“Nobody reads an eighty-page document these days!” This is what an informed cultural commentator said to me recently, doubting that many people would actually read the papal encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si. I wanted to rail against this suggestion, because I believe that the letter is both important and readable. However, I suppose I am half agreeing with it by suggesting that people read the following “edited highlights” of the letter. I conclude with an appeal for prayer.
Introduction: Paragraphs 13-15:
If you read nothing else, read these three paragraphs. They capture the spirit of the whole document. They an appeal for two things: first, take the ecological question seriously; second, find ways to enter into processes of dialogue about what needs to be done. It is worth noting that in spite of a media focus on specific policy proposals in the encyclical, it is in fact reticent to take positions on many technical questions (e.g. economic policies). It is above all a call to mobilise the sensibilities of civil society on these issues and to promote debate. This call for dialogue runs deep in the theology of Pope Francis. He insists that authentic progress will only be made in history when there is broad-based dialogue, from the international level to the most local level, on all issues of importance that relate to our communal well being.
Chapter 1: “What is Happening to our Common Home?”
Just read the section headings of this chapter! And I recommend two sentences also. First, there is a classic statement of the Pope Francis vision in the opening sentence: “Theological and philosophical reflections on the situation of humanity and the world can sound tiresome and abstract, unless they are grounded in a fresh analysis of our present situation.” Next, notice how sections of the chapter are first dedicated to analysing physical questions such as pollution, water supply, and biodiversity; note then how these themes yield to sections on, “decline in the quality of life,” and “Global inequality.” This is an issue that most media reports have captured accurately: Pope Francis insists on linking ecology to wider social-ethical concerns of human beings. Finally, read paragraph 43: “Human beings too are creatures of this world, enjoying a right to life and happiness, and endowed with unique dignity. So we cannot fail to consider the effects on people’s lives of environmental deterioration, current models of development and the throwaway culture.”
Chapter 3: “The Human Roots of the Ecological Crisis” / Chapter 4: Integral Ecology
Skip these if you must, but they are a marvellous expansion on this theme of linking issues of human dignity and social justice to those of ecology. Note, the Pope sticks to philosophy here, and not theology. He is appealing to a world-wide audience, not especially to Christians.
Chapter 5: Lines of Approach and Action
Skip if you like, but note that all the section titles have the word “dialogue” in them. This stress on dialogue his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, where he does not spare bishops and priests from criticism for their tendency to resist dialogue.
The Paris Climate Summit, November 2015
Finally, pray for Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India! A major purpose of this encyclical is to influence the United Nations Climate summit aimed at reducing global greenhouse gas emissions, to be held in November in Paris. This can be understood as seeking to produce a “bigger and better” version of the “Kyoto agreement,” made in 1997. So far, positive signs have been given by many countries, including, remarkably the USA and China. By contrast, a hold-out country seems to be India, which is industrializing rapidly. Prime Minister Modi has been giving mixed signals. Will this encyclical be able to make its influence felt on his Hindu government? And for more information on this UN climate summit in Paris you can read this ‘everything you need to know’ article in The Guardian.