Academic journal article Independent Review

Pope Francis on the Environmental Crisis

Academic journal article Independent Review

Pope Francis on the Environmental Crisis

Article excerpt

In the early months of his papacy, Francis promulgated the apostolic exhortation Evangelii psaudinm (The joy of the Gospel), which declared the evangelical basis of his commitment to environmental protection: "An authentic faith ... always involves a deep desire to change the world, to transmit values, to leave this earth somehow better than we found it. We love this magnificent planet on which God has put us ... The earth is our common home and all of us are brothers and sisters" (2013, 182).

The encyclical Laudato si' ("Praise be to thee"), which appeared in May 2015, is an extended exposition of that theme (Francis 2015, 3). (1) With the possible exception of John Paul II's encyclical Centesimas annus in 1991, Laudato si' has attracted more attention, both favorable and unfavorable, than any papal utterance since Humanae vitae by Paul VI in 1968.

The evident degradation of the human environment appears to many, including some of the best informed, to be a matter of life and death: if not for ourselves, then for our children and grandchildren. Reliable diagnoses of causes and well-informed consideration of cures are essential for public policy. The matter has attracted a wide range of responses, in many of which it is hard to disentangle objective analysis from sectional interest and ideological bias. Whether the Christian religion can throw any light on such questions about the environment is important for millions worldwide. Pope Francis makes a very strong claim that it can.

It is therefore my purpose in this article to examine that claim critically. In the first section, I attempt a summary. In the second, I attend to the intellectual context. In the last, I consider some of the more contentious issues the encyclical raises: in economics, in biological science, and in theology.

What Does the Encyclical Say?

Laudato si, mi Signore, per sora nostra matre Terra, la quale ne sustenta et gouerna, et produce diuersi fructi con colorid fior et herba.

--Francis of Assisi, "Cantico del sole," c. 1224

Laudato si'is "addressed to every person living on this planet" (3). It is inspired by St. Francis of Assisi, whom John Paul II in 1979 declared to be "the patron saint of all who study and work in the area of ecology" (10, my translation). The seventh stanza of that saint's perennially popular "Cantico del sole" celebrates "Our Sister, Mother Earth who feeds us and rules us" and is quoted at the outset of Laudato si' (1). The theme of the encyclical is "care for our common home." It echoes Paul VI, John Paul II, and Benedict XVTs judgment in perceiving the ecological crisis to be a consequence of the "irresponsible behaviour" of human beings (6). It has six chapters.

Taking Stock

The first of these chapters, "What Is Happening to Our Common Home," deals with pollution and climate change (20-25), the availability of water (27-31), loss of biodiversity (32-42), decline in the quality of human life and the breakdown of society (43-47), global inequality (48-52), "weak responses" to these challenges (53-59), and a variety of options (60-61). It seems probable that this chapter has been the one most carefully read--perhaps, indeed, the only chapter most people have read. At any rate, its matter appears to have attracted the most attention.

Pollution of the atmosphere, soil, and water undermines the health of millions. Accumulation of nonbiodegradable, toxic, and radioactive industrial waste is beginning to make our common home look like "an immense pile of filth" (21). Much of this pollution is a consequence of our "throwaway culture." Therefore, "technology, linked to business interests" is not "the only way of solving these problems" and may indeed make matters worse (22, 20). We must limit our use of nonrenewable resources and recycle those we do use.

Continuing use of fossil fuels causes carbonic, sulfurous, and nitric pollution--the first of which is directly linked to global warming and its train of ecological evil--which, by increasing the acidification of the oceans, "compromise the marine food chain" (20, 23, 24). …

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