This opinion piece is by Christiana Z. Peppard, assistant professor of theology, science, and ethics at Fordham University.

How does one read an encyclical? Even as an expert on Catholic social teaching, the answer to that question still eludes me.

Anyone who has glimpsed Laudato Si’: On the Care of our Common Home, released today by Pope Francis, can see that the genre is unique. It’s dramatically different from our habitual scans of texts and tweets and the sorts of messages sent with thumbs. Yet even while it requires different dexterities, reading the encyclical — the whole thing, yes — is within our grasp. Francis himself says, bluntly: “I wish to address every person living on this planet … I would like to enter into dialogue with all people about our common home.”

This bounces us to a second question: what does it mean? To enter into a dialogue is not the same thing as to decree from on high a particular course of action. Laudato Si’ is an ethically nuanced, often gripping analysis of our contemporary moral and environmental predicaments — and an invitation to articulate and embrace an ecological humanism worthy of our best efforts.

Fossil fuels are part of the point, but not all of it

Many commentators in the United States are tempted to equate the meaning of this document with the policy upshot — the pithy sound bite that takes a side in the bizarre partisan debacle of U.S. climate and fossil fuel policy.

Yes, Francis has some upshots regarding fossil fuels: Greenhouse gases have been emitted by industrialized nations (such as ours) at a disproportionate rate. Rates of consumption of non-renewable resources are profoundly imbalanced worldwide. Differentiated responsibilities between developing and super-developed nations (i.e., the United States) in any future climate agreements are both necessary and ethically appropriate.

And — because of his skepticism of technological and economic utopianisms (see below) — Francis is wary of cap-and-trade or carbon-pricing proposals that would merely maintain the underlying systems of environmental exploitation, without the “radical change which present circumstances require” (171). There is, he maintains, an “ecological debt” that industrialized nations owe towards the planet and to nations less developed than our own.

Skeptics and pundits take note: Renewable energy sources are a necessary goal for a morally significant transition away from fossil fuel-based energy sources. This transition should occur with due attention to transparent environmental impact assessments, the precautionary principle, and full-cost accounting that attends to the well-being of future generations. But make no mistake: This is not partisanship of an American electoral sort.

This transition is a preferential option for the poor and for the planet. It is also the pursuit of an “integral ecology,” or an expansive humanism, that realigns human actions within the frame of our ecological contexts, and our distinctive capacities for reason and self-reflection.

The goods of the earth: Pollution, climate change, water

Laudato Si’ is, in Francis’ own words, a “lengthy reflection which has been both joyful and troubling” (246), structured in six movements or chapters.

Chapter one: “What is happening to our common home?” admits of several answers that sum up to this: we are degrading it, especially through pollution and climate change, deterioration and overuse of water, loss of biodiversity, and the breakdown of society through global inequality, among other signs.

The problems are both spiritual and structural. The rest of the encyclical unpacks those notions, in a dance of levels of scale between that ranges from the individual to the civic, national, regional, and planetary.

Chapter two: “The Gospel of Creation,” turns to Biblical sources to illuminate the mandate to care for creation as a fundamental tenet of faith, attested in the Hebrew Bible and New Testament as stewardship. It is this perspective on our responsibility to God and to creation — that modern human beings have forgotten, says Francis.

Indeed, citing John Paul II as well as the Canadian Bishops and the Bishops Conference of Japan, Francis points out that Creation itself reveals God: Along with Scripture, “there is a divine manifestation in the blaze of sun and the fall of night,” as John Paul II put it at the turn of the millennium (85). Or, in St. Francis’ “Canticle of Creation”—the hymn of praise to which Francis recurs in Laudato Si’, “Praised be [You, O Lord],” through Brother Wind and Sister Water, and all the many beings of the earth.

The goods of the earth, continues Francis, are not meant for abuse and exploitation, but rather for sharing and inclusiveness of the least among us. And it points out that Biblical narratives demonstrate the truth that “human life is grounded in three fundamental and closely intertwined relationships: With God, with our neighbor and with the earth itself …. The harmony between the Creator, humanity and creation as a whole was disrupted by our presuming to take the place of God and refusing to acknowledge our creaturely limitations” (66).

Moreover, “the natural environment is a collective good”—not something to be held privately or exclusively for the benefit of the few at the expense of the many, now or in the future (93-95).

Chapter three is the most sustained and accosting indictment of contemporary humanity’s values and practices. Here, in “The Human Roots of the Ecological Crisis,” Francis (along with many so-called “secular” environmentalists) — says that it is humanity’s outsized technological and economic domination over the planet’s natural bounty that is at the root of many social and environmental ills.

The rapid rise of human technological and economic prowess outpaces evolution, and “our immense technological development has not been accompanied by a development in human responsibility, values, and conscience” (105).

It may be impossible to overstate the severity and incisiveness of Francis’ call to consider, and then constrain, technological and economic ideologies — or what he calls the “technocratic paradigm” (106 and following), in which technology, efficiency, and profit are seen as ends in themselves.

But, Francis warns, while this kind of framework may be a convenient default, it “ends up conditioning lifestyles and shaping social possibilities along the lines dictated by the interests of certain powerful groups.” In this way, decisions that may seem incidental or instrumental “are in reality decisions about the kind of society we want to build” (107). Humanity is lost, says Francis, between hyperconsumptive and superdeveloped contexts, and regions where people lack the most fundamental of goods and opportunities.

Much blame lies with speculative finance and the contemporary economy, whose values and functions are not inherently able to protect the most vulnerable members of society or to avoid environmental degradation. A new way is needed.

To be human is to be in relationship, and all life must be respected 

Chapter four describes what is needed “for us to move forward in a bold cultural revolution” (95). With typical Francis aplomb, the pope says: “Nobody is suggesting a return to the Stone Age, but we do need to slow down and take a look at reality in a different way, to appropriate the positive and sustainable progress which has been made, but also to recover the values and the great goals swept away by our unrestrained delusions of grandeur” (114).

Laying the blame on the “modern anthropocentrism” critiqued in chapters 2 and 3, Francis elaborates that Christian views of the human being have been wrong to see humans as righteous domineers. (This humility — and ability to admit that Christian history has been wrong — is perhaps one of the reasons that Francis feels both trustworthy and relevant to a flock beyond the pews of confessing Catholics.)

“Integral ecology,” for Francis, means an attention to the necessary interaction and wholeness of relationships: with God, with other people, with Creation and with ourselves. His consistent reasoning of respect for vulnerable life finds articulation here: “When we fail to acknowledge as part of reality the worth of a poor person, a human embryo, a person with disabilities—to offer just a few examples—it becomes difficult to hear the cry of nature itself; everything is connected.” (117; see also 120).

Everything is connected, but population per se is not the main cause of environmental degradation, says Francis. Instead, a more complex metric is necessary, one that looks at the disordered habits of human beings and societies.

In one of the strongest paragraphs in the entire document, Francis identifies the problem as having to do with humans’ misguided and hyper-consumptive habits. These reveal the implicit assumption that we can technologically and economically dominate each other and the natural world. The same logic that “leads to the sexual exploitation of children and abandonment of the elderly,” he says, “justifies buying the organs of the poor for resale … or eliminating children because they are not what their parents wanted. This same use and throw away logic generates so much waste, because of the disordered desire to consume more than what is really necessary” (123).

Ecological and social ills are connected. “We are faced not with two separate crises,” he says at the start of chapter four, “but rather with one complex crisis which is both social and environmental” (139).

For all its distressing details about environmental and social degradation, Laudato Si’ manages to avoid dousing the reader in despair. This is no small accomplishment.

Any solution, he says—and he does give positive examples throughout the encyclical—“demand[s] an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature” (139). And he is clear that there is no one-sized-fits-all solution: While there may be a universal mandate to care for the poor and creation, how this looks will vary depending on the particularities of context.

This point is worth emphasizing. Francis, head of the largest organized body of religious observers in the world, consistently in Laudato Si’ takes recourse to the wisdom of people other than himself.

Sure, he draws on previous popes (especially John Paul II and Benedict XVI); but he also draws heavily on the many insights from regional bishops’ conferences — in the Philippines, the United States, Brazil, and many more. In so doing, Francis makes a subtle case for the wisdom of particular places and cultures: “there is a need to respect the rights of peoples and cultures,” and not to propose uniform solutions to problems that are many-layered and particular to given places (even as there may be universal elements, as in the case of climate change).

“In this case,” he continues, “it is essential to show special care for indigenous communities and their cultural traditions. They are not merely one minority among others, but should be the principal dialogue partners, especially when large projects affecting their land are proposed” (146). The Church with Francis has come a long way from the colonial, hegemonic mentality of a universal truth articulated by European pontiffs.

Chapter five, “Lines of Approach and Action,” identifies contemporary mechanisms for attaining the common good — making mention of the 1992 Earth Summit at Rio de Janiero and successful conventions on hazardous wastes, while also stating rather bluntly that at present “with regard to climate change, the advances have been regrettably few.

Reducing greenhouse gases requires honesty, courage and responsibility, above all on the part of those countries which are more powerful and pollute the most” — presumably, one infers, with the recalcitrant U.S. Congress foremost among them (169). (“We believers,” Francis admonishes, “cannot fail to ask God for a positive outcome to the present discussions, so that future generations will not have to suffer the effects of our ill-advised delays.”)

The need for both conversion and renewal

It is in chapter six, “Ecological Education and Spirituality,” that the pastoral tone and spiritual content of the encyclical returns. Here, as in chapters two and four, Francis is at his most constructive: identifying the multiple dimensions by which humans can understand “ecology,” and inviting readers to consider our own histories, experiences of beauty, and attachments to particular places in order to envision a better world for ourselves, our children, and distant future generations. He writes:

“Many things have to change course, but 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. … A great cultural, spiritual, and educational challenge stands before us, and it will demand that we set out on the long path of renewal.” (202)

This last chapter is Francis’ prognosis, his call to spiritual discernment, and where his distinctive pastoral style shines through most clearly: the need for ecological conversion or rebirth of moral perspective—an “integral ecology” that is also an “authentic humanism.”

Above all, it is an invitation to consider how after the abundant facts of environmental and social degradation, the ultimate question is what values we want to guide our lives. “The rich heritage of Christian spirituality, the fruit of twenty centuries of personal and communal experience, has a precious contribution to make,” he claims (216).

Catholic tradition, while distinctive and distinctly evident throughout this encyclical, is neither exhaustive nor exclusionary. With collaborative spirit and humility about the ways in which God manifests in cultures and nature, Francis draws heavily upon the teachings of the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, as well as the Muslim mystic ‘Ali al Khawas and the non-religious Earth Charter as he makes a series of points about humility, gratitude, patience, responsibility, and attentiveness. These are among the ecological virtues that are also part of attaining social and environmental justice, now and in the future.

So what does this encyclical mean, given its sweeping scope and 246 paragraphs of scientific citations and spiritual calls to conversion?

The question is open. And that, of course, is precisely the point. While Francis is willing to point the way— through Scripture and tradition, through science and ethical reasoning — he offers precious few concrete answers. The task of making “integral ecology” real is left to all who would consider what he has to say—that is, all of us whose lives depend on earth and on each other.

A quick scan for keywords, or a search for simple answers, will not yield much. The encyclical is not a checklist of how to save the planet and, in so doing, each other. Instead, Laudato Si’ is a call to renewed, ecological humanism and moral vision in a world beset by technological and economic temptation.

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Metropolitan of Pergamon John Zizioulas delivers in English a presentation on Pope Francis's environmental encyclical. (The Vatican English)

Humans’ staggering effect on Earth

“If our species had started with just two people at the time of the earliest agricultural practices some 10,000 years ago, and increased by 1 percent per year, today humanity would be a solid ball of flesh many thousand light years in diameter, and expanding with a radial velocity that, neglecting relativity, would be many times faster than the speed of light.” —Gabor Zovanyi Sprawling Mexico City, Mexico, population 20 million, density 24,600/mile (63,700/square kilometer), rolls across the landscape, displacing every scrap of natural habitat; © Pablo Lopez Luz (Pablo Lopez Luz)