The letter addresses environmental deterioration: the destruction of Sister Earth, our common home. The Pope’s plea is for the whole human family to come together at this key moment in our history to seek sustainable development across the earth.
His letter describes an accelerating process of decay. We see pollution on a massive scale; climate change which threatens to change life on earth for ever, acute water shortages, the loss of biodiversity.
There are the clear and present dangers for human life and the breakdown of human society. All of these changes disproportionately affect the poorest nations. The poor should be at the heart of our concern for the environment and the two cannot be separated.
The world faces immense problems rooted in the misuse of the earth: “Never have we so hurt and mistreated our common home as we have in the last 200 years.” And yet: “It is remarkable how weak international political responses have been.” The letter is a wake up call to a complacent world.
Chapter Two is mainly for Christians. It sets out a clear and detailed basis for the Church to renew her commitment to the earth rooted in Scripture and the doctrine of creation: “The entire material universe speaks to us of God’s love, his boundless affection for us. Soil, water, mountains: everything is, as it were, a caress of God.”
Chapter Three explores the human roots of the ecological crisis. This is where the letter becomes far more than a call to recycle or reduce our carbon footprint. The abuse of Sister Earth is linked in a profound way to our way of understanding human life and activity. Our technical prowess has brought us to a crossroads. We have placed ourselves at the centre of the universe, as masters of creation and failed to understand in a profound way what life is for. A better and more profound understanding is needed. At its heart is the concept of the inter-connectedness of life caught by the phrase “an integral ecology”. We are not isolated individuals but part of the larger universe and in a particular place within it.
In Chapter Four, Francis explores environmental, economic and social ecology, cultural ecology and the ecology of daily life. These three central chapters on the theology of the environment, on the roots of the crisis in our misunderstanding of what it means to be human are immensely rich and creative.
The quotation which best sums up these chapters is from Benedict XVI: “The external deserts in the world are growing because the internal deserts have become so vast.” Environmental degradation is a consequence of the human condition, not an accident of it.
In Chapter Five, Francis turns to lines of approach and action. He highlights the importance of dialogue on the environment in the international community and the forthcoming Climate Change conference in Paris.
But he also shows the importance of local dialogues and local politics and the call to bring economics, law, science and religions into the conversation at every level.
In the sixth and final chapter, the letter turns to what we ourselves can do. “A great cultural, spiritual and educational challenge stands before us and it will demand that we set out on the long path of renewal.” We are to be partners not observers in this conversation.
Lifestyle is key as we each learn to live sustainable lives. Education is vital in schools, homes and seminaries. Francis coins and uses the term “ecological conversion”: part of Christian discipleship is recovering our responsibility to the earth: “Living our vocation to be protectors of God’s handiwork is essential to the life of virtue; it is not an optional or secondary aspect of our Christian experience.”
But individual action is not enough. Love must lead us to political action as well, to act in hope to reform our stewardship of the earth.
Laudato Si is a profound and helpful document and I commend it. Last week the Archbishops and other faith leaders signed a renewed Lambeth Declaration calling for all people of faith to recommit themselves to the care of the earth and action on climate change. On Wednesday of last week, 10,000 people took part in a mass lobby of Parliament organised by the Climate Change Coalition (which includes our own Hope for the Future campaign).
Care for the environment is one of the major issues of our age. How will you engage with all that it means and help your church, your parish, your school, your local council and your Government do the same?
Steven Croft is the Bishop of Sheffield.