The title of Pope Francis's encyclical Laudato si ("Praised Be") is taken from a popular prayer of St Francis of Assisi, who was thanking God for "Brother Fire", "Sister Moon" and "Mother Earth".
Laudato si is is one of the most important documents to come from a pope in the past 120 years. It can be compared with two other important encyclicals. The first was Rerum novarum ("New Things"), written by Pope Leo XIII in 1891. It criticised the central thesis of liberal capitalism which was that "labour is a commodity to be bought at market prices".
In Populorum progressio ("On the Development of Peoples"), published in 1967, Pope Paul VI wrote about authentic human development which for him went beyond economic development. He considered it "a transition from less human conditions to those which are more human."
Laudato si widens the church's perspective even further to embrace, not just humans, but all creation. Though previous popes had written about ecology, Pope Francis is the first to acknowledge the magnitude of the ecological crisis, the urgency with which it must be faced and the irreversible nature of ecological damage.
“It is my hope that this encyclical letter, which is now added to the body of the church’s social teaching, can help us to acknowledge the appeal, immensity and urgency of the challenge we face,” he writes.
As in all his documents, Pope Francis acknowledges the work and witness of others. These include other Christian churches and religions . There is a special word of praise for Greek Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew who has spoken “persuasively, challenging us to acknowledge our sins against creation”.
Many might be surprised by his words of gratitude to “the worldwide ecological movement that has already made considerable progress and led to the establishment of numerous organisations committed to raising awareness of these challenges”.
One could also say that Laudato si is the first encyclical to capture the extent of the modern ecological crisis.
I am delighted he dealt so emphatically with both climate change and the destruction of biodiversity. His quotation from St Thomas Aquinas, a man who did not have access to a microscope or telescope is marvellous: “Saint Thomas Aquinas wisely noted that . . . inasmuch as God’s goodness ‘could not be represented fittingly by any one creature’. Hence we need to grasp the variety of things in their multiple relationships.”
Pope Francis also shows the “intimate relationship between [caring for] the poor and the fragility of the planet”.
Thirty-seven years ago, I remember returning home from visiting a village in the mountains of Cotabato in the Philippines. On one side of me I could see a beautiful lake and a tropical forest. The other side of mountain was scarred, burned and almost lifeless. I knew this was wrong, but did not have the resources in my religious tradition to deal with this destruction as there was very little in Catholic social teaching on ecology at the time.
In the following years I tried to educate myself about ecology and, with the support of the late Fr Thomas Berry and Dr John Feehan in Ireland. Dr Feehan's books, Farming in Ireland, History, Heritage and Environment, The Wild Flowers of Offaly and The Grasses of Ireland have introduced many people to the beauty and wonders of the Irish landscape.
Care of the Earth is still only at the periphery of Catholic ministry. I know of very few dioceses or parishes around the world where such ministries exist. Without these, nothing will happen to flesh out Pope Francis’s vision. To change this situation will require significant environmental education for everyone in the Christian community.
One thing Pope Francis didn’t mention is the witness which Catholics have given to protecting creation in recent decades. I can still remember with horror that morning on April 7th, 1988 when my neighbour Fr Carl Schmitz CP was murdered because of his efforts to protect what remained of the tropical forest. Many other deaths have followed in the Philippines and Latin America in the intervening years. Caring for the Earth can be a costly business.
Fr Seán McDonagh SSC will speak at a forum on Laudato si in the Chapel in Trinity College Dublin, at 8pm on Monday, June 29th