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Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

The Encyclical and Bold Dialogue
distributed 6/19/15 - ©2015

This week's issue of Eco-Justice Notes is underwritten by the Franciscan Sisters of Little Falls, Minnesota. . Their generous support helps make this publication possible.

Calling the new statement from Pope Francis the "climate encyclical" misses the point, and diminishes this remarkable initiative.

I spent yesterday reading Laudato Si' -- all 175 pages and six chapters -- and it was not what I had expected. It is something much bigger, and much closer to my own heart, than what the advance talk suggested.

I'd heard that the encyclical was timed to provide maximum impact on the UN climate negotiations next winter in Paris. From both my colleagues in the faith-based environmental movement, and from conservatives worried about the church meddling in controversial politics (such as Rick Santorum, the topic of Notes two weeks ago), I'd picked up the impression that Papa Francesco was going to be spelling out a tightly-focused agenda for climate negotiations and actions. But that isn't what I found.

Oh, yes. He does talk clearly and urgently about climate change. But that's just one part of the message, one indicator of a culture gone mad. The encyclical has a marvelous, detailed and theologically rich discussion of biodiversity and the crisis of extinction -- and the biodiversity part is longer than the climate section. The encyclical goes into some depth on water issues, the breakdown of society, and global inequality. Indeed, Francis names a number of themes that are recurring through the encyclical:

I will point to the intimate relationship between the poor and the fragility of the planet, the conviction that everything in the world is connected, the critique of new paradigms and forms of power derived from technology, the call to seek other ways of understanding the economy and progress, the value proper to each creature, the human meaning of ecology, the need for forthright and honest debate, the serious responsibility of international and local policy, the throwaway culture and the proposal of a new lifestyle. [16] (The numbers in brackets refer to paragraph numbers in the document.)

This is not a simple call to action on climate change. Laudato Si' -- "Praise Be" -- is a wide-ranging and deeply challenging expression of Christian faith and ethics. The Pope spells out what I would call an eco-justice analysis on the state of Earth (he calls it "integral ecology"), and places that perspective on the table as an essential part of an expanded dialogue on the world's moral and political agenda.

At the very beginning of the document, Francis wrote, "In this Encyclical, I would like to enter into dialogue with all people about our common home." [3] At the very heart of the introductory pages, he says:

I urgently appeal, then, for a new dialogue about how we are shaping the future of our planet. We need a conversation which includes everyone, since the environmental challenge we are undergoing, and its human roots, concern and affect us all. [14]

Chapter Five, "Lines of Approach and Action", has five sections, each calling for dialogue in some segment of the global community. The Pope does not use his authority to spell out The Truth for all people in our religiously and culturally diverse world. More humbly, he says: 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]

The encyclical was written, it appears to me, because "particular interests or ideologies" contrary to the common good have dominated the debate for far too long. The distorted values of consumer culture, the power of multinational corporations which now exceed that of many nations, philosophies which see people and creatures simply as resources to be used, economic systems which are motivated only by short-term profits, a mindset which glorifies technology -- these are some of the powers that Francis seeks to challenge through moral dialogue. "Today, in view of the common good, there is urgent need for politics and economics to enter into a frank dialogue in the service of life, especially human life." [189, emphasis added]

The word "dialogue" is used at least 21 times in the encyclical, "debate" 12 times, and "discuss" 6 times. "Fossil fuels" are mentioned in just three paragraphs. Coal, oil and gas are only named once [165]. The phrase "parts per million" so often found in climate policy discussions is never used. This is not just about climate activism. Francis is looking for an ongoing, deep conversation about how humans must live to be part of a viable Earth community. Addressing climate change is part of that conversation, but only a part. The vision that Francis spells out goes far deeper than negotiating points for Paris.

  • "Put simply, it is a matter of redefining our notion of progress. A technological and economic development which does not leave in its wake a better world and an integrally higher quality of life cannot be considered progress." [194]
  • "A strategy for real change calls for rethinking processes in their entirety, for it is not enough to include a few superficial ecological considerations while failing to question the logic which underlies present-day culture. A healthy politics needs to be able to take up this challenge." [197]
  • "Many things have to change course, but it is we human beings above all who need to change." [202]

Austen Ivereigh, who has written a biography of the pope, says that this encyclical is his "signature teaching." "It captures his deep disquiet about the direction of the modern world, the way technology and the myth of progress are leading us to commodify human beings and exploit nature. This comes right out of his soul."

Bill McKibben wrote last night, "the heart of the encyclical is less an account of environmental or social destruction than a remarkable attack on the way our world runs". Naomi Klein, interviewed yesterday morning, sees the Pope's statement as a rejection of "green growth" as the solution. The encyclical, she says, "goes a lot deeper than that and says, no, we need to get at the underlying values that are feeding this culture of frenetic consumption that is entirely unsustainable."

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I am both delighted and frightened by Laudato Si'. Pope Francis is claiming the same transformational presence for the church that Eco-Justice Ministries has been naming for 15 years.

In an Eco-Justice Notes over seven years ago, Only a Symptom, I wrote:

I'm concerned that our attention on global warming -- without a comparable attention to other aspects of Earth's deep distress -- may not take us into the sort of transformation that we so urgently need.

I'm concerned that we will see the buildup of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere as the only problem to be solved, and that we won't see the real problems that exist in our values, and in the foundations of our economic system. I'm concerned that we will seek only technological solutions to a problem of pollution, and that we won't look at the moral, spiritual and ethical problems of our consumer society. I'm concerned that we will devote great attention to one symptom of the problem, and that we won't face up to the core problems at all.

Francis has done a superb job in getting "to the roots of the present situation, so as to consider not only its symptoms but also its deepest causes." [15] But when deep causes are found, then equally deep solutions are needed. Francis names that clearly: "the ecological crisis is also a summons to profound interior conversion." [217] "The ecological conversion needed to bring about lasting change is also a community conversion." [219]

I am frightened by the encyclical because I know how difficult it is to get traction with that profoundly transformational vision. (I do have to confess, though, that I am not the Pope, and I don't have all the resources of the Roman Catholic Church to devote to this project.) It is hard enough to talk about a shift to renewable energy. Dialogue about conversion, and the overturning of economic systems, is both essential and enormously difficult.

I fear that the challenge laid before us by Pope Francis is so bold that it will be incomprehensible to the diplomats who gather in Paris next December. I fear that the depth of his vision will be too big for those who seek political and technological action on climate.

But I am also delighted and energized by this marvelous encyclical. The Pope, in his deeply personal statement, and drawing on the historic teachings of the Catholic Church, has put forth a demand to the world that these convictions must be part of the dialogue. He has named the powers and principalities that are taking us ever deeper into catastrophe, opened up a vision for different ways of living in right relationship, and insisted that these values and goals be taken seriously.

If Pope Francis had just spelled out policy goals for the Paris climate negotiations, this encyclical would have a 6-month life. What he has given us -- an assertive call for dialogue that includes moral perspectives and honors all stakeholders -- will shape church and society for decades to come. Praise be, indeed!


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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