got all the resources to show a better way to care for creation than any environmentalist has, and you have to make that contribution’,” said Dr. Chad Pecknold, professor of historical and systematic theology at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.
The Pope’s latest encyclical “Laudato Si,” meaning “Praise be to You,” was published Thursday, June 18. The 184-page document takes its name from St. Francis of Assisi’s “Canticle of the Sun,” a prayer composed in medieval Italian which praises God through the created world with figures like “Brother Sun,” “Sister Moon,” and “our sister Mother Earth.”
The document covers a wide range of topics in relation to the environment – from climate change, consumerism and economic structures to abortion, population control and gender.
Care for God’s creation is central to living the Catholic faith and is a natural outgrowth of a holiness, said Bill Patenaude, a special lecturer in theology at Providence College and founder of the website “Catholic Ecology.”
“Being an environmentalist is really not something that we add to our lives, it’s something that we do naturally as Catholics because we’re seeking a holy life,” he told CNA.
“We’re seeking to be free from the constraints of our desires and live in accordance with the needs of others, with those simple things of life, the joy God gives us, the blessings God gives us infinitely throughout the day, from moment to moment.”
At the heart of the encyclical is an exhortation for conversion on the part of every person, Pecknold said. It is as part of this call—and not outside of it—that Pope Francis advocates care for the environment.
“It’s not just an ecological conversion that’s necessary,” Pecknold explained.
“It’s a conversion to God, it’s a conversion to Christ, it’s a conversion of all creation in the Eucharist,” he told CNA, adding that this conversion is not just “individual” but “communal.”
How then can Catholics, particularly Catholic families, answer this call to conversion in their daily lives, specifically with regard to the environment?
For one, “the Catholic family would not be contraceptive,” Pecknold said, but one that celebrates “new creation, new life.” He also suggested that “you might have domestic gardens, and you might grow your own food,” among other ways of connecting with life in one’s own community.
“Every little daily action” can either be “destructive” or “cultivating” of creation, he emphasized.
In appreciating the little things, families can also guard against the consumerism and overconsumption warned about in the encyclical, Patenaude added.
“The virtues of temperance, of prudence…we don’t have to satiate every desire.”
Gratitude for little things
Furthermore, families can strive to practice gratitude for little things and mindfulness of others in their daily lives, he said.
“How do we be more aware of interactions, our relationship (with) God, each other, and the environment? There’s kind of a spiritual sense of mindfulness that Pope Francis has called us to,” Patenaude remarked.
“The joy of our lives can be so missed because we’re always working on our getting ready for the next thing.”
“We need to say grace before dinner,” he suggested as a simple example of families practicing gratitude.
Participation in the Eucharist can be another profound way for Catholics to express gratitude for the created world, Pecknold said.
“I think one thing that’s easy to forget…is that the bread and the wine actually come from the earth,” he said. “And not in an abstract way, but that there must be a grain of wheat in every wafer means that there had to be a wheat farmer, means that there had to be arable soil for that wheat to grow, means that there had to be rain that wasn’t acidified, that meant that there had to be time for the cultivation of the earth.”
In addition to speaking of conversion on a personal and family level, the encyclical also speaks to local, national, and international governing bodies, said Lucia Silecchia, a professor of law at The Catholic University of America who specializes in environmental law, ethics, and development.
Global policy cannot be limited to purely environmental concerns, but must promote human dignity and the wellbeing of the poor, she said.
“A dominant theme in the encyclical is that of interconnectedness – of economic life, political life, social life, moral life, spiritual life, physical environment, and natural environment.”
A prime example of this interconnectedness is the link in the encyclical between “respect for human life as a gift from God” and “environmental decision-making,” she continued: Human dignity must be central to national and international social policy.
For example, the encyclical warns environmentalists against putting the human person at or below the level of importance given to the environment, Silecchia said.
It also admonishes authorities against pushing population control in developing countries to cope with “the environmental problem,” she noted, as Pope Francis says this is simply a running away from “more difficult questions.”
Another area of connection between economy and environment is in the document’s claims that the poor in developing countries suffer a disproportionate burden of the harmful effects of climate change.
At the same time, policy that attempts to alleviate the material burdens of the poor must also consider their spiritual well-being, Silecchia explained of the encyclical.
“It is quite skeptical of the ability of economics or technology to bring about improvement to the lives of those who are poor,” she said. It even warns of their “potential to cause great harm if their use is not informed by moral considerations.”