Roles of Religion

Will the Pope start an ecological revolution?

Sébastien Maillard
Rome Correspondent, La Croix
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Laudato Si’, the Pope’s much awaited encyclical on “human ecology”, is a warning on the disastrous state of “our common home”. The first of its six chapters describes a dramatic outlook for waste, biodiversity, water, urban expansion, and, of course climate change, which Pope Francis affirms is mainly due to human activity, as he has already claimed.   

He is in no way a “climate sceptic”. But he is sceptical about the ability of many of the proposed solutions to solve environmental problems, that could otherwise lead to “new wars”. International Earth summits since Rio in 1992 have not proved convincing, he says in a clear message ahead of COP21 — the conference on climate change in Paris at the end of this year. The Holy See acknowledges that the encyclical is designed to influence the Paris climate talks.

Pope Francis doesn’t believe that rules and regulations are sufficient, as they are too often bypassed. He is cautious about “isolated philanthropy” and mocks corporate social responsibility. He has witnessed the raising of awareness about environmental issues without observing any significant changes in lifestyle attitudes.

A technology sceptic

The Pope clearly supports the development of renewable energy over fossil fuels. But overall, his encyclical shows he is sceptical about technology, as it only offers a one-dimensional solution to what is a complex problem. “Human environment and natural environment are both damaged together”, says Pope Francis, whose encyclical goes on to insist that ecological and social crises are interdependent. A well-known example is how climate change creates migration and thus poverty.

He also rules out limiting world population growth because it does not face up to the real problem, i.e. “the overconsumption of some”. Laudato Si’ is highly critical of what is described as a selfish and unsustainable way of life in developed countries. These have an “ecological debt” towards poor countries, states the first Pope of the South. This also demonstrates why the fight against climate change and against poverty are so connected.

Francis does not map out a specific proposal though. This is not the role of the Catholic Church, he reminds us. But his encyclical letter, which is meant “for everyone living on this planet” and not just Christians, aims to promote interdisciplinary dialogue between all stakeholders, at all levels.

Accepting limits imposed by reality

Overall, he asks us to change our mindset and move towards an “inclusive ecology”. This requires changing one’s outlook on “the reality of a world that is limited and has bounds”. Changing also one’s heart so as to rediscover a belonging to “one unique human family”. Making real encounters, not just virtual ones. Changing daily habits towards a more sober lifestyle, for instance, “putting a sweater on at home instead of turning up the heater”. Recycling items instead of throwing them away — this Pope sent a note to a close collaborator using the back of an opened envelope.

“Inclusive ecology” is not just a personal choice but also a collective one, requiring firms and politicians to think long-term, consumer awareness to be strengthened, small local producers to be supported, and citizen pressure on decision-makers to be more pronounced. Pope Francis goes as far as suggesting that we accept “some growth decreasing in some parts of the world”.

This “ecological conversion” starts with education. It also has a spiritual dimension that the Pope develops in his final chapter, based on Christian faith, and the need to “contemplate the Creator who lives among us and in what surrounds us”.

A document meant for all

Besides final prayers, the document is written in a language meant to be comprehensible to believers and non-believers alike. Signed by Pope Francis, who worked directly on it, the first draft was prepared last summer by the Pontifical Council on Justice and Peace, headed by Cardinal Peter Turkson, whose staff (21 people, mostly lay experts) collected much of the data. The work was then checked by theologians before the Pope reviewed it again last Spring and then sent it for translation.

Before COP21, Francis will have an opportunity to promote Laudato Si’, when travelling next month in Equator, Bolivia and Paraguay, then Cuba and the USA in September, where he will speak to Congress and address the UN General Assembly. Whether he sparks an ecological revolution depends on what readers of Laudato Si’ do once they’ve turned the last page.

Author: Sébastien Maillard, Rome Correspondent of French daily La Croix, Member of the Global Agenda Council on the Role of Faith

Image: Pope Francis celebrates a mass during the feast of Corpus Christi (Body of Christ) at St. Giovanni in Laterano Basilica, in Rome, Italy June 4, 2015. REUTERS/Max Rossi

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