Pope Francis’ call for “dialogue” on environmental challenges

Pope Francis’ call for “dialogue” on environmental challenges

Peter Westmore

In his second Encyclical, Laudato Si, Pope Francis has proposed a dialogue on the environmental problems facing the world, and called on people to work together to solve the many challenges facing us in advancing human welfare and respecting the natural environment.

The formal title of the 82-page document consists of the first two words of the Encyclical, translated as “Praise be to You”, the first words of a canticle written by St Francis of Assisi, “Praise be to You, my Lord, through our Sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us.”

Contrary to the media hype surrounding the document, it is not mainly concerned about the contentious issue of global warming.

Pope Francis has given his Encyclical the sub-title, “On care for our common home”, and he appeals to us “to bring the whole human family together to seek a sustainable and integral development, for we know that things can change.”


His inspiration is St Francis of Assisi, and his description of this extraordinary saint tells us a great deal about Pope Francis himself.

He writes, “I believe that Saint Francis is the example par excellence of care for the vulnerable and of an integral ecology lived out joyfully and authentically.

“He is the patron saint of all who study and work in the area of ecology, and he is also much loved by non-Christians.

“He was particularly concerned for God’s creation and for the poor and outcast. He loved, and was deeply loved for his joy, his generous self-giving, his open-heartedness.

“He was a mystic and a pilgrim who lived in simplicity and in wonderful harmony with God, with others, with nature and with himself. He shows us just how inseparable the bond is between concern for nature, justice for the poor, commitment to society, and interior peace.”

The Pope says that St Francis helps us to see that an integral ecology 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.

“Just as happens when we fall in love with someone, whenever [St Francis] would gaze at the sun, the moon or the smallest of animals, he burst into song, drawing all other creatures into his praise. He communed with all creation, even preaching to the flowers, inviting them ‘to praise the Lord, just as if they were endowed with reason’.”


The Encyclical has six chapters which deserve to be read in full. The first, “What is Happening to our Common Home”, looks at the challenges caused by industrialisation and development, particularly development which ignores the common good.

He wrote, “But a sober look at our world shows that the degree of human intervention, often in the service of business interests and consumerism, is actually making our earth less rich and beautiful, ever more limited and grey, even as technological advances and consumer goods continue to abound limitlessly.

“We seem to think that we can substitute an irreplaceable and irretrievable beauty with something which we have created ourselves.”

Pope Francis begins with a critique of our throwaway culture, which contributes to the prevalence of pollution and waste.

He notes the presence of both atmospheric pollution and pollution of the soil and waterways, and says, “Each year hundreds of millions of tons of waste are generated, much of it non-biodegradable, highly toxic and radioactive, from homes and businesses, from construction and demolition sites, from clinical, electronic and industrial sources. The earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth.”

While this is tragically true in much of the Third World – in the Pope’s homeland Argentina, for example, in much of Africa, Asia and other parts of Latin America – the developed world has instituted means of reducing waste, and given a high priority to protection of the environment, to the benefit of all.

This is a consequence of the fact that development produces wealth, part of which can be used to deal with the negative effects of industrialisation.

One of the main reasons why North America, Japan, Australia and much of Western Europe have been able to combine economic development and protection of the environment is because democracy has given the people power to control the abuse of technology.

Arguably, the Encyclical does not give due weight to the importance of the political culture necessary for harmonising economic development and environmental protection.

The Holy Father corrects any impression that he or the Church does not welcome the contribution of science and technology to human improvement. In fact, he specifically endorses their role in contributing to human welfare, but says that neither science nor economics should determine public policy, but the common good of all and the importance of preserving what God has given us.

He also said that it is not the role of the church to determine the science, but to listen respectfully to what science has to say.

Pope Francis expressed concerns about global warming, saying that “a solid scientific consensus” indicates we are witnessing a disturbing warming of the climatic system, accompanied by rising sea levels and more extreme climatic events, such as cyclones and hurricanes.

However, this “consensus” promoted by bodies like the IPCC does not accord with actual measurements of global temperatures since the 1990s, and there is little evidence of any significant rising sea levels, or melting ice-caps, or more frequent extreme climate events, after two centuries of industrialisation.

Of course, the evidence can be cherry-picked to produce almost any conclusion one wants, because the climate system is extremely complex.

This is a scientific issue, not a theological one.

The Pope also gives attention to the critical need for the protection of water resources, and ensuring its availability to the poor.

He criticises the “population control” policies advanced by international agencies: “At times, developing countries face forms of international pressure which make economic assistance contingent on certain policies of ‘reproductive health’,” and says that “demographic growth is fully compatible with an integral and shared development.”

He added, “To blame population growth instead of extreme and selective consumerism on the part of some, is one way of refusing to face the issues. It is an attempt to legitimise the present model of distribution, where a minority believes that it has the right to consume in a way which can never be universalised, since the planet could not even contain the waste products of such consumption.”


He then examines “The Gospel of Creation”, and proposes an intense dialogue between religion and science which can be of benefit to both.

He says, “We are not God. The earth was here before us and it has been given to us.

“Although it is true that we Christians have at times incorrectly interpreted the Scriptures, nowadays we must forcefully reject the notion that our being created in God’s image and given dominion over the earth justifies absolute domination over other creatures.

“The biblical texts are to be read in their context, with an appropriate hermeneutic, recognising that they tell us to ‘till and keep’ the garden of the world (cf. Gen 2:15). ‘Tilling’ refers to cultivating, ploughing or working, while ‘keeping’ means caring, protecting, overseeing and preserving.

“This implies a relationship of mutual responsibility between human beings and nature. Each community can take from the bounty of the earth whatever it needs for subsistence, but it also has the duty to protect the earth and to ensure its fruitfulness for coming generations.”

Chapter 3, on “The Human Roots of the Ecological Crisis”, concedes that there are many causes of the environment problems across the world, but he suggests that many problems of today’s world stem from a tendency to look for solutions from economics and technology, regardless of their effects on either mankind or the human environment.

In the course of his critique of contemporary thinking, Pope Francis made the point that concern for the protection of nature is also incompatible with the justification of abortion. “How can we genuinely teach the importance of concern for other vulnerable beings, however troublesome or inconvenient they may be, if we fail to protect a human embryo, even when its presence is uncomfortable and creates difficulties?”, he asked.

The next chapter deals with what the pope calls an “integral ecology”, in which “the analysis of environmental problems cannot be separated from the analysis of human, family, work related and urban contexts, nor from how individuals relate to themselves, which leads in turn to how they relate to others and to the environment.”

In Chapter 5, Pope Francis called for global co-operation to solve the world’s major problems. He said, “The same ingenuity which has brought about enormous technological progress has so far proved incapable of finding effective ways of dealing with grave environmental and social problems worldwide.

“A global consensus is essential for confronting the deeper problems, which cannot be resolved by unilateral actions on the part of individual countries.”

His discussion here reflects the complexity of issues such as planning for major development projects. He says, “Environmental impact assessment should not come after the drawing up of a business proposition or the proposal of a particular policy, plan or programme.

“It should be part of the process from the beginning, and be carried out in a way which is interdisciplinary, transparent and free of all economic or political pressure.

“It should be linked to a study of working conditions and possible effects on people’s physical and mental health, on the local economy and on public safety.

“Economic returns can thus be forecast more realistically, taking into account potential scenarios and the eventual need for further investment to correct possible undesired effects.

“A consensus should always be reached between the different stakeholders, who can offer a variety of approaches, solutions and alternatives.

“The local population should have a special place at the table; they are concerned about their own future and that of their children, and can consider goals transcending immediate economic interest.”

He added, “This does not mean being opposed to any technological innovations which can bring about an improvement in the quality of life.

“But it does mean that profit cannot be the sole criterion to be taken into account, and that, when significant new information comes to light, a reassessment should be made, with the involvement of all interested parties.”

Economic determinism

The pope was also critical of economic determinism.

He said, “The financial crisis of 2007-08 provided an opportunity to develop a new economy, more attentive to ethical principles, and new ways of regulating speculative financial practices and virtual wealth.

“But the response to the crisis did not include rethinking the outdated criteria which continue to rule the world.

“Production is not always rational, and is usually tied to economic variables which assign to products a value that does not necessarily correspond to their real worth.

“This frequently leads to an overproduction of some commodities, with unnecessary impact on the environment and with negative results on regional economies. The financial bubble also tends to be a productive bubble.

“The problem of the real economy is not confronted with vigour, yet it is the real economy which makes diversification and improvement in production possible, helps companies to function well, and enables small and medium businesses to develop and create employment.”

And finally, Pope Francis urges an awareness of our common origin, of our mutual belonging, and of a future to be shared with everyone.

“This basic awareness would enable the development of new convictions, attitudes and forms of life,” he says, “A great cultural, spiritual and educational challenge stands before us, and it will demand that we set out on the long path of renewal.”

Pope Francis’ Encyclical is challenging and thought provoking. It is intended to be the start of a dialogue on how mankind can honour and respect all creation, as St Francis of Assisi did. It concludes with two prayers.

The pope says, “May our struggles and our concern for this planet never take away the joy of our hope.”

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