Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum novarum offered the church’s first official response to the rapid economic changes following the industrial revolution. Leo read the signs of the times with great clarity, and condemned both socialist collectivism and a savage capitalism that led to gaping inequalities and grave injustices against the working classes and the poor. The church’s social doctrine began to develop on this foundation, applying the principles of the Christian tradition to the particular circumstances of the industrial era. It called for a correction of the dysfunctions that pervaded modern economies, especially by seeking a more balanced and equitable relationship between capital and labor.

In the postwar era, the church also started to pay more attention to the stark imbalances between richer and poorer countries, not just between the rich and the poor in a single country. Noting that excess and overconsumption often had its counterpart in exclusion and underdevelopment, it called for greater global solidarity between north and south and for citizens of richer countries to move away from lifestyles characterized by waste and surfeit.

It is fair to say that, until now, most of Catholic social teaching has been variations on a basic theme—the need for economic relations between people and nations to be guided by justice and mutual responsibility. This theme remains very pertinent in our world of enormous inequality. A mere 1 percent of the world’s population controls half of the world’s wealth. Over 2 billion people are mired in extreme poverty, and almost a billion people suffer from hunger. Elsewhere, and not always far away, we see astounding opulence and wastefulness. Catholic social teaching signals a clear moral imperative to correct these imbalances.

What makes Pope Francis’s Laudato si’ stand out is that while it strongly affirms this traditional focus, it also stretches beyond it. This is what makes Laudato si’ the most significant addition to the corpus of social teaching since Rerum novarum. In essence, the new encyclical suggests that our responsibilities extend across time as well as space, and that they include the entirety of creation. Laudato si’ thus develops a broader notion of solidarity—solidarity not only within generations but also between generations, and solidarity not only with our fellow human beings but with the whole earth and all its creatures.

This thicker notion of solidarity is not an innovation, but Laudato si’ puts it right at the heart of the church’s social doctrine, and provides a firm theological basis for its centrality. From the title to the final prayer, this encyclical is suffused with the spirituality of St. Francis of Assisi, affirming a close kinship between humanity and the natural world. One implication of this is that all creatures have inherent value, and all have their own purpose, apart from their usefulness to us.

Of course, such a worldview has profound implications for human behavior. Harking back to Genesis, Pope Francis teaches that “human life is grounded in three fundamental and closely intertwined relationships: with God, with our neighbor, and with the earth itself.” Whenever one of these relationships is ruptured, the others are ruptured too. This is the idea of integral ecology. It is the central message of the encyclical, and it is not merely a theological message; it also has important implications for politics and policy.

Pope Francis is blunt and forceful about the extent of environmental degradation. He writes that “the earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth.” Basing his analysis on the firm evidence of science, he argues that our current global economic model has become reckless and unsustainable, brushing up against some critical planetary boundaries.

When Rerum novarum was written, a great economic transformation—powered by the burning of fossil fuels—was still in its adolescence. The technological advances brought about by steam engines, railways, and steel production were already well established, but electrification had just begun, and the age of automobiles and petrochemicals—to say nothing of information technology—still lay in the future. The economic benefits of the industrial revolution were mostly confined to Europe and North America.

Today, the economic landscape is dramatically different. The global economy is now over two hundred times larger than it was at the outset of the industrial revolution. But its rapid expansion has come at the expense of the planet and its climate. Already, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has jumped to a level not seen in 3 million years—and this over a mere century and a half, a blink of an eye in planetary history. The overwhelming weight of science tells us that if we continue burning fossils fuels at this rate, we can expect global temperatures to rise by 4 to 6 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels by the end of this century. This would have catastrophic implications for life as we know it. We would expect to witness more severe droughts, flooding, and extreme weather events. Crop yields would decline dramatically. Some small island nations would simply cease to exist. And those least responsible for climate change will be hit hardest by it. Pope Francis asks what kind of world we wish to leave our children. Surely not this one.

Climate change is not even the whole story. There is also the acidification of the oceans, depletion of freshwater resources, rapid deforestation, large-scale pollution caused by chemicals and fossil fuels, and a dramatic degradation of ecosystems and loss of biodiversity. It is remarkable that Laudato si’ touches directly on many of these issues, displaying a keen awareness of the scale and complexity of the environmental crisis. It also places this crisis within a larger context. As Francis puts it, “we are faced not with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather with one complex crisis which is both social and environmental.” We are harming creation, which has value in its own right, but we are also harming humanity, especially the poor. As Francis repeats over and over, everything is connected.

The solution, according to Francis, lies in integral and sustainable human development.  This means prioritizing not merely economic growth, but also social inclusion and environmental sustainability. As the pope notes, it must include “combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature.” And while sustainable development is compatible with growth in the developing world, Laudato si’ cautions that wealthier countries might need to cut back on their own “insatiable and irresponsible growth.” The goal is to restore balance—between rich and poor, between humanity and the natural world.

This, of course, is easier said than done. It would require a radical transformation of the habits of consumption on which the global economy now depends. In conformity with prior teaching, Laudato si’ is deeply suspicious of the classical liberal emphasis on individual autonomy and promotion of self-interest as the prime motivating force of economic interaction. Francis understands that an ideology based on “collective selfishness” and a “deified market” cannot bring about social inclusion or environmental sustainability. It leads instead to an exaggerated focus on short-term profit, and it contributes to a throwaway culture that disdains both the earth and the excluded. One clear example of this short-sightedness can be found in the avaricious behavior of the financial sector, the force behind the global economic crisis of 2008.

The lure is not just profit, but power too. The encyclical apportions some of the blame for environmental degradation to our uncritical attitude toward technology—to the Enlightenment promise that science provides humanity with the tools to master nature. The pope insists that technology is never neutral and can easily allow those with knowledge and resources to dominate others and ruin the natural world. This “modern anthropocentrism” can even derive from a distorted form of Christianity that emphasizes dominion over stewardship. As Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga—leading adviser and confidante of Pope Francis—puts it, “man finds himself to be a technical giant and an ethical child.”

The way forward, as laid out by Laudato si’, will involve regulation and changes in economic policy, but it will begin with a change in attitudes and culture. It won’t be easy, especially for those in wealthy countries that now consume much more than their fair share of the world’s resources. Yet the gravity of the situation presents us with little choice—either we change our ways, or we prepare for a grim future.

There is some good news on this front. It is no coincidence that Pope Francis chose to promulgate his environmental encyclical at this particular time. In September, the world’s leaders will gather in New York to sign on to the seventeen Sustainable Development Goals. Then, in December, leaders will convene in Paris for a crucial climate-change conference, which may be the last chance to reach a binding agreement on cutting carbon emissions before it is too late. Encouragingly, the G7 countries recently agreed to move away from fossil fuels entirely over the course of the century. Only this kind of “decarbonization” strategy would allow us to limit the rise in global average temperatures to 2 degrees Celsius. It needs to form the basis of a global agreement. Noting the failure to follow through with past agreements, Pope Francis prays for a positive outcome to the upcoming discussions. And if Laudato si’ is widely read and well received, it could prove a great boon to these efforts.

Regrettably, the country where it is likely to be least well received is the United States, where belief in the liberating power of both technology and free markets is especially prevalent. In recent decades, a crass libertarianism has become resurgent, aided and abetted by powerful financial interests. This worldview does not sit well with the traditional principles of Catholic social teaching—or with the newer emphasis on sustainability combined with the demand that wealthier countries compensate poorer ones for the environmental damage they cause. And yet an influential group of U.S. Catholics has been insisting for decades that Catholic social teaching is perfectly compatible with the modern practice of laissez-faire capitalism.

This helps explain the anxiety evinced by some American Catholics even before the encyclical was released. Anticipating its criticism of laissez-faire capitalism, and trying to insulate themselves from it, some critics argued that Pope Francis simply does not understand the market economy—the virtuous American kind, rather than the corrupt Argentinean kind. Others (and sometimes the same people) urged the pope not to wade into an “unsettled” scientific debate.

The most insidious criticism of all, though, is that sustainable development is merely a cover for population control—reducing the numbers of the poor. As if to preempt this line of attack, John Schellnhuber, one of the world’s leading climate scientists, said at the official launch of the encyclical that “it is not the mass of poor people that destroys the planet, but the consumption of the rich.” The same point is made by the encyclical itself. Laudato si’ also links abortion to a broader set of concerns related to human dignity and protection of the earth. As understood by the church, sustainable development is pro-life: it is predicated on the dignity of every human person, and seeks to create the preconditions for human flourishing.

Such development is the great challenge of our time, and it will require commitment at all levels—global, national, local, as well as personal. It will involve courageous policy initiatives along with the cultivation of different habits among consumers. The genius of this encyclical is that it provides a moral framework for this kind of all-encompassing reform. When this century draws to a close, people will surely look back on Laudato si’ much as we now look back on Rerum novarum, as a timely clarion call. Will it be heeded in time?

Anthony Annett is a Gabelli Fellow at Fordham University and a Senior Advisor at the Sustainable Development Solutions Network. 

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Published in the August 14, 2015 issue: View Contents
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