Laudato si’: The Catholic approach to climate change

Laudato si’ and climate change

            Climate change is, not surprisingly, the most controversial and politically charged issue in Laudato si’. It has been a source of heated debate and confusion especially in the American context. In this essay I will outline everything the encyclical Laudato si’ says on climate change and then compare and contrast with the latest scientific, technical and academic knowledge. For the sake of clarity, I will distinguish and analyze the statements on climate change under three divisions: science, policy, and politics and economics. These are artificial divisions since these issues are all interrelated, as the encyclical itself indicates, but they serve our analytical purposes.

[Note: I encourage the reader to glance at my two previous articles on Laudato si’ about hermeneutics and its proper interpretation, so that I am not misinterpreted on climate change, as I believe the Pope has been in many cases).


Let me begin with a thought provoking – and provocative – quote that I believe gets at the heart of the debate on climate change: “Isn’t it a question of everything or nothing? To be quite frank, the Either-Or people seldom appear to practice their own severity. Their uncompromising attitude looks suspiciously like rhetoric.”

These are the words of Romano Guardini, the most quoted author in Laudato si’ and the Pope’s great inspiration for understanding the relationship between man and creation. However, these words are not from Guardini’s well-known critiques of modernity but rather from his more famous spiritual work, The Lord. The context of this passage is the Sermon on the Mount. Guardini is reflecting on Jesus’ demand to love ones enemies and on how difficult it is to fulfill this in practice. Faced with such a challenge, Guardini proposes taking small steps in the right direction. The quote above is the objection of the Either-Or people to Guardini’s solution: “But isn’t it a question of everything or nothing?”

Guardini then responds to his critics: “No, what the Sermon on the Mount demands is not everything or nothing, but a beginning and a continuing, a rising again and a plodding on after every fall”. My suggestion is that the path forward on climate change requires the same path that Guardini paves for the Sermon on the Mount – a genuinely Christian one. And this is exactly what Pope Francis has given us in Laudato si’. Let me explain.

            This curious parallel between climate change and the spiritual life is not original. The best book on climate change, by climate scientist Mike Hulme called “Why we disagree about climate change?”, makes this very point. Hulme argues that climate change is a very real threat but that to find a solution to this issue we need to explore how climate change can “bring the physical and the cultural, the material and spiritual, into a new realignment… a mirror into which we can look and see exposed both our individual selves and our collective societies” (2009, 357). This is also the central message of Laudato si’ with regards to climate change – a new realignment is needed: “the present ecological crisis is one small sign of the ethical, cultural and spiritual crisis of modernity…” for which we need “ecological conversion… whereby the effects of their encounter with Jesus Christ become evident in their relationship with the world around them” (218).

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How to read Laudato Si: intention, structure, form and content

Catholics who do not embrace the spirit of Evangelii gaudium will likely be confused by Laudato Si

            In my previous article I already pointed out the 3 salient aspects of Laudato Si: its prophetic style, invitation to conversion and Trinitarian theology. I was going to technically discuss climate change in Laudato si’ vis-à-vis the latest policy and science on the issue. But before I do that, now I find a more urgent need to explain the way one should read Laudato si’, given the amount of perplexed and negative responses (mostly by Catholics) in the media.

I find many of these reactions quite embarrassing for so many who call themselves ‘sons and daughters of the Church’; not primarily because they dissent from the Pope, but because of the (poor) reasons they give for doing so. There are many non-Christians who are able to read and interpret Laduato si’ in a much more open, nuanced and sophisticated way, in the same spirit in which it was written.

My central thesis in this article is that, for Catholics, embracing the spirit of evangelization as expressed in Evangelii gaudium is a prerequisite for understanding Laudato si’. Most Catholics who oppose Ladudato si’ do so because they have a very limited idea what it means to evangelize.

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Why Are We Ecologists? by Pablo Martinez de Anguita

The last two posts addressed the problem of “nature deficit disorder” and how participation in outdoor education and nature activities can facilitate an interest and appreciation for God’s creation. A next step from that appreciation is to develop a stewards contemplation for action often called being an “ecologist”.  Here is where our faith can provide the meaning and impetus for understanding the mystery of creation and why we have a role in it.

An infinite attraction

Fighting to preserve an ecosystem is hard. Cold, rain, little pay, isolation….Nevertheless, most of the ecologists continue to be attached to the beauty they find in preserving nature. Many of us seem to be attached to this “life” and in somehow have the intuition that there is a deep meaning in the things we do, a meaning that is not just provided by the utility of things or by nature as a provider of goods and services. There is something else, an attraction for beauty and order that we are not able to explain but to admire and wonder…

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Bridging the Chasm Between a Two Dimensional Existence to a Three Dimensional Life by Sandy Harem

In our last post (Nature Deficit Disorder and Stewardship: Crisis in Creation), the problem of nature deficit and exercise deficit disorders and their relationship to a lack of a stewardship ethic was discussed concluding with the notion that faith based outdoor education can be viewed as a solution. Given that, what is that outdoor educational perspective that can make it a solution?

dscn8247On a recent night hike in the mountains with students from a local Catholic school, I witnessed a very important conversation.  The student in front of me to his friend said, “So, what if Freddy Krueger is out here?”  His friends response was crucial to our times, “That is not real and this is, God is real and that tree that you are about to walk into is real.”  Besides making me laugh, this conversation is a poignant statement of a culture mired in a two dimensional world disconnected from
authentic relationship and starved of the concept of stewardship.

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Nature Deficit Disorder and Stewardship: Crisis in Creation by Tom Collingwood

In the last post (Catechesis on Creation) an outline was provided for a series of articles on the need for addressing what should be our faith response to the various environmental crises. Any such discussion must begin with looking at our human role as stewards and what keeps us from meeting that responsibility. Richard Louv in his book Last Child in the Woods coined the term “nature deficit disorder” to express the state of disconnection between all of us but especially youth from nature and creation. It is an alienation and detachment from nature that leads to a reduced appreciation of the environment with additional human costs such as diminished use of senses, attention difficulties and higher rates of physical and emotional problems. It can also lead to the lack of a stewardship ethic and lifestyle for many.

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Pope Francis and Evolution

The media uproar about Francis liberating the Church from creationism and sanctioning evolution has already passed and gone, but the idea has stuck. It doesn’t take a genius to understand that the Church has always taught what Francis said… even Time and the Washington Post got it right, with good articles.

What is interesting to me though, is the fact that Francis is able to get the message out. As distorted as the media narrative may be about Francis revolutionizing Church teaching, the point is that now most people care about what the Pope says. Continue reading

Catechesis of Creation – Guest Post: Tom Collingwood


The current debates over environmental issues too often provide little in the way of a faith perspective for understanding and acting to address those issues. CREATIO is initiating with this introductory article a “Crisis in Creation” series to present a Catholic ethic for viewing nature.

CREATIO associates are a wide range of professionals from climatologists, theologians, clergy, outdoor educators, naturalists, biologists, farmers, physiologists and psychologists that reflect a diverse range of information pertaining to creation. We all have a common denominator in that, as Christians we seek the truth about environmental issues and practical actions to care for God’s creation. Most recently we delivered a symposium at the 2013 World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro on “Jesus and Nature”. As a follow up to that conference it was concluded that there was a need for an information dissemination vehicle to provide regular articles on a faith based ethic for the environment. Continue reading

Papal Encyclical on Human Ecology

The rumors about a new encyclical dedicated to the environment were leaked a while ago. Articles can be seen here, here and here. While Vatican insider Andrea Torniele broke the news, the official News.Va site said the following:

 The Director of the Holy See Press Office, Father Federico Lombardi, S.J., confirmed on Friday that Pope Francis has begun work on a draft text on the topic of ecology, which could become an encyclical. But, Father Lombardi said, the project is in an early stage, so it is too early to make any prediction about the timing of possible publication.
Father Lombardi said it is important to note that Pope Francis intends to put particular emphasis on the theme of “human ecology,” a phrase used by Pope Benedict to describe not only how people must defend and respect nature but how the nature of the person – masculine and feminine as created by God – must also be defended.

This is not surprising considering Francis’ many comments and speeches about the environment (see examples here, here and here) and the continuity of ecology in the Magisterium of Benedict XVI and Pope John Paul II. However, until this point no single encyclical has dealt with ecology as the central theme- and this is a huge step, crystalizing into a Magisterial response what Pope Benedict XVI identified as a “sign of the times” – the care for creation.

What Pope Francis will say exactly only a few people probably know. We can guess that he will connect ecology with poverty and solidarity, the culture of waste, the value of life and need for conversion and mercy… themes he often speaks about. Here, Creatio offers a few suggestions of important themes such a momentous encyclical should also include:

1. Ecology, Human ecology and holiness

            The ecology of nature and human ecology are deeply intertwined. Not only injustice and abuse in one affects the other[1], but the response of humankind very closely decides the fate of the creation we so much love and care for. Along with care for the natural environment, we also have to care for a “human ecology” that provides the space for the dignity and fulfillment of the human person and the good life for all according to God’s plan.[2] Following Vatican II, both the social and ecological problems rest in the heart of man: “The truth is that the imbalances under which the modern world labors are linked with that more basic imbalance which is rooted in the heart of man.”[3] It is in our hearts, each one’s heart, where the fate of mankind and of creation is decided. Jesus Christ gives us back our heart so we can love and serve (see Ez 36, 26). The environment suffers because the human person and society suffer. Every time we choose evil and sin, we are harming the little ones; creation and especially our vulnerable brothers and sisters. Human ecology shows that the best environmentalist is the saint, who loves in the image of Jesus Christ.


2. Reconciliation and Ecology

The theology of reconciliation helps Christians understand the human relationship with creation. Ecology and human ecology, all of reality, have as their foundation a Trinitarian dimension that impresses its relational dynamic of love. The anthropological consequence of the Trinity is the human being made for relationship and encounter at his deepest core. Relationship and love are what fulfills man; this has been broken by original sin and our own sins. We therefore are called to reconciliation at four fundamental levels, in order of importance, as outlined in Pope John Paul II’s encyclical Reconciliatio et paenitentia: “four reconciliations which repair the four fundamental rifts; reconciliation of man with God, with self, with the brethren and with the whole of creation.”[4] This reconciliatory perspective lends itself to exploring the “culture of encounter” (so often repeated by Pope Francis and the CELAM document of Aparecida) for the environment and our relationship with it. The answer to a “culture of waste” is the “culture of encounter”, of giving and of charity.


3. Christocentrism

           This leads to a way of encounter as a positive response to ecological challenges. Inspired by anthropological pessimism, the environmental landscape of ideas is often littered with moralistic and conflictive approaches that often emphasize the negative aspects of our relationship and impact on nature, resulting in a “grave assault not only on nature, but also on human dignity itself.”[5] The Catholic faith rather than limit and place conditions on human interaction looks to an overabundance of relationship with creation in love, as expressed magnificently by St. Paul: “For all things are yours, and you are Christ’s; and Christ is God’s” (1 Cor 21.23). All things belong to man, in full conformity with the biblical account of Genesis; but mankind understood in a distinctive Christological way. It is because man is made for God (CCC 27.45.356), called to live in the image of Christ (GS 22), that all things belong to him. A theologal anthropocentrism, or christocentrism, which affirms the unique dignity of man as the center of creation and whose distinctive trait is the relationship with God, is able to harmonize the “superior role of human beings”[6] with the responsibility to serve creation.


4. Power is service

            Biblical scholarship helps understand today’s environmental challenges. God’s command for man to ‘subdue’ and ‘lord’ over creation in the book of Genesis (see Gn 1), is within our sharing in the kingly mission of Christ[7], and so, profoundly Christological. Likewise is our duty to order society according to a human ecology. To criticize Christianity for promoting the abuse of creation or our fellow men is to misunderstand the meaning Jesus has given to power and authority: “the exercise of authority is service: we must never forget that true power, at any level, is service, whose bright summit is upon the Cross. John Paul II said “dominion granted to man by the Creator is not an absolute power, nor can one speak of a freedom to “use and misuse,” or to dispose of things as one pleases.”[8] Benedict XVI reminded that although man frequently equates authority with control, dominion, success, for God authority is always synonymous with service, humility, love; as Jesus who kneels to wash the Apostles’ feet (cf. Angelus, 29 January 2012), and says to his disciples: “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them… It shall not be so among you.”[9] Abuse to both the natural and human ecology comes from revering the power of exercising reason and freedom without reference to what is good and true;[10] this is not Christianity but its corruption and betrayal.


5. Charity, Solidarity and Human Ecology

            Human ecology is the healthy environment conducive to authentic human fulfillment.[11] Charity in truth is the force that leads to human development and fulfillment as well as to the healthy ordering of society through justice and the common good,[12] fostering a human ecology. Being a common space, human ecology requires the existence of a public space and language for the community of peoples and states to reflect and debate what is truly right and just; drawing from nature, conscience and reason to seek in common the defense of human rights, peace and justice.[13] Human ecology also requires that family, work, architecture, urbanism, lifestyles and all of culture respond to authentic human nature. A human economy must not be ruled by greed or consumerism, but use its wealth and resources in solidarity, among people and nations, so the world’s population can satisfy its needs and live in dignity. Responsible stewardship over nature must ensure its protection and the sustainability of the entire human family now and in the future.[14]

Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI emphasized the need for a change of lifestyle. Solidarity, suffering with others, using and having less in order to give more to others. Solidarity should be a guiding principle upon engaging specific environmental problems. In the complex and multivariate issue of climate change, solidarity privileges approaches that emphasize adaptation, that is helping vulnerable communities and even ecosystems who are at risk, rather than first investing in technological or long term economic solutions that disregard the immediate needs of the poor. In this regards, it is important that the encyclical engage specific ecological issues such as climate change, water availability, food, biodiversity, energy, resources extraction and economics, pollution, etc. However, we caution the Magisterium to use prudential judgment and to be careful in use of information available from experts, the media and academics. Many environmental issues are used as a screen for projecting particular ideologies and perspectives that the Church should be cautious about endorsing. In climate change for example, there is an important need for recognizing the reality of the situation while not amplifying the apocalyptic prophecies of the academic elite. Nonetheless, the Church must not shy away from engaging these topics specifically. Precise knowledge, wording and careful language will be crucial on these controversial issues.


6. Ecology, Human Ecology and evangelization

            Finally, the interest among modern culture, and especially the youth, on issues of ecology and human ecology can be a great avenue to encounter Jesus Christ. Pope Benedict XVI alerted: “And in this we must take care to perceive the signs of the times in our epoch, namely, to identify the potentials, aspirations and obstacles we encounter in today’s culture and in particular the wish for authenticity, the yearning for transcendence, and concern to safeguard Creation and to communicate fearlessly the response that faith in God offers.”[15] Reflection, experience and action in nature can point any person, believers and non-believers alike, to authentic transcendence itself, the Creator of the world. Human ecology can also help to evangelize culture by framing urgent social issues, such as those related to the family or to sustainable development, in an appealing way, with an objective reference to nature and in the context of the common good.

This invites Catholics to evangelize and reach those who are on the peripheries: “we cannot forget that evangelization is first and foremost about preaching the Gospel to those who do not know Jesus Christ or who have always rejected him. Many of them are quietly seeking God, led by a yearning to see his face, even in countries of ancient Christian tradition.”[16] Experiences in nature and beauty can provide opportunities for responding to “missionary activity [which] still represents the greatest challenge for the Church.”[17] Since we “cannot passively and calmly wait in our church buildings”[18], by living a human ecology in communion with creation we can literally move into the streets, fields and forests.


[1] Centesimus annus 37; World Day of Peace 2007, 8; Caritas in veritate, 51; World Day of Peace 2010, 11.

[2] Centesimus annus 38; Evangelium Vitae, 42.

[3] Gaudium et spes, 10.

[4] Pope John Paul II, Reconciliatio et paenitentia, 26.

[5]Benedict XVI, Message for the World Day of Peace 2010, 13.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Christifideles laici, 14.

[8] Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, 34

[9](Pope Francis, Address to the International Union of Superiors General, 8 May 2013).

[10] Leo XIII, Libertas, 15; Centesimus annus, 4.

[11] Centesimus annus, 38.

[12] Caritas in veritate, 1, 2, 6, 7.

[13]Benedict XVI, Address to German Parliament, Sept. 2011.

[14] Caritas in veritate, 50, 51.

[15]Benedict XVI, Catechesis, 28 Nov. 2012.

[16]Pope Francis, Evangelii gaudium 15.

[17]Redemptoris Missio, 40.

[18]Aparecida Document, 548.

Faith, The Bridge Between God´s Creatures and their Participation in the Understanding of the Greater Meaning of the Creation.

This post is part of the conference  about  “Jesus and Nature: Catholic Perspectives on Environmental Issues”, presented in Rio from July 22-24 for WYD.  Thank you to  Dr. José Duarte de Barros Filho for this  valuable  contribution.

Biology and Faith are two marvelous aspects of the majesty, wisdom and love of God

Biology and Faith are two marvelous aspects of the majesty, wisdom and love of God

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Pope Francis: Peace and Creation

Yesterday, Pope Francis called all Catholics and people of good will for a historic peace Vigil. The event was a huge success, with over 1000, 000 people attending in St. Peter’s Square in Rome, and hundreds of thousands more around the world, making news among the secular and Catholic media alike.

Relevant to the environment, however, is what he said during the Vigil, remembering Pope Benedict XVI’s landmark environmental speech in January 2010 “IF YOU WANT TO CULTIVATE PEACE, PROTECT CREATION”. In fact, both of the most important speeches from Pope’s have been delivered in the context of the World Day of Peace delivered on January first, read here and here.  This is how Pope Francis began the Vigil for Peace yesterday,

“And God saw that it was good” (Gen 1:12, 18, 21, 25). The biblical account of the beginning of the history of the world and of humanity speaks to us of a God who looks at creation, in a sense contemplating it, and declares: “It is good”.  This, dear brothers and sisters, allows us to enter into God’s heart and, precisely from within him, to receive his message.

We can ask ourselves: what does this message mean? What does it say to me, to you, to all of us?

1. It says to us simply that this, our world, in the heart and mind of God, is the “house of harmony and peace”, and that it is the space in which everyone is able to find their proper place and feel “at home”, because it is “good”.  All of creation forms a harmonious and good unity, but above all humanity, made in the image and likeness of God, is one family, in which relationships are marked by a true fraternity not only in words: the other person is a brother or sister to love, and our relationship with God, who is love, fidelity and goodness, mirrors every human relationship and brings harmony to the whole of creation.  God’s world is a world where everyone feels responsible for the other, for the good of the other.  This evening, in reflection, fasting and prayer, each of us deep down should ask ourselves: Is this really the world that I desire?  Is this really the world that we all carry in our hearts?  Is the world that we want really a world of harmony and peace, in ourselves, in our relations with others, in families, in cities, in and betweennations?  And does not true freedom mean choosing ways in this world that lead to the good of all and are guided by love?

2. But then we wonder: Is this the world in which we are living?  Creation retains its beauty which fills us with awe and it remains a good work.  But there is also “violence, division, disagreement, war”.  This occurs when man, the summit of creation, stops contemplating beauty and goodness, and withdraws into his own selfishness.

When man thinks only of himself, of his own interests and places himself in the centre, when he permits himself to be captivated by the idols of dominion and power, when he puts himself in God’s place, then all relationships are broken and everything is ruined; then the door opens to violence, indifference, and conflict.  This is precisely what the passage in the Book of Genesis seeks to teach us in the story of the Fall: man enters into conflict with himself, he realizes that he is naked and he hides himself because he is afraid (cf. Gen 3: 10), he is afraid of God’s glance; he accuses the woman, she who is flesh of his flesh (cf. v. 12); he breaks harmony with creation, he begins to raise his hand against his brother to kill him.  Can we say that from harmony he passes to “disharmony”?  No, there is no such thing as “disharmony”; there is either harmony or we fall into chaos, where there is violence, argument, conflict, fear ….

It is exactly in this chaos that God asks man’s conscience: “Where is Abel your brother?” and Cain responds: “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?” (Gen 4:9).  We too are asked this question, it would be good for us to ask ourselves as well: Am I really my brother’s keeper?  Yes, you are your brother’s keeper!..

The structure of Creation, its goodness emphasized here, speaks of God’s will. The focus on harmony and goodness, and beauty is an excellent exegesis of the genesis account which uses the Greek word ‘kalos’ that has all of these meanings. This speech is also a wonderful explanation of the theology of reconciliation, and how breaking harmony  with creation leads to other profound ruptures in the world and within mankind. 

Finally, in another recent speech  to the youth the Pope spoke of the inner structure of man, especially the youth, speaking of the 3 transcendentals: beauty, goodness and truth. He encouraged the youth to be faithful to those longings.

Firstly because inside you, you have three desires: the desire for beauty. You like beauty and when you make music, produce theatre, and paint — beautiful things — you are looking for beauty, you are searching for beauty. Now secondly: you are prophets of goodness. You like goodness and being good. And this goodness is contagious, it helps everyone else. And now third: you thirst for the truth. Seek the truth. “But, Father, I possess the truth!”. You are wrong because you cannot possess truth, we cannot carry it, we must encounter it. It is an encounter with the truth that is God, that we must search for. These three desires that you have in your heart, you must carry forward to the future and make the future beautiful with goodness and truth. Have you understood? This is a challenge; it is your challenge. But if you are lazy, if you are sad — a sad young person is not nice — if you are sad… well, this beauty will not be beauty, this goodness will not be goodness and this truth will be something else…. Think about this carefully: putting your stakes on the great ideals, the ideal of making a world of goodness, beauty and truth. You can do this, you have the power to do it. If you do not do it, it is because of laziness. I wanted to tell you this, this is what I wanted say to you.