(ANALYSIS) Eight years have elapsed since Pope Francis released “Laudato Si,” his encyclical urging “care for our common home.” Though hailed as an eloquent plea to protect the environment, climate change was just one part of the pope’s message, from encouraging solidarity with the poor to criticizing “blind confidence” in technology.
On Oct. 4, 2023, Francis released an addendum to “Laudato Si,” addressed to “all people of good will on the climate crisis.” October 4 marks the feast day of the pope’s namesake, St. Francis of Assisi, who famously loved all of creation. The new installment, “Laudate Deum” – “Praise God” – is no less sweeping in the way it links environmental problems with economic, social and technological issues.
Like “Laudato Si,” the new document strongly reproaches wealthy nations that contribute the most to climate change, accusing them of ignoring the plight of the poor. It offers a similar rebuke of rampant individualism, lamenting that responses to global crises of climate change and the pandemic have led to “greater individualism” and hoarding of wealth, rather than increased solidarity.
Scarcely any facet of modern life emerges unscathed by Francis’ sometimes withering critiques. In his view, societies have failed to respond to crises that are profoundly interrelated: global inequality, pollution and even new forms of artificial intelligence that feed the illusion of humans’ unlimited power. His 2015 broadside, in fact, targeted today’s “technocratic paradigm” with such vehemence that one critic likened these passages to the rantings of an “Amish hippie.”
At the root of Earth’s interlocking crises, the pope argued in 2015 and again in 2023, is a denial of the fact that all life exists in relationships. The larger whole in which all beings are embedded is, for Francis, both an inescapable reality and a source of wonder.
An integrated vision
I am an environmental ethicist, and my work explores both science and religion. And while these fields often look at the natural world through very different lenses, they also share a common value: wonder. Francis’ social critique, I believe, stems from his vision of life – one filled with awe for the depth of meaning and mystery to be found in an interconnected world.
Conversely, the list of social and environmental ills Francis addresses in his environmental documents all involve a tendency to fracture and obscure the bigger picture – to ignore the larger context of each particular issue. He criticizes “excessive anthropocentrism,” for example: overlooking humans’ bonds with the rest of creation. Within society, excessive individualism similarly prioritizes “parts” at the expense of the whole community.
Cheap consumer goods mask the full cost of production, such as the environmental and health costs of manufacturing, obscuring the relationship between customers’ habits and their harmful consequences. The impacts of air travel, for example – air and noise pollution, land use, carbon emissions – are not factored into the ticket price. Failure to see these connections contributes to what Francis assails as an unsustainable “throwaway culture.”
Meanwhile, ubiquitous technology – with an app for everything at each person’s fingertips – encourages a techno-fix mentality. Francis’ environmental writings reprove tech solutions that target the symptoms of problems without addressing their deeper causes. Geoengineering may offer hope to mitigate the effects of climate change, but not if societies keep burning fossil fuels in the meantime. Social media supposedly helps build connections, but researchers have found that people who go on the apps to maintain relationships feel more lonely than other users. In an August 2023 speech, Francis warned of social media’s “reduction of human relationships to mere algorithms.”
In Francis’ eyes, all these problems result from denial of how deeply interconnected the world is. When humans attempt to declare “independence from reality,” he writes, relationships are the first casualty.
The word “reality” appears over 40 times in the pope’s 2015 encyclical, by my count. In his 2023 addendum, Francis once more features the word prominently. He argues that nonhuman creatures have their own “reality” and that climate change is a complex “global reality” that many try to deny, or simplify by blaming others – notably developing societies – rather than recognize their own role.
To understand what he means by “reality,” I look to the idea of “integral ecology,” a term popularized by Francis’ 2015 encyclical. In short, integral ecology is a holistic way of thinking about economic, social, political, ethical and environmental problems. The Earth is not confronting a variety of separate crises, Francis insists, but rather “one complex crisis” with many faces. His new document reinforces this idea, stressing that climate concerns are about more than ecology, because care for the Earth and care for one another are intimately linked.
Mystery in a dewdrop
The pope often turns to Saint Francis of Assisi, patron saint of animals, as a model of integral thought. The 13th century saint understood the “inseparable bond” that exists “between concern for nature, justice for the poor, commitment to society, and interior peace,” the pope wrote in 2015. St. Francis spoke of all of creation as family, praising “Mother Earth,” “Brother Moon” and “Sister Sun.”
In 2015, the pope wrote admiringly about his namesake’s sense of awe, adding that without wonder, humans’ attitude is that of “masters, consumers, ruthless exploiters.”
Indeed, wonder can create a shift in how people understand themselves in relation to something larger. There has recently been a renaissance of interest across many fields of study in the power of wonder to encourage behaviors that are good for the environment and for human health and relationships.
Psychologists have found that experiences of wonder can shrink the ego, encouraging generosity, humility and ethical decision-making. Wonder also weakens the perception of boundaries, increasing a person’s sense of connection with something larger than the self. Other studies suggest that experiences of awe have the power to broaden people’s moral concerns, increasing their consideration toward other humans, plants, animals and the environment.
For the pope, however, integral reality is about more than humans and nature; it encompasses relationships between all living things and God – an even larger, mysterious reality that is divine.
“The universe unfolds in God, who fills it completely,” he writes in both documents. Therefore, “There is a mystical meaning to be found in a leaf, in a mountain trail, in a dewdrop, in a poor person’s face.” All are knit together in wondrous patterns of interconnection.
This piece is republished from The Conversation.