How the Pope went Green. The Story behind "Laudato Si", in Francis’s own words.
In a new book written with Campion Hall Fellow Dr Austen Ivereigh, Pope Francis explains the awakening of his ecological consciousness, and why he decided to write his groundbreaking 2015 letter, Laudato Sí.
[Start of extract] If someone who loves you gives you a beautiful and valuable gift, how do you handle it? To treat it with contempt is to treat the giver with contempt. If you value it, you admire it, look after it; you do not disdain it; you respect it and are grateful. The damage to our planet stems from the loss of this awareness of gratitude. We have grown used to owning, but too little to thanking.
My own awareness of this truth began to take root during a meeting of the bishops of Latin America at the shrine of Aparecida, Brazil, in May 2007. I was on the committee drafting the concluding document of the meeting, and at first I was a bit annoyed that the Brazilians and bishops from other countries wanted so much in there on Amazonia. It struck me as excessive.
Last year, I called a special synod on Amazonia.
What happened between these two moments? After Aparecida, I started to see news stories: for example, the government of a well-known island in the South Pacific bought lands in Samoa to transfer its population there, because in 20 years’ time the island will be under water. Another time, a missionary in the Pacific told me of when he was travelling by boat and saw a tree sticking up from the water. He asked: was that tree planted in the sea? The man steering the boat told him: no, that was once an island.
And so, through many encounters, dialogues and anecdotes like these my eyes were opened. It was like an awakening. In the night you see nothing, but little by little dawn breaks and you see the day. That was my process: serene and calm, through information I gradually became aware of, until I became convinced of the seriousness of the thing. What was particularly helpful were the writings of Patriarch Bartholomew on this topic. It was a concern that I began to talk about to others, which helped. In sharing concerns, we began to see horizons and limits.
That’s how my ecological awareness came about. I saw that it was of God, because it was a spiritual experience of the sort St Ignatius describes as like drops on a sponge: gentle, silent, but insistent. Slowly, like daybreak, an ecological vision began growing in me. I started to see the harmonious unity of humanity and nature, and how humanity’s fate is inseparably bound up with that of our common home.
It’s an awareness, not an ideology. There are green movements that turn the ecological experience into ideology, but ecological awareness is just that: awareness, not ideology. It’s being conscious of what’s at stake in the fate of humanity.
After my election as Pope, I asked experts on climate and environmental science to assemble the best available data on the state of our planet. Then I asked some theologians to reflect on that data, in dialogue with experts in the field from across the world. Theologians and scientists put their heads together until they reached a synthesis.
While this was being worked on, in 2014 I went to Strasbourg in France to address the Council of Europe. President François Hollande sent his environment minister, who was at that time Ségolène Royal, to receive me. While we chatted at the airport, she said she had learned I was preparing an encyclical letter on care of the environment. I told her about it, and she said: please publish it before the meeting of heads of state that was due to take place in Paris in December 2015. She wanted that meeting to turn out well. And it did, even though some later took fright and withdrew their support for its conclusions. It is important that the Church makes its voice heard in this vital, necessary process: our faith demands it.
Laudato Si’ is not a green encyclical. It’s a social encyclical. The green and the social go hand in hand. The fate of Creation is tied to the fate of all humanity.
Laudato Si’ links the scientific consensus on the destruction of the environment with our self-forgetting, our rejection of who we are as creatures of a loving Creator, living inside his Creation but at odds with it. It’s the sadness of a humanity rich in know-how but lacking the inner security of knowing ourselves as creatures of God’s love, a knowledge expressed in our simultaneous respect for God, for each other, and for Creation.
To talk about Creation, you need poetry and beauty. Along with beauty is harmony, the sense of harmony that we abandon when we narrow our focus on to some areas at the expense of others. Existence becomes lopsided when we focus on the technical and the abstract, and lose our roots in the natural world. When we neglect Mother Earth, we lose not just what we need to survive but the wisdom to live together well.
That’s why I spoke in Laudato Si’ of a distorted mindset known as the “technocratic paradigm”. It is a mindset that despises the limit that another’s value imposes. I made the case there that an ecological conversion is necessary not only to save humanity from destroying nature, but from destroying itself. I called for an “integral ecology”, an ecology that is about much more than caring for nature; it’s about caring for each other as fellow creatures of a loving God, and all that this implies.
This is a time for integrity, for exposing the selective morality of ideology and to embrace the full implications of what it means to be children of God. That is why I think the future we are called to build has to begin with an integral ecology, an ecology that takes seriously the cultural and ethical deterioration that goes hand in hand with our ecological crisis. [End of extract]
Extracted from Pope Francis, Let Us Dream: The Path to a Better Future. In conversation with Austen Ivereigh, published by Simon & Schuster (2020) and reproduced by the Laudato Si' Research Institute with permission.