The sensation of raindrops and the smell of petrichor took on special significance for me as I walked around the Eremo delle Carceri, the austere but beautiful site where St. Francis spent significant time in prayer and contemplation over eight hundred years ago. Nestled in the forests of Monte Subasio and roughly three miles from Assisi, the hermitage complex (developed after St. Francis’s death) is today home to Franciscans who welcome visitors from all over the world to tour the old haunts of the saint and his early followers.
On a humid but pleasant early June afternoon, Friar Daniele, a young Franciscan with a wealth of knowledge on St. Francis and the order, welcomed the nearly thirty participants of the Spirituality and Sustainability Conference for a meditative walking tour of the site. After an hour of ducking and contorting to fit through the narrow spaces––including the rooms (or caves) where St. Francis slept, prayed, and ate––we made our way to a simple garden for moments of reflection and conversation with Friar Daniele. Midway through the session, a light rain began to fall, as if to remind us to pause and reflect on our utter dependence on the natural world. Or perhaps it was St. Francis blessing us before we resumed our difficult and sobering explorations of our impact on the environment.
Before heading to Assisi for the crux of the conference, we had first gathered in Rome. There, Father Joshtrom Kureethadam celebrated a Mass and facilitated a rich dialogue on Pope Francis’s landmark 2015 encyclical on the environment, Laudato si’. The consensus among participants was that we live in a time of intense ecological and social breakdown––and so responses must be swift, compassionate, cooperative, and transformative. “The urgency of the ecological situation demands that we come together across differences to address the serious threats to our common home,” one conference-goer said after a moment of reflection.
My own meditations were a bit more hardened and perhaps less hopeful. On a walk through the city, I stopped to marvel at the way some ants were devouring the carcass of a grasshopper. Decay and death are also part of nature, I thought. As living organisms, the deaths of other life-forms allow us to live in a precarious cycle. Our own flesh will one day cease to exist. If we are to respond to the ecological crises, we must be realistic and acknowledge both our own participation in the cycle of life and death and our own inevitable demise. What if the starting point of ecological transformation is death instead of life, a hope that begins from acknowledgment of our faults and interdependence instead of a premature celebration of our technological prowess and “rugged individualism”?
Laudato si’, released in 2015 to much acclaim, once gave me hope. I believed the encyclical would galvanize U.S. Catholics––laity and clergy alike––to take stock of their own behaviors and levels of consumption and to take actions, both small and large, toward curbing environmental degradation. At the very least, I thought, the first-ever encyclical on the environment would propel changes in how we understand faith in relation to the natural world, prompting revolutions in preaching, liturgies, religious education, and even perhaps in public policy. But as time passed, it seems the encyclical has had little impact on most Catholics’ views. In the United States and around the world, many Catholics remain skeptical or apathetic when it comes to the environment.
One experience stands out. I recently delivered a lecture on the impacts of climate change on migration to a group of priests at a major archdiocese. I presented several facts and figures on climate refugees and underscored relevant passages from Laudato si’. As soon as I opened the discussion to questions from the audience, a hand immediately shot up. “I don’t think this climate issue matters much to my congregation or to the Church as a whole,” exclaimed one priest. “There are other issues that we must address, like secular attacks on marriage and the dangers of pornography and gender ideology for children.” Another priest added: “While I understand the importance of the issue, there’s not much I can personally do to stop the environmental crisis.” One priest simply walked out.
These three responses––reducing the environment to a “culture war” issue, declaiming responsibility, and walking away––seem emblematic of common responses to environmental crises. Although I was dismayed at their lack of appreciation or respect for Francis’s warnings and teachings as put forth in a magisterial papal document, I wasn’t totally surprised at the priests’ lukewarm––and even hostile––responses. I have seldom heard a priest preach or teach on Laudato si’ or the environment in any parish I have visited since 2015—and I’ve been all over the country in that time. I learned much from this deafening silence on one of the defining issues of our time.
But don’t rely on my testimony. A recent Pew Research Center survey notes that among U.S. Catholic Mass-goers (defined as those who attend Mass at least once a month), a paltry 8 percent say that there is some discussion on climate change during sermons. Roughly 50 percent say there is little or no discussion, while 41 percent confirm that climate change is not discussed at all during Mass. The survey concludes that “Catholics are no more likely than Americans overall (57 percent) to view climate change as a serious problem.” That said, according to the survey, those Catholics who are Democrats, identify as Hispanic, or are between eighteen and forty-nine years old are more likely than the average American to “say global climate change is an extremely or very serious problem.” Republican Catholics, those who identify as white, and those over fifty are most skeptical of climate change. (Not surprisingly, the latter demographic is also highly critical of the synodal process and of several of Francis’s initiatives.)
The pontiff has announced that on October 4 (the feast day of St. Francis), he will issue a new exhortation that renews his urgent call to care for the environment. Touted as an updated Laudato si’, the document should instill hope. But many U.S. Catholics don’t seem to share Francis’s concern over what he recently called the “senseless war against our common home.” Are his teachings falling on deaf (or partisan) ears?
Even the synodal process in the United States reveals a lack of concern for the environment or climate change. In their synthesis report on the diocesan phase of the Synod, following ten months of listening to over seven hundred thousand participants across all U.S. dioceses, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) identified the following concerns: healing the “wounds” of the clergy sexual-abuse scandal and a divided Church; enhancing communion and participation (women’s ordination, for example); becoming a more welcoming Church (with particular concern for LGBTQ+ Catholics); and educating for ongoing or lifelong formation. The report mentions climate change only once––and only in the context of youth fleeing the Church: “Young people also want the Church to speak out about issues that matter to them, especially race, justice, and climate change.”
According to a report compiled by the Catholic Climate Covenant at the behest of the USCCB, young people are disillusioned by the institutional Church’s lack of attention to and engagement with the environment. What’s the point of synodality if the Church is only listening selectively? Inattention to the issues young people care about is a significant reason they’ve left the Church in droves. If pastors and religious educators focus more attention on climate issues, perhaps wary youth will cautiously return to a Church they currently deem unimaginative, uninspiring, polarized, and out of touch with reality.
My hopes for the synodal process to address environmental degradation remain tempered, but students in the undergraduate courses on religion and the environment I teach give me some measure of optimism. Many of them non-Catholics or agnostic, they share the pope’s urgent concern about the current state and fate of earth and its inhabitants. Some students argue that this is the essential issue of their generation, regardless of religious affiliation. (Indeed, one of the reasons Laudato si’ is so popular internationally is because it addresses an issue that concerns everyone.) Their fierce pushback against religious and political leaders who remain skeptical about negative human impacts on the environment is inspiring. My fellow conference-goers in Italy––many also non-Catholic––give me hope, too.
In Laudato si’, Francis urges ecological conversion, whereby “we come to realize that a healthy relationship with creation is one dimension of overall personal conversion, which entails the recognition of our errors, sins, faults and failures, and leads to heartfelt repentance and desire to change.” Recognition of our errors demands that we take a long and uncomfortable look within to acknowledge how we each participate (to different degrees) in an economy of death—what Francis calls a “throwaway culture.” “All human life,” the Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr once remarked, “is involved in the sin of seeking security at the expense of other life.” We need, as Francis notes, “forthright and honest debate” about how our own lives are secured and enhanced at the expense of others. Considerations of deaths of all kinds can expand our moral imagination beyond hopeful rhetoric toward a realistic engagement with throwaway culture and impending ecological catastrophe. Not looking away is the beginning of deep care.
The Synod would thus benefit from conversations across and beyond the divided and often stale American Church. Francis, in Laudato si’, calls for a “new dialogue about how we are shaping the future of our planet.” Entering into “dialogue with all people about our common home” entails escaping echo chambers. I recommend true grassroots listening sessions with those outside of Church circles, with those rightfully angry or impatient with partisan, pusillanimous, and out-of-touch leadership. U.S. Catholics should not have to travel to Italy to experience their first Laudato si’ Mass or to hear in-depth conversations about our fractured relationship to the natural world.
Perhaps the new papal document will renew the impetus for ecological conversion, with grassroots groups and gatherings imaginatively discussing and implementing Francis’s vision. Gatherings like the Spirituality and Sustainability Conference represent the spirit of synodality par excellence. People from all walks of life with different ideas, varying philosophical and religious orientations, and seemingly incongruous goals came together in fellowship for a week, culminating in Assisi with a call for personal and societal transformation. This motley crew––full of disagreement and discord––briefly became a family, harnessing those differences to ponder how to make use of the precious time we have left personally and collectively.
This kind of motley crew embodies the true spirit of synodality—one that harkens to another assemblage of difference that accompanied a compassionate and powerful rabbi from Galilee almost two thousand years ago. Jesus and his disciples collectively attempted to understand and heal the pain of those around them, despite harassment from secular and religious elites. I can think of another such motley crew: those first Franciscan friars who listened to and learned from a man said to preach and sing to the birds, a poet who counted the sun and moon as his siblings, a spiritual revolutionary whose energy a single institution could never contain.