While Pope Francis has, by and large, been a uniting figure among every creed and culture since assuming the office of the papacy in 2013, he recently drew the criticism of two unlikely sources simultaneously: politically conservative Catholics, and politically liberal Catholics. With the release of his anticipated encyclical letter Laudato Si, “On Care for Our Common Home,” Francis outlines the Christian – indeed, human – responsibility to care for the environment. In so doing, he points to the centrality of human dignity, decrying the widespread abuse of the environment as an injustice to the poor, while also condemning the notion that control of human procreation is somehow a solution to the growing problems that face creation.
Consequently, Pope Francis managed to miff both the Catholics who cannot fathom that their personal political ascriptions on environmental responsibility may actually be at odds with Church teaching and the Catholics who have selectively chosen not to heed Catholic teaching on human Life (namely, Saint John Paul II’s Evangelium Vitae). Ironically, statements from both sides indicate (by their lack of proper context) that many commentators have failed to actually read Pope Francis’ encyclical letter before setting condemnatory pen to paper.
Evidently, in releasing a teaching on care for the environment, many people expected Pope Francis to toe a factional line rather than to reaffirm the long-standing sentiments of his predecessor pontiffs – all of whom merged seamlessly at the same conclusion: Everything in creation, as a handiwork of God, is fundamentally good, and as such deserves the respect proper to its nature. In paragraph 69, Pope Francis writes: “Together with our obligation to use the earth’s good responsibly, we are called to recognize that other living beings have a value of their own in God’s eyes: ‘by their mere existence they bless him and give him glory.’” To this end, Francis imbued the entire letter with the overt applications of Catholic teaching on Life, confounding those who inexplicably expected him to do otherwise.
For example, Pope Francis places heavy emphasis on the lack of awareness many people have of the poor, and the unacceptable effects that irresponsibility has. He insists that we cannot “neglect parts of reality” by culpably ignoring the effects of our actions on certain humans: “At times this attitude exists side by side with a ‘green’ rhetoric,” he writes. He further states:
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.
Pope Francis insists that humans can never be thought of as “an afterthought” or treated as “collateral damage.”
Pope Francis then draws a poignant contrast between the slippery slope of viewing any element of God’s creation –especially humans – as commodities (as we see so often, for example, in the commoditization of human Life for reproductive technologies). Pope Francis condemns businesses that ravage environments for resources with no concern for the human effect of such action:
Generally, after ceasing their activity and withdrawing, they leave behind great human and environmental liabilities such as unemployment, abandoned towns, the depletion of natural reserves, deforestation, the impoverishment of agriculture and local stock breeding, open pits, riven hills, polluted rivers and a handful of social works which are no longer sustainable.
Clearly, in light of his integral defense of the poor, Pope Francis’ concern for human Life is paramount in his admonitions on irresponsible environmental activity. He states repeatedly that solutions to the ecological crises facing the earth can in no way be predicated on the idea that human Life is a problem, or population growth is ‘out of control.’ On the contrary, once again, Pope Francis’ approach integrates all of creation, highlighting the unique value of the human person, founded on man’s ability to come into personal relationship with God. Lest there remain any question of Pope Francis’ departure from the mainstream environmental movement in Laudato Si, we need only look at his categorical rejection of population control:
Instead of resolving the problems of the poor and thinking of how the world can be different, some can only propose a reduction in the birth rate. At times, developing countries face forms of international pressure which make economic assistance contingent on certain policies of “reproductive health”. Yet “while it is true that an unequal distribution of the population and of available resources creates obstacles to development and a sustainable use of the environment, it must nonetheless be recognized that demographic growth is fully compatible with an integral and shared development.”
Here, Pope Francis is condemning the tendency of groups and governments offering “aid” to countries in poverty to suggest (or even insist) that citizens assume a population control regimen in order to be eligible for assistance in pursuing the most basic human necessities. He calls the attitude which views human Life as problematic a “serious detriment [to]the world around us.”
Pope Francis is not an environmentalist a la Al Gore. Nor is he, conversely, an American Libertarian. Pope Francis is a Catholic prelate echoing the timeless principles of the Judeo-Christian worldview while delineating their relationship to modernity. For that very reason, the fundamentals of Laudato Si are profoundly Pro-Life.