Francis’ Visit and the Witness of the U.S. Church

Rich WoodThe weeks leading up to Pope Francis’ visit to the United States in September 2015 offer an extraordinary opportunity to see the Catholic Church at all levels in some of its best work for the world. Francis will be in Washington, DC, New York, and Philadelphia, but he will address each person and the local church in the U.S.  and around the world.

In Washington, DC, Francis will address an extraordinary joint session of Congress. Massive media attention will surely focus on how he applies Catholic teaching on economic inequality, racial exclusion, and the dignity of all human persons to an American society for whom those issues have been the focus of intense partisan battles and social divisions.

In New York he will speak at the United Nations. He is likely to share the heart of his recent encyclical, Laudato Si’, with its clarion call for greater international cooperation to address both economic exclusion and climate change, especially their impact on the poor.

In Philadelphia, at the World Meeting of Families, Francis is expected to focus on themes related to the upcoming Synod on the Family in October. This will offer a forum to address a broad range of issues that affect contemporary families—including all of the above.

In all these settings, much media hyperbole will stress Francis’ dynamic personality and global star status. For Catholics, this will be gratifying and inspiring—but will also shroud the consistency of Catholic social teaching across all these terrains: For almost 125 years, the highest teaching authorities of the universal Church have emphasized important themes—such as an economy at the service of human beings, human solidarity as a key Christian and human virtue, and the dignity of all persons at all moments and in all settings.  Key documents include, among others: Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum; the Gaudium et spes document of Vatican II, called for by John XXXIII and issued by Paul VI; John Paul II’s Laborem exercens and Solicitudo rei socialis; Benedict XVI’s Caritas en veritate; and Francis’ own Evangelii gaudium. Francis’ star power may get these messages across to a new generation—and he may apply the teaching with new insight to address new realities—but at the heart of his message will be long abiding truths.

To see this, U.S. Catholics need only look at the decades-long commitment of our bishops nationally, most recently via the work of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). For decades, its Department of Justice, Peace, and Human Development (JPHD) has done practical work inspired by precisely these teachings. Catholic Relief Services sponsors refugee relief and international economic development in some of the poorest places and most desperate humanitarian crises of our time.  The USCCB Department of Migration and Refugee Services protects the life and dignity of the human person by serving and advocating for refugees, asylees, migrants, unaccompanied children, and victims of human trafficking. The USCCB’s Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD) supports community organizing and economic development initiatives whereby poor communities are empowered to speak for their own needs and dignity, and in favor of greater racial inclusion, economic opportunity, and immigrant rights in American life.

In hundreds of local communities and dioceses throughout the United States, CCHD’s investment has enabled people to speak for their communities and in keeping with Catholic teaching. One national network of such groups, the PICO National Network, will be present in Philadelphia to help call attention to the above themes during Francis’ visit, and has developed study materials to help local parishes and faith-sharing groups to prepare for and reflect on the papal visit.

Precisely what Pope Francis will say to America will be revealed only when he steps on our shores. But his visit seems likely to spotlight how the Catholic Church works on multiple levels like no other human agency in the world: with deep roots in local communities and people’s concrete lives; guided by a coherent set of teachings about human life and meaning; driven by transcendent values and Gospel teachings; and capable of worldwide coordination under Spirit-inspired leadership.

Richard L. Wood is Professor of Sociology at the University of New Mexico and co-author of A Shared Future: Faith-Based Organizing for Racial Equity and Ethical Democracy (University of Chicago Press, 2015). He serves as a consultant to the USCCB Subcommittee on the Catholic Campaign for Human Development. 

Laudato Si’: Communities Respond

Anna CapizziNearly two months have passed since the release of Laudato Si’, and Pope Francis’ words continue to spark conversation, transform hearts and prompt action. Indeed, his words remind the Christian community: “Living our vocation to be protectors of God’s handiwork is essential to a life of virtue; it is not an optional or a secondary aspect of our Christian experience” (Laudato Si’, no. 217).

Our efforts to care for creation reflect our love for God and neighbor, and contribute to the common good, which is “the sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfillment more easily and more fully” (Gaudium et Spes, no. 26). Environmental problems are social problems, and “social problems must be addressed by community networks and not simply by the sum of individual good deeds” (Laudato Si’, no. 219). As individuals, our lifestyles and daily actions are significant and necessary, but as members of a community, we need to address environmental degradation at a broader scale to effect lasting change in our neighborhoods, towns, cities, and country.

The Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD) responds to Pope Francis’ invitation to create a sustainable, integral ecology by empowering grassroots organizations that give a voice to low-income people and help them to help themselves. Since 2013, CCHD has invested over $3.2 million in community organizations whose efforts further environmental justice across the United States. In the Laudato Si’, the pope praises local groups that enrich society through promoting the common good and defending the environment in natural and urban landscapes (no. 232). These community organizations are critical because the most vulnerable suffer the worst effects of environmental and societal degradation.

The Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition (NWBCCC) is an organization whose work illustrates the natural relationship between environmental stewardship and community building through local participation, inclusive decision-making processes, and leadership training. NWBCCC’s multi-pronged green jobs campaign retrofits homes and churches, decreases energy bills, and creates local, green contracting and jobs. The 176th Street Community Garden adds beauty to the neighborhood, supports composting and recycling projects, and allows community members to interact, learn and recreate.

The United Workers Association stands out as another spotlight example of the power of local communities to advocate for sound environmental policies that help create an “ecological culture.” The organization successfully led a campaign to stop what would have been the nation’s largest trash burning incinerator from being built less than a mile away from two schools. Community members are now in dialogue with the city and other stakeholders to phase out the current incinerator and explore green alternatives.

How are you responding to Pope Francis’ call to be a protector of God’s handiwork? The pope reminds us that “we must not think that these efforts are not going to change the world. They benefit society, often unbeknown to us, for they call forth a goodness which, albeit unseen, inevitably tends to spread” (no. 212). Is there a local community organization you can join (or even create) to promote the common good and build an integral ecology? To find a CCHD group, look on Poverty USA’s website. For more inspiration, read the Stories of Hope to learn of the good work being done by other CCHD funded organizations. And to start the conversation in your parish or local community, look at the discussion guide and other educational resources on the encyclical on the USCCB Environmental Justice Program website.

Anna Capizzi is an intern with the Environmental Justice Program at the USCCB. She is a graduate student studying moral theology at Immaculate Conception Seminary School of Theology at Seton Hall University.


More stories about how Catholic communities around the United States, including parishes, dioceses, schools, and religious communities, are caring for creation, are available at WeAreSaltAndLight.org.

Integral Ecology and Respect for Human Life

“Everything is connected.”  This phrase echoes throughout the recent encyclical from the Holy Father, Laudato Si.  Pope Francis presents a comprehensive vision.  Our attitude toward our common home is inseparable from our attitude toward the unborn, poor, and all who are vulnerable.  The crises of our age have arisen because we refuse to receive created things in humility, simple joy, and awe at the work of God.

Francis proposes an “integral ecology” – an approach to creation care rooted in the Christian conviction that the earth, and everything in it, is a gift from our gracious Father.  Everything is connected, and so we must resist the temptation to see the problems that we face today as piecemeal. We can’t build a culture of life and trash the planet at the same time. We can’t clean up the mess left by a consumer society if we disregard the preciousness of human life.

Care for creation flows naturally from our commitment to protect all human life.  For example, polluted drinking water causes birth defects.  We who march for life ought also to do our part to make sure that families have clean water for their children.  In our different places in life, we can build up a human ecology by taking account of how our actions affect the lives of the most vulnerable.

Most fundamental is our need to examine ourselves and how we receive God’s good world.  We are immersed in a throwaway culture, which exerts its force on us. In our consumer society, we are prone to think of our surroundings, and even the people in them, as objects to help us fulfill our selfish desires.  The habits formed in the throwaway culture need to be reformed and redirected.  We must tend to our interior life and learn to receive created things as gifts, always remembering the unique dignity of each human being.

Pope Francis reminds us that everything comes from God and can point to God.  A fish or a grasshopper, a prairie or a canyon, each thing has its own loveliness and is to be admired as a creation of our Creator – not only for what benefit it brings us.  When we can behold created things in their own particular glory, we move closer to an integral ecology.  In the throwaway culture, land is only good as an energy resource. In a culture of life, it is seen as an integral ecosystem, pointing to a loving God who delights in making a world filled with diverse creatures and landscapes.

The Pope offers simple suggestions for developing gratitude and reverence.  He suggests that praying before and after meals might help inspire thankfulness for the food we receive.  He notes the importance of resting on the Sabbath.  In this spirit I offer a possible exercise.  Choose some seemingly simple object, and consider the complexity and grandeur of it. Consider doing this with a different piece of creation each day.  Let us take time to cultivate a spirit of gratitude and awe at the beauty of the earth, which reaches its pinnacle in that most marvelous of creatures, the human person. Such an attitude animates a culture of life.

Aaron Matthew Weldon is a staff assistant for the Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Laudato Si’ and the Environmental Refugee

Ashley Feasley, USCCB

Ashley Feasley, USCCB

Pope Francis’s recently released encyclical, Laudato Si’, addresses the environment, climate change, and ecological degradation. An important but often overlooked point that Pope Francis highlights is the connection between migration and environmental instability. Specifically, the Holy Father states his concern for the plight of the environmental refugee. To this point he writes: “There has been a tragic rise in the number of migrants seeking to flee from the growing poverty caused by environmental degradation. They are not recognized by international conventions as refugees; they bear the loss of the lives they have left behind, without enjoying any legal protection whatsoever” (no. 25).

Pope Francis’s eloquent and accurate assessment in Laudato Si’ about environmental refugees highlights a growing problem in the world and raises the questions of: what exactly is an environmental refugee, what can we do to protect them, and we can prevent more people from becoming environmental refugees in the future?

As Pope Francis stated, legally, the concept of “climate or environmental refugee” does not exist. Although the term “environmental refugee” is in frequent use, climate and environmental issues do not fall within the official definition of refugee that is found in the 1951 Refugee Convention. This is important as the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees is the key legal document that defines who is a refugee, what rights refugees are afforded, and the legal obligations of states towards refugees.

Despite having no formally recognized legal protection, the number of global environmental refugees and environmentally displaced migrants are projected to increase in the future. With the increasing frequency and severity of natural disasters, climate change is expected to expose millions to largescale displacement and forced migration – most notably affecting the global working poor. Many of the global poor live in areas particularly affected by natural phenomena related to global warming, including flooding, hurricanes and drought, and their means of subsistence are largely dependent on natural reserves and ecosystem-focused industries such as agriculture, fishing and forestry. They have limited outside financial activities or resources that can enable them to adapt to climate change or to face natural disasters, and their access to social services and protection is very limited.

Today, we can already see these situations of environmental degradation forcibly displacing people and creating environmental refugees. For example, Bangladesh has been declared one of the most vulnerable countries to climate change in South Asia, followed closely by India, China, Indonesia and the Philippines. Additionally, the Maldives has been dealing with climate change issues such as rising sea levels and displacement for several years.

Looking toward a solution to this problem, we turn to Pope Francis, who urges us to recognize communities vulnerable to environmental destruction and to take responsibility for our Earth and our displaced brothers and sisters.

To this end, in Laudato Si’ he states: “Sadly, there is widespread indifference to such suffering, which is even now taking place throughout our world. Our lack of response to these tragedies involving our brothers and sisters points to the loss of that sense of responsibility for our fellow men and women upon which all civil society is founded.”

It is also imperative that we recognize the damage that climate change wreaks upon the environment and the communities that live off the land. We must also accept responsibility for people who have been forced out of their communities due to environmental degradation and work to ensure that we treat them and the Earth with dignity and respect. Previously, in Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis urged us to recognize that the earth is our common home and all of us are brothers and sisters (no. 183). This theme is echoed again and again in Laudato Si’. Going forward, we must protect the fragility and majesty of our common home and the dignity of our brothers and sisters who live in it.

Ashley Feasley is a policy advisor for Migration and Refugee Services at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Laudato Si’: An Invitation from a Franciscan Jesuit

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Meghan Clark, Ph.D.

Throughout Laudato Si’, Pope Francis echoes his namesake Francis of Assisi. It begins with a prayer of praise and lament; it begins placing ourselves in relationship before God.    “Praise be to you, my Lord through our Sister, Mother Earth” (no. 1) who “now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted upon her by our irresponsible use and abuse” (no. 2).  Peace in our relationships and respect for all of creation – this is the heart of St. Francis model. Still, the pope is a Jesuit. In this Franciscan encyclical we find an Ignatian invitation: to listen, examine our consciences, and discover the magis.

“I wish to address every person living on this planet… about our common home” (no. 3). This universal call to dialogue sets the tone for the entire encyclical – yet this is no simple invitation.  In Laudato Si’, the Holy Father models a listening Church. If we follow the footnotes, we find reference to Catholic conferences around the world: from Argentina, Germany, New Zealand, Brazil, Japan, the United States, and others. A profound engagement and dialogue with communities of scientists around the world leads the Pope to recognize, “a very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climatic system” (no. 23). He understands the fear, pain, suffering, and frustration of people around the globe because he listened.  We are invited to listen as he has listened – to our neighbors, the earth, and to God.

Listening to the cries of the poor and the cries of the earth, we are then invited into an examination of conscience.  Pope Francis implores “it is we human beings above all who need to change. We lack an awareness of our common origin, of our mutual belonging, and of a future to be shared with everyone” (no. 202); “the emptier a person’s heart is, the more he or she needs things to buy, own, and consume. . . . In this horizon, a genuine sense of the common good also disappears” (no. 204). We must look into our own hearts seeking ecological conversion as individuals and communities. Am I hearing the cries of the earth and the cries of the poor? Do we as a community responsibly cherish the earth? Do we respect the human dignity of vulnerable communities in the Pacific, people we will never meet? Do I consume more than I need? Laudato Si’ invites us all to engage in an examination of conscience of our lifestyle.

Ignatian spirituality asks us to detach from our personal desires and listen to where God is calling us to something more—the magis. As Fr. James Martin, SJ explains, the magis is not about perfection but seeking the greater. In this way, Laudato Si’ invites us to rethink our standards and goals. Simply having more or creating more is not enough – we are not seeking the maximum but the greater.  The magis teaches us to renounce selfishness in favor of more deeply choosing God and the common good. “We require a new and universal solidarity . . . all of us can cooperate as instruments of God for the care of creation, each according to his or her own culture, experience, involvements, and talents” (no. 14).  As a community of faith, the ball is now in our court. Will we respond to Pope Francis’ invitation to embark on an ecological conversion by listening to the cries of the earth and the cries of the poor and responding in solidarity?

Meghan Clark, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor of Theology and Religious Studies at St. John’s University.

Pope Francis Hears Cries of Poor, Earth

Colecchi headshotWhen Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected pope, he chose the name Francis for a reason. He wanted to take his inspiration from St. Francis, the man who loved peace, the poor and God’s creation. His encyclical, Laudato Si’, embodies those commitments.

Pope Francis says in a prayer, “The poor and the earth are crying out.” The question is: Will we hear and respond to their cry?

The world’s poor are already suffering ecological devastation. Extractive industries in Latin America often violate environmental standards, poisoning the health of children, women and men, and destroying aquifers and agriculture. Conflict in Africa is frequently driven by shifts in climate. It is no secret that the violence between Arab Muslim herders and African Muslim farmers in Darfur was driven in large part by competition for land as desertification robbed communities of pastures. In Asia, the devastation of the Philippines in the wake of Super Typhoon Haiyan attests to how storms have intensified and poorer countries with fewer resources and less resilience are in great danger.

Pope Francis argues powerfully: “In the present state 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” (no. 158).

He goes on to describe the kind of support developed nations, like our own, ought to provide to developing countries: “For poor countries, the priorities must be to eliminate extreme poverty and to promote the social development of their people. … They are likewise bound to develop less polluting forms of energy production, but to do so they require the help of countries which have experienced great growth at the cost of the ongoing pollution of the planet” (no. 172).

Pope Francis reminds us that population is not the problem, waste and a throw-away society are: “To blame population growth instead of an extreme and selective consumerism on the part of some, is one way of refusing to face the issues” (no. 50).

What does all this mean? It means we need to act, to act as both individuals and a nation.

As individuals, we need to resist the allure of consumerism: “Obsession with a consumerist lifestyle, above all when few people are capable of maintaining it, can only lead to violence and mutual destruction” (no. 204). “The emptier a person’s heart is, the more he or she needs things to buy, own and consume” (no. 204).

The Holy Father is calling us to live more simply and more fully! “It is not a lesser life or one lived with less intensity. On the contrary, it is a way of living life to the full” (no. 223).

As a nation, we need to pursue international policies that save the poor and the planet. Pope Francis calls for a “global consensus” to confront “the deeper problems, which cannot be resolved by unilateral actions on the part of individual countries” (no. 164). In response, our nation needs to support “enforceable international agreements” and “global regulatory norms” (no. 173). The United States will have an opportunity to do just that at the Global Climate Summit in Paris in December. One thing we should put on the table is a robust financial commitment to the Green Climate Fund, a fund to help poor nations develop in sustainable, “green” ways, unlike us, and to be more resilient in the face of more frequent droughts, stronger storms and sea level rise.

When we act in these ways as individuals and a nation, we will have truly heard the cries of the poor and the earth.

Stephen M. Colecchi is Director of the Office of International Justice and Peace of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Pope Francis’ New Encyclical

kim daniels“‘Laudato Si’, mi’ Signore” – “Praise be to you, my Lord.’”  So opens Pope Francis’ much-anticipated ecology encyclical, a hopeful meditation on God’s creative love that calls each of us to more fully respond to the central Catholic teaching that “the earth is our common home and all of us are brothers and sisters” (Evangelii Gaudium, no. 183).

Pope Francis seeks to answer a vital question: “What kind of world do we want to leave to those who come after us, to children who are now growing up?” His answer: a wide-ranging vision animated by the conviction that “we need one another, that we have a shared responsibility for others and the world, and that being good and decent are worth it” (Laudato Si’ [LS], no. 229). He clearly hopes that this understanding of our connectedness – with each other, with the created world, and with those who will come after us – will reinvigorate a conversation to which all are welcome.

In Laudato Si’ Pope Francis is speaking as a spiritual and moral leader calling each of us to more fully answer the call to care for others and care for God’s creation. He sees the “ecological crisis” as first and foremost “a summons to profound interior conversion” (LS, no. 217). That conversion must begin with humility when confronting the results of human activity unmoored from God’s design.

This is integral ecology, and it’s at the heart of the encyclical. As Pope Francis says, “it is no longer enough to speak only of the integrity of ecosystems. We have to dare to speak of the integrity of human life, of the need to promote and unify all the great values. Once we lose our humility, and become enthralled with the possibility of limitless mastery over everything, we inevitably end up harming society and the environment” (LS, no. 224).

In linking respect for human life and dignity with care for the natural world, Pope Francis follows in the footsteps of both Pope Benedict XVI and St. John Paul II, who noted that “respect for life and for the dignity of the human person extends also to the rest of creation, which is called to join man in praising God” (Message for the 1990 World Day of Peace).

The efforts of all three are rooted in Scripture and longstanding Catholic teachings. Those teachings remind us that when we don’t responsibly care for God’s creation, it’s the poor who suffer most.  Pollution, food and water insecurity, and conflicts over declining resources first affect those on the margins – “the least of these” Jesus entrusts to our particular care. There’s an “intimate relationship between the poor and the fragility of the planet” (LS, no. 16), and we have a responsibility to live out our solidarity with the poor in concrete ways.

That means that Laudato Si’ is also a call to action. We’re called to reject consumerism, resist a “technocratic paradigm,” and recognize that “by itself the market cannot guarantee integral human development and social inclusion” (LS, no. 109). We’re also called to work for effective responses to climate change, “one of the principal challenges facing humanity in our day” (LS, no. 25). This will require “honesty, courage, and responsibility, above all on the part of those countries which are more powerful and pollute the most” (LS, no. 169).

Laudato Si’ is a reminder of the distinctive voice that Catholicism brings to important public questions. Our faith commits us to participate in public life and work for the common good, to recognize the dignity of the human person, and to work for those on the margins. Of course, any living faith is challenging, and Laudato Si’ challenges all of us to resist the “throwaway culture” wherever it arises.

Pope Francis has given us a rich document that invites prayerful, thoughtful reflection. It’s a remarkable invitation to a dialogue that’s just beginning about how we can best care for “our common home.”

Kim Daniels is a former spokesperson for the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Here are resources from the USCCB Department of Justice, Peace and Human Development and our collaborators to help you explore Laudato Si’: