By Keith Douglass Warner for Reuters
Pope Francis is drawing inspiration from his namesake, St. Francis of Assisi, on Thursday in issuing his encyclical on the environment, Laudato sii or Be Praised. There has been great anticipation about this papal teaching document. Can the Catholic Church say anything new? Why are so many people — of all faiths and no faith — so keen on a Catholic encyclical?
The pope will invite all people to consider the example of St. Francis when he offers ancient wisdom as a cure for today’s climate crisis. The poor man of Assisi embodied the integration of care for the poor with care for the planet — the thrust of this encyclical.
The charismatic leadership of Pope Francis seems much like that of St. Francis and the effect he had on audiences. The 13th-century saint inspired rich and poor, men and women, faithful and faithless to respond spiritually to the social problems of his age. He preached against greed and inspired many to live in voluntary poverty.
Legend of St. Francis, Sermon to the Birds, upper Basilica of San Francesco d’Assisi, painted by Giotto. WIKIPEDIA
St. Francis’s life was a model of humility, without judgment on the sin or failures of others. Though he is the patron saint of ecological spirituality, he did not consider himself a steward of nature. Rather, he viewed animals, elements and the planet as brothers and sisters, and he in their family.
His example teaches that care for the environment goes hand in hand with reverence for human beings — that everything is a gift. This concept is at the heart of Franciscan economics, which governs the Franciscan order.
When I heard Francis — then Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio — preach in Buenos Aires in 2012, he demonstrated a deep understanding of St. Francis. I was delighted when he chose “Francis” as his papal name the next year. I professed religious vows 23 years ago as a Franciscan because I believe the example of St. Francis can help us address our environmental problems. Now we know our pope believes this as well — and that gives me great hope.
The new encyclical’s title is taken from Francis of Assisi’s Canticle of the Creatures, in which he honors Brother Sun, Sister Moon, Brother Wind and Sister Water and sings of all creation — indeed the entire cosmos — as God’s family. He directed his brothers to sing this canticle to remind them that nature is a gift that needs to be loved and protected, and all must work together for the common good.
Saint Francis Receiving the Stigmata, painted by El Greco. 1585-1590. WIKIPEDIA
Laudato sii features the term “integral ecology.” This may be a new term, but it conveys ancient Franciscan wisdom. In the 1980s, as part of a reforestation co-op, I planted half a million trees in the clearcut regions of the Pacific Northwest in an effort to care for the environment. The manual labor was tough and the experience touched my spirit deeply. I fell in love with nature and felt a deep sense of kinship with creation.
I trace my Franciscan calling back to those raw experiences. Yet it was direct contact with the poor in the urban United States and a shantytown in Guatemala — and the conviction that we have enough resources but need to share them differently — that moved me to become a friar.
In proposing integral ecology, the pope is calling us to bring together care for our planet and practical compassion for the poor. We cannot effectively protect the environment while 3 billion people are living in poverty. There is no absolute shortage of resources. Francis is inviting us to find new ways of sharing creation’s bounty.
He is broadly endorsing the environmental movement and its goals but challenges us to take a more holistic, universal view. The integral-ecology framework asks us all to deepen and broaden our compassion, to care for creation and the poor in our neighborhoods and globally. The pope calls into question our own choices as individuals and as a society, urging us to act now.
Laudato sii is intended to raise the issue of the climate crisis. It will provide moral instruction, not policy prescriptions. We in the wealthy countries have a special moral obligation to dramatically reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. We are responsible for the majority of emissions and need to transform our energy systems — generation, transmission and consumption.
Pope Francis gestures after a meeting with youths during his pastoral visit in Naples, March 21, 2015. REUTERS/Alessandro Bianchi
Poor countries are already experiencing climate disruption and are likely to disproportionately suffer its worst effects. Ingenuity and innovation are needed to create climate resilience — the ability to withstand the coming disruptions. About one-third of all humans, for example, live in energy poverty, defined as lacking access to modern energy for heating, lighting and cooking.
Integral ecology requires inclusive solutions. Fuels such as kerosene, dung or raw wood are dirty, dangerous and unhealthy. Social entrepreneurs across the developing world have demonstrated that renewable energy can improve the lives and livelihoods of millions of people. Solar home systems, clean-cook stoves and community micro-grids are examples of how innovation and entrepreneurship create exits from energy poverty. These practical initiatives help the poor cope with the climate disruption already underway, while improving the dignity of their lives.
The first papal encyclical dedicated to the environment invites all of us — Catholics, communities of faith, persons opposed to religion — to take stock of our common humanity and deepen our understanding of our dependence on the earth’s life support systems. The practical need to protect the climate system is real — but so, too, is the moral outrage of billions of human beings denied access to a dignified life.
By invoking St. Francis, the pope calls us to remember the fundamental interdependence of all life. Everyone has a role to play in the family; everyone can make a valuable contribution.