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Francis' day to pray underlines priority for environment

  • 31 August 2015

September and October will be crucial in Pope Francis’ mission to church and world. He had earlier declared the first of September an annual day to pray for the care of creation.

There are many such days, and in most local churches it will pass by largely unnoticed. But the naming of the day – and its reception – reveal much about the challenges facing the Pope as he marshals his resources to address environmental degradation, and about the style with which he does so.

In his Encyclical letter, Laudato Si and elsewhere, Pope Francis has emphasised the urgency of the environmental crisis. It divides him from his critics who are less concerned about the risk to the world. His reflection on the causes of the crisis and on the extent of the change needed to address are also distinctive.

He locates the root of the degradation of the environment in the association of technology with an economic ideology that lacks ethical direction. The environment then faces long term damage inflicted in the interests of short term profit.

Because this ideology is so deeply rooted and so widely accepted, the change the Pope calls for in the way we human beings look at the world and ourselves is correspondingly great. We must see ourselves as part of the environment, and treat the natural world as a gift to be wondered at and respected. It is not to be exploited for gain.

The correlative of this humane vision will be an economic framework that looks to the common good. This means that economic settings need to protect the vulnerable and the natural world in all its diversity.

To address the environmental crisis will demand action by politicians. But they will also need a support from their people that can come only through a change of hearts and minds. In this mission the Pope is not preaching to the converted. Nor does his authority automatically commend the positions he takes. Encyclicals can be dismissed as passing events that represent the quirky vision of particular popes. Pope Francis wants the urgency and theological depth with which he addresses the environmental crisis to be reflected enduringly in the prayer and reflection of Christians.

The day of prayer for care for the world is a very small tile in that mosaic. It will be a canary in the mine: the attention it receives will indicate the level of seriousness among Catholics about