Laudato Si by Pope Francis
Laudato Si is a radical work. Much of the content will be familiar to those who are concerned about the climate crisis: human degradation of the environment, excess carbon dioxide, the impact of neoliberal capitalism. Where this work departs from the familiar is the source and the framing of the argument.
Pope Francis is the leader of the Roman Catholic church, a global and conservative religious body. Laudato Si is an encyclical; spiritual guidance to his global congregation. He takes the climate crisis and shows how it is a spiritual crisis. The assault on the Earth is an attack on God’s creation and thus it is sinful.
“For human beings to destroy the biological diversity of God’s creation; for human beings to degrade the integrity of the Earth by causing changes in its climate, by stripping the Earth of its natural forests or destroying its wetlands; for human beings to contaminate the Earth’s waters, its land, its air and its life — these are sins”.
Pope Francis moves the climate crisis emphatically into the discussion of the spiritual life.
“The human environment and the natural environment deteriorate together” he states, reminding us of the unique power exerted on the world by human activity. He reminds us that the world is a “shared inheritance” and that current economic models based on the exploitation of the earth and fellow human beings are unjust.
“Where profits alone count, there can be no thinking about the rhythms of nature, its phases of decay and regeneration, or the complexity of ecosystems which may be gravely upset by human intervention”.
He is also clear about the nature of the world. Other writers have called for a return to a view of the world as sacred, as something of which we are a part and which we have no right to plunder. Pope Francis is unequivocal. The world is God’s creation, it is given as a gift, not taken. We must be the stewards of this wonder, not it’s destroyers. In doing so, he overturns the post-enlightenment mechanistic model of the world that gives cover to the ravages of late capitalism. We have no right to strip the earth bare in pursuit of riches.
Laudato Si is a curious paradox, a work of radical contemporary thinking inserted seamlessly into a centuries-old belief structure and then promoted by the most senior guardian of this tradition. Aspects of conventional catholicism appear from time to time; the linkage between sacred respect for the earth and opposition to abortion will rankle with some. But Pope Francis’s repeated comparison of the plight of the poor with the plight of the earth is refreshing and poignant. I read this book because I am concerned about the climate crisis, not because I consider myself a member of Pope Francis’s congregation. I didn’t start the book expecting to agree 100% with the Pope but ended up surprised how much I did agree with him on this crucial topic.
This book is a powerful statement from a powerful thought leader. Its power lies in its normalising effect. Progress on the climate crisis will be made when humanity collectively demands that progress be made. Laudato Si says don’t be afraid of change, it is necessary.
“Many things have to change course, but it is we human beings above all that need to change”.
Opposition to the trashing of the earth should be normal and proper. The fight against the climate crisis is not a struggle for solutions, we know what they are. If the people of the earth changed their behaviours overnight, that would put an immediate brake on anthropogenic climate change. But there is little sign of that happening. Climate activists are a minority; cultural momentum, the forces of consumerism and big business continue to deepen the crisis. The great contribution of Laudato Si is to move the climate crisis from being a niche cultural matter or a question of lifestyles, to be a moral and spiritual imperative. This speaks to a huge community of faith, within the Roman Catholic church and beyond. This community of billions of people has tremendous potential for greatly improving the human relationship with the earth. I just hope they listen to this heartfelt appeal from their leader.