In August, Pope Francis made the surprise announcement that he was writing a ‘second part’ to his encyclical Laudato Si’. This new apostolic exhortation is due to be released on 4 October 2023, the feast day of St Francis of Assisi. The date also marks the conclusion to the Season of Creation, the ecumenical celebration designed to bring Christians together over care for our common home.
As we prepare for the arrival of this document, it might be good to revisit some central ideas present in Laudato Si’ and how vital they are to understanding Pope Francis’ vision.
The figure of St Francis of Assisi cannot be underestimated in the encyclical. Francis took his papal name after the saint, which already tells us something of this popular saint’s importance to the Argentinian pope.
It is Pope Francis’ conviction that St Francis should open us to think differently about how we see care for our common home. While we might be tempted to think about environmentalism in technical terms—how we can solve this or that problem—the great Italian saint invites us to a more foundational approach. He invites us to go deep inside ourselves, and ‘calls for openness to categories which transcend the language of mathematics and biology, and take us to the heart of what it is to be human’ (LS, §11).
The life of St Francis was an integrated one. His approach to creation, to the poor, and to the faith, were united together. But what St Francis had undergirding everything was a contemplative attitude, an ‘openness to awe and wonder’. This is what Pope Francis invites us to reclaim. When we do, ‘sobriety and care will well up spontaneously.’
‘Rather than a problem to be solved’, he writes, ‘the world is a joyful mystery to be contemplated with gladness and praise’ (§12).
Following the publication of Laudato Si’ in 2015, Pope Francis wanted to clarify the meaning of the encyclical amid significant public discussion taking place.
In this context he said, ‘No, it’s not a “green” encyclical, it’s a social encyclical …
For in society, in the social life of mankind, we cannot forget to take care of the environment. Moreover, looking after the environment is a social attitude, which socialises us, in one sense or another …’
While Pope Francis does engage with particular topics regarding the environment—which he acknowledges the Church cannot ‘presume to settle’ (§188)—the encyclical’s ambit is so much wider than any specific issue.
This is why he also talks about consumerism, global inequality, and the financial debts of the third world (§48-52); pressing issues of bioethics and the immutability of human nature (§155); the importance of preserving our cultural patrimonies (§143); 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 (§44). And this is just scratching the surface of the topics he addresses.
In that same clarification, the pope said, ‘Taking care of the environment means having an attitude of human ecology. That is, we cannot say that mankind is here and Creation, the environment, is there. Ecology is total, it’s human.’
This is one of the central ideas of the encyclical:
When we speak of the “environment”, what we really mean is a relationship existing between nature and the society which lives in it. Nature cannot be regarded as something separate from ourselves or as a mere setting in which we live. We are part of nature, included in it and thus in constant interaction with it (§139).
His predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, spoke of the same idea in Caritas in Veritate, where he wrote that the ‘book of nature is one and indivisible: it takes in not only the environment but also life, sexuality, marriage, the family, social relations …’ (§51).
The problem with so many activist movements, in Pope Francis’ judgment, is that they separate these things from one another. But if we step back and see the ways in which every element of life connects together, we’ll have a much fuller and more accurate vision of God’s creation.
Justin McLellan (CNS)26 February 2024
Melbourne Archdiocese Catholic Schools (MACS)26 February 2024