Pope Francis' hope for our poor earth


Twenty years ago I was hopeful that countries would take strong and sensible action to address climate change, just as we had in 1987 when we faced the major depletion of the ozone layer. The following years slowly erased this hope.

Heart on leafThe Church did not do enough to stem disappointment. While bishops and popes made significant statements, particularly from 1990 onwards, and Benedict XVI was dubbed the 'green pope' by National Geographic, serious action on the ground was limited, and Church teaching hamstrung by the failure to recognise clearly the intrinsic worth of God's Creation.

The Church needed to affirm that the worth of the rest of universe was not dependent on humanity: 'stewardship' alone was not going to provide sufficient grounds for the needed changes.

By 2010 I was resigned to devastation. But Pope Francis has provided me with a ray of hope. He wants us to take action — urgently. The appeal in his June encyclical, Laudato si', rings out with 'urgent ... urgently ... urgency!'

These are not just words. He has been throwing all the resources he can muster behind the encyclical. He talked it up a lot in public long before it was published. His twin academies, of science and social science, were brought into play. (Note that the 75 members of the Pontifical Academy of Science count 21 Nobel prizes among them, with 'also-rans' of the calibre of Stephen Hawking.)

This new aspect of Catholic social teaching is addressed to all people of goodwill. It was launched on 18 June by an atheist climate scientist; a professor with a background in economics, finance, business and commerce; the top Orthodox theologian on ecology, who is also an archbishop; a teacher familiar with human and environmental degradation as well as signs of hope; not to mention an African cardinal.

It asks us, together, to recognise and acknowledge the immense challenge we face.

This letter on our 'common home', our sister Earth, was launched early so that it could have maximum effect on two critical international meetings in 2015. The Pope did not sit back to see what happens, but the day after he spoke to the US Congress in Washington, he wanted to speak to the September United Nations summit meeting for the setting of new sustainable development goals until 2030.

His other major target was the Paris Conference on Climate Change.

By declaring 'the Lord rejoices in all his works' (Psalm 104 verse 31), and including non-living things like the moon among God's creatures, Laudato si' was able to more fully explain how God's becoming one of us requires the Church to grasp the nettle of a human-induced ecological crisis and climate change.

It has gone further than I ever would have expected, by linking the ecology of nature with the ecology of human society and individuals. The Pope powerfully links 'the earth herself, burdened and laid waste' to the lot of the poor of the world: she is 'among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor'.

Mind you, I sense Catholics and most people of goodwill are avoiding the urgent aspects of the letter, and instead focus on the wonderful synthesis which has conversion at its heart. What the Pope means by conversion would take a long time even in optimistic scenarios; the vast majority of us in Australia are not keen to reduce consumption from our five-planet rate to below a one-planet rate, even by 2030.

Nevertheless, I am encouraged to throw a fair bit of energy into amplifying the Pope's intense concern, at once heartfelt and deeply reasoned. So far I don't see the Church in Australia making common cause with the sort of people the Pope has enjoined to deal with this common threat.

The Pope is calling not just for necessary conversion, but for urgent dialogue and action. At stake, too, is our conscience and the commandment that we not kill.

Our action as individuals will not be enough. Problems such the discarding 'a third of all food produced' need to be addressed by community networks: 'the ecological conversion needed to bring about lasting change is also a community conversion'.

The Pope could have been criticising our own Australian government when he refers to 'the myopia of power politics [that] delays the inclusion of a far-sighted environmental agenda'. He seems to expect the Church, together with people of goodwill, to do something about that, soon!

Some critics who perhaps don't grasp the urgency of the situation might take the Pope to task over the issue of population. But he quite rightly says, 'To blame population growth instead of extreme and selective consumerism on the part of some, is one way of refusing to face the issues'.

Nevertheless, with only one earth, population is a medium-term issue, though Catholic Church teaching will have only a small effect on its growth. Laudato si' provides a comprehensive understanding of what humans need to do to ensure the earth is open to the transmission and sustaining of life, especially human life. Giving a nod to the development of doctrine on population in the light of such an integral ecology would have embraced more people of goodwill.


Paul FyfeFr Paul Fyfe is an Australian Jesuit. This is an edited version of an article that appears in the current edition of Companions magazine.

Image: Len Matthews, Flickr CC

Topic tags: Paul Fyfe, Laudato si, Pope Francis, climate change



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Existing comments

Okay! I admit it. I am going to squib the challenge implied in Father Fyfe's article until I see what the outcome is from the Paris Conference on Climate Change. If it is regressive, I will despair; if it is conservative I will pray for conversion of the recalcitrant; if it is progressive I will see where I as an individual can help.
Uncle Pat | 10 December 2015

Thanks for continuing to keep Pope Francis' challenge insistently before us.
Jan Tranter | 10 December 2015


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