- “The environment is part of a logic of receptivity. It is on loan to each generation, which must then hand it on to the next.”
- “Both everyday experience and scientific research show that the gravest effects of all attacks on the environment are suffered by the poorest.”
- “Peace, justice and the preservation of creation are three absolutely interconnected themes, which cannot be separated and treated individually without once again falling into reductionism.”
- “The Spirit of life dwells in every living creature and calls us to enter into relationship with him. Discovering this presence leads us to cultivate the ‘ecological virtues.’”
- “To sense each creature singing the hymn of its existence is to live joyfully in God’s love and hope.”
—from the encyclical Laudato si’
It has been three years since Pope Francis’s encyclical on the environment, Laudato si’: On Care for Our Common Home, was published. I must admit, when it first came out I didn’t read it all that carefully. I could affirm what it said, but, naïvely perhaps, I had a sense that a lot of people were ringing the bell on the subject of ecology and things were gradually getting better.
That was before the Trump administration. Since the encyclical was written, the United States has pulled out of the Paris agreement on climate change. Environmental regulations and protections for endangered species are being rolled back. Fossil fuels are being promoted. And we are seeing more intense hurricanes, wildfires, and droughts due to climate change, which is also spurring mass migration.
Things, in short, are getting worse.
So I decided it was time to go back to that encyclical, and hear again what Francis had to say. Maybe it would provide an antidote to the depressing circumstances we are facing. And in fact it did.
With Francis it is important to ask not only what he says, but how he says it. The quotes listed at the top of this article are all taken from Laudato si’—but they are not Francis’s own words. They are quotations from conferences of bishops around the world (respectively, Portugal, Bolivia, the Dominican Republic, Brazil, and Japan). There are twenty-one quotes from bishops’ conferences altogether.
Such a thing has never been done before. In papal encyclicals, popes quote other popes, conciliar documents, themselves, scripture, maybe saints or theologians—but not conferences of bishops.
Some have suggested Francis included these sources because he wanted to show that he has support from many parts of the world. He knew that his critics would be lined up to strike. By quoting conferences of bishops, perhaps he could forestall criticism that this is just his own opinion, by demonstrating, in effect, “Look, it’s not just me.”
But I believe there are deeper stakes here. Francis is very interested in synodality in the church. He supports the local bishops’ conferences and wants them to be tools of renewal as the Second Vatican Council envisioned. The Tridentine era was strong on centralization; Vatican II restored a more balanced view of the proper relationship between the center and the peripheries.
The quoting of conference statements also suggests that the present crisis of the earth confronts us with problems that can’t be solved by lone rangers. Groups, communities, and collaborative efforts are not optional extras; they are expressions of the path humanity needs to take in order to rise to the challenge of this moment. Saint Francis of Assisi hovers over this encyclical, which is named for the opening line of his Canticle of the Creatures, but its foundation is the rock of collective wisdom in the church.
In addition to conferences of bishops and their statements, the encyclical quotes previous popes and, yes, Francis quotes himself. He quotes a Sufi mystic—a first!—and shares insights from Thomas Aquinas, Romano Guardini, and more. There are many voices here, a cloud of witnesses whom Francis invokes to make his points.