The new encyclical has been widely described as “the pope’s encyclical on climate change.” But one shouldn’t be misled by the headlines. While Francis clearly accepts and promotes the dominant scientific opinion about climate change, Laudato Si is about far more than that. As Fr. Joseph Fessio notes: “It’s about heart change, an ‘integral ecology’ that recognizes that ‘We are not God’ and proposes ‘redefining our notion of progress’ and adopting a ‘responsible simplicity of life, in grateful contemplation of God’s world, and in concern for the needs of the poor and the protection of the environment.’”
Laudato Si is almost 45,000 words, but there are five overarching themes woven throughout its teachings:
Truth is objective and unchanging: At the very beginning of his encyclical, Francis invokes “my predecessor, Benedict XVI,” who famously assailed the “dictatorship of relativism”—a critique Francis endorsed shortly after he became pope and now expands upon in Laudato Si. Our natural and social environments, he writes, have suffered serious damage, because of “irresponsible behavior.” Both are “ultimately due to the same evil: the notion that there are no indisputable truths to guide our lives.”
Francis explicitly condemns “the culture of relativism” and contrasts “objective truths” and “sound principles” with “the satisfaction of our own desires.” Unless there is a strong check on the latter, he warns, evils like child abuse, the abandonment of the elderly, human trafficking, and the drug trade can and will continue.
God gave humanity dominion over the earth, but that does not mean we have a right to abuse and exploit it: The main themes of Catholic social teaching are present throughout Laudato Si, but the last of them—care for God’s creation—finally gets the comprehensive treatment it deserves. Ten years ago, the American Catholic bishops wrote: “We show our respect for the Creator by our stewardship of creation. Care for the earth is not just an Earth Day slogan, it is a requirement of our faith. We are called to protect people and the planet, living our faith in relationship with all of God’s creation. This environmental challenge has fundamental moral and ethical dimensions that cannot be ignored” (emphasis added).
Picking up on that theme, Francis argues that the environment is now in a state of crisis largely because of mankind’s belief that we have a right to dominate nature. Such misguided thinking often draws from the Genesis account, which grants mankind “dominion” over the earth. But this is an incomplete reading of Scripture. God never gave man a license for the “unbridled exploitation” of nature. The Biblical texts must be read in proper context, recognizing that they also teach us to “‘till and keep’ the garden of the world (Gen. 2:15).”
In hopes of averting further degradation of the environment, Francis proposes a number of policy recommendations, which, though not in themselves doctrinal, or beyond debate, are based upon a “solid scientific analysis of all the data currently available,” as Fr. George Coyne, one of the world’s leading Catholic scientists, notes. One may disagree with how best to improve our environmental situation, but indifference is not an option for faithful Catholics; the call to be stewards of God’s creation is a moral imperative and binding on members of the Church.
Everything in God’s creation is interrelated, and one cannot separate protection of the environment from protection of humanity: Again citing Benedict, Francis observes that “the world cannot be analyzed by isolating only one of its aspects, since ‘the book of nature is one and indivisible,’ and includes the environment, life, sexuality, the family, social relations, and so forth.”
This is why, Francis insists, we must oppose, not just assaults on the environment, but grave attacks on human rights—such as abortion and coercive population control—and condemn destructive gender ideologies, since “ it is not healthy to cancel out sexual difference.”
By linking ecology with social morality, Laudato Si utterly rejects the pagan conception of environmentalism, which retains its affection for the sexual revolution. Francis, therefore, has not “gone green”; rather, he has gone Biblical, and is calling environmentalists who have gone astray to uphold Judeo-Christian morality as part of their activism. What Francis calls “the seamless garment of God’s creation” must be held intact and never fractured.
The traditional family is the center and building block of civilization: The modern environmental movement is not known for its commitment to the family. It is far more interested in speaking about fossil fuels than the importance of traditional marriage and the procreation of children. But by shifting the tone away from secular environmental language to “God’s creation,” Laudato Si grants the family an indispensable role in building a better world. “In the family,” writes Francis, “we first learn how to show love and respect for life; we are taught the proper use of things, order and cleanliness, respect for the local ecosystems and care for all creatures. In the family we receive an integral education, which enables us to grow harmoniously in personal maturity.”
Jesus Christ is Lord and Master of the Universe, and the riches of his Church are unsurpassed: The greatest aspect of Laudato Si is its evangelical flavor. Francis doesn’t simply talk about the need for “ecological conversion,” but—above all—spiritual conversion.
Laudato Si contains many passages about the Holy Trinity, our Redemption in Christ, Catholic spirituality and the Blessed Virgin Mary. The great Catholic theologian Romano Guardini is cited, as are a whole host of saints. The last chapter is practically an invitation, if not an open appeal, to enter the Church. That appeal is highlighted by the Pope’s focus on the sacraments, especially the Holy Eucharist:
It is in the Eucharist that all that has been created finds its greatest exaltation. Grace, which tends to manifest itself tangibly, found unsurpassable expression when God himself became man and gave himself as food for his creatures. The Lord, in the culmination of the mystery of the Incarnation, chose to reach our intimate depths through a fragment of matter. He comes not from above, but from within, he comes that we might find him in this world of ours. In the Eucharist, fullness is already achieved, it is the living centre of the universe, the overflowing core of love and of inexhaustible life.
An openness to the supernatural truths of Christianity enhances the environmental movement and brings us to a full appreciation of God’s creation. We are blessed to have a pontiff who recognizes that, and is willing to proclaim the good news to the entire world.
William Doino Jr. is a contributor to Inside the Vatican magazine, among many other publications, and writes often about religion, history and politics. He contributed an extensive bibliography of works on Pius XII to The Pius War: Responses to the Critics of Pius XII. His previous articles can be found here.