By Ramón J. Santos*

This past May 24th, on the occasion of the fifth-year anniversary of the publication of Laudato Si, Pope Francis extended an invitation to a year-long special reflection on this important contribution to the already substantial body of social teachings of the Church that began in 1891 with the publication of Rerum Novarum, an encyclical that initiated a progressively productive dialogue with the various strands of modern, and now postmodern thought, on the social, political, economic, and moral demands and aspirations of our time. In response to that invitation, the following observations are presented on what I take to be the central and most original contributions of the encyclical to the ongoing deployment and development of the Church’s social teachings.

A bird’s eye view of the documents of the tradition that generates and sustains Laudato Si illustrates the productive engagement and responsiveness of the tradition to the pressing social, political and economic challenges of our time. From Rerum Novarum’s concern with the rights of workers in the context of an industrial capitalism that was reorganizing the nature of life, work, and the values that informed economic activity and productivity, to Laudato Si’s call for an integrative approach to the environment and the questions of justice and equality, the social teachings tradition is a testament to the progressive development of our moral consciousness in response to the demands of social justice in our rapidly changing world.

The development of Catholic social teaching can be viewed as a steady growth towards ever-wider circles of social concern and awareness of the demands of justice in the light of new situations and understandings. In addressing this central challenge of our time, Pope Francis   following in the footsteps of his predecessors who engaged the world in a conversation about the demands of justice facing humanity in their own time. Taking their cues from the specific challenges of each of their particular moments, each of the documents of the tradition typically organizes its analysis of the demands for social justice from the concrete challenges of that specific moment. In honoring the tradition that makes it possible and necessary, each of these encyclicals appropriates the insights of the past not as a mechanical repetition of past truths, but as the starting points for a reflection, that in being faithful to the past, can allow for a rethinking and illumination of the present to carry us forward towards a more just future.

Like previous documents, Laudato Si progresses in its examination of the demands of social justice through the in-depth analysis of an organizing and integrative idea. The ecological concern, the environment, the need for what Pope Francis calls an “ecological conversion” is the organizing and integrative idea of Laudato Si.

Pacem in Terris examined the demands of justice and the aspirations for peace in a nuclearized world through the lens of human rights, Populorum Progressio engaged the world on the promise and challenges of development for nations  joining the international community of independent nations after centuries of colonial rule and mismanagement, Laborem Excercens took on the question of the significance of human labor for any consideration of social justice. The concern with the environment is not new to the tradition, but none in the tradition had made it the central focus of its reflection, and none had as systematically articulated the connections between the concern with the environment and the concern with the demands of social justice. Early on in the encyclical,  Pope Francis reminds us that this concern is not new to the tradition, that  ¨In 1971, eight years after Pacem in TerrisBlessed Pope Paul VI referred to the ecological concern as ´a tragic consequence´ of unchecked human activity: “Due to an ill-considered exploitation of nature, humanity runs the risk of destroying it and becoming in turn a victim of this degradation.” (4) The call for a global ecological conversion that is so central to Francis’ analysis was first articulated by Saint John Paul II. Benedict XVI also echoed the progressive attention to the environment that paved the way for Francis’ encyclical. Like Francis, Benedict stresses the interconnectedness and interdependence of the natural and the social environment of human life the consequences of which are fully deployed in Laudato Si where the case is made that solutions to the present crisis call for a concerted integrated approach that seeks to advance the demands of social justice in concert with the protection of the earth (nature, the environment).

Laudato Si takes its title and inspiration from the first verse of St. Francis of Assisi’s Canticle of the creatures (“LAUDATO SI’, mi’ Signore” – “Praise be to you, my Lord”), where the patron saint of the environment and ecology reminds us that our common home is like a sister with whom we share our lives and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us. Throughout the encyclical Pope Francis details the multiple ways in which the earth is under stress. Climate change, pollution, loss of biodiversity, toxic waste, acid rain, drinking-water contamination, global inequality, are among the most visible warning signs of the stress the earth is under discussed by Pope Francis.

1All numbers following citations refer to the paragraph number in the encyclical.

Pag 1

This stress has a real and direct impact on human and non-human life, affecting not only the environment, but also the moral, social, political and economic structures that organize and sustain our lives. The causes of this stress and the type of actions to be taken to reverse the widely documented trend of environmental deterioration are widely debated today challenging all of us to examine closely the order of values that has brought about this present situation. Francis doesn’t hesitate to point out and put the responsibility of this damage at our feet: “This sister now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her.” (2)

Laudato Si’s call endorses a number of proposals, policies and efforts put in place by national and international organizations. However, a more radical change to how we are going to deal with the crisis demands an ecological conversion, which begins with a change of perspective and attitude with respect to the environment; i.e., a shift from an approach to nature as “masters, consumers, ruthless exploiters, unable to set limits on their immediate needs” (11) to that of stewards who are in awe and wonder with the beauty and abundance of the created world. In other words, with an attitude that refuses to “turn reality into an object simply to be used and controlled.” (11) This starting point is central to Francis analysis of what has brought about the present environmental crisis, but also of the path to follow in reversing the damage brought about by what he terms the “throwaway culture that affects the excluded just as it quickly reduces things to rubbish.” (22)

A call to an ecological conversion involves more than the awakening of a sensibility to the environment around us. The environment does not merely describe the place that surrounds us and sustains us. In the Christian hermeneutics that informs Pope Francis’ approach, the earth is the home gifted to us by a loving God, it is the expression of creative love. Thus, an ecological conversion is best read through the eyes of the sensibility of St. Francis of Assisi, the same St. Francis who in seeing the mutual interdependence and interconnected of every creature, of every expression of creation, was able to recognize the love that generates it. Creation is an act of love and as such must be received and treasured.

An ecological conversion demands that we embrace the value of solidarity over the value of competition.  Ecological conversion demands that we heed the call of responsibility, very especially for others, not only our contemporaries around the globe, especially for the most disadvantaged amongst us, but also for future generations. As Francis stresses, “we have to realize that a true ecological approach always becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.” (49) In keeping with the preferential option for the poor that informs every encyclical in the tradition, Laudato Si pays special attention to the effect of environmental change on the poor and on the developing world, identifying all the multiple ways in which environmental damage, whether in the form of climate change, lack of clean water, pollution, or depletion of natural resources, have a disproportionate effect on the poor. 

The recognition of the earth as our present home, our common home, should motivate us to care for it in the same way we care for our individual homes. The experience of home is an experience of belonging, of safety, of security, of solidarity, of care. An ecological conversion calls us to shift our understanding and mode of relating of the earth as a source of resources for exploitation governed by the logics of consumption and personal gain, to the reverential spirituality of St. Francis’ integrative vision of the gifts of the earth as not only the source of our sustenance, but as signs of the transcendence of a love that expresses itself in every created being. 

The present crisis of the environment, Francis urges us to acknowledge, has a profound existential impact. An ecological conversion is necessary to avoid the likely ecological nightmare looming if we don’t have the will not only to face the consequences of our actions. The scientific community has been warning of the ecological damage and its consequences for decades now. As Pope Francis points out, “a very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climatic system,” (23) which has grave implications for human life at the social, economic and political dimensions. The urgency of this problem is such, that “it represents one of the principal challenges facing humanity in our day. Its worst impact will probably be felt by developing countries in coming decades.” (25) A study of the National Academy of the Sciences of the United States published on May 26 of this year projects that in the coming years “global warming will affect ecosystems as well as human health, livelihoods, food security, water supply, and economic growth in many ways.” The same study projects that in the next fifty years the planet could experience greater temperature increases than it did in the previous 6000 years resulting in a dramatic increase of the extremely hot zones (like the Sahara) from the present 1% to nearly a fifth of the earth’s land surface. The present situation calls for action, for the recognition of the “the need for changes of lifestyle, production and consumption, in order to combat this warming or at least the human causes which produce or aggravate it.” (23)

That is why we must face this distinctive challenge of our time together. Ecological conversion requires not only an individual transformation, but a collective transformation. A move from the individualistic values that view human progress as the outcome of competition, to a view of human progress and well-being grounded in what Pope Francis calls a “new and universal solidarity” (14). An ecological conversion calls for the abandonment of the culture of “extreme consumerism” that prevails in the developed world in favor of a culture of that promotes and sustains a lifestyle of “moderation and the capacity to be happy with little” (222). In the end, an ecological conversion involves a redefinition of what counts as human progress.

In conclusion, an ecological conversion challenges us not only to see and relate to our common home differently, developing a new appreciation for the frailty of the abundance of its gifts. It calls us to embrace new ways of life, of relating and caring for one another. It calls us to live differently. An ecological conversion requires not only individual conversion, but also a commitment to work in solidarity with others, creating social networks to solve the complex situation facing our world today.

*Ramón J. Santos, Ph.D.    
Associate Professor and Chair Philosophy Department.*
St. John Vianney College Seminary.