In 2015, Pope Francis published his second encyclical, Laudato Si’ (“Praise be to You”). Through it, he invited us to reflect on how we might take better care of our common home going into the future. Naturally, this document was divisive because of the Pope’s position concerning climate change. But to reduce the document to this one thing is to severely diminish the richness of Pope Francis’ reflections. Laudato Si’ is far more comprehensive than it’s given credit for, dealing with everything from environmental degradation to gender ideology.

How do we read this encyclical for all its worth? How do we read it without the lens of modern political divisions? Here are three keys to getting the most out of Laudato Si’.

1. He is building off the thought of his predecessors

    Believe it or not, Laudato Si’ didn’t come from nowhere. It doesn’t constitute a rupture in thinking from Pope Francis’ predecessors but comes from a growing concern that greater technological advances are not being accompanied by deeper moral reflection.

    In 1971, Pope Paul VI wrote in an Apostolic Letter that through the unchecked exploitation of nature ‘humanity runs the risk of destroying it and becoming in turn a victim of this degradation’ (§21).

    In 1979, Pope John Paul II published his first encyclical, Redemptor Hominis, in which he lamented the effects industrialisation had on the environment. ‘Man often seems to see,’ he wrote, ‘no other meaning in his natural environment than what serves for immediate use and consumption’ (§15). In the same encyclical, he urged us to realise that this ‘world of the new age’ – with all of its advancements – was also the same world ‘groaning in travail’ and awaiting the redemption found only in Christ (§8).

    In 2009, Pope Benedict XVI published Caritas in Veritate, an encyclical that explored the notion of integral human development. Turning his attention to the environment, Benedict said that two extremes need to be avoided: that of ‘reckless exploitation’ and that of treating nature as an ‘untouchable taboo’ (§48). Creation is a gift to be used, but it must be used wisely and with an eye to future generations.

    Benedict also stressed there was an integral relationship between human life and creation:

    The book of nature is one and indivisible: it takes in not only the environment but also life, sexuality, marriage, the family, social relations . . . It would be wrong to uphold one set of duties while trampling on the other’ (§51).

    In Laudato Si’, Pope Francis continues the moral reflection of previous pontiffs, addressing in more specificity the ecological concerns driving people today.

    2. It’s okay to disagree with Pope Francis on the specifics

      The Church’s expertise does not lie with the natural sciences. Specific churchmen can be experts in those sciences, but the Magisterium on the Church does not settle questions outside of its own authority, which is to do with faith and morals.

      This is something Pope Francis recognises throughout the encyclical, stating that ‘the Church does not presume to settle scientific questions or to replace politics’ (§188).

      This is important because the encyclical, by its nature, deals with more specific ecological questions. Climate change is one of them, but Pope Francis also deals with so much more.

      He discusses the pollution of air and oceans; the scarcity of fresh drinking water in poorer countries; the loss of biodiversity and the destruction of ecosystems; consumerism, global inequality and the financial debt of the third world; the pollution of our minds by media and technology, preventing us from ‘learning how to live wisely, to think deeply and to love generously’ (§47); and, perhaps surprisingly, the way in which modern ‘urban chaos’ alienates us from creation:

      We were not meant to be inundated by cement, asphalt, glass and metal and deprived of physical contact with nature’ (§44).

      He also acknowledges that ‘different approaches and lines of thought have emerged regarding this situation and its possible solutions’ (§60). For a more comprehensive understanding of the subject matter, lively debate needs to be had:

      On many concrete questions, the Church has no reason to offer a definitive opinion; she knows that honest debate must be encouraged among experts, while respecting divergent views’ (§61).

      When it comes to specific questions of scientific understanding, the Church is inviting you to disagree and debate. We’re all better for it.

      3. Recognise the bigger picture

        Pope Francis talks frequently about an ‘ecological conversion,’ but what does this mean? What we need, he says, is a complete revolution in how we understand the human person and creation, drawing from ancient and biblical sources.

        The “enemy” in Pope Francis’ sight throughout this encyclical is modernity: the new era of technology that granted humanity more power than it had ever thought possible.

        In many areas, the advancement of technology has done good, remedying things that plagued humanity for thousands of years, granting us prosperity and length of life.

        It has also been the cause of great evil, largely because we severed our technical mastery from our moral reflection:

        It can be said that many problems of today’s world stem from the tendency, at times unconscious, to make the method and aims of science and technology an epistemological paradigm which shapes the lives of individuals and the workings of society’ (§107).

        In other words: because we can do something, we assume we should do something.

        This is something Pope Francis refers to as ‘technocracy’: where the advancement and efficiency of technology is the rule, devoid of moral and ethical restraints.

        It is this mentality that has reduced human embryos to objects of experimentation and justified the aborting of unborn babies, he writes (§120). Within many ecological movements, he goes on, there is a schizophrenia on display precisely because of this:

        . . . it is troubling that, when some ecological movements defend the integrity of the environment, rightly demanding that certain limits be imposed on scientific research, they sometimes fail to apply those same principles to human life. There is a tendency to justify transgressing all boundaries when experimentation is carried out on living human embryos’ (§136).

        Pope Francis invites us into a broader vision, one he has called an ‘integral ecology,’ whereby everything is seen as connected: the human person and society, the economy, our cultural patrimony, the generations to come, as well as the rest of creation. Only with this integral ecology – which might also be called a holistic ecology – can we address the problems of today’s world.