Vatican: Encyclical Aims to Promote Common Good, Not Division

Cardinal Peter Turkson acknowledged a critique that the Church is taking sides on scientifically still-debatable topics, but ‘the aim of the encyclical is not to intervene in this debate.’

Press conference on Pope Francis' encyclical Laudato Si on June 18 in Paul VI Hall.
Press conference on Pope Francis' encyclical Laudato Si on June 18 in Paul VI Hall. (photo: CNA/L’Osservatore Romano)

VATICAN CITY — The Vatican's presentation of Pope Francis' new encyclical said the intent behind the document goes beyond political debates, aiming for something more essential: the well-being of all creation.

At the June 18 launch of the highly anticipated encyclical Laudato Si (The Care for Our Common Home), Cardinal Peter Turkson acknowledged a critique that the Church is taking sides on scientifically still-debatable topics, such as global warming, pollution, species extinction and global inequality’s impact on natural resources.

“The aim of the encyclical is not to intervene in this debate, which is the responsibility of scientists, and even less to establish exactly in which ways the climate changes are a consequence of human action,” he said. Instead, the goal of the document is to promote the well-being of all creation and “to develop an integral ecology, which in its diverse dimensions comprehends ‘our unique place as human beings in this world and our relationship to our surroundings,” the cardinal said, quoting the encyclical.

“Science is the best tool by which we can listen to the cry of the Earth,” Cardinal Turkson said, noting that regardless of the various positions, studies tell us that “today the Earth, our sister, [is] mistreated and abused.”

A true integral ecology seeks to address all of the various aspects of our lives, including the human person itself, the environment in which we live, as well as in the economy and politics and in various cultures of the world, particularly those most at risk.

Cardinal Turkson is the president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. He was joined in presenting the encyclical by a wide variety of voices, including Greek Orthodox Bishop John Zizioulas of Pergamon, who was there as a representative of the Ecumenical Patriarchate Constantinople, headed by Bartholomew I, whom Francis' frequently quotes in the encyclical.

Also present was professor John Schellnhuber, founding director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and a new appointee to the Pontifical Academy for the Sciences. Carolyn Woo, CEO and president of Catholic Relief Services, was also present.

The Vatican announced the Pope’s plans to write Laudato Si in early 2014, and at Pope Francis' request, Cardinal Turkson was involved in the drafting process.

In comments to CNA, the cardinal stressed the importance of an integral approach to the topic of ecology, which links caring for the environment and caring for the human person.

“You cannot believe in and love God without respecting or caring for what he has created, without caring for the work of his hands,” he said.

He noted that “work of God's hands” includes two things: the human person and the world in which they live.

“The two things we're talking about are so closely related; the one doesn't have sense without the other. The garden doesn’t have sense without the man to be brought into the garden, and man doesn't make sense if he wasn't the one to till and keep the land,” the cardinal said.

What the encyclical's concern has been is “just that: to promote the well-being not of one over the other, but to promote the well-being of the two jointly. That's the point of the encyclical.”

Pope Francis' concern for the common good, a term he uses 30 times in the encyclical, is what leads him to find answers to the question “What kind of world do we want to leave to those who come after us?”

In response to a question regarding American Catholic presidential candidates who have said that they are willing to listen to the Pope’s advice on matters of theology in the encyclical but not those of science, Cardinal Turkson said the attitude is “strange,” since science is a broad domain.

“We all talk about subject matters not because we’re experts in those matters. We talk about them because we’re concerned, and they impact our lives,” he said.

“The Pope is not a scientist, but he can consult scientists” and draw conclusions based from their research and advice, the cardinal observed, and he warned against a growing temptation to “de-emphasize the artificial split that has been introduced between religion and public life.”

In his speech, Cardinal Turkson pointed to the Pope’s concern for finding effective proposals on international, national and local politics, as well as the decision-making processes in the public and business sectors, highlighting that they are not “ideological.”

Laudato Si, he said, “can and must have an impact on important and urgent decisions to be made in this area.”

Schellnhuber noted that the large-scale production of fossil fuels has led to many important human developments, but only “for a minority,” and that although vast amounts of wealth have also been generated, on the other side of the cash “stand the poor and the poorest of the poor.”

“The encyclical confirms this assessment, which scientists and moral philosophers have claimed in the context of climate policy: 'The climate is a global commons of all and for all.'”

Bishop John Zizioulas also addressed the gathering on behalf of the Patriarchate of Constantinople and the Orthodox Church.

He thanked the Pope and Cardinal Turkson for the invitation to be there and said that the encyclical “comes at a critical moment in human history and will undoubtedly have a worldwide effect on people’s consciousness.”

“There is in its pages food for thought for all: the scientist, the economist, the sociologist and, above all, the faithful of the Church.”

Bishop Zizioulas said the publication of the document is only a call to evaluate the effect our actions will have on future generations, but is also a call for ecumenical communion.

“I believe that the significance of the papal encyclical Laudato Si is not limited to the subject of ecology as such,” he said.

Rather, for him, it is also “an important ecumenical dimension, in that it brings the divided Christians before a common task, which they must face together,” the bishop noted, explaining that Christian unity today, particularly in the Middle East, “is de facto realized by persecution and blood, an ecumenism of martyrdom.”

He noted how Sept. 1 is a day dedicated to the environment in the Orthodox Church and suggested it become a date that all Christians share in common.

Carolyn Woo spoke from the business perspective of the “one complex crisis” the world is facing, which in her opinion can’t be divided into two separate categories, but is rather one overall problem, with both social and environmental consequences.

At the end of the day, “business is a human enterprise and must strive for true human development and the common good,” she noted.

If businesses invest in sustainability, then it is “another win-win” opportunity, Woo said.

Quoting the Pope's encyclical, she explained that “efforts to promote a sustainable use of natural resources are not a waste of money, but rather an investment capable of providing other economic benefits in the medium term.”