On 24 May 2015, Pope Francis published the encyclical Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home. In this document he explores some of the ecological crises facing the world today and invites us into a dialogue about how best to approach them from within the Catholic theological tradition.

Naturally, this document caused some controversy because of the pope’s position concerning climate change. However, it is important to point out that even the pope recognises that 'the Church does not presume to settle scientific questions or to replace politics' (LS, §188). It's okay for Catholics to disagree about the specific claims being made about climate change when they are of a scientific nature. The point was to encourage debate so that we could reflect on how ecological questions should be shaped by the Church’s thinking: biblically, theologically and philosophically. Unfortunately, because the political rhetoric surrounding ecological questions and climate change can be so heated, it can be difficult to take a step back to think through the issues in a way that doesn’t lead to the false dichotomies politics so often inflicts on us.

To read Pope Francis is to read somebody who is not imprisoned within those false dichotomies. This is because he is someone formed by the principles of Catholic Social Teaching and applies them with great thoughtfulness to the question of ecology.

One of the ideas that is central to the text, and one that proves this thoughtfulness, is that of an integral ecology. What does he mean by this?

Everything is connected

The idea of an integral ecology is one that builds upon something Pope Benedict XVI spoke about in his great social encyclical Caritas in Veritate, namely the notion of an integral human development. Benedict argued 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 …' (CV, §51) In other words, human nature (with everything that entails physically and morally) is bound up with the rest of nature and cannot be separated from it.

Imbalance is created when the good of one is sought at the expense of the other. The 'decisive issue is the overall moral tenor of society', Benedict wrote, and unless we restore that, no amount of economic incentives or deterrents will work (§51). To lose our conscience in one area is to lose our conscience in the other because how we think about ourselves and act towards each other inevitably affects how we think about and act towards creation (and vice versa).

Pope Francis explicitly elaborates on this idea in the opening chapter of Laudato Si' (§6). The essence of his argument boils down to this human element of ecology. When we debase creation, we debase ourselves:

'The destruction of the human environment is extremely serious, not only because God has entrusted the world to us men and women, but because human life is itself a gift which must be defended from various forms of debasement' (§5, emphasis added).

He does not want us to see human development and ecological conservation as mutually exclusive ideas but as nested within one another. Precisely because we have bodies, we are part of nature, we have a 'direct relationship with the environment and with other living beings' (§155). To speak of the environment is in fact to speak of this relationship:

'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).

Time and space are not different realities, nor are the biological and chemical makeup of things. If we were to separate these things from one another then we would remain unable to understand creation:

'...the fragmentation of knowledge and the isolation of bits of information can actually become a form of ignorance unless they are integrated into a broader vision of reality' (§138).

What this broader vision includes is being able to think along multiple lines: cultural, economic, political, and moral. For example, in keeping with Catholic Social Teaching, the pope stresses the need to keep things local first, respecting the cultural patrimony of a people and not imposing either a consumerist worldview or western “technical solutions” on them (§144). He likewise laments the indignity of urban living with its frequent pollution, congestion and poverty (§147-153). Instead of blaming each other, he writes, the political and the economic spheres should collaborate in order to advance the common good, an idea that needs to be kept central to the discussion (§156-158, 198). And, on the moral level, there is a great need to accept our bodies, in their masculinity and femininity, because 'thinking that we enjoy absolute power over our own bodies turns, often subtly, into thinking that we enjoy absolute power over creation' (§155).

The only way to approach the ecological question, in other words, is to come to understand the ways in which many different aspects of life are connected and inseparable. Solutions that tear them apart are no solutions at all.

The Catholic sensibility

None of this should surprise us, though, because these thoughts are formed by deeply Catholic sensibilities about the human body. Catholicism has always resisted the gnostic tendency to think the physical aspect of life doesn’t really matter, that it’s all about the "spiritual". On the contrary, Francis writes, 'the destiny of all creation is bound up with the mystery of Christ, present from the beginning . . .' (§99). There is no redemption without the redemption and transfiguration of our physical, material life. In the Catholic understanding, actually, the idea of a soul in some way implies the existence of a body.

What this means is that our obligation to the created order is increased, not lessened, because of our life in Christ:

'The ultimate destiny of the universe is in the fullness of God, which has already been attained by the risen Christ, the measure of the maturity of all things' (§83).

Having the person of Christ at the centre of this integral ecology is actually the first and final piece of the puzzle. No integral ecology is sufficient without the recognition that Christ's redemptive work includes creation in its entirety. This, in some sense, is the very meaning of the sacraments. They are, Pope Francis writes, 'the privileged way in which nature is taken up by God to become a means of mediating supernatural life' (§235).

In the Eucharist especially, which Pope Francis refers to as 'the living centre of the universe', all of creation is brought into union with God and gives thanks to God (§236).

It is precisely this Catholic sacramental understanding of creation, grounded in Christ, that should inform our approach to a more integrated ecology.

Laudato Si’ Week 2021

To celebrate the end of the Laudato Si’ Special Anniversary Year, Pope Francis invites the world’s 1.3 billion Catholics to joyfully participate in Laudato Si’ Week 2021, to be held 16-24 May. The theme for the weeklong celebration is, “for we know that things can change” (Laudato Si’ §13). This year's event coincides with the sixth anniversary (24 May) of when Pope Francis finished writing the encyclical.