It is four years this week since Pope Francis published his encyclical on the environment Be Praised (Latin Laudato Si), addressed to “every person living on this planet.”
Pope Francis titles this new encyclical with the opening proclamation of Francis of Assisi’s Canticle of the Creatures “Be praised, my Lord, through all Your creatures!” Then, in the next half dozen paragraphs he rolls out the thread of continuity by quoting the environmental teaching of four of the most recent popes up to Pope Benedict who proposed “eliminating the structural causes of the dysfunctions of the world economy and correcting models of growth which have proved incapable of ensuring respect for the environment”.
The pope also concedes that the situation we face is due to our misinterpretation of scripture:
“We are not God. The earth was here before us and it has been given to us. This allows us to respond to the charge that Judaeo-Christian thinking, on the basis of the Genesis account which grants man “dominion” over the earth (cf. Gen 1:28), has encouraged the unbridled exploitation of nature by painting him as domineering and destructive by nature. This is not a correct interpretation of the Bible as understood by the Church. Although it is true that we Christians have at times incorrectly interpreted the Scriptures, nowadays we must forcefully reject the notion that our being created in God’s image and given dominion over the earth justifies absolute domination over other creatures.”
A highlight for New Zealand readers is the fact that New Zealand get a mention. Francis quotes the New Zealand bishops’ 2006 Statement on Environmental Issues:
“The natural environment is a collective good, the patrimony of all humanity and the responsibility of everyone. If we make something our own, it is only to administer it for the good of all. If we do not, we burden our consciences with the weight of having denied the existence of others. That is why the New Zealand bishops asked what the commandment “Thou shall not kill” means when “twenty percent of the world’s population consumes resources at a rate that robs the poor nations and future generations of what they need to survive” (par.75).
This encyclical provides a great tool for our contemporary presentation of the life of God. However we have missed the point if we allow environmental concerns and climate change to become a religion for many of those who reject Catholic life as outdated and disconnected.
In our society where there is more encouragement to save a whale or a forest than a vulnerable person Pope Francis presents anew the God-centred perspective in a way that is free of unhelpful and tired church cliches.
While the encyclical is helpfull grounded in earthly realities the text effectively lifts our gaze to see that “the acceptance of our bodies as God’s gift is vital for welcoming and accepting the entire world as a gift from the Father and our common home, whereas thinking that we enjoy absolute power over our own bodies turns, often subtly, into thinking that we enjoy absolute power over creation. (par.155).
If you have (at least) a reading and comprehension level of an average teenager, and an open spirit, you will find hope and inspiration in Pope Francis’ encyclical.