Pope Francis and Care for Creation

Published October 19, 2023

The Catholic Thing

Earlier this month, Pope Francis published an apostolic exhortation, Laudate Deum (“Praise God”), which serves as a sort of sequel to his 2015 encyclical, Laudato Si: the first social encyclical dedicated entirely to environmental and ecological concerns, or as the encyclical has it, to “care for our common home.” Laudate Deum (the new exhortation) is a curious document in several ways, but to understand why, it’s worth reconsidering the encyclical (Laudato Si) to which it plays second fiddle.

Much of the commentary – both laudatory and otherwise – that accompanied Laudato Si’s publication focused on the Holy Father’s lengthy consideration of various scientific data regarding climate change, and the analyses of its causes, predictions about its progression, and policy prescriptions regarding how such change might be slowed and its negative side-effects mitigated.

The politically charged subject matter, along with the urgent tone of the encyclical, reinforced a certain pressure to accept complex scientific analyses on the basis of religious authority, a somewhat embarrassing situation that might be described as the “Galileo in reverse.”

Somewhat predictably, the theological and anthropological insights that form the heart of the encyclical were largely overlooked in favor of the complex scientific, economic, and political matters – that is to say, as the encyclical itself notes, on matters about which “the Church has no reason to offer a definitive opinion.”

If this was predictable, it is also too bad. At its heart, Laudato Si contains a beautifully articulated Biblical view of Creation. Against the backdrop of this Biblical and sacramental vision of reality, Pope Francis then offers a compelling and much-needed critique of the practical materialism that dominates so much of contemporary life, even among Christians.

Laudato Si was hardly the first encyclical to treat ecological concerns. Care for creation has been a consistent theme (albeit an auxiliary theme) of papal teaching for at least half a century. But in Laudato Si, Pope Francis extends a well-established thread of papal teaching.

Paul VI, writing in 1971 to mark the 80th anniversary of Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum, for example, emphasized the connection between the ruinous exploitation of the natural world and the degradation of man himself:

Man is suddenly becoming aware that by an ill-considered exploitation of nature he risks destroying it and becoming in his turn the victim of this degradation. Not only is the material environment becoming a permanent menace – pollution and refuse, new illness and absolute destructive capacity – but the human framework is no longer under man’s control, thus creating an environment for tomorrow which may well be intolerable.

John Paul II took up this same theme when he wrote of the importance of “human ecology,” linking concern for the natural, material world to the irreducibly moral character of the human environment. Man, like any animal, needs certain material things to survive – food, water, shelter, etc. But being a rational creature, man also requires a certain moral environment in order to thrive and fully develop.

The stewardship of the natural material world is thus inextricably bound to larger questions of economy, family, politics, and the defense of human life as such. When we fail in stewardship of creation, the result is not just material harm, but moral harm as well. Pope Benedict XVI, in Caritas in Veritate, made this point in his usually succinct manner: “The way humanity treats the environment influences the way it treats itself, and vice versa.”

But Laudato Si is much more than a reiteration of the recent papal teachings on good stewardship of the environment. Pope Francis draws these filaments into a coherent thread. His treatment of the “technocratic paradigm” – by which human relationships are unwittingly reduced to calculations of mastery and power, recognizing only the limits of technology and will, while obscuring any sense of transcendence or the intrinsic meaning of reality itself – is as comprehensive and profound a critique of modernity as one is likely to find in any single document of the Church’s social teaching.

Which brings us back to the recent Apostolic Exhortation, Laudate Deum, which, unfortunately, magnifies some of Laudato Si’s shortcomings while downplaying some of that encyclical’s greatest strengths.

Laudate Deum is addressed to “all people of good will,” but its intended audience – as is often the case with papal documents – is somewhat narrower. It was written in anticipation of, and promulgated to be timed with, the U.N. Climate Change Conference (“COP28”), that is slated to take place in Dubai later this year. The document, accordingly, leans into the scientific and policy considerations that are likely to be foremost on the minds of those participating in that conference.

More specifically, Pope Francis directs his strongest rhetoric against those who continue to express skepticism about the scientific evidence the Holy Father accepts as compelling. “In recent years, some have chosen to deride these facts. . . .It is no longer possible to doubt the human – ‘anthropic’ – origin of climate change. . . .I feel obliged to make these clarifications, which may appear obvious, because of certain dismissive and scarcely reasonable opinions that I encounter, even within the Catholic Church.”

And so on.

The unique spiritual and theological insights of Laudato Si are mentioned, but briefly and with much less verve. The result is a letter from the pope that is most emphatic and urgent – and most pointed in its rhetoric – on precisely those aspects of the issue about which he is least qualified to expound and about which, by his own assertion, there already exists a predominating consensus.

This is especially the case when one considers the letter was written with the participants at COP28 in mind:  experts in climate science, economists, politicians, diplomats, and all sorts of international NGO types. One wonders how many of these don’t already share the pope’s take on the science.

Pope Francis has shown himself capable of offering a compelling and uniquely Catholic contribution to global debates on ecology. One hopes those insights aren’t drowned out amidst a technocratic emphasis on the science.

Stephen P. White is a fellow in the Catholic Studies Program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Mr. White’s work focuses on the application of Catholic social teaching to a broad spectrum of contemporary political and cultural issues. He is the author of Red, White, Blue, and Catholic (Liguori Publications, 2016).

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