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’: