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OPINION: Papal encyclical on climate change has impact beyond Catholicism

November 6, 2015 By Dr. John Dilyard and Father Brian Jordan, OFM St. Francis College For Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Father Brian Jordan, OFM, with Professor John Dilyard. Photo courtesy of St. Francis College
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Editor’s Note: The following editorial is part of a series on how Catholics and the wider community are living out the messages that Pope Francis preached during his visit to the U.S. in September. The authors of this op-ed piece on Pope Francis’ Encyclical on Climate Change are Professor John Dilyard, M.D., director of the Honors Program and Father Brian Jordan, OFM, chaplain, both at St. Francis College.


In June of this year, Pope Francis released his much-anticipated encyclical on climate change, “Laudato Sí.” A few months later, during his historic visit to the U.S. in September, the message in that encyclical was repeated to Congress and then the General Assembly of the United Nations. The effects of a warming planet are being felt across the globe, from a series of massive hurricanes in the Pacific Ocean to severe drought — followed by heavy rains and flooding — in California and Texas to record heat in the Middle East and India, so the Pope’s message is both timely and important.

Much of the discussion about “Laudato Sí” after it was released in June, and again in September, focused, often critically, on what it had to say about specific topics only.  Interpreting “Laudato Sí” in this manner, though, misses the point; it needs to be read as a complete work. For “Laudato Sí” is not just about the environment, climate change, the dangers of consumption-based capitalism, social injustice, the immorality of extreme poverty and caring for the world. It is about all of those things and how they are interconnected. As a result, the encyclical cannot be read as excerpts, but as a whole. Every encyclical is a teaching document for Catholics, but “Laudato Sí” actually is addressed to everyone. The appeal to all humanity is proper because the confluence of issues humanity faces as a result of a changing climate cannot be resolved by any one course of action.  

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To read “Laudato Sí” as a whole, we have to understand that it comes from a spiritual foundation rooted both in Pope Francis’ late 20th century predecessors and in his namesake, St. Francis of Assisi, whose prayer The Canticle of the Creatures provides the encyclical’s title. St. Francis lived at peace and in unity with others and with nature and believed that care for creation is our most important task. Care for creation implies being in unity with creation and being mindful of what we do with — and to — nature.  Being mindful means that we have to be aware of the consequences of our actions and how those actions and consequences are connected to things not immediately seen or felt, and which may take many years to be seen or felt.

Our fossil fuel-based economic system has supported marvelous human development, but it has also caused damage to the environment. Industrialized farming feeds billions but also depletes the land and poisons water. The consumption of more and more goods as a result of increased wealth also creates excessive waste, distorts the use of resources and does not necessarily make our lives ‘better.’ Technology has transformed our world, but technology also has its limitations. Our financial system, built to support a fossil fuel economy and consumption, has been shown to be fragile and prone to crisis. Our political systems, built in the image of the economic systems that support them, often have difficulty addressing domestic issues, let alone global ones. In sum, the systems we have in place now do not seem capable of dealing with the problems they have helped create.

“Laudato Sí” eloquently argues for something different, offering suggestions about how to make changes across all dimensions of human activity, constantly reminding us how we and the Earth are interconnected, that nothing can be taken in isolation and that our relationship with nature and each other is a complex whole. Realizing that we are part of a complex whole, as St. Francis did, is a key step for us to learn what we have to do to avoid catastrophe. In essence, we have to acquire St. Francis’ conviction that care for creation is our most essential task.

Acquiring this conviction will not be easy and will require a rethinking of everything we know, do and believe. The strength and beauty of “Laudato Sí,” though, is that it is a guide to help us do that rethinking. It therefore should be read, individually, in its entirety and reflected on with open hearts and minds. Our future may well depend on it.

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