Laudato Si’ has been hailed as a watershed in global religious thinking about the critical ecological issues facing planet Earth and its inhabitants. This is not so much because the encyclical is saying something entirely new about the contemporary environmental crisis, but because the encyclical demonstrates the kind of global leadership needed in our time, and points to the possibility of an ecological integrity and action founded in deep spiritual and moral traditions.
In his General Audience of 17 January 2001, Pope John Paul II had already recognised ‘ecological conversion’ as a sign of the times evident in sections of the wider society among environmentally aware individuals and groups which might include Christians but were not themselves principally Christian. Ecological conversion was for Pope John Paul II also a call to Christians to a change of heart in their relationship with and treatment of the Earth and its myriad creatures, including other humans. Pope Francis has renewed this call, addressing his letter to all humans today.
The call is grounded in a Christian doctrine of creation in which humankind comprises creatures among creatures, called to be at home, and responsibly so, on Earth (eg Paragraphs 13, 43). Drawing sympathetically and critically on the insights of contemporary sciences, particularly the science of ecology, the encyclical emphasises the interconnectedness of all creation, and especially that part of creation that constitutes and inhabits this planet Earth.
Pope Francis rejects the idea of human dominion over other creatures (82). Such concepts are a misreading of the biblical tradition (66, 68). Instead, humans are creatures among creatures, in relationships of mutual responsibility (67). Drawing on the Franciscan tradition, the encyclical affirms that other creatures are our kin – sisters and brothers, as Saints Francis and Bonaventure attest (11). This does not mean humans are the same as other creatures (81, 90). Each species has its own characteristic qualities, and, for Pope Francis, humankind holds a particular place of dignity and responsibility in relation to the rest of creation by virtue of its divinely given character as human (119).
The encyclical attempts to strike a balance between affirming the intrinsic worth of every creature and affirming the particular needs of human beings, especially those who are most vulnerable. Pope Francis links the call to care for creation with the imperative to care for other human beings in the frameworks of social justice and affirmation of life (eg 10, 16, 49, 70, 91, 117, 196). For some ecological thinkers, this focus on human beings might seem to reinforce a problematic anthropocentrism in religious social teaching. To my mind, this is a fair criticism. Nonetheless, the encyclical is both subtle and far-reaching in its approach to other creatures, and not only affirms their worth in themselves (140, 190), but grounds this affirmation in an ecological Trinitarian theology (240).
The interconnectedness between the wellbeing both of other creatures and of humans, particularly the most vulnerable, is demonstrated by the experience of the ‘common good’ (23) of climate, threatened by anthropogenic (human-induced) climate change: “changes in climate, to which animals and plants cannot adapt, lead them to migrate; this in turn affects the livelihood of the poor, who are then forced to leave their homes, with great uncertainty for their future and that of their children” (25). A loss of biodiversity means a loss of resources for humans, and while the encyclical allows that other creatures are of necessity resources requisite for human wellbeing, this is not all they are, or even their principal meaning:
It is not enough, however, to think of different species as potential ‘resources’ to be exploited, while overlooking the fact that they have value in themselves. Each year sees the disappearance of thousands of plant and animal species which we will never know, which our children will never see, because they have been lost for ever. The great majority become extinct for reasons related to human activity. Because of us, thousands of species will no longer give glory to God by their very existence, nor convey their message to us. We have no such right. (33)
Other creatures are not only capable of giving glory to God ( 72), but also convey a divine message to us simply by being what they are. They are our teachers, speaking of divine love (84). Since divine goodness cannot be expressed in any one creature, “we need to grasp the variety of things in their multiple relationships” and “service of each other” (86). Human dignity is intertwined with the good of other creatures (92, 130). Pope Francis sees a link between ecological destruction of species and habitats not only as similar to ‘the disappearance of a culture”, but also as a cause of the loss of cultural diversity; of special note is the situation of indigenous communities, in which an understanding of other creatures as kin may indeed be more usual than it is in dominant cultures (145–46).
The encyclical calls for cultural and behavioural change (114). Renewal of our relationship with the Earth involves “a renewal of humanity itself” (118, 202). Part of this change is in the way we see ourselves as creatures among creatures, accepting and celebrating our bodily being as the site of our interconnectedness with all our kin, not only our human kin (98, 155, 220). It means lamenting ecological losses at the same time as responding to the vast beauty of creaturely life. While the moral choices we face in relation to other creatures can be complex, the change to which we are called involves acting in hope to promote a good that is common to all Earth creatures. “We are always capable of going out of ourselves toward the other”, including the other creature (208).