Pope Francis walks near a statue of St. Francis in Assisi, Italy, in 2013. (CNS/Paul Haring)

Pope Francis Releases Groundbreaking Encyclical on the Environment

June 18, 2015 — Today Pope Francis released his highly anticipated encyclical on the environment, "Laudato Si': On the Care for Our Common Home," calling on all people worldwide to act on climate change as a moral responsibility. This encyclical, a teaching letter from the pope, is the first time top-level papal teaching has been exclusively devoted to ecology.

All who believe in God and all people of good will have an obligation to take steps to mitigate climate change, clean the land and the seas and start treating all of creation — including poor people — with respect and concern, he says in the document.

In "Laudato Si',” Pope Francis lays out the moral imperative to fight global warming, since the poor are the most affected by it. He warns that failure to act would have grave consequences for all of us. "Doomsday predictions can no longer be met with irony or disdain. We may well be leaving to coming generations debris, desolation and filth," he says.

"There can be no renewal of our relationship with nature," Pope Francis says, "without a renewal of humanity itself."

Pope Francis also says in the encyclical that most climate change is due to human activity. "A very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climatic system. ... Humanity is called to recognize the need for changes of lifestyle, production and consumption, in order to combat this warming or at least the human causes which produce or aggravate it."

He says, "We are always capable of going out of ourselves towards the other ... the rejection of every form of self-centeredness and self-absorption are essential if we truly wish to care for our brothers and sisters and for the natural environment. These attitudes also attune us to the moral imperative of assessing the impact of our every action and personal decision on the world around us."

Situating ecology firmly within Catholic social teaching, Pope Francis not only insists that wealthier nations — who contribute more to despoiling the earth — must bear more of the costs of remedying the damage, he also calls for their solidarity with the poorest of the earth. He urges generosity in transferring clean technology, protecting small farms, opening access to markets and protecting people's jobs.

“The pope’s encyclical is going out to over 1 billion Catholics, and that’s a highly impactful way of getting a message across,” said Fr. Timothy Kesicki, SJ, president of the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States. “His message is clear: care for the earth is a moral issue, and we are each responsible for it. The Catholic Church plays a key role in this issue because we are a global church, and it’s our responsibility to care for our brothers and sisters and our planet. While there will be many reports and initial interpretations of this encyclical, it is important that we take time to read it, study it and pray about it."

The encyclical is aimed at everyone, the pope said, not just Catholics. In the letter, the pope addressed "every person living on this planet."

“The encyclical is part of a larger conversation that the people of the world must have,” said Jesuit Father Tom Reese. “The pope's encyclical will be his invitation to all of us to join in this conversation and this work.”

Jesuit Father Drew Christiansen, distinguished professor of ethics and global development at Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service, noted that the encyclical is “not just about climate change, it’s about the environment. It is on [climate change], there’s no denying that, but it’s also about taking responsibility for the environment in a wider sense, particularly for the environment’s impact on the poor.

“For Jesuits, this is part of our mission for promoting faith that does justice. We also have a responsibility toward the poor and the disenfranchised in this world. They are most affected by environmental change,” Fr. Christiansen said.

Jesuit Father Michael Czerny, who was involved in drafting the encyclical, said it is “certainly an agenda-setting document.” It precedes the pope’s planned address to the United Nations during his September visit to the United States; last year, in a December 2014 message to the UN Convention on Climate Change, Pope Francis said: “On climate change, there is a clear, definitive and ineluctable ethical imperative to act … The establishment of an international climate change treaty is a grave ethical and moral responsibility.”

Pope Francis’ message is being heard by religious and non-religious alike, as he hoped. Gavin Schmidt, a NASA climatologist, said he is not a religious person, but he sees faith-based efforts to shift thinking on climate action as very promising. “The pope's encyclical is probably going to have a bigger impact than the Paris negotiations," he said, referencing the highly anticipated UN conference on climate change, which is set for December.

Jesuit institutions across the country are uniting in prayer on June 18, in support of the letter's release. This nationwide call to prayer, coordinated by the Ignatian Solidarity Network, includes prayer services or Masses at Boston College, Georgetown University, John Carroll University and Saint Joseph’s University.

The encyclical’s title, "Laudato Si'” comes from the 13th century prayer written by Saint Francis of Assisi entitled “Canticle of Brother Sun and Sister Moon,” which emphasizes being in harmony with God, with other creatures and with other human beings.

Pope Francis has been outspoken about the environment since his papacy began. When he met with reporters just a few days after his election in March 2013, he told them how he decided to name himself after St. Francis of Assisi. The saint, he said, "is the man of poverty, the man of peace, the man who loves and safeguards creation; at this time we don't have a very good relationship with creation, do we?"

During his first public Mass as pope on March 19, 2013, Pope Francis said in his homily, “Let us be ‘protectors’ of creation, protectors of God's plan inscribed in nature, protectors of one another and of the environment.” [Sources: CNSAPCatholic Climate Covenant, New York Times, USA TODAY, Catholic News Service]

In the video below, Jesuit Father James Martin, editor at large of America magazine, presents the top 10 things you need to know about Laudato Si':

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