Pope Francis wrote his encyclical “Laudato Si’” for “every person living on the planet” not only to read but also to “enter into dialogue with all people about our common home.” In an effort to keep the conversations going, The Visitor is publishing a six-part faith formation series in which guest writers help to “unpack” what the Holy Father said in the letter and offer reflection questions and actions to respond to his message. This useful guide is intended to help readers grasp the letter’s overall content and encourage further study and dialogue in homes and parishes. This is part five of the series.
Having thus far, as he says, “attempted to take stock of our present situation” in the first four chapters of his encyclical “Laudato Si’,” in the fifth chapter Pope Francis turns to outlining “the major paths of dialogue which can help us escape the spiral of self-destruction which currently engulfs us” (163).
Clearly, while the pope set out to “praise God” in this teaching, he is not afraid of critiquing humanity’s deficiencies nor the environmental crisis that surrounds us by our own hand.
The first section of chapter 5 is titled “Dialogue on the Environment in the International Community.” Recognizing our global interdependence, Pope Francis sees that “global consensus is essential for confronting the deeper problems …which cannot be resolved by unilateral actions on the part of individual countries.”
Thus, particularly because “economic and financial sectors, being transnational, tend … to prevail over the political,” “global regulatory norms are needed to impose obligations and prevent unacceptable actions” by any of the world’s actors, particularly when such actions bear most detrimentally upon the poor (175, 173).
In part two, “Dialogue for New National and Local Policies,” Pope Francis focuses on more local realities. Here he recognizes that since transnational actions will be more glacial in speed, it is “local individuals and groups [that] can make a real difference” (179).
Even more, it is at this more immediate level that not only can potential disasters be avoided, but already “best practice[s]” can be introduced in timely and effective fashion — even the “modifying [of] consumption” (177, 180)! The public must use the power of the vote to bring about “decisive political action,” for “unless citizens control political power … it will not be possible to control damage to the environment” (179).
Section three, “Dialogue and Transparency in Decision-Making,” finds Pope Francis stating that “profit cannot be the sole criterion to be taken into account” regarding proposed activities (187). Rather, “a consensus should always be reached between the different stakeholders … [with] the local population hav[ing] a special place at the table” (183).
In section four, “Politics and Economy in Dialogue for Human Fulfillment,” the pope recognizes that since “the environment is one of those goods that cannot be adequately safeguarded or promoted by market forces” since “some economic sectors exercise more power than states themselves,” there is need today “for politics and economics to enter into a frank dialogue in the service of life” (190, 196, 189).
Since “halfway measures simply delay the inevitable disaster” (194) that can arise “when profits alone count,” Pope Francis says that “there is a need to change” (here quoting Pope Benedict XVI) “models of global development” [which] will entail a responsible reflection on “the meaning of the economy and its goals with an eye to correcting its malfunctions and misapplications” (190, 194). Sadly, too often the “last thing …concerned about is caring for the environment and protecting those who are most vulnerable” (198).
Finally, in the last section of chapter five, “Religions in Dialogue with Science,” Pope Francis claims, “Any technical solution which science claims to offer will be powerless to solve the serious problems of our world if humanity loses its compass, if we lose sight of the great motivations which make it possible for us to live in harmony, to make sacrifices and to treat others well” (200).
As “the majority of people living on our planet profess to be believers … this should spur religions to dialogue among themselves for the sake of protecting nature, defending the poor, and building networks of respect and fraternity” (200, 201).
Taking the long view
So just what is Pope Francis seeking to teach us?
Certainly he is trying to open our eyes anew to the problems that we and the world face, problems such as an excessive consumption that already fast outpace the earth’s ability to sustain it. Likewise, he is critical of our human tendency, particularly when we have the manner by which to do so, to simply ignore or, worse, to take advantage of, our sisters and brothers who are poor or of the ecosystem that cannot defend itself.
Finally, he is attempting to change our basic tendency to take a short view because it is to our quick advantage when the longer view is more significant and generous to both nature and to real, sustainable human posterity.
But Pope Francis is not a critic without hope. Indeed, he gladly recognizes the growing awareness on the world stage that peoples and governments must act. He confirms, as he does often regarding all kinds of issues, that “we can change!”
Nonetheless, he also holds before us a new vision that must stretch us individually, nationally and globally. He again and again proclaims that we must enter into honest dialogue even amidst such complex and expansive realities. People must be engaged in relationships which alone can bridge our every natural resistance to change. Time and again this is the pope’s plea and directive: We must talk, we must dialogue, we must engage.
He also sees that because the earth is our common home, trans-border actions and global norms that are actually enforced must be a part of the answer that by nature shall encompass all. Nonetheless, individuals and local governments are at the same time challenged to act even now, particularly because the modification of individual consumptions can have very real and consequential effect.
Finally, Pope Francis implores that the human compass, the human propensity to do the good, not to mention the great and self-sacrificing calling in faith which many receive, be that most fundamental impetus to help us keep the value of life far above lesser concerns related to passing profits when it comes to our use of natural resources.