‘Laudate Deum’: Pope Francis’ ‘Laudato Si’ Companion Piece on the Environment

COMMENTARY: It is essential that this exhortation, which is a different kind of papal document, be read together with the Holy Father’s 2015 encyclical.

The environmental exhortation by Pope Francis is seen in a bookshop the day of its release, Oct. 4, near the Vatican.
The environmental exhortation by Pope Francis is seen in a bookshop the day of its release, Oct. 4, near the Vatican. (photo: ANDREAS SOLARO / AFP via Getty Images)

Pope Francis’ new apostolic exhortation, Laudate Deum (Praise God), is a personal, impassioned public-policy plea for action on the “climate crisis.” 

Laudate Deum was issued on Oct. 4, feast of St. Francis of Assisi. Less than 8,000 words in English, it is written in the style of a political manifesto rather than a magisterial document. Given that the original language was Spanish, not Italian, it can be presumed that Pope Francis took a direct hand in its drafting. 

Pope Francis makes definitive declarations on climate science, predictions about future weather-related disasters, offers analysis of United Nations’ climate conferences, expresses frustration with policy choices and makes a key diplomatic choice of his own. He explicitly mentions China in order to make it clear that he is not expecting action from Beijing, the single largest emitter of greenhouse gases. 

Magisterial documents on social doctrine articulate principles, rather than specific policy measures. On scientific matters, it has been 400 years  — during the Galileo affair — since Roman authorities took such specific positions on scientific matters. Laudate Deum itself does not offer a rationale for magisterial pronouncement on climatological scientific research, but asserts that such scientific results are “indisputable.”

Some critics will dismiss Laudate Deum as a document more fitting to the U.N. secretary-general, an epistolary emission from the vicar of climate rather than the Vicar of Christ. Thus it must be stressed that Laudate Deum is not a standalone document; it is an extension of Laudato Si, the 2015 encyclical in which Pope Francis shared his “heartfelt concerns about the care of our common home.”

“Yet, with the passage of time, I have realized that our responses have not been adequate, while the world in which we live is collapsing and may be nearing the breaking point,” Laudate Deum begins (2).

It is essential that Laudate Deum be read together with Laudato Si, for in the latter is laid out the Holy Father’s theological critique of what he calls the “technocratic paradigm” — a way of thinking “as if reality, goodness and truth automatically flow from technological and economic power as such” (Laudate Deum, 20). 

In Laudato Si, Pope Francis draws upon both the theology of creation as well as theological anthropology to offer an alternative to “the idea of infinite or unlimited growth, which proves so attractive to economists, financiers and experts in technology” (Laudate Deum, 20).

Without reference to its companion, Laudate Deum remains a thoroughgoing political document, save for the sprinkling of a few biblical texts at the end (61-66), after the main analysis and argument have been made. It does read like a United Nations climate text. It could have been issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the main U.N. resource on climate change. About a third of the 44 footnotes are to IPCC and related studies; most of the remainder are citations from the Holy Father’s previous encyclicals.

Yet even when read in conjunction with Laudato Si, Laudate Deum is a different kind of papal document; Pope Francis lays out in detail scientific data, complete with predictions to establish the need for urgent action, writing that “despite all attempts to deny, conceal, gloss over or relativize the issue, the signs of climate change are here and increasingly evident” (5). 

The explicit call of Laudate Deum is for political action. Indeed, the press conference presenting the exhortation will be made up not of pastors or theologians, but political actors, including an environmental activist, photographer and film director who serves as a “U.N. ambassador for climate.”

Magisterial documents refrain from committing the teaching authority of the papacy to scientific data or political processes. In recent decades, the only comparable papal text to Laudate Deum would be Chapter 3 of Centesimus Annus (1991) in which St. John Paul II offered his analysis of “The Year 1989” in which European communism was defeated. Yet John Paul explicitly clarified that “such an analysis is not meant to pass definitive judgments since this does not fall per se within the Magisterium’s specific domain” (introduction of Centesimus Annus).

Laudate Deum does not contain any such statement. To the contrary, it contains a definitive declaration that there be a “necessary transition towards clean energy sources, such as wind and solar energy, and the abandonment of fossil fuels” (55).

“Abandonment of fossil fuels” is a very specific magisterial declaration. At what point should fossil fuels be abandoned, given that the Holy Father acknowledges that 80% of the world’s energy comes from them (Laudate Deum, 51)?

Laudate Deum is wide-ranging, commenting upon the disposal of nuclear waste (30), “meritocracy” and privilege (32) and the entire structure of the economy, including this passage: “The mentality of maximum gain at minimal cost, disguised in terms of reasonableness, progress and illusory promises, makes impossible any sincere concern for our common home and any real preoccupation about assisting the poor and the needy” (31). 

Laudate Deum leaves aside questions about what kind of economic system — presumably where maximum gain is not sought at minimal cost — might be better at protecting the environment or lifting up the dignity of the poor. There is an odd juxtaposition in Laudate Deum: Very specific scientific positions are taken, while essentially connected statements about the economy remain at the level of ambiguous generality.

The most novel section of Laudate Deum is Section 4, “Climate Conferences: Progress and Failures” (44-60). The Holy Father gives his detailed political analysis of U.N. conferences on environmental and climate policy, from 1992 to the present day. 

There is a palpable sense that Pope Francis desires the Holy See to be a real player in the international conferencing set. Laudato Si was published with the specific intention of influencing the Paris climate conference in 2015 (COP 21). Now, Laudate Deum intends the same for COP 28 in Dubai, to be held this December. 

As a political document, Laudate Deum offers two political statements of note. The United Arab Emirates was the site of a key initiative of this pontificate, the “Declaration on Human Fraternity,” signed in Abu Dhabi in 2019 — a charter for Christian and Islamic witness to the unity of the human race and the call to community and fraternity. Yet even Pope Francis notes the absurdity of holding a climate change conference in Dubai, a petrostate “known as a great exporter of fossil fuels” where “gas and oil companies are planning new projects there, with the aim of further increasing their production” (53).

Laudate Deum concludes with a bit of papal diplomacy, manifesting the Holy Father’s China policy of no discouraging words about the communist regime. Global climate policy is primarily decided in Beijing, as China generates more carbon emissions than North America and Europe combined; China’s largest steel producer generates more emissions than all of Pakistan.

Lest Laudate Deum be considered a challenge to China, Pope Francis makes it clear that it is not: “Consider that emissions per individual in the United States are about two times greater than those of individuals living in China” (72). It is a matter of “the irresponsible lifestyle connected with the Western model”; a perfectly defensible political claim, but not a scientific one. Regardless of how the climate crisis developed, it will be solved in Beijing, or not at all. 

Praise God is the title of this letter,” concludes Pope Francis (73). “For when human beings claim to take God’s place, they become their own worst enemies.”

The weakness of Laudate Deum is that human calculations have taken the place of theology, the things of God.