I may not, strictly speaking, count myself one of your ‘flock’. Nevertheless, I thought I would write a response to your recent Encyclical Letter, Laudato Si’. I do this for three reasons: first, because you have addressed this Encyclical not just to members of the Roman Catholic Church, but to ‘every living person on the planet’; second, because the issues you touch on in your Encyclical are so crucial to the wellbeing, hope and survival of our planet – as you put it, we need to ‘acknowledge the appeal, immensity and urgency of the challenge we face’; and finally, because I see, in the clear links you make between care for creation, social justice, and personal spirituality and lifestyle, a strong resonance with my own journey of discovery.
There will be many, no doubt, who will feel that you have not gone far enough in decrying the rank injustices of those individuals and corporations who choose to exploit the planet and their fellow creatures, or the silent apathy of citizens and governments who, in doing nothing, choose to deny the urgency of the plight we face. Others, already, have criticised you for going too far, for interfering with science and politics, rather than keeping your missives for the private worlds of so-called religion.
In the pages of your pastoral letter I think you have achieved a thoughtful and balanced exposition of the threats we face, some of the deep underlying issues that are contributing to these, and some very practical suggestions of steps we could take (both as individuals and as a global community) to tackling these.
In your letter you set out clearly the strong links between the natural and human environments; between creation care and social justice: ‘The human environment and the natural environment deteriorate together; we cannot adequately combat environmental degradation unless we attend to causes related to human and social degradation. In fact the deterioration of the environment and of society affects the most vulnerable people on the planet’ (48). And, again,
Today, however, we have to realize that a true ecological approach always becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor (49).
This seems to me a fresh, prophetic cry. And perhaps that is why, like so many prophets before, your words are criticised or pushed to one side. I wonder whether I, too, in buying in to our technological, consumerist culture – a culture from which I benefit – have closed my ears to the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor: ‘Superficially, apart from a few obvious signs of pollution and deterioration, things do not look that serious, and the planet could continue as it is for some time. Such evasiveness serves as a licence to carrying on with our present lifestyles and models of production and consumption. This is the way human beings contrive to feed their self-destructive vices: trying not to see them, trying not to acknowledge them, delaying the important decisions and pretending that nothing will happen’ (59).
So I want to thank you for setting this link out so clearly in your letter, and for your challenge to do something about it: not through some naïve belief that ‘ecological problems will solve themselves simply with the application of new technology and without any need for ethical considerations or deep change’ (60), but rather through a change of heart, one that stems from a renewed and redeemed anthropology. If I have understood you correctly, you are arguing for a middle way between, on the one hand, a ‘misguided anthropocentrism’ which puts humankind on some kind of a pedestal above the rest of the created order, and, on the other, a bland universalism that views the human person ‘as simply one being among others, the product of chance or physical determinism’ (118). The former view allows us to exploit and use the planet to satisfy our own ends, oblivious to the impact we are having either on the planet itself, or on our fellow humans; the other deprives us of any responsibility to care for our neighbours (human or other). In this, I like the way you expound a Biblical view of humankind, created in God’s image, with the privilege and responsibility to ‘till’ (to cultivate, work, benefit from the bounty of) and to ‘keep’ (to care, protect, oversee and preserve) the ‘garden of the world’ (67): ‘our “dominion” over the universe should be understood more properly in the sense of responsible stewardship’ (116).
So what will I take from your Enclyclical and try, in my halting way to incorporate into my own life?
First, the vital importance of speaking out for justice and care for creation. I know that my own busyness, comfort and apathy too often keep me from advocating on behalf of the poor or vulnerable. I know there is much more I could do to speak out against those who view nature solely as a source of profit and gain. You challenge us to be ‘particularly indignant at the enormous inequalities in our midst, whereby we continue to tolerate some considering themselves more worthy than others. We fail to see that some are mired in desperate and degrading poverty, with no way out, while others have not the faintest idea of what to do with their possessions, vainly showing off their supposed superiority and leaving behind them so much waste which, if it were the case everywhere, would destroy the planet. In practice, we continue to tolerate that some consider themselves more human than others, as if they had been born with greater rights’ (90).
As you point out, ‘completely at odds with this model are the ideals of harmony, justice, fraternity and peace as proposed by Jesus’ (82). You call strongly for a renewed emphasis on the notion of ‘the common good’, setting this clearly in the context of care for the most vulnerable: ‘In the present condition of global society, where injustices abound and growing numbers of people are deprived of basic human rights and considered expendable, the principle of the common good immediately becomes, logically and inevitably, a summons to solidarity and a preferential option for the poorest of our brothers and sisters’ (158). I was interested to see that you extended this further to future generations:
The global economic crises have made painfully obvious the detrimental effects of disregarding our common destiny, which cannot exclude those who come after us. We can no longer speak of sustainable development apart from intergenerational solidarity. 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. Since the world has been given to us, we can no longer view reality in a purely utilitarian way, in which efficiency and productivity are entirely geared to our individual benefit. Intergenerational solidarity is not optional, but rather a basic question of justice, since the world we have received also belongs to those who will follow us (159).
Second, my own need for repentance. I was struck by the challenge of the New Zealand Bishops, cited in your Encyclical, when they asked ‘what the commandment “Thou shalt 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”’ (95). Do I, too, need to repent of my tacit acceptance, as one of the twenty percent, of this state of affairs?
Third, I will try to take a few more steps to change my lifestyle in a way that is commensurate with my beliefs; to work harder to refuse, reduce, reuse and recycle; to try and limit my consumption and fight against the disposable culture in which we live. You call for a spirituality that ‘proposes an alternative understanding of the quality of life, and encourages a prophetic and contemplative lifestyle, one capable of deep enjoyment free of the obsession with consumption’ and ‘a growth marked by moderation and the capacity to be happy with little… a return to that simplicity which allows us to stop and appreciate the small things, to be grateful for the opportunities which life affords us, to be spiritually detached from what we possess, and not to succumb to sadness for what we lack’ (222). I know that I don’t do that well, and there is so much more I could be doing. Perhaps I need others to hold me to account, to ask those hard questions of my own duplicity.
Fourth, I will attempt to slow down in my life. Although you don’t specify this, I think your Encyclical does point towards the violence done to creation and our neighbours through our frantic, time-driven lifestyles. These past few years have for me been a time of slowing down, of learning to attentive to the present moment, of appreciating the many blessings I have been given. Perhaps this is what you are getting at in grounding your letter so clearly in the life of St Francis, even in the title given to the Encyclical: Laudate si’, ‘Praise be to you, my Lord, through our Sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us, and who produces various fruit with coloured flowers and herbs’ In responding to this, I will strive to develop a greater sense of gratitude, an appreciation of the beauty around me, a recognition that ‘the world is God’s loving gift, and that we are called quietly to imitate his generosity in self-sacrifice and good works’ (220).
You speak in your letter of the ecological crisis being a ‘summons to profound interior conversion’ (217). You emphasise the importance of ‘an ecological spirituality grounded in the convictions of our faith, since the teachings of the Gospel have direct consequences for our way of thinking, feeling and living. More than in ideas or concepts as such, [you are] interested in how such a spirituality can motivate us to a more passionate concern for the protection of our world. A commitment this lofty cannot be sustained by doctrine alone, without a spirituality capable of inspiring us, without an “interior impulse which encourages, motivates, nourishes and gives meaning to our individual and communal activity”’ (216). I guess I still have a long way to go in this, but I pray that I will be given the grace to take what steps I can.
Thank you for your letter, dear Pope Francis. There is so much more in it that I haven’t touched on. Others may well take far more from it, and do more with it; still others will continue to criticise it and try to bury your call. But I will do my best to respond to what you have expressed: the cry of your heart; the cry of the earth, and the cry of the poor.
May God bless you.
 Encyclical Letter Laudato Si’ of the Holy Father Francis on care for our common home (24th May, 2015). http://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/encyclicals/documents/papa-francesco_20150524_enciclica-laudato-si.html
 Canticle of the Creatures, in Francis of Assisi: Early Documents, vol. 1, New York-London-Manila, 1999, 113-114.