June 17, 2020

On the Five Year Anniversary of Laudato Si'

Editor: 24 May 2015 was the publication date on which Laudato Si’ was signed by Pope Francis; 18 June, 2015 was the release date of its presentation to the world. On this, the eve of the fifth anniversary of the release of the document, we have invited Craig Condella from Salve University to help us all reflect anew on its significance for our lives and the future of our planet.

The year 2020 brought with it a significant anniversary for environmentalists around the world, as fifty years had passed since the celebration of the first Earth Day in 1970. This golden anniversary was accompanied by the five year anniversary of Pope Francis’ Laudato Si’: On Care for our Common Home, an encyclical letter that meets issues of global warming and environmental catastrophe head-on and calls for an urgent and all-encompassing global response to issues that have long been in need of serious attention. As such, 2020 presented an opportunity to not only celebrate the environmental progress we have made in the last half century, but to reflect on and rededicate ourselves to the work that still needs to be done.

That, anyway, was how things looked back in January. By March, however, the Covid-19 pandemic had taken hold worldwide, effectively putting an end to, or at least significantly transforming, celebrations of any kind. Yes, Earth Day still took place in April, but it was a largely subdued affair, confined at best to virtual gatherings, and certainly lacking in the fanfare or attention that it might have otherwise received. And yet, the present crisis may bring about a much-needed change in perspective that connects in essential ways to the primary message of Laudato Si’. In early April, Pope Francis reminded us that “This is not humanity’s first plague,” and while the others have become “mere anecdotes,” we might take this opportunity to learn from our shared past and reassess the ways we approach, not only the peril that we now face, but our collective futures as well.[1] In the same address, Francis quotes a famous line from Virgil’s Aeneid: “Perhaps one day it will be good to remember these things too.” In this spirit, we might challenge ourselves to take the teachings of Laudato Si’ more seriously with a shared purpose that looks to enact real and significant global change.

A Bold New Message

To say that the message of Laudato Si’ (LS) is entirely new is neither fair nor accurate. Indeed, when Francis speaks to the ways in which our technological prowess should be checked by moral principles that respect all living beings, his encyclical is largely in line with the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace’s “Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church,” issued in 2004.[2] In a certain sense, then, Francis is expanding upon a position that has, to a certain extent, been established. And yet, that expansion itself should not go unnoticed. The fact that he makes the environment – our common home – the focal point of his first fully-authored encyclical should make us take notice. Environmental degradation is not just one problem among others. It is instead a problem that demands our utmost and immediate attention.

The Catholic Church has generally adopted a stewardship model when it comes to the natural world whereby human beings are the stewards, or caretakers, of God’s creation. Francis assumes such a position on several occasions in Laudato Si’, cautioning against any reading of Genesis that lends itself to a “tyrannical” (LS, 68) or “excessive” (LS, 116) anthropocentrism which looks to dominate the natural world and utilize its resources solely to our own advantage. God has instead entrusted the world to us (LS, 5), a privilege imbued with the expectation of a “responsible stewardship” (LS, 116) that does not simply ask that we do as little damage as possible, but that we instead recognize the inherent value in nature and foster its own ends even as we look to secure our own well-being. On this point, I believe Francis takes his readers beyond a straightforward stewardship model. Though God’s creative act alone may lend value to nature, Francis – very much in line with his namesake – often speaks of nature in more intimate terms as “brother sun, sister moon, brother river and mother earth” (LS, 91). While a stewardship model is evident in descriptions of the Earth as a “caress of God” (LS, 84) or a “precious book” (LS, 85), Francis does not hesitate to use stronger language from the very start when he speaks of the Earth as a “sister” who “now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her” with “symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life” (LS, 2). This anthropomorphizing of nature makes it easier to speak of animals (LS, 33) and ecosystems (LS, 140) as having value in themselves apart from any perceived usefulness. And perhaps, above all, it allows Francis to characterize our mistreatment of the environment as an act of sin (LS, 2, 66).

These dimensions combine to make Laudato Si’ a powerful and in many ways original message, and yet the most important aspect may be Francis’ appeal to an integral ecology. In the past, false dichotomies have far too often been made between our moral obligations to each other and to the natural world. Pointing out that our present crisis is both “social and environmental” (LS, 139), Francis affirms that “Today . . . we have to realize that a true ecological approach always becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor” (LS, 49). Continuing later in the encyclical, he writes that “Everything is connected. Concern for the environment thus needs to be joined to a sincere love for our fellow human beings and an unwavering commitment to resolving the problems of society” (LS, 91). In short, we do not need to choose between caring for the Earth and caring for our fellow human beings as the suffering, and consequently the fulfillment, of each proceeds hand-in-hand. Put another way, social justice and environmental justice are two sides of the same coin, something that I believe connects well with the five Critical Concerns of the Sisters of Mercy: the earth, immigration, nonviolence, racism, and women.[3] Though we might prioritize any one of these concerns at a given time, their intersection is unavoidable, meaning positive change on one front cannot help but affect positive change on others. Here, we might think of Saint Francis as being far ahead of his time as “He shows us just how inseparable the bond is between concern for nature, justice for the poor, commitment to society, and interior peace” (LS, 10)...

The complete article is available below

—Craig Condella

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Craig Condella, PhD

Professor, Departments of Philosophy and Cultural, Environmental, and Global Studies

Salve Regina University, Newport, Rhode Island

'My primary research interests are in the fields of environmental ethics, the philosophy of science and the philosophy of technology.' Read More

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