Mysteries and Missed Opportunities in Pope’s New Environmental Letter

In short: Important points in Laudate Deum, Pope Francis’s October apostolic exhortation on the environment, are overshadowed by missed opportunities

In the end, Pope Francis’s letter reads like it could have been issued from a secular NGO, with not much distinctively Christian save a few nods to the faith, leaving one to wonder who the intended audience truly is.

Days before its October 4 release, social media was already ablaze with vitriol over the impending release of Pope Francis’s apostolic exhortation Laudate Deum (LD).For many of us, this made it tempting to rush to a judgment concerning the document’s merit without first giving the pope the benefit of reading his actual words. For better or worse, this is the mass media culture we inhabit, and it makes an examination of conscience all the more necessary before we speak publicly on a matter related to the faith—especially so controversial a one as a papal statement on the issue of climate change.

As the Book of Proverbs rightly observes, “When words are many, transgression is not lacking” (10:19). Attempting to bear that caution in mind, what follows are some of this theologian’s initial thoughts on Pope Francis’s recent missive.

A beautiful expression of insights in harmony with Christian Tradition

In line with the spirituality of St. Francis’s Canticle of the Creatures, the Holy Father seeks to re-enchant creation in a society where it is too often reduced to a lifeless machine that can be manipulated at will. Forgetful of the wisdom of Scripture and the Church Fathers, many well-meaning Christians tend to consider the natural world as mere matter, separating grace from nature in such a way that the latter is not inherently significant from a spiritual perspective.

In the effort to raise our eyes beyond this limited horizon, Francis proclaims that creation is “a gift for which we should be thankful,” warning that a lack of gratitude for this reality risks turning creation into “a slave, prey to any whim of the human mind and its capacities” (LD, §22). In truth, any being that God has created is never mere “stuff,” a random assortment of atoms devoid of any inherent purpose or role to play in God’s plan. Citing his other major writing on the environment, the pontiff explains that the eyes of faith open to us an entirely new perspective on the cosmos in which “the creatures of this world no longer appear to us under merely natural guise, because the risen One is mysteriously holding them to himself and directing them towards fullness as their end” (LD, §65).

Echoing the wisdom of theological greats like St. Thomas Aquinas who described God as “innermost in all things,” Pope Francis writes that “the universe unfolds in God, who fills it completely.” For those who have the eyes to see and ears to hear, the powerful implication is that “there is a mystical meaning to be found in a leaf, in a mountain trail, in a dewdrop, in a poor person’s face.”

This reminds one of the childlike wonder of G.K. Chesterton, who found intoxication in the “startling wetness of water…the fieriness of fire, the steeliness of steel, and the unutterable muddiness of mud.” It also aligns well with Pope John Paul II’s contemplative posture towards the natural world in which he went so far as to speak of the “sacramentality of creation.” Francis is at his best in this text when his words take a lyrical turn, as when he follows the lead of his predecessor Benedict XVI who saw the entire cosmos as a divine symphony, a world that, as Francis says, is constituted by the “marvelous concert of all God’s creatures” that “sings of an infinite Love.” This recognition is at bottom the most profound motivation for the Christian to take care of creation seriously. In the words of Pope Francis, when we bear this truth of creation in mind, “how can we fail to care for it?” (LD, §§65, 67).

Although Francis does not explicitly cite it here, another strength of this document is its allusion to the “covenant between mankind and the environment” Benedict XVI frequently invoked as the basis for believers’ involvement in the conservation and renewal of the earth. Even as we bear in mind “the unique and central value of the human being” in the created order, Francis crucially stresses that, “as part of the universe… all of us are linked by unseen bonds and together form a kind of universal family, a sublime communion which fills us with a sacred, affectionate and humble respect” (LD, §67). Although this claim may strike one as overly poetic or unduly anthropomorphic, it is nevertheless a theme that runs throughout the pages of Sacred Scripture. For example, the Lord told Noah upon exiting the ark, “Behold, I establish my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you.” (Gen 9:9–10).

The covenantal relationship between man and his non-human companions runs more deeply than many believers imagine. It is not only a divine revealed datum, for we are related historically to every living being on earth by virtue of our very DNA, and our present life would be impossible without the constant exchange of breath and life with other creatures. In keeping with this conviction of his predecessors, Francis underscores that thinking of the environment merely as an impersonal “setting” for our lives is to neglect that “we are part of nature, included in it and thus in constant interaction with it.” It is easy to think of human beings as occupying a detached position above the fray of nature, inserted into it from above and fated eventually to leave it behind.

Countering this mistaken notion of man, the pontiff reminds us that we who bear the image of God behold the world not from without, but from within, and that this world is destined to be transfigured in a new heavens and new earth on the Last Day (LD, §25). At the end of his document, Francis expresses the vital relevance of having such an awareness, “[f]or when human beings claim to take God’s place, they become their own worst enemies” (LD, §73). While he does not reference the expression by name, this point is but another way of expressing the Church’s doctrine of “integral ecology” which was coined in the past century to highlight the interconnectedness of humans and the wider created world.

Seeking to reconcile the well-being of both in a society where they are regrettably often pitted against one another, this perspective stresses that care for the natural world is not a secondary issue but indeed essential for human flourishing.

An analysis and evaluation of Francis’s approach to climate change

As we have just seen, the pontiff’s reflections above are in concert with the broader Catholic tradition. Indeed, especially when read in light of his emphases in Laudato Si’, they make a welcome contribution to advancing the intelligibility and relevance of our faith in the modern world. To be sure, the previous two popes dedicated considerable time to the theme of creation, in particular respect for the human person as having a nature that must be respected (i.e., “human ecology”). While aware of this, Francis does well to stress even more clearly that a Catholic’s concern about creation is not merely on account of what it can do for us. As the Bible and Fathers so often stress, even those creatures that do not obviously serve a practical purpose in human life declare the glory of God in unique and irreplaceable ways.

Now, these points made by our Holy Father are of great value, and more Catholics really need to take them to heart. Regrettably, it is likely that many will not do so for a number of reasons.

One of these has to do with the placement of the section that touches on the “spiritual motivations” for addressing the principal concern of the exhortation. That discussion comes at the end of the document and could come across almost as an afterthought for many readers. This impression is deepened by the fact that Jesus is mentioned three times in the document, with zero references to his title of Christ. While the exhortation contains a few Bible references, it makes no attempt to ground the enterprise of environmental stewardship in the Church’s sweeping vision of a cosmos grounded in the Logos in whom and for whom all things were created (Jn 1:3; Col 1:15–16).

Moreover, in contrast with Francis’s earlier work on environmental stewardship, this new text does not exude the same contemplative vision of the world as “a joyful mystery to be contemplated with gladness and praise” rather than merely “a problem to be solved” (Laudato Si’, §12). Perhaps this observation may be explained on the basis of the pontiff seeking to remain concise and stay on point. However, even those beautiful statements referenced above will alienate many Catholics because they are for the most part couched in negative terms, which is to say how bad it is that we are not living up to the majestic vision bequeathed to us by the Catholic tradition.

In this, Francis’s approach differs markedly from the gentle pastoral heart and generous spirit that characterized Benedict XVI’s thought when he wrote (extensively) on the theme of ecology. On this score, many readers will outright dismiss the evidence for anthropogenic climate change that he presents because they find his style alienating. Most human beings are not very receptive before an interlocutor who repeatedly accuses them of malfeasance, especially when their concerns are written off as “scarcely reasonable” while implying that the truth of the claims in question should “appear obvious” (LD, §14).

While some among us have studied the data, the reality is that the vast majority of those who are predisposed to reject Francis’s message lack any kind of professional training in this field of inquiry. This is not to countenance every assertion in the document, yet a child of the Church would do well to consider beginning by giving the Holy Father the benefit of the doubt before rendering a verdict about the truth of his teachings. Indeed, if we were to transpose the knowledge of the average self-appointed internet expert on climate science into the realm of astronomy five centuries ago, he would likely be insisting vehemently—on both biblical and empirically observable grounds—that the Earth cannot possibly be revolving around the Sun.

In the spirit of filial piety, this particular reader found value in the Holy Father’s brief survey of the human factors that appear to be driving climate change. His attempt to defuse objections to the conclusions of climate scientists was also a reasonable endeavor in its own right. A recent study out of Cornell University concluded that more than 99.9% of academic studies purportedly concur with the same fundamental convictions presented in the pontiff’s exhortation. Whether that figure is accurate or not—and with full awareness that a deep and unacknowledged bias often accompanies the peer review process—the abbreviated list of evidence recalled here by the pope is significant and far from exhaustive.

And yet, the Holy Father will likely fail to persuade most who are not already in agreement because the objections he raises tend to be waved off rather than argued against, with ignoble motivations attached to those who would question the evidence presented. For example: to those who claim that the rise of global temperatures over the past two centuries can be explained by looking to intermittent periods of extreme cold and heat over the course of earth’s history, the pontiff suggests that this is pointed out “[i]n order to ridicule those who speak of global warming” (LD, §7).

No doubt this mentality is common, but is it necessarily the dominant motivation among those who wish to challenge the current state of climate science? The Holy Father states that “[i]t is no longer possible to doubt” the human causes behind global warming” (LD, §11). But are there plausible factors behind this reluctance that go acknowledged by Christ’s vicar?

What Francis overlooks about climate change skepticism

For starters, the pontiff overplays his hand with the assertion that the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere has accelerated exponentially in recent decades is “a fact that cannot be concealed” (LD, §14). This knowledge might be clear as day to experts, but the fact is that most people are just taking their word for it. To say that this domain is complex is a serious understatement. Most of us can have (or think we have) a basic grasp of weather patterns, but Francis correctly notes that people easily confuse large-scale climate projections over time frames spanning decades to centuries with weather forecasts that look ahead just a few days.

The trouble is that the confusion on this matter (at least in the USA) is typically on the part of media outlets attributing the most recent heat wave, forest fire, or hurricane to climate change. Many citizens are aware of the trouble with this narrative, and it provides them with a non-trivial reason to reject the underlying claim regarding climate change. Relatedly, not long ago practically all of this nation’s elites in politics, media, and education informed us that “following the science” with masks, vaccines, and lockdowns was the remedy for COVID-19. They also insisted that the virus could not possibly have originated in a Chinese lab that studied coronaviruses, which just so happened to be in the same city where the virus first emerged. Readers themselves can be the judges of how they think that panned out.

In light of this, the editors of Francis’s exhortation probably should have foreseen the consequences of their mentioning the pandemic as a factor that “brought out the close relation of human life with that of other living beings and with the natural environment” (LD, §19).

However, these are not the only reasons that the Holy Father’s teachings will be met with great skepticism on the part of readers. Lamenting the “irresponsible derision” of climate change deniers, Francis complains that eco-activist groups are sometimes “negatively portrayed as ‘radicalized’” (LD, §58). Perhaps it depends on one’s definition of ‘radical,’ but many Catholics consider ruining classic works of art and starting forest fires in an effort to spread awareness of climate change to be radical. Hopefully, the essence of the pontiff’s assertion will come through, but there is great risk that statements like this will make that an uphill climb.

The same goes for when he laments the activity of “false prophets,” which he appears to identify with those who seek to accrue maximum economic gain while placing the cost of this on the poor and the natural world (LD, §31). The pontiff makes an important point here, but regrettably he misses the irony that overconfident and heretofore unrealized doomsday predictions coming from the environmental movement are a key driver in the public’s indifference to its efforts. Rightly or wrongly, many now view the push for ecological reform merely as a mask for the pursuit of ever greater control over ordinary people’s day-to-day lives on the part of a patronizing elite class bent on blaming all our woes upon Western civilization and Christianity in particular.

Perhaps more importantly still, in the hearts of many Catholics the messaging surrounding contemporary environmental discourse evokes anti-human methods of population control, solutions to problems that are so idealistic and expensive as to be impossible in practice, and “green” strategies that are not actually all that green but which are instead carried out with slave labor and the destruction of precious natural resources, amounting to the exchange of one kind of problem for another potentially more seriously one. To his credit, Pope Francis denounces “mutilating women in less developed countries,” presumably in references to forced methods of sterilization, but conspicuously absent is any mention of unforced sterilization, which is to say the practices of contraception and abortion so highly prized by leaders in ecological circles (LD, §9).

Remarkably, the pontiff who has arguably done the most to promote the Church’s teaching of integral ecology passed on a golden opportunity to reinforce his past teachings about care for the unborn, the importance of respecting our bodies’ God-given natures and rhythms, and the dangers of underpopulation. The net result is that Francis’s letter reads like it could have been issued from a secular NGO, with not much distinctively Christian save a few nods to the faith mainly at the beginning and end. This is by no means to negate its value entirely, but it does make one wonder who the intended audience truly is. If it is the wider secular world, frankly, they probably will not care. To Catholics who already see climate change as a pressing issue, it will impart renewed vigor and deepen convictions. But to those whom it likely most wishes to reach, it will most likely be a flop.

If you are an American, Laudate Deum may even have the opposite of its intended impact, not unlike our Holy Father’s actions in recent years with regard to the liturgy. In our culture’s race for ideological purity, it seems obligatory to reject the position of your political opponent at all costs. It will be no wonder if this happens when the pope concludes his document with a sudden one-sided critique of the United States while in the same breath offering implicit praise of China.

By no means are we perfect in the USA, and this non-specialist sees no particular need to doubt the UN data according to which “emissions per individual in the United States are about two times greater than those of individuals living in China” (LD, §72). However, Francis fails to mention that China produces more greenhouse gas emissions than all developed nations combined and that Beijing is currently increasing its emissions even as the EPA reports that emissions in the United States have decreased by over 2% since 1990. This is not to mention the atrocities against human ecology perpetrated by socialist dictatorships whose environmental measures do not have to pass through a democratic process and for whom the welfare of its most vulnerable citizens poses no obstacle to implementing drastic across-the-board measures when deemed necessary.

Parting thoughts

Much more doubtlessly could be said about Laudate Deum, and many more analyses of the document will be written in the coming days and weeks. As this essay has attempted to show, Pope Francis’s missive contains some important points and at times even speaks beautifully on the subject of creation.

Unfortunately, much of this will be overshadowed by the text’s shortcomings, especially in the eyes of those who are presumably its primary audience. As a professor of theology with a keen interest in creation and matters of faith and science, I cannot help but think of how a wise saying of St. Thomas Aquinas applies to the subject examined in our Holy Father’s most recent apostolic exhortation. Like St. Augustine before him, the Angelic Doctor warned interpreters of Scripture to be careful about how they go about their presentations of the biblical data, “lest Scripture be exposed to the ridicule of unbelievers and obstacles posed to their believing.”

It would seem that the same applies to how we go about our claims concerning the domain which the medieval tradition lovingly recognized as “God’s other book.”

This appeared at Catholic World Report.
Image: Rawpixel

Matthew Ramage

Dr. Matthew Ramage is Professor of Theology at Benedictine College where he is co-director of its Center for Integral Ecology. He earned his Masters Degree in Theology from the Franciscan University of Steubenville and his Ph.D. from Ave Maria University. His research and writing concentrates especially on the theology of Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI, the wedding of ancient and modern methods of biblical interpretation, the dialogue between faith and science, and stewardship of creation. He is author, co-author, or translator of over 15 books, including Dark Passages of the Bible (CUA Press, 2013), Jesus, Interpreted (CUA Press, 2017), The Experiment of Faith (CUA Press, 2020), Christ’s Church and World Religions (Sophia Institute Press, 2020) and From the Dust of the Earth: Benedict XVI, the Bible, and the Theory of Evolution (CUA Press, 2022). Dr. Ramage enjoys exploring the great outdoors with his wife and seven children, tending his orchard, leading educational trips abroad, and aspiring to be a barbeque pitmaster. For more on Dr. Ramage’s work, visit his website: MatthewRamage.com