After what seems like months of speculation, Pope Francis' long-anticipated encyclical on human ecology was released June 18 - and it does not disappoint. Divided into six chapters, "Laudato Si' ("Praise Be to You"): On Care for Our Common Home," is a rich exploration of the interconnectedness that exists among God, humanity and creation, and it details all the blessings and challenges brought on by such intimate relationships. For Pope Francis, penning the encyclical was "both joyful and troubling." It was also intensely personal, resulting in a direct plea from the Holy Father to all people for conversion of heart and for action.
"I urgently appeal, then, for a new dialogue about how we are shaping the future of our planet," Pope Francis writes. "We need a conversation which includes everyone, since the environmental challenge we are undergoing, and its human roots, concern and affect us all."
A much more comprehensive summary of the remarkable document can be found elsewhere in OSV Newsweekly, but here we share a few initial thoughts.
First, as one of the seven tenets of Catholic social teaching, the importance of caring for creation is hardly groundbreaking in terms of Church doctrine. Francis liberally quotes St. John XXIII, St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI. He also relies on the insights of St. Francis of Assisi, St. Benedict, St. Thérèse of Lisieux, St. John of the Cross and even Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew. What Francis does do that is unique, however, is delve into the complexity and interconnectedness of what he calls an "integral ecology" in a way that is meant to spur the reader to thoughtful reflection and personal action. While such connections bring to mind the doctrine of the mystical Body of Christ and John the Evangelist's imagery of the "vine and the branches," Pope Francis takes them a step further, directly linking human, economic, political, technological and spiritual activity to environmental and social responsibility.
It's a lesson critical to all of us and to our future. As the Holy Father highlights, the great temptation of the world today is to remain isolated from one another, whether it be from the unborn child in the womb or from the suffering of third-world migrants.
In many ways, Laudato Si' is quintessential Francis, bringing a global perspective to an issue on which many Catholics, particularly those in the West, tend to look through a more narrowed lens. As such, elements of the encyclical are guaranteed to be challenging regardless of who is reading. The encyclical no doubt will be shrugged off by some for being idealistic, inconsequential or focused on the wrong priorities. But Pope Francis is prophetically calling on us to engage the world and understand our God-given bond with our fellow men and women and all creation. Just as the Apostle Paul challenged the early Church to travel to the corners of the world, so Francis is asking us to think beyond our own immediate wants and needs, our own comforts and self-interest to the needs of others. That's the beauty of Laudato Si': Pope Francis, in countering our self-centeredness and individualism, is calling us to a better version of ourselves - and to holiness.
For both conservatives and liberals, there will be a temptation to either dismiss or exploit the encyclical to serve one's own agenda. We strongly caution against this and instead encourage Catholics and Catholic parishes to both reflect on it and pray over it. In this way, we do justice to what will surely become one of the Church's great social texts.