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The Progressive’s Guide to Pope Francis’ Environment Encyclical

by Greg Melchin

Today's Encyclical on the Environment by Pope Francis might be described as economically progressive but socially conservative, says StFX lecturer Greg Melchin.
Today's Encyclical on the Environment by Pope Francis might be described as economically progressive but socially conservative, says StFX lecturer Greg Melchin.

Greg Melchin is a Sessional Lecturer at St Francis Xavier University

If you have access to an internet connection, you’ve heard that Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si, dropped today, touching off a firestorm of media hype. While the media can’t get enough of the old Argentinian, progressives are more ambivalent about Francis – while he’s made some progressive-friendly comments about the economy and capitalism, his politics on feminism and LGBTQ issues remain stubbornly in line with his predecessors (even if he’s nicer about it). Not to mention he occupies the exclusively male position of head of a deeply patriarchal, corrupt, and ancient institution. So how should progressives respond to Laudato Si, given all of this?

The answer, of course, lies within the diverse progressive movements, and I certainly don’t presume to circumvent the community process of interpretation by claiming some kind of fixed and immutable meaning to this document. The process of interpretation makes documents like this a multilateral conversation between its authors (which include Francis but also a number of other authors, including Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana) and its audience, which is intended to include not just Catholics but “all people.” What I can do is offer my perspective as someone who’s studied Catholic Social Teaching and actually read the thing – as any of my students will tell you, the papal encyclical is probably the driest form of literature ever created by human beings!

The key thing to remember is that this document fits squarely within Catholic Social Teaching, which is a body of Catholic doctrine addressing primarily political and economic issues. It draws on ancient sources, but in its modern form, it was initially a reaction to the social upheavals of the late 19th century – industrialization, liberalism and socialism, rampant urban poverty – which sought to demonstrate that the Catholic Church took poverty seriously (partly so that the Church didn’t lose the working classes to socialism!).

CST doesn’t fit neatly on the left-right spectrum. In fact, in contrast to the increasingly common “socially liberal but fiscally conservative” ethos, it might be described as economically progressive but socially conservative. Indeed, CST has historically sought to position itself as a commentary on various political movements and ideologies while being explicitly reluctant to be pigeon-holed itself. Whether or not one buys this self-described arm’s-length relationship to politics, the fact is that progressives will find things in Laudato Si to like, and things to critique. Here’s what I picked out based on my first read-through of the document:


1. IT MAKES AN EXPLICIT CONNECTION BETWEEN ENVIRONMENTAL DESTRUCTION, CAPITALISM, AND POVERTY. The central thrust of the document is that environmental protection and economic justice are inseparable. Early on in the encyclical, Pope Francis observes that

“Climate change is a global problem with grave implications: environmental, social, economic, political and for the distribution of goods… Its worst impact will probably be felt by developing countries in coming decades. Many of the poor live in areas particularly affected by phenomena related to warming, and their means of subsistence are largely dependent on natural reserves and ecosystemic services such as agriculture, fishing and forestry. They have no other financial activities or resources which can enable them to adapt to climate change or to face natural disasters, and their access to social services and protection is very limited.” [25]

Any solution to climate change must involve economic justice:

“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. Strategies for a solution demand an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature.” [139]

Finally, the same factors resist ending poverty and addressing environmental destruction: “The same mindset which stands in the way of making radical decisions to reverse the trend of global warming also stands in the way of achieving the goal of eliminating poverty.” [175]

2. IT CALLS FOR CHANGES IN INDIVIDUAL HABITS, BUT MAINTAINS THAT ONLY STRUCTURAL CHANGE CAN TRULY ADDRESS CLIMATE CHANGE. The Pope calls for an end to wasteful consumerism which is the product of a “throwaway culture.” He maintains that individual behavioural change can have real consequences:

“A change in lifestyle could bring healthy pressure to bear on those who wield political, economic and social power. This is what consumer movements accomplish by boycotting certain products. They prove successful in changing the way businesses operate, forcing them to consider their environmental footprint and their patterns of production. When social pressure affects their earnings, businesses clearly have to find ways to produce differently. This shows us the great need for a sense of social responsibility on the part of consumers.” [206]

However, he maintains that structural change is imperative:

“Nevertheless, self-improvement on the part of individuals will not by itself remedy the extremely complex situation facing our world today… Social problems must be addressed by community networks and not simply by the sum of individual good deeds... The ecological conversion needed to bring about lasting change is also a community conversion.” [219]

3. IT CALLS OUT THE INADEQUACY OF CURRENT ENVIRONMENTAL TREATIES, AND CRITIQUES THE POLITICAL AND ECONOMIC MOTIVATIONS BEHIND THEM. Since the 1960s, CST has been optimistic about the capacity of international organizations to effect change, even while criticizing them for their limited effectiveness. Laudato Si writes specifically about contemporary international agreements and was explicitly timed to impact the upcoming climate conference in Paris.

The Pope praises specific achievements such as the Montreal Protocol for protection of the ozone layer, but writes that “recent World Summits on the environment have not lived up to expectations because, due to lack of political will, they were unable to reach truly meaningful and effective global agreements on the environment.” [166] He issues a damning criticism of nations which hold up climate progress: “International negotiations cannot make significant progress due to positions taken by countries which place their national interests above the global common good. Those who will have to suffer the consequences of what we are trying to hide will not forget this failure of conscience and responsibility.” [169]

He argues that any effective action will require a division of responsibilities between industrialized nations and the Global South:

“Some strategies for lowering pollutant gas emissions call for the internationalization of environmental costs, which would risk imposing on countries with fewer resources burdensome commitments to reducing emissions comparable to those of the more industrialized countries. Imposing such measures penalizes those countries most in need of development. A further injustice is perpetrated under the guise of protecting the environment. Here also, the poor end up paying the price. Furthermore, since the effects of climate change will be felt for a long time to come, even if stringent measures are taken now, some countries with scarce resources will require assistance in adapting to the effects already being produced, which affect their economies. In this context, there is a need for common and differentiated responsibilities.” [170]

4. IT REJECTS CLIMATE CHANGE DENIAL AND ACCEPTS THE SCIENTIFIC CONSENSUS. Early on, the encyclical unambiguously accepts the scientific consensus: “A very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climatic system.” [23]Most of the news coverage so far has focused on the encyclical’s explicit rebuke of politicians who deny climate change for political gain: “Obstructionist attitudes, even on the part of believers, can range from denial of the problem to indifference, nonchalant resignation or blind confidence in technical solutions. We require a new and universal solidarity.” [14]

While the encyclical has generated some deeply and amusingly ironic responses from the likes of Rick Santorum (“The church has gotten it wrong a few times on science, and I think we probably are better off leaving science to the scientists and focus on what we’re really good at, which is theology and morality.”), such coverage tends to ignore the fact that according to this encyclical, BOTH climate change AND poverty ARE moral issues. The fact that it mounts such a deep moral challenge to contemporary capitalism is likely to be lost amid the typical left-vs-right and science-vs-religion brouhaha.

5. IT CELEBRATES INDIGENOUS ECOLOGICAL WISDOM. While the somewhat essentialistic portrayal of indigenous communities in the encyclical may be open to critique, the encyclical calls for the protection of indigenous ways of life and recognizes challenges placed on indigenous communities:

“it is essential to show special care for indigenous communities and their cultural traditions. They are not merely one minority among others, but should be the principal dialogue partners, especially when large projects affecting their land are proposed. For them, land is not a commodity but rather a gift from God and from their ancestors who rest there, a sacred space with which they need to interact if they are to maintain their identity and values. When they remain on their land, they themselves care for it best. Nevertheless, in various parts of the world, pressure is being put on them to abandon their homelands to make room for agricultural or mining projects which are undertaken without regard for the degradation of nature and culture.” [146]

The encyclical also draws a connection between grassroots cooperative movements and indigenous traditions:

"In some places, cooperatives are being developed to exploit renewable sources of energy which ensure local self-sufficiency and even the sale of surplus energy. This simple example shows that, while the existing world order proves powerless to assume its responsibilities, local individuals and groups can make a real difference. They are able to instil a greater sense of responsibility, a strong sense of community, a readiness to protect others, a spirit of creativity and a deep love for the land. They are also concerned about what they will eventually leave to their children and grandchildren. These values are deeply rooted in indigenous peoples.” [179]

One hopes that this concern for the value and continued vitality of indigenous communities will translate to an acknowledgement of historically destructive practices by the Catholic Church, such as its role in our residential school system.

6. IT LINKS WORK WITH HUMAN DIGNITY AND CRITIQUES THE LIBERAL CONCEPTION OF PRIVATE PROPERTY. While early documents went out of their way to defend the idea of private property from socialist critique, CST also includes the concept of the “universal destination of goods,” which is, in a nutshell, the idea that property ownership brings not only a set of rights to use the thing, but also a set of obligations to use it for the betterment of the common good:

“Whether believers or not, we are agreed today that the earth is essentially a shared inheritance, whose fruits are meant to benefit everyone. For believers, this becomes a question of fidelity to the Creator, since God created the world for everyone. Hence every ecological approach needs to incorporate a social perspective which takes into account the fundamental rights of the poor and the underprivileged. The principle of the subordination of private property to the universal destination of goods, and thus the right of everyone to their use, is a golden rule of social conduct and ‘the first principle of the whole ethical and social order’. The Christian tradition has never recognized the right to private property as absolute or inviolable, and has stressed the social purpose of all forms of private property.” [93]

The pope goes so far as to say that income inequality is a violation of the most fundamental commandments:

“The natural environment is a collective good, the patrimony of all humanity and the responsibility of everyone. If we make something our own, it is only to administer it for the good of all. If we do not, we burden our consciences with the weight of having denied the existence of others. That is why the New Zealand bishops asked what the commandment ‘Thou shall not kill’ means when ‘twenty percent of the world’s population consumes resources at a rate that robs the poor nations and future generations of what they need to survive’” [95]

The encyclical acknowledges that the solution to poverty is ensuring widespread employment:

“Work is a necessity, part of the meaning of life on this earth, a path to growth, human development and personal fulfilment. Helping the poor financially must always be a provisional solution in the face of pressing needs. The broader objective should always be to allow them a dignified life through work...To stop investing in people, in order to gain greater short-term financial gain, is bad business for society.” [128]

The pope offers some specific advice for an economy that values workers:

“In order to continue providing employment, it is imperative to promote an economy which favours productive diversity and business creativity. For example, there is a great variety of small-scale food production systems which feed the greater part of the world’s peoples, using a modest amount of land and producing less waste, be it in small agricultural parcels, in orchards and gardens, hunting and wild harvesting or local fishing. Economies of scale, especially in the agricultural sector, end up forcing smallholders to sell their land or to abandon their traditional crops. Their attempts to move to other, more diversified, means of production prove fruitless because of the difficulty of linkage with regional and global markets, or because the infrastructure for sales and transport is geared to larger businesses. Civil authorities have the right and duty to adopt clear and firm measures in support of small producers and differentiated production. To ensure economic freedom from which all can effectively benefit, restraints occasionally have to be imposed on those possessing greater resources and financial power...” [129]

7. IT DECLARES THAT CLEAN WATER IS A HUMAN RIGHT. This is also done in no uncertain terms:

“Even as the quality of available water is constantly diminishing, in some places there is a growing tendency, despite its scarcity, to privatize this resource, turning it into a commodity subject to the laws of the market. Yet access to safe drinkable water is a basic and universal human right, since it is essential to human survival and, as such, is a condition for the exercise of other human rights. Our world has a grave social debt towards the poor who lack access to drinking water, because they are denied the right to a life consistent with their inalienable dignity.” [30]


1. IT LINKS ENVIRONMENTAL DESTRUCTION WITH ABORTION. CST didn’t traditionally deal with issues such as abortion or contraception, as these were the province of other areas of Catholic doctrine. However, particularly since Pope John Paul II, CST has presented abortion as a political issue in a way that is anathema to progressives. Pope Francis continues his predecessors’ outright rejection of abortion for any reason without any consideration for the reasons that women would make the choice to terminate a pregnancy, nor the impact of the Church’s continuing hostility to contraception:

“Since everything is interrelated, concern for the protection of nature is also incompatible with the justification of abortion. How can we genuinely teach the importance of concern for other vulnerable beings, however troublesome or inconvenient they may be, if we fail to protect a human embryo, even when its presence is uncomfortable and creates difficulties? ‘If personal and social sensitivity towards the acceptance of the new life is lost, then other forms of acceptance that are valuable for society also wither away’.” [120]

Pope Francis’ teaching in this area is in keeping with Pope John Paul’s philosophy which extends full human dignity to embryos, linking a rejection of abortion to a rejection of other things like the death penalty. However, the only other mention of abortion in Laudato Si is a condemnation of experimentation on human embryos and this passage: “When we fail to acknowledge as part of reality the worth of a poor person, a human embryo, a person with disabilities – to offer just a few examples – it becomes difficult to hear the cry of nature itself; everything is connected.” [117]

2. IT PROPAGATES ESSENTIALISTIC IDEAS ABOUT GENDER AND IGNORES LGBTQ AND TRANS ISSUES ENTIRELY. This may not be entirely surprising in a papal encyclical on the environment, but the language propagates Pope John Paul’s highly essentialistic philosophy of complementarity, which is entirely contrary to contemporary progressive ideas about gender identity. The only part of the encyclical that really deals with it is this highly convoluted passage, which may be a harbinger of more things to come from Pope Francis even if there are several ways of interpreting it:

“The acceptance of our bodies as God’s gift is vital for welcoming and accepting the entire world as a gift from the Father and our common home, whereas thinking that we enjoy absolute power over our own bodies turns, often subtly, into thinking that we enjoy absolute power over creation. Learning to accept our body, to care for it and to respect its fullest meaning, is an essential element of any genuine human ecology. Also, valuing one’s own body in its femininity or masculinity is necessary if I am going to be able to recognize myself in an encounter with someone who is different. In this way we can joyfully accept the specific gifts of another man or woman, the work of God the Creator, and find mutual enrichment. It is not a healthy attitude which would seek ‘to cancel out sexual difference because it no longer knows how to confront it’” [155]

Anti-trans? Or a subtle acknowledgement of gender difference? Stay tuned for a surely rancorous synod on the family in the modern world in October 2015.

3. IT CRITIQUES BUT DOES NOT OFFER CONCRETE STRUCTURAL SOLUTIONS. While the Pope calls the current system of wealth distribution “structurally perverse,” [52] he does not endorse any specific solutions for problems of poverty or climate degradation. We may not expect a revolutionary climate plan from the Vatican, but the Pope is in a unique position to add his moral weight to a truly progressive plan being proposed for the upcoming Paris conference. There is a certain vagueness to the “radical solutions” proposed by the Pope:

“All of this shows the urgent need for us to move forward in a bold cultural revolution. Science and technology are not neutral; from the beginning to the end of a process, various intentions and possibilities are in play and can take on distinct shapes. Nobody is suggesting a return to the Stone Age, but we do need to slow down and look at reality in a different way, to appropriate the positive and sustainable progress which has been made, but also to recover the values and the great goals swept away by our unrestrained delusions of grandeur.” [114]

CONCLUSIONS: In the immortal words of Captain Planet, “the power is yours” to draw your own conclusions from this document. I personally think it can be a huge help to environmentalist and anti-poverty movements, since any truly global change is going to need to appeal to religious people. It also incorporates perspectives (admittedly, predominantly male ones) from the Global South and affirms that climate change and poverty together are truly a global problem requiring global solutions.

Here's a link to the full text: http://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/encyclicals/documents/papa-francesco_20150524_enciclica-laudato-si.html

I’ll leave you with a song. The title Laudato Si (“Be praised”) comes from the Canticle of the Sun, composed by Francis of Assisi, the medieval nature mystic and patron saint of ecology. Pope Francis repeatedly mentions Francis of Assisi in the document, citing the mystic’s love for nature as a model for contemporary people to truly appreciate the beauty of creation. Enjoy its strange and beautiful medievalness:


Most high, all powerful, all good Lord!
All praise is Yours, all glory, all honor, and all blessing.

To You, alone, Most High, do they belong.
No mortal lips are worthy to pronounce Your name.

Be praised, my Lord, through all Your creatures,
especially through my lord Brother Sun,
who brings the day; and You give light through him.
And he is beautiful and radiant in all his splendor!
Of You, Most High, he bears the likeness.

Be praised, my Lord, through Sister Moon and the stars;
in the heavens You have made them bright, precious and beautiful.

Be praised, my Lord, through Brothers Wind and Air,
and clouds and storms, and all the weather,
through which You give Your creatures sustenance.

Be praised, my Lord, through Sister Water;
she is very useful, and humble, and precious, and pure.

Be praised, my Lord, through Brother Fire,
through whom You brighten the night.
He is beautiful and cheerful, and powerful and strong.

Be praised, my Lord, through our sister Mother Earth,
who feeds us and rules us,
and produces various fruits with colored flowers and herbs.

Be praised, my Lord, through those who forgive for love of You;
through those who endure sickness and trial.

Happy those who endure in peace,
for by You, Most High, they will be crowned.

Be praised, my Lord, through our sister Bodily Death,
from whose embrace no living person can escape.
Woe to those who die in mortal sin!
Happy those she finds doing Your most holy will.
The second death can do no harm to them.

Praise and bless my Lord, and give thanks,
and serve Him with great humility.


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