Laudato Si’ at 5 

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Click here for Martin's previous talk in 2015

I have to get my disclaimer in at the outset. I’m no theologian; and this introduction to our discussion isn’t aimed at explaining everything that’s within the papal encyclical entitled Laudato Si’.   But in this 5th anniversary year of the encyclical, I thought it might be helpful, first to remind ourselves of some of the background to Laudato; secondly the way it was received, and finally to consider where its got to today. 

First, the background: 

And the basic question, what is a papal encyclical? Well, effectively its a round robin. Rather a special variety of round robin, because of who issues it; and because the issue of one is quite a rare occurrence (in the last half century, there have been fewer than 20). 

The Catholic Church’s social teaching is quite heavily reliant on papal encyclicals, together with the decrees of the 2nd Vatican Council, which drew to a conclusion 55 years ago. 

Their content derives from scripture and from the writings of earlier church authorities, as well of course as the insights of their particular author, and their aim is to reflect and interpret the signs of the time. 

Together, what’s known as Catholic Social Teaching should act as our guide for how we live out our lives as Catholic Christians. And traditionally, encyclicals have been addressed only to Catholics, though John the 23rd, immediately after the Cuban Missile Crisis, addressed his final one, Pacem in terris to all men of goodwill: Pacem in terris, Peace on Earth, were its opening Latin words. 

Francis has been Pope for seven years in which time he has issued two encyclicals: the first was mostly written by his predecessor and left unfinished when he resigned in 2013. Fairly soon after that, there was talk that the new 76yearold Pope, the first from the Southern Hemisphere, was writing an encyclical of his own about ecology. And after very wide consultation, what emerged the best part of two years later was Laudato Si’.

The title is an Umbrian dialect phrase, found often repeated in the 13th Century Canticle of the Sun, of Francis of Assisi. It translates as Praise be to you. This song of St Francis has over the ages inspired writers and musicians worldwide, and is perhaps best known among us, paraphrased as the hymn, All creatures of our God and king

At 45,000 words, Laudato Si’ is the longest papal encyclical on record; the first not to have a title in Latin, and the first to be addressed  not just to Catholics, not even to all men of goodwill, but to every person living on this planet (#3). 

So much for the background. 


How was Laudato Si’ received?

Well, the first thing that happened was that so many people went onto the Vatican website to read it, that it crashed. There was enormous interest throughout the world, and it made headlines everywhere. But the overwhelming impression they gave was that this was all about climate change. 

And five years ago, we were still talking in terms of climate change, not a climate emergency, and if you remember it was still very much a divisive subject. 

So voices were raised, even amongst Catholic leaders, against the encyclical. One of these was the powerful Australian Cardinal George Pell: he particularly criticised the Pope for associating the church with the need to address the climate: the church has no particular expertise in science, he said. The church has got no mandate from the Lord to pronounce on scientific matters. 

He seems to have ignored that Francis specifically says The Church does not presume to settle scientific questions. I am concerned to encourage an honest and open debate so that particular interests or ideologies will not prejudice the common good… 

In the controversy over this, an aspect of LS which went largely unmentioned was the extent to which it exults in the glory of creation.  The entire material universe speaks of God’s love his boundless affection for us. Soil, water, mountains: everything is, as it were, a caress of God. #84 

And in the very final paragraph of LS, Francis describes what he has written as a reflection which has been both joyful and troubling #246 

Our goal, he says at the outset, is to become painfully aware, to dare to turn what is happening to the world into our own personal suffering and thus to discover what each of us can do about it. #19 

Once we start to think about the kind of world we are leaving to future generations, we look at things differently: we realize that the world is a gift which we have freely received and must share with others. #159 

LS is as much a critique of consumerism and irresponsible development, as a call to action to tackle climate change. Francis himself says that LS is not just an environmental document: concern for the natural world is no longer a secondary 'option':  its an integral part of the Church teaching on social justice. It is essential to a life of virtue. #217 

Citing the New Zealand Bishops Conference Statement on Environmental Issues, Francis asks 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’

And in particular, he stresses the obligation of developed nations to assist those poorer nations (which bear the brunt of climate change) in combatting that. The world must hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor. #49 

Yes, the words climate change do appear 11 times in LS, but the words poor and poverty are mentioned 73 times. 

What the encyclical does so effectively is to join up the dots. No longer can those working to save the rain forests be indifferent to the people of the favelas. No longer can the people of the favelas be unconcerned about the fate of the rain forests. Everything is connected. (Its an appropriate message especially for today, being the last of the Rogation Days, when traditionally interconnectedness is celebrated within communities.) 

Francis doesn’t crack a whip and demand specific solutions. He says, On many concrete questions, the Church has no reason to offer a definitive opinion #61 And it is his cautious and undogmatic approach that won for Laudato Si’ so much respect internationally. BanKimoon – the UN SecretaryGeneral – welcomed it on the day it was released, as did the President of the World Bank. In the scientific community, it was praised for embracing the moral dimensions of problems that had before been viewed purely as technological or economic. 

Stalin is famously said to have asked Churchill, derisively, How many divisions does the pope have? 

The implication being of course that world leaders could ignore the Vatican. But it is widely acknowledged that the influence of Laudato Si’ on bith the UN General Assembly’s ratification of the Sustainable Development Goals in September 2015 and the outcome of the Paris Climate Change Conference in December that year, was considerable if not pivotal.

Christiana Figueres, who steered through the Paris agreement, said that the case for climate change being the mother of all injustices was never put so beautifully or compellingly than by Laudato Si’.  But its hard sometimes to think that the teaching of LS is accepted more fully outside of the Catholic Church than within. So, the question has to be asked, why do Catholics hear so little about it from the pulpit? I think there are three reasons. 

First, although the teaching in the encyclical is very much a continuation of the past teaching of the Church, and although it contains quotations from the local teaching of 16 conferences of bishops in different parts of the world, it is not yet part of the DNA of the current generation of clergy. 

Secondly, it’s a very wide ranging document, and contains some phrases which –  at first sight – are forbidding: ecological conversion, technocratic paradigm, adequate anthropology.  You cant just skim read through these passages.  They need to be explained and they are explained within the letter itself, but it takes time to study it. 

And thirdly, may be weve taken our eye off the ball because of other headlines that have distracted us: the proposal to allow divorced Catholics to receive communion; the ordination of married men, and sadly, clerical sexual abuse and safeguarding failures. The attention given by the media to these has certainly hampered Catholic Christians in making their voices heard, following up the messages of Laudato Si’.  


So where do we stand in relation to Laudato Si’ 5 years on?

There is no question that the message of LS is even more urgent now than it was in 2015. We have had three years of America First and most recently President Trump’s undermining of the World Health Organisation; we’ve seen the continuing failure of the UN to bring peace in Syria and the end to the refugee crisis arising from that quarter; there have been it seems countless natural disasters, and direr warnings than ever from the IPCC: these confirm that the encyclical’s warnings about the impact of climate change were in no way exaggerated. 

And this year of course there’s the elephant in the room the pandemic, brought about by our manipulation of nature, a symptom of our sick planet; and with it not only the death toll, marching towards half a million worldwide, but also the toll in terms of economic hardship, once again hitting the poorest hardest. And bringing into focus both the ability of governments to find trillions of dollars when needed, and the crucial decisions about how those dollars are invested.  We cant allow ourselves to ruin the planet in order to create jobs: we must create jobs that help to conserve the planet. 

Never has international moral leadership been more needed. As the Archbishop of Hamburg has said, the problems that concern all can be solved only by all. Never has the message of LS that everything is connected been more in need of being made better known. 

We spiritual people have much to contribute. 

There are signs of hope._ Laudato Si’ Institutes have been set up in many universities throughout the world, Oxford included. 

The Global Catholic Climate Movement has been running a program of courses for the past four years, and this has involved 6,000 students from 73 countries to date. 

In this country, the Bishops Conference has released a series of Global Healing and Global Caring films on YouTube; 

in nearly every diocese there are parishes with groups working towards obtaining a CAFOD LiveSimply award –  similar to A Rocha’s ecochurch award.

Many parishes are including an extract from Laudato Si’ in teir weekly newsletters 


So, what are we asked to do? 

First, we ourselves have to undergo our own personal ecological conversion. It entails the recognition of our errors, sins, faults and failures, and leads to heartfelt repentance and desire to change. #218 

A change of lifestyle is needed. We need to become leaders in modesty. For instance, Purchasing is always a moral – _and not simply economic – _act, Francis quotes #206. 

Yet personal conversion is not enough. Social problems must be addressed by community networks and not simply by the sum of individual good deeds. #219 

And chapter 5 is devoted to nearly 40 paragraphs which try to outline the major paths of dialogue which can help us escape the spiral of selfdestruction which currently engulfs us. #163 

However much LS mourns the destruction of Creation and the plight of the poor, Francis never yields to despair: An authentic humanity… _seems to dwell in the midst of our technological culture, almost unnoticed, like a mist seeping gently beneath a closed door. #112 

I’m going to end by quoting the words of a possible successor of Francis, the Philipino Cardinal Tagle: in LS, he says, We are called to free ourselves from all that is heavy and negative and wasteful and to enter into dialogue with our global family. 

Martin Davis, Convener, Cheltenham Green Christian 



Some Laudato Si’ resources 

The encyclical’s text in English

audio format: 

YouTube explaining Laudato Si’ by Fr Dan Horan

Global Healing and Global Caring videos: 

Laudato Si’ Week Prayer

Conversation with Christiana Figueres and Fr. Augusto ZampiniDavies on "Laudato Si' at 5: As Prophetic and Relevant As Ever":