Bruce Duncan. Pope Francis on avoiding environmental catastrophe

Jun 21, 2015

Current Affairs

Popes write social encyclicals in times of social crisis or at great turning points in history. Pope Francis’s Laudato Si is no exception. He sees the world facing unprecedented twin crises: from climate change; and unresolved issues of global hunger and poverty, resulting in growing conflict, violence and displacement of peoples. ‘Peace, justice and the preservation of creation are three absolutely interconnected themes’ (# 92).

‘We are faced not with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather one complex crisis which is both social and environmental’, and we need to combat poverty, restore dignity to the excluded and protect nature (#139).

Francis insists on the urgency of these matters. ‘Doomsday predictions can no longer be met with irony or disdain. We may well be leaving to coming generation debris, desolation and filth.’ Our contemporary consumption and waste ‘can only precipitate catastrophes’. (#161).

Francis does not pull his punches on the effects of climate change, warning of imminent catastrophe unless the world acts urgently to reduce greenhouse gases. He laments that the world lacks leadership and it is ‘remarkable how weak international political responses have been (#54).’ He says that ‘our common home is falling into serious disrepair.. He sees signs that ‘things are now reaching a breaking point’. ‘There are regions now at high risk and aside from all doomsday predictions, the present world system is certainly unsustainable’ (#61).

The high hopes of making rapid inroads against hunger and poverty with the Millennium Development Goals have only been partly realised, and Francis is using the encyclical to support more determined efforts through the UN Sustainable Development Goals. But efforts to eradicate hunger and poverty are being compromised by the effects of climate change, which are bearing most heavily on the poor.

The looming environmental threats remind the world as never before that we are all in this together, that there is such a thing as the ‘common good’. This is a call for ‘all hands on deck’, that everyone is involved in a common responsibility to reduce our ‘footprint’ on the planet, living more frugally, with less waste and certainly less extravagance.

‘Reducing greenhouse gases requires honesty, courage and responsibility, above all on the part of those countries which are more powerful and pollute the most.’ (169). He warns that even systems of ‘carbon credits’ could be used ‘as a ploy which permits maintaining the excessive consumption of some countries and sectors.’ (#171).

But the encyclical is not a science paper. He accepts the overwhelming consensus among climate scientists that global warming is a real threat, indeed an unprecedented emergency, with disastrous consequences likely in agriculture, from declining water resources and from rising sea levels.


Underlying the document is the Pope’s critique of the astonishing inequality within and between countries, stemming from an economic system based on competitive individualism: ‘we should be particularly indignant at the enormous inequalities in our midst, whereby we continue to tolerate some considering themselves more worthy than others.’ (#90).

He criticises powerful sectional interests which strive to maximise profits in the short term and can often shape or corrupt economic policies to suit their own narrow goals. ‘Their behaviour shows that for them maximizing profits is enough. Yet by itself the market cannot guarantee integral human development and social inclusion.’ (#109). He rejects the mindset that allows ‘the invisible forces of the market to regulate the economy, and consider their impact on society and nature as collateral damage.’ (#123).

Without using the term neoliberal economics, that is clearly his target, which Francis blames for channelling fabulous wealth into the hands of a small minority while leaving vast numbers struggling in acute poverty. He rejects ‘a magical conception of the market, which would suggest that problems can be solved simply by an increase in the profits of companies and individuals.’ (#190).

He blames an exaggerated free-market ideology for the corrosion of ethical standards in international finance and business corporations that resulted in the global financial crisis.

‘Saving banks at any cost, making the public pay the price, foregoing a firm commitment to reviewing and reforming the entire system only reaffirms the absolute power of a financial system’ which can only give rise to new crises (#189).

He is critical of the type of development which is overly driven by technology, as if it could resolve the problems facing the planet without ‘a development in human responsibility, values and conscience.’ (#105). ‘Put simply, it is a matter of redefining our notion of progress. A technological and economic development which does not leave in its wake a better world and an integrally higher quality of life cannot be considered progress. Frequently, in fact, people’s quality of life actually diminishes’ (#194).

Dialogue with believers and non-believers alike

The Pope has framed his encyclical within the hymn to creation of St Francis, a profound and joyous song of wonder and amazement before the great Mystery of life and the world with all its many marvellous creatures. St Francis felt intensely the presence of what we call God in every aspect of his world.

The Pope is drawing from this a new way of communicating across religious and philosophical boundaries about the sense of Mystery we all share. This can evoke a sense of thankfulness and respect for every living thing, of deep reverence for such treasures. He is drawing on a spirituality which is ancient and traditional, but also open to people of all faiths or of none.

Dialogue is a foundational word for the Pope. He is not trying to dictate politics or specific solutions, but calling for a global dialogue, involving especially those with specific expertise about what needs to be done. He learnt from his own mistakes as a priest that listening involves not just understanding the words people use, but an effort to go behind the words to appreciate the pain in their hearts and the goodness they are yearning for.

He believes everyone has something to contribute and a right to be heard in matters which concern them, especially in economic change and development, so that the poor are not just pawns of the rich or powerful, or cast aside as useless. The Pope draws from his own experience that even very poor people in slums can have happy and meaningful lives, though their material resources may be slim, because of the quality of their relationships and sense of community. Nevertheless, he wants everyone to have decent living conditions, secure housing and work, education and reasonable life opportunities (#222).

Underlying the encyclical is the ‘see, judge, act’ methodology he used when he summarised the conference of the bishops of Latin American at Aparecida in 2007. He wants the new encyclical to lead to action, not just in international forums, but by everyone in their own circumstances. He gives instances of how people can live more simply, reducing their use of energy and resources. These are not trivial matters. He wishes to show that we all need to find ways to live more simply (#211). Pope Francis favours the empowerment of individuals and groups, to take initiatives and to organise together, such as in cooperatives, or in small-scale farming and production (#129, 179).


The encyclical’s message about the urgent moral dimensions of our present crisis are not entirely new, as both Popes John Paul and Benedict also drew attention to the mounting ecological dangers. But it is unprecedented that a pope has devoted an entire encyclical to this issue, which he links in with the Church’s longer tradition of social teaching, especially its critique of ‘economic liberalism’ or what we would now refer to as neoliberalism.

Though some parts of the document are written in Francis’s clear and popular style, others have written various sections, especially Cardinal Turkson and his team at the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, along with the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, both have which have been consulting extensively with leading international experts in economics, climate science and the environment.

The Pope regrets that international agreements have not recognised the ‘urgency of the challenges’; but though ‘the post-industrial period may well be remembered as one of the most irresponsible in history’, there are reasons to hope (#165).

He is calling for a commitment by everyone to living responsibly so that others can live a fulfilling and happy life. We should be striving ‘boldly and responsibility to promote a sustainable and equitable development within the context of a broader concept of quality of life.’ (#192).

Father Bruce Duncan CSsR is one of the founders of the advocacy group, Social Policy Connections, and Director of the Yarra Institute for Religion and Social Policy in Melbourne.

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