This week, for the fifth anniversary of Pope Francis’ ecological encyclical, it has launched “Laudato Si Year,” with a full program of conferences, seminars and activities of both a scientific and political nature. It will be the most intense program of pastoral activity initiated by the Holy See since the Jubilee of Mercy in 2015-2016.
Is Laudato Si, dated May 24, 2015, Pentecost Sunday, and released a few weeks later, in June, the defining pastoral priority of this pontificate?
In introducing his encyclical five years ago, Pope Francis compared this moment in history to “fifty years ago, with the world teetering on the brink of nuclear crisis.”
“Now, faced as we are with global environmental deterioration,” Pope Francis wrote (3), “I wish to address every person living on this planet. In my apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, I wrote to all the members of the Church with the aim of encouraging ongoing missionary renewal. In this encyclical, I would like to enter into dialogue with all people about our common home.”
It is not a matter of mutually exclusive priorities, but one of emphasis. To the Church, the Holy Father speaks of the priority of evangelization, getting people to that “better world” (heaven), to borrow the phrasing of Benedict XVI in his 2010 interview book, Light of the World. For all peoples, the priority is “making this world better,” in terms of caring for the physical world and those in poverty — the twin cries, as Pope Francis puts it, “of the earth and of the poor.”
Is it possible to understand the Jubilee of Mercy as the pastoral commemoration of Evangelii Gaudium, while this Laudato Si Year does the same for its eponymous encyclical?
Whether or not the world embraces the Laudato Si Year remains to be seen. But on this anniversary it is possible to look at how the priorities of the encyclical have fared these past five years. The encyclical offered at least five such priorities: political action, pollution, poverty, climate change and technocratic globalization.
Laudato Si had a specific political goal, as Pope Francis himself made clear. It was released in June 2015 in order to influence the Paris climate talks in December of that year. It was intended to give the moral and political support of the Vatican to the U.N. climate agenda. That in itself is not unusual; a month never goes by without the Holy See voicing support for this or that international protocol, accord or treaty. An encyclical, though, is a difference, not just in degree, but kind. It aims to associate the Holy Father in a magisterial way with a particular secular agreement.
From the political perspective, Laudato Si was a smashing success. Key players in the Paris climate accord credit the Holy Father’s intervention with a significant impact, and Pope Francis has expressed his satisfaction that the climate-change agreement was reached. The environmental movement — in both its Christian and secular expressions — has heaped praise upon Laudato Si. Indeed, even those elements of the green lobby that prefer population-control methods — including abortion — that Pope Francis vehemently denounces have welcomed Laudato Si. That political collaboration has been encouraged by the Vatican, with prominent invitations to such figures — from Jeffrey Sachs to Bernie Sanders — being regularly issued.
The climate-change emphasis is relatively recent for the ecological movement. Its older priority was pollution, with initiatives for clear air, clean water and conservation of the land. In that, there has been a widespread consensus and decades of regulations, treaties, private-sector reform and cultural change. Consider how littering — once common — is now socially unacceptable behavior.
Since Laudato Si, the Vatican’s pollution emphasis has shifted toward plastics, especially plastics that end up in the oceans. Here we see one of many divisions between the rich world and the poor world. Almost all plastics in the oceans arrive there from relatively poor Asian countries. But while in wealthy countries it is common to find alternatives to plastic, and to recycle, in the poorer parts of the world plastic is a path to health and sanitation.
Post-coronavirus, the demand for plastic and Styrofoam will explode worldwide; plastic — produced from petrochemicals — means safety. Meat and fish sold in rich countries are swaddled in plastic for sanitation and public-health reasons. The famous wet markets of Wuhan will be less wet and more plasticized in the future. Laudato Si could not have anticipated the coronavirus, but on this element of the pollution front, the encyclical will be less influential in the years to come.
The “cry of the poor” was as central to Laudato Si as the “cry of the earth.” On that front, long before Laudato Si, the picture was rapidly improving. In 1990, some 36% of the global population was living in extreme poverty, defined as less than $1.90/day. Thirty years later, in 2019, the comparable figure was 8%, less than one-quarter. The economic lockdown due to the pandemic threatens to erase a significant part of those gains this year alone. That’s just one angle of the rich/poor divide on environmental matters. Protecting the lives and the clean environment of the rich often means hardship in the life of the poor.
The great difficulty at the heart of Laudato Si is that alleviating the “cry of the poor” requires wealth creation among the poorest. Wealth redistribution, even on a massive scale, would not be sufficient, and, in any case, Catholic social teaching does not propose redistribution of wealth as the path to development for the poor. Development by redistribution is not really development at all, but poverty alleviation — important, but not sufficient.
Wealth creation requires greater energy use. That means more fuel. And more fuel means more fossil fuels, even if renewable sources of energy (nuclear, hydroelectric, solar and wind) are ramped up. Even there, nuclear power and hydroelectric power are often opposed on environmental grounds, as well. Pope Francis himself declared himself sympathetic to the Japanese bishops’ condemnation of nuclear power on a recent visit to that country.
A world that meets the Paris climate targets will be poorer than a world than doesn’t. That may be an acceptable price to pay for reducing global warming, but it is not obvious that it is so. Dealing with that trade-off is part of the “ecological conversion” that Pope Francis calls for in Laudato Si.
Laudato Si is actually more reserved on climate change than many enthusiasts claim. Pope Francis certainly accepts the U.N. consensus on climate science, but he properly leaves that as a matter for scientists and does not commit the magisterium to a particular scientific position.
Certainly in the five years since Laudato Si the political priority of climate change has risen around the world. Even where there is opposition, the trend is unmistakable, and Pope Francis and Laudato Si can take some credit for that.
Recent developments, though, have sharpened the debate over the future of climate policy. On the left, Michael Moore’s Planet of Humans has argued that even renewable energies are not environmentally friendly and that the only solution is to use less energy — either by living with much less, keeping more people in poverty or having fewer people altogether. On the right, The Economist has argued that the massive decline in carbon emissions due to the pandemic lockdown is still not enough, demonstrating that the cost of arresting climate change is much higher that anyone has previously advertised.
Climate policy has been offered as a moderate adjustment in current lifestyles, with plenty of green jobs and cool hybrid cars to compensate. Five years ago, that may have been considered bold. Today, serious climate policy means high carbon taxes, significant reduction in economic activity and a reversal of China’s coal-fired economic growth. Laudato Si did not have to engage those issues as seriously as they must be engaged now.
At the foundation of Laudato Si’s ecological vision was the view that a technology-dominated world meant that those things — and people — who were no longer useful were disposable. The Earth itself was disposable, as were the poor, the sick and the elderly. Against this “throwaway society,” Pope Francis has inveighed constantly, not just in Laudato Si.
The assumption that technological and economic efficiency are the overriding criteria was questioned by Laudato Si. In that Laudato Si is part of a trend that — unlikely as it may seem — includes Brexit, Donald Trump and the rise of populist politics. That trend seems to be growing, all the more so in the time of coronavirus.
Just-in-time production, with no inventories to maintain, is being questioned when stockpiles of vital equipment are desired. Cheaper consumer goods seem less attractive if it means the disappearance of jobs for unskilled workers. Technological advances skew benefits to a wealthy few, exacerbating inequalities. Even economic growth, if its rewards are narrowly distributed, is no longer the primary goal of economic policy.
Pope Francis commented that Laudato Si was not really an ecological encyclical, but something broader. Five years on, in a time of pandemic, that seems to becoming more true.
Father Raymond J. de Souza is the editor in chief of Convivium magazine.