In a book on Catholic social teaching that I wrote some time ago, I included a whole chapter on care for the environment. In it, I pointed out that Pope Benedict was sometimes called the Green Pope, thanks to his frequent teaching and even practical action on the topic. But, I said, church teaching in this area was surely in its infancy and “[p]robably one day, not long from now, Pope Benedict’s greenness will appear pale compared to that of a successor, and Catholic social teaching on the environment will develop rapidly.”
Ironically, that book was published the same month that Pope Francis was elected (the manuscript having been completed, of course, nearly a year earlier). I can’t help noting that I even suggested in my book a title for the environmental encyclical that would one day come: Sollicitudo Dei Mundis, “Care for God’s World.” For what it’s worth, this is not too far from the subtitle of Laudato Si, Pope Francis’s new encyclical on our responsibility to care for the environment.
Keeping up with the avalanche of commentary on the document — positive and negative, insightful and inane — would be nearly a full time job. This is a gratifying fact if the point of an encyclical is to make people aware of church teaching.
A good bit of the conversation has been about the Pope’s acceptance of the scientific consensus that climate change is a reality and that it is caused in large part by human activity (that is to say, by that portion of humanity living in the West). Many “conservatives” have labored to point out that one needn’t accept this assertion as Gospel in order to be “a good Catholic,” and there can be no question that’s true.
But there’s more to the document than that, of course, and most of its contents – and certainly the heart of its contents – fall very much within the Pope’s job description.
If there is an overarching theme to the encyclical – a leitmotif, if you will – it is surely that all people are call to “a deep sense of communion with the rest of nature” (91). “Everything is related,” Francis writes, “and we human beings are united as brothers and sisters on a wonderful pilgrimage, woven together by the love God has for each of his creatures and which also united us in fond affection with brother sun, sister moon, brother river, and mother earth” (92). Again and again the Pope insists that “everything is connected.” It is an assertion that can be found no less than eleven times in the document.
This is a spiritual and moral assertion. It is also absolutely consistent with and nourished by modern science. Anyone who knows the work of American theologian Elizabeth Johnson could not but be reminded of it while reading Laudato Si.
“[W]e share with all other living creatures on our planet a common ancestry,” Johnson has written. “Bacteria, pine trees, blueberries, horses, the great gray whales – we are all genetic kin in the great community of life.” Since the first time reading it, I have been moved and awed by the fact that our blood (and the blood of the rest of earth’s animals) is red because of the iron it contains – iron that was produced billions of years ago in great galactic explosions and condensed in the crust of our planet as it formed and from which we emerged.
These are scientific facts, yes. But just like the scientific fact that an unborn fetus has a distinct, individual, and entirely human genetic make-up from her mother has moral implications, so do these facts and many more related to the nature of nature (of which we are a part) and what is currently happening to it (and therefore also to us). Francis has pointed this out to us in a document that is well worth our time and indeed our embrace.