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Francis puts environment above short-term politics


Bartolomeo Della Gatta, Stigmata of St Francis Sometime in April 1226, lying acutely ill in the grounds of St Clare’s San Damiano convent, St Francis of Assisi wrote the Cantico di fratre sole, the Canticle of Brother Sun.

Nowadays we sing it as ‘All Creatures of Our God and King’. It is a cosmic hymn of praise to God in which the whole natural world joins. Pope Francis encyclical, Laudatio si (‘Praise Be’), quotes it at length (87).

Francis’ biographer, Thomas of Celano, says that all God’s creatures ‘filled Francis with wondrous and unspeakable joy as he beheld the sun, or raised his eyes to the moon, or gazed on the stars, and the firmament...Even towards little worms he glowed with exceeding love... he used to pick them up...and put them in a safe place, that they might not be crushed.’

Conscious of his own approaching death, the saint sings: ‘Praise to thee, O Lord, for our sister mortal death, from whom no one may escape.’ Francis, ‘that active and compelling figure’ (10) is omnipresent in Laudatio si.

The encyclical is an extraordinary document addressed to ‘every living person on this planet’ about ‘care for our common home’ (3) and it is essentially a reflection on life in the contemporary world. Francis places himself in a papal tradition of concern for the environment from Paul VI in 1971 to Benedict XVI. He also highlights the work of Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew who says ‘to commit a crime against the natural world is a sin against ourselves and...against God’; the attached footnote mentions John Chryssavgis, an Australian-born Orthodox priest, who is theological/environmental adviser to Bartholomew.

Laudatio si gives no comfort to global warming deniers. Based on the scientific consensus he says that ‘most global warming...is due to the great concentration of greenhouse gases...released mainly as a result of human activity’ (23). This results from ‘current models of production and consumption’ (26) and the worst impact will ‘be felt by developing countries in coming decades’ (25) through destruction of ecosystems, shortage of fresh water (29) and sea level rise. There is no comfort either for technologies ‘based on the use of highly polluting fossil fuels – especially coal’, which need ‘to be progressively replaced without delay’ (165)

He is particularly critical of the loss of biodiversity: ‘The great majority [of plants and animals] become extinct for reasons related to human activity. Because of us thousands of species will no longer give glory to God by their very existence, nor convey their message to us. We have no such right’ (33). He is critical of short-term politics ‘with environmental protection...altered with every change of government’ (181).

Francis has little patience for technological solutions and ‘fixes’. He mounts a profound critique of technology that sounds much like that of philosopher Martin Heidegger. He doesn’t quote Heidegger, but instead a favourite theologian of Benedict XVI, Romano Guardini, who was influenced by the philosopher. Francis links the ‘quick fix’ mentality to ‘the idea of infinite or unlimited growth which proves so attractive to economists, financiers and experts in technology’ (106). He says ‘technology tends to absorb everything into its ironclad logic’ (108) which favours ‘the interests of certain powerful groups’ (107).

Another group that is criticised are those – like me – who say that over-population is the problem. ‘To blame population growth instead of extreme...consumerism...is one way of refusing to face the issues’. He is critical of ‘certain policies of “reproductive health” and claims that ‘demographic growth is fully compatible with an integral and shared development’ (50). Thus he reduces the population issue to consumerism and inequity in distribution of the world’s goods.

This focuses a theme that runs through Laudatio si: Francis’ attempt to integrate environment with social justice and equity. Until now the Catholic emphasis has been on social justice. Sure, there has been recognition of ecological issues, but that hasn’t been the emphasis. Francis is trying to rebalance this by focusing equally on the environment and equity. He sees them as intimately interconnected. ‘There can be no ecology,’ he says, ‘without an adequate anthropology’ (118). This is close to the essence of his message. Everything is inter-related.

Francis tries hard to keep ecology and social justice together, but I’m not sure he quite succeeds. That’s because I don’t think you can, much as I would like to think otherwise. The primary moral emphasis has to be on the earth; the natural world comes first.

The final chapter is a profound meditation on the Christian contribution to ecological spirituality and highlights the call to ‘ecological conversion’. He says this ‘entails gratitude and gratuitousness, a recognition that the world is God’s loving gift...a loving awareness that we are not disconnected from the rest of creatures, but joined in a splendid universal communion’ (220).

Laudatio si needs a good editor. I reckon there are about four different writers leading to inconsistency and repetition. But it is still an incisive, practical, realistic and far-reaching encyclical that tackles the most important issues facing us honestly and with absolute integrity. In places it is exquisitely beautiful, almost poetic, e.g. paragraph 53. It is certainly an extraordinary letter that will upset a lot of apple carts in the Church and in the world.

Paul Collins headshot

Paul Collins' most recent book on religion and ecology is Judgment Day: The Struggle for Life on Earth (2010). 

Image - Bartolomeo Della Gatta, Stigmata of St Francis (Wikimedia Commons)

Topic tags: Paul Collins, Pope Francis, ecology, social justice, encyclicals



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Existing comments

How can this be published when the encyclical is still under embargo?

Brian | 18 June 2015  

One is grateful to Pope Francis and all who have helped produce this encyclical, but also grateful (once again) to Paul Collins for a wise and very thoughtful commentary upon it, especially regarding the issue of over-population - which even environmental groups quite often do not touch upon - certainly the best commentary I have yet seen. I for one need to ponder and ponder their words and to do what one can to act upon them.

John Bunyan | 18 June 2015  

The Pope is in an intellectual gridlock by trying to address the important issue of anthropogenic climate change, but failing to address the population issue that's causing it! He still won't lift his ban on contraception. While consumption levels and ghg emissions might decrease per capita (how?) in absolute terms it will increase due to explosive population growth! The Pope is being intellectually dishonest and disingenuous.

VivKay | 18 June 2015  

On the ABC just now, they quoted denier Jeb Bush because he is a Catholic(!) but did not mention our hyper-Catholic pm who thinks the whole thing is "a load of crap." Will Abbott pay any attention to the leader of his church? One other point and perhaps a minor one: people should acknowledge that Francis is a chemistry graduate, he has some idea of what he speaks, certainly much more than his many "followers" in the current Australian cabinet.

Frank | 18 June 2015  

Thanks Paul, I will print and file your review with the encyclical when it comes out in print as a booklet available for purchase. Meanwhile it can be read online. .

tony kevin | 18 June 2015  

Tony Kevin, nice jab at the tendency to technophobia of the encyclical.

HH | 18 June 2015  

One of the interesting facts to be drawn from this encyclical is that it was launched in association with the Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew. Has this sort of thing ever happened before.

john ozanne | 18 June 2015  

"Another group that is criticised are those – like me – who say that over-population is the problem. ‘To blame population growth instead of extreme...consumerism...is one way of refusing to face the issues’.".... At present the concern of overpopulation is a reflection of Malthus. But it could become a severe problem in the future unless it is given serious present consideration. Meanwhile excessive self-indulgence/ absorption, and thoughtless consumerism remains the greatest threats both to future generations and to the planet.

Robert Liddy | 18 June 2015  

Are you going to listen to this, HH, or are you devising some eloquent response to avoid the inconvenient truth, like Gerard Henderson did last night on Lateline?

AURELIUS | 18 June 2015  

Pope Francis' Encyclical on all aspects of the Environment. He has the full authority of Catholic Social and Moral authority behind him in this. He has also demonstrated great confidence in the intellectual and scientific integrity of the IPCC despite the climate change and global warming deniers. Welcome too is his continued bold challenges to free market Capitalism which has systematically stripped the humanity out of hundreds of millions of people, It's no wonder that the groups such as the Acton Institute is in damage control right now and are probably commissioning battalions of apologists to tart up about the only argument they have: the Encyclical is not 'infallible.' Even Henderson trotted that canard out last night. We now wait for the official communique from ++Dr Pell.

David Timbs | 19 June 2015  

why do we need Cardinal Pells imprimatur

Irena | 19 June 2015  

One can be assured that Tony Abbot and his Party will take a convenient 'vow of silence' on the impact of this momentous encyclical! :-)

Yuri Koszarycz | 19 June 2015  

I am so pleased to see a serious document addressing ecological issues from the Pope. I only hope our Catholic PM can read and understand it. on the subject of population - it has been amply demonstrated that the best means of birth control is education for women. Educated women have far fewer children than those who are uneducated. And it lifts whole communities out of poverty. Social justice and environmental protection in one.

Karen | 19 June 2015  

Collins' article is a good one. However, while population is a concern, there is little correlation between it and widespread/abject poverty. Over-population is one of many causes of poverty, remembering that some of the most peopled countries in the world are non-Catholic. I was never in favour of Human Vitae, don't get me wrong, and I think the Church is wrong about artificial contraception, but the causes of poverty and alienation are actually well-addressed in Laudato Si' in my opinion.

Gerard Guiton | 19 June 2015  

I’m not sure Pope Francis and I live on the same planet. Where he sees poverty increasing, the best information I have is that global systemic poverty is decreasing at rates unprecedented in history. Admittedly, not in North Korea or Cuba. Or in fabulously oil-endowed Venezuela - till only very recently a darling regime of the Clintons and Philip Adams - where the hapless citizens are now reduced to lining up for rations of water and other basics, and it’s deemed traitorous to take photos of the paltry offerings in grocery stores. Ah, those leftist Latin American dictators! But for the world as a whole, it’s an uncontroversial fact that grinding poverty, as was endured by the vast bulk of humanity over history, is within a couple of decades of extinction – barring insane blockades of the market economy, of course. Furthermore, where His Holiness looks around his planet and sees human generated “filth” everywhere, I’m struggling see much filth anywhere. Certainly not in Melbourne, where I live, and not in Australia – nor much indeed in the West overall. There is some filth out there. But it’s largely confined to regimes where property rights are not clearly defined – such as China, still clumsily emerging from its communist shackles. To be sure, there used to be filth in 19th century Western cities: from London to Melbourne, horse manure layered the streets, and sewage permeated the subsoil to a considerable depth in densely populated poorer quarters. In so-called “Marvellous Smellbourne”, at Governor House, His Excellency’s wife fainted one very hot day in the 1880s from the stench of the heavily polluted Yarra. But both filths were eliminated, largely thanks to technological innovations, such as pumps and engines, that were devised and perfected on the free market over the preceding century. Thus, public sewage systems had been installed with great efficiency in most Western cities by the end of the 19th century, thanks to the multifarious benefits of mechanization. The benefits of these innovations are too often taken for granted. A small whale was seen way up the Maribyrnong river, close my home in Essendon last year. Humpback whales and great white sharks are returning to New York’s Hudson river. Joggers now thread their way past otters in parks in downtown Vancouver. And as for the streets, the advent of the motor car (powered by fossils fuels, no less) had effectively taken care of the problem of horse manure by the 1920s. Today, traffic permitting, you can eat a meal off a Melbourne street at almost no risk to your health. So much for capitalist innovation causing “filth”! As Matt Ridley observes, with the advances of technology – supplied largely by market forces – mankind is now able to “decouple” from nature. Thus, thanks to innovations such as gm crops, agriculture is now so efficient that land is actually being returned to nature in Western countries. But all this doesn’t rate a mention in “Laudato Si”, which seems, as I say, to be referring to the much more unfortunate – perhaps imagined ? – world of Pope Francis and his team of leftist advisers, where market economies and nature are engaged in a struggle to the death.

HH | 22 June 2015  

Some of the commentary that the planet can cope with the combined threats of high population and rampant consumerism is truly "off the planet". Like Paul I put rampant population growth (among the poor) alongside rampant consumerism (by the rich) as jointly at issue. Where has poverty been conquered the most? I propose China where a rigid population policy has evidently allowed remarkable economic development. Sadly though the winners there are as intoxicated by wealth as anywhere else. I see filth in many places - appalling slums on the edges of many huge cities, and very notable in the middle of the north Pacific ocean where discarded "mountains" of the wondrous non-biodegradable plastic products we feel free to discard without a second thought. Plastic objects scattered far and wide in the oceans are a potent threat to a vast diversity of marine life - filth indeed. Fish resources are critically at risk of collapse world-wide.

Mike Foale | 23 June 2015  

One cannot have social justice isolated from eco-justice. If we are an integral part of creation, then eco-justice serves social justice.

Graham Warren | 23 June 2015  

Thanks Double H. I'm relieved to see the other Double H (His Holiness) got it wrong thanks to all those pesky leftist advisers. Now we can all get back to what we were doing before.

Brett | 25 June 2015  

'mankind is now able to “decouple” from nature', eh Double H? It's a long time since I heard such hubris. Is that Nemesis I hear approaching?

Ginger Meggs | 26 June 2015  

Thanks, Brett! A data-rich challenge to my posts is always going to advance the debate. That's what I just love about posting here.

HH | 26 June 2015  

GM: in your spare time, take a few minutes to read this:
Or this:
and let me know what you think.

HHq | 28 June 2015  

Well you do ask for that sort of response Double H with your extensive observation of how clean the world is these days, or at least how clean it would be if not for annoying leftists. Isn’t it tiresome when people continually push their ideology? Of course things have improved in many ways for much of the world since the 19th Century. We have electricity and sewerage and I’m pleased Melbourne is a much nicer place than it was 90 years ago and you can eat your lunch off Little Collins Street. Melbourne should be better. If only the same could be said for many other places around the world. We also recognise our responsibility for the environmentally sound management of our resources. I also prefer a market economy to the failed alternatives but I don’t have your faith in the environmentally cleansing qualities of the free market, if only it was left alone to get on with the job. As for the observation which you seem to support that “mankind is now able to ‘decouple’ from nature”, that would be a very big call even for the other Double H, whom I believe lives on Earth in the real world. Nature has a way of reminding us that it is there. It brings to mind the old saying “pride goeth before a fall”. Enjoy your lunch.

Brett | 28 June 2015  

Brett. 1. On ‘decoupling’, I recommend the two links I’ve suggested to G.M. above. Regardless as to your own take on the matter, some dedicated environmentalists are canvassing this possibility. 2. As someone just as concerned for the nature as the next person, I support market-based solutions, simply because most pollution problems are generated by the conscious choice of governments to restrict the scope of the market, and the rights to life and private property on which it is based. For example, air pollution is an invasion of the personal and property rights of those adversely affected by it. It is thus an anti-market activity, if we understand the market as the set of all peaceful, voluntary actions and transactions within a community. In common law regimes (in the UK, etc) it constituted a tort of nuisance, the remedy for which was the payment of damages, or later (in equity), injunctions. But governments and their courts in the 19th century decided in many industrialising countries to rule in favour of the defendants in air pollution nuisance suits for the sake of “progress” and “the common good”. So individuals and businesses were permitted to pump the air with all manner of noxious substances with impunity, and massive air pollution resulted. The industrial revolution occurred because the unleashed free market created an amazing array of innovative devices and processes which vastly improved the living standards of mankind. Had the state permitted nuisance suits against air pollution to succeed, it would have constituted a powerful economic incentive for scientists and entrepreneurs to create, alongside all their other genius inventions, economically viable but non-coercive solutions to noxious waste gas disposal, or even to their creation in the first place in given industrial processes. See Murray Rothbard’s “Law, Property Rights and Air Pollution” (online) for the definitive free market analysis of the air pollution issue, or his shorter but equally insightful rights-based analysis of pollution in general (excerpted from his libertarian classic “For A New Liberty” also available online): https://mises.org/library/libertarian-manifesto-pollution

HH | 29 June 2015  

Saw the links Double H and they put some context to your quote. I’ve also seen a couple of others before that – the UNEP report from 2011 in particular (http://www.unep.org/resourcepanel/decoupling/files/pdf/decoupling_report_english.pdf). Not quite saying what you do either. Bit concerned with your comment “I support market-based solutions, simply because most pollution problems are generated by the conscious choice of governments to restrict the scope of the market, and the rights to life and private property on which it is based.” Leaving the exaggeration aside, I would not have thought that was the case. Lets be clear, the “unleashed free market” of the industrial revolution had to be restrained to limit the downside effects of the industrial revolution. I suppose its okay with hindsight to charge the regulators of the day with not solidly prosecuting their case against the industrial polluters of their day. We have learnt much since then and the regulators have clearly lifted their game; no surprises there and more will be done. Laudatio si is a reasonable and realistic appraisal and it will be interesting to see if a spiritual leader will be more successful than scientists and business leaders in informing the public debate.

Brett | 04 July 2015