At over 37,000 words, Pope Francis’s Laudato Si’ is one of the longest encyclicals in the church’s history. It covers a lot of ground. Among the topics addressed: banking regulation, gender theory, urban planning, Sabbath observances, Trinitarian theology, and the saying of grace before meals (the pope recommends it).
But Laudato Si’ will be read and remembered as Francis’s environmental encyclical. The sentences everyone was looking for arrive near the beginning, carefully qualified but unambiguous: “A very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climatic system.... It is true that there are other factors (such as volcanic activity, variations in the earth’s orbit and axis, the solar cycle), yet a number of scientific studies indicate that most global warming in recent decades is due to the great concentration of greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrogen oxides, and others) released mainly as a result of human activity.”
With these words, Francis officially put himself on the side of the scientific consensus. This, by itself, should not have been a big deal. It is a sobering commentary on the state of Catholic culture in the United States that the pope’s recognition of anthropogenic climate change occasioned so much controversy here. In the months before the encyclical’s release, some warned that Francis was being misled by experts hostile to the church and its teachings. One Catholic presidential candidate even urged him to stay away from the subject of climate change, noting, with heavy irony, that Rome “has gotten it wrong a few times on science.”
What has inspired the most consternation, however, is not the pope’s acceptance of the scientific consensus but his overall critique of the “throwaway culture,” corporate greed, and political paralysis that are ruining the planet. He does not mince words. “The earth, our home,” he writes, “is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth.”
For Francis, climate change is just one part of a larger ecological crisis that also involves the extinction of plant and animal species and the accumulation of waste. And this ecological crisis, he believes, is part of a larger ethical failure that also involves the way we treat the poor, the disabled, the unborn, and the future generations who will inherit the world we’re destroying. Extending a basic element of the church’s social teaching, Francis calls for “intergenerational solidarity,” as well as solidarity with other creatures. He calls on people in the developed world to put down their digital devices long enough to consider the effect of their choices—as consumers and citizens—on fellow creatures thousands of miles or hundreds of years away.
It is an impressive vision, and a deeply challenging one. “Everything is connected,” as Francis writes at several points in the encyclical. One cannot separate ecology from economics, or economics from ethics, or ethics from politics. Above all, one cannot separate what Francis, following Benedict, calls “human ecology” from the rest of creation. The careless habits of mind and heart that allow us to pollute and waste also allow us to treat other human beings as disposable. “A true ecological approach,” Francis writes, “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.”
The pope does not pretend to have a comprehensive solution to all the ecological problems mentioned in Laudato Si’. He calls for “enforceable international agreements” and a legal framework that can “ensure the protection of ecosystems”—good suggestions, but also somewhat vague. At one point he criticizes cap-and-trade programs as inadequate, but elsewhere he cites Benedict’s observation that “the economic and social costs of using up shared environmental resources” should be “recognized with transparency and fully borne by those who incur them, not by other peoples or future generations.” That, one could argue, is exactly what cap-and trade is designed to ensure. In any case, Francis knows better than to let the best become the enemy of the good: “Until greater progress is made in developing widely accessible sources of renewable energy, it is legitimate to choose the lesser of two evils or to find short-term solutions.”
The most important thing is to recognize the urgency of the problem, and to accept that the only way to solve it is “by our decisive action, here and now.” We cannot wait for the magic of markets or new machines to save us from our predicament. We will have to face it head on, by means of political engagement at every level—local, national, and international. Historically, democracies have been better at dealing with emergencies than with long-term problems like climate change. We must somehow correct that tendency, and learn to look beyond the next election, as well as the next profit report. Francis remains hopeful: human beings, he reminds us, are "capable of rising above themselves, choosing again what is good, and making a new start.” That is all that is required, and nothing less will be enough.