Catholic Q&A: Fr. Rick Explains Pope Francis’ Encyclical, Laudato Si

Catholic Q&A: Fr. Rick Explains Pope Francis’ Encyclical, Laudato Si

Is it true Catholic teaching or is the Church just “selling out” to political correctness and

a trendy environmentalism based on pseudo-science?


What is an Encyclical?

An encyclical is a papal document treating manners related to the general welfare of the Church and of the world.  It is sent by the Pope to the Bishops of the world in order to express the mind of the Pope to the faithful.  The use of encyclicals has become more common in present times.

What kind of encyclical is Laudato Si?

Laudato Si (pronounced loud-dat-tow see) is an example of an encyclical that sets forth the Church’s social teaching.

Are there any unique features setting Laudato Si apart from other encyclicals?

Actually, yes!  Many see Laudato Si as being the “birth of a new literary genre among papal documents” (Cf. Angela Ambrogetti, “The First Encyclical wholly from Francis overturns expectations,”  What makes Laudato Si significant is that it is not a doctrinal text!  In Latin America, Bishops often communicate the Church’s teachings through Pastoral Letters, which often use the form of inviting the readers and listeners to see the situation as it is presented; to form a solid judgment upon the matter as it is presented; and then to act in response to the matter in a matter worthy of a follower of Christ.  This traditional Latin American method allows Laudato Si to be a little different from “traditional” encyclicals.  Also, while encyclicals are typically written in Latin and then translated into the major languages of the world, Laudato Si was written in the warm, colloquial Italian normally used in everyday speech.  Pope Francis also quotes not only from Scripture and the ancient Church Fathers and Doctors, but also from the thought of the Eastern Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, and even cites the Sufi (Muslim) thinker Ali al-Khawas.  This is not a departure from the Truth of our Catholic Faith!  In the Acts of the Apostles, St. Paul actually quotes the pagan Greek poet Homer in a speech to the Athenians (Acts 17:28)!  This is a method of promoting understanding and cooperation with those “outside” the visible Catholic Church who hold Truths espoused by the Church.

Why is the new encyclical called Laudato Si?

The official Vatican press release explains the reason for the title, Laudato Si (in English, “Praise be to You”):

“…the Encyclical takes its name from the invocation of St. Francis of Assisi: “Laudato Si mi’ Signore” – “Praise to You, my Lord,” which in the Canticle of the Creatures calls to mind that the earth, our common home, “is like a sister with whom me share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us” (1).

Do your own research!  

To access the official Vatican press release (appearing in all major language groups) click here.

The full text of the encyclical can be accessed by clicking here.

What is the connection between the encyclical and St. Francis of Assisi?

The press release cited above explains the close connection of St. Francis with the Encyclical like this:

“The reference to St. Francis also indicates the attitude upon which the whole encyclical is based, that of prayerful contemplation, which invites us to look towards the ‘Poor One of Assisi’ as a source of inspiration.  As the encyclical affirms, St. Francis is ‘the example par excellence of care for the vulnerable and of an integral ecology lived out joyfully and authentically.

[…] He shows us just how inseparable is the bond between concern for nature, justice for the poor, commitment to society, and interior peace.” (10).

What is the purpose or aim of this new encyclical?

The Pope’s aim is to give people information that they might become aware of the necessity of – to use a phrase that St. John Paul II used – “an ecological conversion.”  Everyone in the media is focusing only upon Laudato Si (LS) as an encyclical about ecology and the environment.  That’s just one part of the focus, because LS addresses the environment within a larger discussion of a full range of Catholic Social Teaching on the following: economics, politics, culture, employment, technology, the migration of people, poverty, peace, architecture, urban planning, education, human rights, and…the environment!  After the encyclical begins with an invitation to marvel before creation as St. Francis of Assisi did, Pope Francis states that this is the only path toward “an integrated ecology.”  An explanation of what will be done in the encyclical follows:

“I will begin by briefly reviewing several aspects of the present ecological crisis, with the aim of drawing upon the results of the best scientific research available today, letting them touch us deeply and provide a concrete foundation for the ethical and spiritual itinerary that follows.  I will then consider some principles drawn from the Judeo-Christian tradition which can render our commitment to the environment more coherent.  I will then attempt to get to the roots of the present situation, so as to consider not only its symptoms, but also its deepest causes.” [He goes on:] “In light of this reflection, I will advance some broader proposals for dialogue and action which would involve each of us as individuals, and also affect international policy.  Finally…I will offer some inspired guidelines for human development to be found in the treasure of Christian spiritual experience.”

Laudato Si: How the Encyclical is Set Up & Its Train of Thought

Laudato Si is divided into six chapters.  The sequence of the chapters outlines a precise line of reasoning.

Chapter 1: What is Happening in Our Common Home

  • Taking what the Holy Father believes to be the best scientific research on environmental matters available today; these insights are viewed from a spiritual perspective “letting them touch us deeply and provide a concrete foundation for the ethical and spiritual itinerary that follows.”  The Holy Father feels that science is the best tool by which we can listen to “the cry of the earth.”
  • The Pope concedes that he is aware that extremely complex and urgent issues are being addressed and that these matters are hotly debated (e.g. climate changes and their causes).  He acknowledges that there are no “easy” solutions.
  • With that in mind, the aim of the encyclical is not to intervene in this debate – that is the responsibility of scientists.  Nor does the encyclical wish to establish the ways that climate changes are a result of human action.  The encyclical is content to say that “it is sufficient to say that human activity is one of the factors that explains climate change” (Vatican press release – see web address cited above).
  • The first chapter of the encyclical closes by stating that we have a serious moral responsibility to do everything in our power to reduce our impact and avoid the negative effects on the environment and on the poor.
  • Among the several aspects of the ecological crisis are: pollution and climate change (no. 23-25); the issue of water (30); loss of biodiversity (certain species are growing extinct or are at least endangered] (33-34); the decline in the quality of human life and the breakdown of society (51-52).
  • Dangers resulting from the profound differences of opinion have resulted in:
    • “Weak responses” given by many peoples and populations in the face of the problem
    • Besides many positive responses (58) to the problems listed above, there is also “a complacency and a cheerful recklessness” (59).
    • The Pope notes that ultimately, an adequate “culture” (mindset) is lacking (53); and an unwillingness (on the part of many) to change lifestyles, production, and consumption.

Chapter 2: The Gospel of Creation

  • The next step in the encyclical is a review of the riches of the Judeo-Christian tradition and its connection to the questions addressed by the encyclical.
  • To face the problems presented in the previous chapter, Pope Francis goes on to select biblical texts to offer a comprehensive view drawing inspiration and direction from the Judeo-Christian tradition.
  • Examination of the biblical texts helps the Holy Father to express the “tremendous responsibility” of human beings for creation, to show the intimate connection all created things share with one another, and that “the natural environment is a collective good, the patrimony of all humanity and the responsibility of everyone” (95).
  • The biblical texts reveal to us, and also help us to know God, Who liberates and saves.  He is both the God Who created the entire universe, and the God Who saves and liberates people.  For Pope Francis, God’s acts of creating and saving cannot be separated from one another (73).
  • The story of creation and the Fall are central for thinking about and realizing that “these accounts suggest that human life is grounded in three fundamental and closely intertwined relationships: with God, with our neighbor, and with the earth itself.
  • “According to the Bible, these three vital relationships have been broken, both outwardly and within us.” (66) When we experience this rupture, we are experiencing sin.  This “rupture” is sin!
  • At this point, Pope Francis takes the opportunity to reject the traditional notion that because we are created in the Image and Likeness of God, we have dominion over all the earth, and therefore can justify exercising domination over all other created things (67).
  • He corrects this notion by stating that the ultimate purpose of all created things is not found in us, but rather, “the ultimate purpose of other creatures lies in ‘moving forward, with us and through us, towards a common point of arrival, which is God'” (83).
  • Pope Francis reminds us at this point that a correct approach to this matter must always avoid: putting humans on the same level as all other created things and deprive humans of their unique worth and the tremendous responsibility humans have; and, we must not make the earth into some kind of divine being which prevents us from working upon it or taking care of it (90). This said because the Pope is far too smart to deal in”ideology” – he is aware that some will do anything to “save the earth” or an endangered species, while showing little or no concern for the poor, defenseless, and unborn. Francis situates reverence for the earth in a broader reverence for all created things, especially humans: In this perspective, ‘”every act of cruelty towards any creature is ‘contrary to human dignity.'” (92). He adds that a “deep sense of communion with the rest of nature cannot be real if our hearts lack tenderness, compassion, and concern for our fellow human beings.” (91). For Francis, there can be no true reverence “for the environment” if there is an absence of care and concern for other humans!
  • Bringing this about demands of us an awareness of a universal communion: “called into being by one Father, all of us are linked by unseen bonds and together form a kind of universal family, a sublime communion which fills us with a sacred, affectionate and humble respect” (89). This is embodied in the Mystery of Christ: while on earth, “Jesus [had a] tangible and loving relationship with the world. [Now] risen and glorious, [He is] present throughout creation by his universal Lordship” (100).

Chapter 3: The Human Roots of the Ecological Crisis

  • This chapter analyzes “the roots of the present situation, so as to consider not only its symptoms, but also its deepest causes” (15). Such an analysis involves a dialogue between philosophy and the human sciences.
    After expressing gratitude for the steady improvement of living conditions over the years, Pope Francis notes that those possessing technical knowledge and especially “economic resources” (money) have “an impressive dominance over the whole of humanity and the entire world” (104).
  • This “impressive dominance” (money, power, and influence) can lead to the destruction of nature and the exploitation of people – especially those who are most vulnerable. Having money, power, and influence also tends to dominate economics and politics (109). The problem here is that it can keep us from recognizing that economic development and activity is not able to guarantee the human development necessary for humans to become all that God wishes for them (especially salvation), nor can it guarantee that everyone will have the equal dignity that every human deserves (109).
  • Pope Francis then considers that modern times (modernity) is marked by the refusal of many people to see themselves in a wider picture with respect to God and the world. This leads to a “self-centered” attitude that focuses people only on themselves and their own power. Francis calls this excessive anthropocentrism (pronounced ann-throw-po-sent-triz-zim). This self-centered and “me-alone” mindset results in a “use and throw away” logic which justifies any type of waste – not only of the environment, but even other people! This attitude can take the form of exploiting children, abandoning the elderly, forcing others into slavery, bad economic practices, human trafficking, threatening certain animals with extinction just to make money, and throwing away unborn babies just because the baby doesn’t fit in with what the parents feel they want (123).
  • Two of the biggest problems that come along with this way of being are (a) the desire to gain greater short-term financial gain by neglecting or ignoring the needs of those working – Francis calls this “bad business for society” (128); and, (b) problems arising from the varied results of GMOs (132-136). Resolving needs, according to the Pope, responsible scientific social debate on the matter, supported by “lines of independent, interdisciplinary research” (135).

Chapter 4: Integral Ecology

  • This chapter aims to develop “an integral ecology,” as a new model of justice (justice is understood as rendering to others what is theirs by right). By “integral ecology,” Pope Francis means an ecology which in its multifaceted dimensions, grasps “our unique place as human beings in this world and our relationship to our surroundings” (15).
  • This approach sees us as a part of nature, not over or above it: “nature cannot be regarded as something separate from ourselves or as a mere setting in which we live” (139).  This INTERRELATEDNESS also applies to the areas of economics, politics, and different cultures (especially those most threatened) and even in every moment of our daily lives. The point is this: everything is related in the different aspects of our life – especially in terms of the economy, politics, in different and various cultures, especially with those most threatened, and in every moment of our lives.
  • The Pope then applies the notion of Integral Ecology to various facets of life:
    • Regarding institutions: “If everything is related, then the health of a society’s institutions affects the environment and the quality of human life, to the degree that every violation of solidarity and civic friendship harms the environment” (142).  Because everything is so interrelated, the crisis faced by the world today “is both social and environmental” (139).
    • Regarding “human ecology”: Human ecology means care for the common good must influence the making of choices in solidarity based on “a preferential option for the poorest of our brothers and sisters” (158).  This notion is inseparable from the common good (156).  In Francis’ reckoning, this is the best way to leave a sustainable world for the coming generations.  Such an “inter-generational solidarity” is an urgent moral need (162).
    • Integral Ecology in everyday life: The encyclical gives specific attention to “the urban environment,” praising both the capacity for human adaptation “and an admirable creativity and generosity…shown by persons and groups who respond to environmental limitations by alleviating the adverse effects of their surroundings and learning to live productively mind disorder and uncertainty” (148).  This ability presupposes a whole and complete improvement in the quality of human life – especially public space, housing, transport, etc. (150-154).
    • The acceptance of our bodies as a gift from God: This is most necessary for welcoming and accepting the entire world as our common home and as a gift from the Father.  Pope Francis rejects as false the notion that we enjoy absolute power over our bodies.  Such a distorted view can lead “into thinking that we enjoy absolute power over creation” (155).  Actually, all is orientated to God – all is in the hands of God, not us!

Chapter 5: Lines of Approach and Action

  • This chapter is concerned with what we can and must do.
  • Analysis is not enough: There must be proposals “for dialogue and action which would involve each of us individually no less than international policy” (15).  On a practical level, this “will help us to escape the spiral of destruction which currently engulfs us” (163).
  • For Francis, it is imperative that such dialogue and action must not be developed in an ideological, superficial, or reductionist way.
  • Recognizing the difficulty in achieving this, Pope Francis establishes the limits of the teaching in this document, and sets forth his reasons for urging we address the issue: “There are certain environmental issues where it is not easy to achieve a broad consensus. […] the Church does not presume to settle scientific questions or to replace politics.  But I am concerned to encourage an honest and open debate, so that particular interests or ideologies will not prejudice the common good” (188).
  • Despite this conciliatory approach, recent interactions among the nations receive the Pope’s severest assessments and comments: “[…] recent World Summits on the environment have not lived up to expectations because, due to lack of political will, they were unable to reach truly meaningful and effective global agreements on the environment” (166).  He points out the absurd ineffectiveness of these “leaders,” asking: “What would induce anyone, at this stage, to hold on to power only to be remembered for their inability to take action when it was urgent and necessary to do so?” (57).
  • He refers us back to the repeated teachings of previous Popes – starting with Pope St. John XXIII’s Pacem et terries – which have all given guidance for a global effort that addresses “the whole range of the so-called ‘global commons'” (174), adding that environmental protection can’t be achieved “solely on the basis of financial calculations of costs and benefits.  The environment is one of those goods that cannot be adequately safeguarded or promoted by market forces” (190).
  • What is needed is the development of honest and transparent decision-making processes, in order to discern which policies and business initiatives can bring about “genuine integral development” (185).
  • For any of this to be accomplished, the political process must be “transparent” and involve a free exchange of views.  Any forms of political corruption that obscure transparency and a free exchange of ideas “in exchange for favors usually produce specious agreements which fail to inform adequately and do not allow for full debate” (182).  Those holding political office are urged to set aside wrongful political advantage – described as “a mentality of ‘efficiency’ and ‘immediacy'” (181) that is so common today, often favored over what is right.  In doing so, they “will attest to their God-given dignity and leave behind a testimony of selfless responsibility” (181).

Chapter 6: Ecological Education and Spirituality

  • This chapter invites everyone to “ecological conversion,” which means reshaping of habits and behavior in order to counteract the ecological and cultural crisis we now find ourselves in.  The Pope recognizes that the roots of such a crisis are “deep” and that a change of this nature will not be “easy.”
  • The key challenges of ecological conversion lie in education and training: “change is impossible without motivation and a process of education” (15).  This would involve all aspects of our education systems: “at school, in families, in the media, in catechesis and elsewhere” (213).
  • The starting point is “to aim for a new lifestyle” (203-208), which can also be used to bring “a healthy pressure to bear on those who, wield political, social power” (206).  The importance of education cannot be underestimated, because it can influence personal actions and daily habits.  The encyclical closes with some “inspired guidelines for human development to be found in the treasure of the Christian spiritual experience” (15).  Pope Francis offers these concrete ways of acting:
    • In personal and daily habits: the reduction of water consumption, sorting garbage waste, and even turning off unnecessary lights (211).
    • In “simple daily gestures which break with the logic of violence, exploitation, and selfishness” (230) – in other words, we should deliberately reject responding with violence to those who “wrong” us; by making a deliberate choice to “use” people for some selfish purpose; and to consciously act unselfishly, in a way that takes others into consideration.
    • Starting with a contemplative outlook that comes from faith: as believers, we do not look at the world from without (from the outside) but from within (being apart of the world) conscious of the bonds with which the Father has linked us with all human beings.
    • The development of our individual God-given capabilities: an “ecological conversion [as described above] can inspire us to greater creativity and enthusiasm” (220).
    • Allowing ourselves to be “liberated” by knowing how to limit some needs which only diminish us: referring to the term “sobriety” in quoting Evangelii gaudium (ET: “The Gospel of Joy”), such an approach to life brings an unearthly happiness “and being open to the many different possibilities which life can offer” (223).  Such an approach brings with it a challenge: “we must regain the conviction that we need one another, that we have a shared responsibility for others and the world, and that being good and decent are worth it” (229).  We are accompanied by the Saints in this endeavor, especially St. Francis (10).  The Holy Father also mentions St. Therese of Lisieux, St. Benedict, and Blessed Charles de Foucauld.
    • The regular practice of an examination of conscience (a staple in Pope Francis’ and of Jesuit spirituality) is strongly recommended by the Pope.  It has been the means recommended by the Church to direct one’s life by the light that comes from having a relationship with the Lord.  Pope Francis recommends that we add a new dimension to our examination of conscience: we should not only consider how we have lived in communion with God, with others, and with ourselves, but also how we have lived in communion with all other creatures and with nature.
  • Chapter Six closes with two prayers: the first one to be shared with people of other religions, the second to be prayed among Christians.  The encyclical thus closes as it began: in wonder of contemplation and prayer!

An Analysis and Some Answers to Doubts & Questions

Has the Catholic Church “caved in” to a “tree hugger” mentality or radical environmentalism?

No.  As part of its Mission as the authentic guardian of Christ’s teaching, the Catholic Church must prophetically address the concerns of modern society and humanity.  Taking the warnings of an ecological crisis as a serious human concern in the present time, the Church fulfills her divinely-appointed role of speaking to humanity in God’s Name by challenging the world to see the ecological and cultural crisis in light of God’s point of view, as it is found in the biblical teaching on creation, the Church’s teaching on the sacredness of creation, and how God’s intent for the world and the environment relate to the basic Christian notion of caring for our neighbor and the earth God has given us.

What if I find myself being skeptical of some of these warnings about “climate change” and other “environmental” issues – am I disobedient to the Pope, unfaithful to Catholic teaching, and guilty of sin or disobedience?

No! While encyclicals may carry the weight of the Pope’s teaching authority, they are not infallible!  However, that does not mean that a Catholic can lightly dismiss the Pope’s teaching in an encyclical!  What is said in the encyclical should be considered in all humility and with a heart open to God.  Of course, many encyclicals contain infallible teaching as part of the teaching they are presenting (e.g. the defined doctrines that appear in Chapter 2).  All infallible teaching contained in an encyclical must be accepted.  However, the Pope makes it clear is LS that he is not “canonizing” of endorsing a particular scientific viewpoint as “official” Catholic teaching; nor is the Church presuming to settle any scientific matters.  The purpose of the encyclical is to address the crisis from a spiritual point of view, leaving the debate and the scientific conclusions to those qualified to do so (cf. Chapter 1).  Yet all Catholics are expected to make a serious effort to put the Pope’s recommendations, guidelines, and exhortations into practice – especially in daily living!

Why do some statements made by the Pope make it seem like he’s strongly against capitalism?

Remember – Pope Francis is not a U.S. citizen, nor has he ever been immersed in our American lifestyle!  A careful reading of previous comments made by Pope Francis, and especially those made in this encyclical, reveal a careful line the Pope is walking: he is not interested in endorsing a particular economic philosophy (e.g. socialism, Marxism, or capitalism)!  If you notice, his severe judgments or negative statements are always directed against an unbridled, unprincipled or unrestrained exercise, not only of capitalism, but against any of these approaches which hurt people who do not have enough money to protect themselves from those who push others around because they have the type of power and influence that money buys!  Francis spares no criticism for those hurting the poor, the vulnerable, or even this earth given as a gift to us by so loving a Father and a Creator!

What is the Pope ultimately trying to bring about with this encyclical?

By reflecting upon the spiritual wisdom of the Scriptural accounts of Creation and the wisdom of the Church’s teaching and experience, Pope Francis wishes to “advance some broader proposals fro dialogue and action which would involve each of us as individuals, and also affect international policy (he is very frustrated by the international “leaders” of the great powers who talk much, but never seem to come up with a solid and practical solution, cf. 166).  Finally, the Pope offers “some inspired guidelines for human development to be found in the treasure of Christian spiritual experience” (LS, 15; 203-208, 223).

What are the strengths and weaknesses of this encyclical?

The strengths of LS are that Pope Francis has been able to clearly document in the text what is spiritually wrong with the world and how all the things tormenting humanity are actually all connected with each other!  Francis’ ability to see them in light of God’s Presence to us in and through creation make the Faith and belief in God actually FEEL REAL.  His assessments are dead-on; his proposals are practical and make sense, and his recommendations for what a Christian can do in his or her daily life isn’t beyond the ability of anyone to accomplish!  One touching example is the simple phrase that “being good and decent is worth it” (229).  The weaknesses of Francis’ approach include (1) the sheer scope of the topic; (2) the amazingly powerful line of thought is so packed with meaning that the encyclical will be to a lot of people what good wine is: “bad for weak heads.”  (3) Finally, bringing Francis’ “vision” into being will have to overcome the set patterns, unwillingness and hard-heartedness of humanity to undergo “ecological conversion.”

Fr. Rick Poblocki is the Pastor of St. Josaphat’s Parish in Cheektowaga, NY. This article also appears in St. Josaphat’s Weekly Bulletin, available for view in its entirety at Don’t miss Fr. Rick on the Tuesday and Thursday Open Forum Editions of Calling All Catholics, weekdays at 5pm on The Station of the Cross Catholic Radio Network and the NEW iCatholicRadio App. Used with permission.

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