by John Elder
At over 180 pages, the encyclical presented by Pope Francis on June 18 calls for study and reflection. The pope’s stature has meant that his discussion of human-caused climate change — as both an ecological crisis and a moral scandal — has immediately been hailed as a statement of global significance.
Scrolling through all those numbered paragraphs can feel at first like hiking along the Long Trail — nothing but trees, wherever you look. But orientation comes when we can finally survey the horizon from the vantage-point of an outcropping. The parallel, north-south flows of Vermont’s central mountain-chain and Lake Champlain, along with the Adirondack High Peaks looming farther to the west, become three strong lines inscribing our rambles in a larger map.
While such experiences in our home-terrain might apply to Vermonters’ encounters with this encyclical, though, a landscape more pertinent to Pope Francis would be the rolling Umbrian woodlands, where his namesake saint delighted in nature’s beauty while walking between the poor villages that he also loved. The first line of a famous prayer by Saint Francis gives the encyclical its Italian title and is also quoted in the Pope’s initial paragraph. “Praise to you, my Lord, through our Sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us, and who produces various fruit with colored flowers and herbs.” This early connection between the love of nature and the love of God turns out to be one of three main themes orienting readers.
Praise for Mother Earth quickly leads into the second of these themes — a denunciation of the developed world’s selfish and destructive way of life. Mother Earth “now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her.” A searing anger frames an unflinching discussion of climate change, in part because of global warming’s disproportionate impact on impoverished communities. Consumerism and the heartless application of technology are making the earth, our beautiful home, “look more and more like an immense a pile of filth.”
The third main theme, and one that is especially prominent at key transitions, is the call for a dialogue between religion and science. Pope Francis enters this dialogue through the history, scriptures and faith of the Catholic Church. What such a starting point brings to the conversation is a concern for the humanity and the dignity of the poorest among us. Religious faith is neither necessary nor sufficient for such compassion and loving identification with others. But the fact remains that these are central elements of the pope’s faith.
Conversely, science offers a powerful analysis of climate change. It records the steady increase in our planet’s temperature, which has made our present decade the warmest in human history. It explains the growing prevalence and violence of hurricanes arising from a warming Gulf of Mexico as well as what’s sometimes called the “climate weirdness” leading to the current drought in California and floods in Texas.
It’s worth noting that the encyclical does not pause to argue about the reality of anthropogenic climate change. Rather, Pope Francis takes that as having already been confirmed by an overwhelming scientific consensus, as well as by people’s direct experience of alarming seasonal shifts. Nothing that he could say on the subject would be likely to change the opinions of talk-show hosts or senators from Oklahoma who doggedly assert that climate change is a fraud. Nor could it add much to the many scientifically informed books and articles recently published on this subject for a general audience. Hence, his decision to reflect upon these physical realities in light of the Church’s teaching. That’s the angle from which he can contribute something of great value to this crucial dialogue.
The encyclical concludes with another reference to St. Francis, whose delight in the beauty of the forest was inseparable from his compassion for the poor. “If we approach nature and the environment without this openness to awe and wonder, if we no longer speak the language of fraternity and beauty in our relationship with the world, our attitude will be that of masters, consumers, ruthless exploiters, unable to set limits on their immediate needs.”
This language registers the extent to which “Laudato Si’” accords with a transformation of the environmental movement that is already under way. The wilderness movement has been replaced as the heart of environmentalism by emphases on food and justice. For me, such a shift represents a turning to what might be called an invitational environmentalism — one that celebrates cultural diversity and is not so focused on the language of purity.
Compassion, dialogue, awe and wonder in the face of nature are all conducive to a richer and more satisfying experience of community, motivating us to action for the common good. As Pope Francis exhorts near the encyclical’s end, “Let us sing as we go. May our struggles and our concern for this planet never take away the joy of our hope.”
The writer is a former Middlebury College professor and nature writer.