'The Earth, Our Home'

June 18, 2015
Pope Francis
The pope's 180-page encyclical on the environment was released June 18.

Pope Francis's encyclical brings to mind Pope Paul VI's imperative.

In his encyclical on social justice, Paul VI said that if we want peace, we must work for justice. Why? Because peace and justice are interconnected.

Pope Francis's encyclical urges that if we want to continue our lives and all life on earth, then we must protect the earth's environment. Why? Because we are a part of the earth, and all life is a part of the life of the earth. This message more than any other message is central to this encyclical. The earth is not only our common home, but we are a part of the earth and therefore we have responsibility for it.

Encyclicals are technically an official and public letter that the Pope addresses to the Roman Catholic Church. In recent decades, the number and size of the encyclicals has increased. A papal encyclical has a penultimate authority in the Church, second only to teaching defined as dogma. It is meant as a teaching event, but in many cases also a deciding event in the face of controversies in the Church.

Paul VI's encyclical on contraception comes to mind. After withdrawing the issue from the Second Vatican Council, and after his appointed commission had overwhelmingly recommended a change, he came out against contraception to the consternation of many. Even some episcopal conferences recommended that the Catholic faithful attend to the teaching of the encyclical but also their conscience.

Pope Francis's encyclical comes at a completely different situation. Although some notable Roman Catholic politicians have questioned the theological, moral, and practical relevance of such an encyclical, there has actually been a remarkable consistency within the Church.

Pope Francis can appeal to recent popes, from Paul VI to John Paul II and Benedict XVI, not only to their warnings on environmental deterioration, but more importantly to their emphasis on the religious and moral significance of human responsibility for the environment.

Equally important, but often overlooked, is the consistent teaching of American Roman Catholic bishops. On June 15, 2001, the full body of the United States Conference of Bishops issued the document "Global Climate Change: A Plea for Dialogue, Prudence and the Common Good," which underscores the responsibility to address global warming, the role that the human use of fossil fuels has in global warming, and the disproportion impact global warming has on the poor.

The bishops view the issue not simply as an economic issue, but as a moral issue calling us to conversion "as individuals, as institutions, and as a people." Though acknowledging the right of private property, the bishops criticize a consumer culture that fails to serve the common good by protecting the planet for all, the poor, and the children. The vision of this document goes further than the more cautious advocacy by the Bishop's Committee on Social Development and Peace in its statement, "Reflections on the Energy Crisis" in 1981.

What is astonishing is that Catholic leaders, politicians, and intellectuals have criticized Pope Francis as if other popes or the American bishops had not previously underscored our moral and religious responsibility toward the environment. Is there anything new or different in Pope Francis's encyclical? The answer is: Yes and no!

The moral and religious imperative is basically the same. What is different is the urgency and starkness of his description of our environmental situation. In striking detail, Pope Francis spells out the increased pollution, climate change, scarcity of water, loss of biodiversity, and decline in the quality of human life.

Significantly, the pope argues that the very causes of these effects are leading to the increased breakdown of human society and global inequality. His response is to challenge "complacency and a cheerful recklessness," and the naïve belief in a myth of progress that new technology without ethical considerations will solve the problems. The encyclical argues at considerable length that an excessive confidence in technology alone, coupled with an anthropocentric worldview, not only cannot solve the problem, but actually heightens it. This critique is a step away from what some consider the optimism of Vatican II.

However, what is also central to his argument is that there are different approaches and what is needed is open and transparent dialogue. He frankly admits that the Catholic Church does not have a definitive answer. The problem is global, and what is needed is global and international cooperation. Here again what he underscores is the need for dialogue and cooperation among nations and experts; however, he balances this global emphasis with the notion of "cultural ecology."

The threats to nature also have an effect on local cultures and shared identities of groups and peoples. Cultures are more than inheritances. They are a living and dynamic present reality that must be included when dealing with the environment. Uniform global regulations should not overlook local problems and the need for local participation.

Throughout the encyclical, the Pope underscores the sacramentality of the earth and the importance of conversion and of structural (economic) and personal change. Our love and concern for one another goes hand-in-hand with our responsibility for our common home.

by Francis Schüssler Fiorenza, Charles Chauncey Stillman Professor of Roman Catholic Theological Studies