A recent international voice that feeds into current debate in New Zealand about the environment, energy sources, climate change and water quality as well as economic inequality is the June 2015 encyclical of Pope Francis, entitled Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home. This document addresses the current ecological crisis and seeks to develop a spiritual and ethical attitude towards care of the environment and environmental justice.
What is an ‘encyclical’?
An ‘encyclical’, in its modern sense, is a peculiar literary genre. Essentially it is a letter, though a very long one, circulated by the pope to Catholics throughout the world, usually addressed also to ‘people of good will’, that is, to anyone willing to attend to its message on the basis of a common humanity. Encyclicals are concerned with beliefs, attitudes and ethics, but they draw on contemporary philosophy, social analysis, economics, scientific research and politics as well as on religious traditions. Such encyclicals are drafted by scholars and experts in the relevant fields but instigated by the pope and ultimately the pope takes responsibility for their thrust and content. As such they carry a good deal of mana throughout the world’s billion or so Catholics and beyond.
For a little over two hundred years, encyclicals have been increasingly used by popes to communicate with the Catholic world at large. More recently many of these encyclicals have been concerned with issues of peace and social justice. The first such was Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical Rerum novarum: On Capital and Labor which addressed the rise of laissez-faire capitalism and economic inequalities in European societies of the late 19th century. While a number of papal statements of various kinds since 1990 have addressed the human relationship to the environment, Laudato Si’ is the first encyclical to address the ecological crisis as a major focus and in a substantial way.
Papal encyclicals are almost always taken seriously throughout the Christian world and in international politics, but their deeper long term impact depends largely on their ‘reception’, that is, the extent to which local churches in all parts of the world demonstrate agreement and enthusiasm, or otherwise, for their message. Some encyclicals have simply disappeared into history quite quickly and have retained only some scholarly interest. This one already looks like it will have an important impact and provide strong motivation for people’s engagement in environmental and social justice issues.
A good deal of the immediate international interest in this encyclical has focused on climate change, presumably because of its potential influence on the United Nations Conference on Climate Change in Paris in November 2015. While the encyclical does take a strong stand on the human causes of climate change, it has a much broader perspective than just climate change.
The title of the encyclical is unusual. It is the first words of a canticle, commonly known as the Canticle of the Sun and attributed to St Francis of Assisi, a popular European saint (d.1226) ) who is known for both his commitment to a simple lifestyle and his empathic relationship with the natural world.
The encyclical begins by reviewing what it sees as the most troubling ecological issues of today: pollution and climate change, the depletion of natural resources especially water, the loss of biodiversity, the decline in the quality of human life and the breakdown of society, and global inequality.
A particular feature of this statement of issues is that it includes both social as well as environmental issues. One of the key principles of this encyclical is the insistence on the close interdependence between environmental and social issues. We can’t solve one kind without the other. A decline in the quality of human life and a decline in the quality of the natural world around us go together.
The call is then for an integral ecology which respects all the environmental, human, and social dimensions of the planet. An integral ecology is one in which we recognize one complex crisis which is both social and environmental and which requires an economics in service of a more integrating vision. It is one in which we respect not just the natural but also the historic, artistic and cultural patrimony which has shaped our cultural identity and sense of meaning; in which the quality of daily life is influenced by an ordered and beautiful environment; in which human ecology is inseparable from the principle of the common good; where the notion of the common good also extends to future generations.
The encyclical is strong on the human roots of the ecological crisis. We have developed powerful technologies but we do not yet have a spirituality and ethics capable of setting limits and teaching clear-minded self-restraint. Our inability to take up this challenge seriously has much to do with an ethical and cultural decline which has accompanied the deterioration of the environment. People today run the risk of rampant individualism, and many problems of society are connected with today’s self-centred culture of instant gratification.
This focus on human causes has provoked criticism from those who believe in the power of technology to solve our current problems and from those who believe in the long-term benefits of neo-liberal individualism. The encyclical’s comments on climate change in particular have incurred the wrath of climate change sceptics who regard climate change as a natural cycle not caused by human activity, and from the fossil fuel lobbies who advocate increased use of fossil fuels not only to maintain the lifestyles of the rich but also to overcome the plight of the poor.
Throughout the encyclical there are suggested solutions to this ecological crisis at various levels from international to individual. But above all the pope proposes the major paths of dialogue which can help us escape a spiral of self-destruction. He calls for dialogue in the international community and in national and local policies, dialogue and transparency in decision-making especially between politics and economics for human fulfilment, and dialogue between religions and science.
Our common home
The subtitle of the encyclical is ‘On Care for our Common Home’. In the past, religious arguments for preservation or sustainable use of Earth’s resources have often used the image of ‘stewardship’ to focus the key principles of an environment ethics. Human beings are not the owners of the natural world to exploit it for our own benefit, but merely the stewards under God, commissioned to care for the natural world. The image of the ‘steward’, which is essentially one of management, appears only briefly in Laudato Si’. Here the central image is not one of management but rather that of a common home, a planet which we occupy along with other beings in mutually supporting roles and responsibilities.
This is not a ‘business-as-usual’ document. It is not primarily an explanation or description of the current state of the planet, but a call to change. This ‘ecological conversion’ will need sensitivity to the covenant between humanity and environment, to the intimate relationship between the poor and the fragility of the planet. It requires a critique of paradigms and forms of power derived from technology such as individualism, unlimited progress, competition, consumerism, and the unregulated market. For New Zealand over-consumers, it calls not only our lifestyles into question but also asks who benefits from our economic policies, our scientific research, and our educational institutions.
 And of New Zealand interest we could note here the close connection between sustainability and equity already emphasized back in 2011 in the United Nations Development Programme’s Human Development Report 2011 under Helen Clark’s administration. http://hdr.undp.org/en/content/human-development-report-2011