Chapter 8: Case Study: Laudato Si

8.1 Laudato Si

Laudato Si’ has made an impact for several reasons. First, at least among Catholics, a papal encyclical is a highly authoritative statement that speaks to a particular societal issue in a way that extends to all Catholic communities. [1] Only a papal bull (a formal proclamation on any topic issued by the pope), apostolic constitutions (decrees of the highest level, issued as a papal bull usually dealing with doctrinal matters), and motu proprios (documents issued by the pope that receive their validity from the pope on his own initiative, not from the reasons given in the document; these usually address legislative matters within the Catholic church) hold more religious authority for Catholics. [2]

Beyond its import for Catholics, however, it is important to note that Pope Francis wrote Laudato Si’ to reach out to not only Catholics, but to everyone on the planet. This is not unprecedented in a papal encyclical, [3] but it is more explicit and far-reaching than any previous encyclical. Pope Francis writes to “all people” (not just people of good will), and repeatedly notes that in order to adequately address environmental issues, all people will need to engage in the dialogue and response. This universal intention is underscored by the apologetic [4] framing of significant parts of the encyclical, particularly the second chapter on environmental theology. Here, where we expect to find the heart of the argument in a papal encyclical, Pope Francis introduces relevant Catholic theology, acknowledging that the church is not the authority on matters of science (Laudato Si’, ¶61) [5] and that not everyone will be interested in theology [6]; nonetheless, he offers resources from Catholic theology because of their potential contribution to fruitful dialogue. Surely some Catholics were surprised to find theology downplayed in this way in an encyclical, but the point seems to be that Laudato Si’ is serious about speaking to everyone, not just Catholics. Indeed, the encyclical has gained attention from far beyond Catholic circles.

Another reason for the influence of Laudato Si’ is the character and influence of the Pope himself. Francis’s papacy has enjoyed relatively high worldwide approval ratings, [7]including 70% approval among Americans and approximately 85% approval among American Catholics. Many have commented that had his predecessor, Pope Benedict, written an environmental encyclical (as many expected and hoped for him to do), it may not have been as well received or as influential. The fit between Francis and Laudato Si’ is also highlighted by his choosing “Francis” as his papal name in honor of St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of those who study ecology; many of his readers were expecting and welcoming of an environmental encyclical given that it follows naturally from the environmental concerns Francis has expressed since becoming pope.

A detailed measure of the pope’s influence via Laudato Si’ is provided by “The Francis Effect” report published by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication. This study found that the Pope’s teachings as well as his position on global warming have influenced the views of Americans significantly. “More Americans say that the issue of global warming has become very or extremely important to them personally” (for Americans in general, the increase was 7 percentage points; for American Catholics, it was an 8 percentage point increase); “More think global warming will harm future generations of people” (Americans: 10 point increase; American Catholics: 11 point increase). Additionally, more Americans identify global warming as a “moral issue” (Americans: 6 point increase; American Catholics: 8 point increase). In anticipation of Pope Francis’s visit to Washington, D.C. four months following the publication of the encyclical, eleven Republican congressmen stepped out from under their party platform of climate skepticism to sign a resolution acknowledging humans’ role in climate change. So, the encyclical has had a measurable impact on American environmental attitudes and commitments.

The influence of Laudato Si’ can also be seen by looking at the many denominational responses and commentaries it has sparked. [8]Study guides and commendations from multiple religions have emerged to join the dialogue sparked by the encyclical; a number of faith communities in the Ohio State campus area have sponsored adult study groups to read and discuss the encyclical, and Catholic communities across the country have undertaken initiatives to “implement Laudato Si’”. [9] Alongside the focused responses from religious communities are a number of similar endorsements from scientific and professional societies, in most cases with the president(s) of those societies commending Pope Francis for publishing the encyclical and applauding its content. [10] It is safe to say that Laudato Si’ had a considerable ripple effect.

So what does the encyclical say? Many commentators have been quick to point out that much of the content of the encyclical is not new, but consists in Francis summarizing and reviewing the various tenets of existing Catholic environmental teaching. Francis reiterates themes from his predecessors: Pope Paul VI’s concern about human degradation of creation; Pope John Paul II’s call for global “ecological conversion”; and Pope Benedict XVI’s comment that a pernicious relativism of popular culture leaves us with no boundaries on irresponsible human behavior, leading to both natural and social deterioration. Francis also endorses the sentiment of Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew that “to commit a crime against the natural world is a sin against ourselves and a sin against God” (¶8), echoing prior Catholic statements identifying environmental pollution as one of seven contemporary social sins. [11] Consequently, Francis says that we must replace consumption with sacrifice, greed with generosity, wastefulness with a spirit of sharing, and move toward an asceticism of learning to give as a way of loving, of transitioning from “what I want” to what God’s world needs.

When Cardinal Peter Turkson [12] spoke about Laudato Si’ at Ohio State in November of 2015, [13] he highlighted this continuity with Francis’s predecessors as the first “C” of an “encyclical of C’s”:

  • Continuity with predecessors, as noted above
  • Collegiality in its reference to teachings of episcopal conferences from around the world
  • Care, referring to the care of creation that Francis emphasizes as necessary. This point bears further note: Turkson said Francis prefers “care” to “stewardship” (a term only used twice in the encyclical); “stewardship” has otherwise been a resonant term for faith-based environmental work. Francis believes that “stewardship” can be dispassionate 一 we might do the right thing only because told to do so, even if we don’t actually care; the approach Francis takes is that we should rather care with our whole heart if our response is to be sufficient
  • Conversion, meaning ecological conversion, as commended by Pope John Paul II and in response to ecological degradations taken to heart
  • Citizenship, meaning environmental citizenship, which is to embrace and act on our responsibility and out of our love, and finally
  • Celebration, of God’s gift of creation, which takes the form of our praise and wonder at the gift of all that God created

Turkson also highlighted some key themes of Laudato Si’ in his speech at Ohio State. He said that Laudato Si’ calls attention to the great environmental challenges of our time, sparking individual and political commitment to address climate change and other challenges while inspiring an “ecological conversion” towards an “integral ecology” that joins natural, social, and spiritual dimensions to effect positive change. Turkson emphasized the following points as central to the message of the encyclical:

  • the relation between the poor and the planet
  • the interconnection of everything
  • a critique of the new “technocratic paradigm”
  • the value of all creatures and the importance of humans to ecology
  • the need for forthright and honest debate and dialogue
  • the serious responsibility of international and local policy
  • the throwaway culture
  • the need for new lifestyles
  • an invitation to search for other ways of understanding the economy and progress
Container gardens used to feed the poor are an excellent example of how caring for nature and caring for the poor are connected through Integral Ecology. Photo courtesy of

Clearly part of the appeal of Laudato Si’ is that it is a relatively comprehensive document. There is so much to study and reflect on within its pages 一 it is no simple statement of “we believe, thus we should do thus and so…” Rather, Laudato Si’ lays out a thorough overview of current environmental degradations and concerns (Chapter One) [14], and offers some relevant theological traditions (Chapter Two), while acknowledging that not everyone is moved by theology. The encyclical then discusses many complex social dynamics that impact the interplay of environmental and human factors (Chapter Three), which inspires a call for an ecological conversion towards an integral ecology (Chapter four) that takes account of all this complexity in moving forward. A refreshing element of Laudato Si’, as a result, is that it resists polarization into simple dichotomies by maintaining a nuanced and complex perspective. Francis concludes the encyclical by tracing “lines of approach and action” (Chapter Five) and encouragements for “ecological education and spirituality” (Chapter Six).

One of the reasons Laudato Si’ makes a good case study for this book is that it touches on most of the themes we’ll examine moving forward and provides an opportunity to connect and integrate a range of ideas and concepts. Beyond some of the case study material on climate change, animal and food ethics, consumerism, and environmental justice, this book does not attempt to provide an overview of contemporary environmental concerns as Chapter One of Laudato Si’ does, but it presumes such concerns as the motivation for examining religious influences on the environment and sustainability, just as many religious environmental policy statements begin by acknowledging and referencing scientific consensus about various environmental issues of concern. [15]

Laudato Si’ also stands as a clear response to the Lynn White thesis that we addressed in Chapter Two of this book, both in its overall demonstration of western, biblical environmental views as well as in its specific attention to many of the points made by White in 1967. Chapter Three of the encyclical, titled “The Human Roots of the Ecological Crisis” clearly alludes to the title of White’s famous article, and the encyclical’s commentary on technology, the technocratic paradigm, and modern anthropocentrism addresses many of the themes discussed by White. Perhaps this should come as no surprise, for it was White who suggested that St. Francis should be named the patron saint of ecologists (and the Pope obliged in 1978) and commended St. Francis’s perspective as a solution; with Pope Francis having adopted that name, this convergence of ideas was perhaps inevitable. Laudato Si’ clarifies some points that White’s thesis did not: while both publications critique anthropocentrism (see Part III of Chapter Three in Laudato Si’), the encyclical clarifies that a “misguided anthropocentrism need not necessarily yield to ‘biocentrism’, for that would entail adding yet another imbalance, failing to solve present problems and adding new ones” (Laudato Si’, ¶118). Akin to Pollan’s gardener’s ethic, Pope Francis suggests that “human beings cannot be expected to feel responsibility for the world unless, at the same time, their unique capacities of knowledge, will, freedom and responsibility are recognized and valued” (Laudato Si’, ¶118), unique capacities that argue against the philosophical idea of biocentrism.

Pope Francis’s comments about the human desire for power and control resonate with Richard Baer’s commentary on ratio and intellectus that we discussed in Chapter Four, and his prescriptions for progress (Laudato Si’, ¶199-200) resonate with Baer’s call for a better balance between scientific and religious modes of knowing. Laudato Si’ also comments on “practical relativism” as being “even more dangerous than doctrinal relativism,” asserting that “when human beings place themselves at the center, they give absolute priority to immediate convenience and all else becomes relative” (Laudato Si’, ¶122). With a similar logic to Allen Wood’s (see chapter 4), Francis argues that “in the absence of objective truths or sound principles other than the satisfaction of our own desires and immediate needs, what limits can be placed on human trafficking, organized crime, the drug trade, commerce in blood diamonds, and the fur of endangered species?” Francis bemoans what he called the relativistic logic of “use and throw away” that “generates so much waste because of the disordered desire to consume more than what is really necessary” (Laudato Si’, ¶122). Much like Allen Wood, Francis also criticizes multinational businesses that do in less developed countries what they would never do in developed countries 一 something cultural relativism must permit 一 leaving behind “great human and environmental liabilities such as unemployment, abandoned towns, the depletion of natural reserves, deforestation, the impoverishment of agriculture and local stock breeding, open pits, riven hills, polluted rivers and a handful of social works that are no longer sustainable” (Laudato Si’, ¶51).

Laudato Si’ also gives attention to various dimensions of a Catholic theological anthropology, which can be put into dialogue with the schemes of Reinhold Niebuhr and David Loy that we have previously explored. More attention to these parallels makes for great discussion, but clues lie in Chapters Two and Three of Laudato Si’, as well as in ¶s 155, 159-162 and Sections III-IX of Chapter Six. You may want to create some notes about any parallels you notice, based on your own reading of Laudato Si’.

Catholics aren’t the only people who can subscribe to Integral Ecology! Temple Chai in Phoenix, Arizona uses this garden to teach kids how to love others, love the Earth, and love the Creator. “If you know the Earth intimately, you are much more likely to respect and protect it, and feel connected to the Source of Life. We donated many pounds of summer squash to our local food bank, and to Arizona Jews for Justice to feed asylum seekers.” Photo credit: Nona Siegel

  1. One commentary states of encyclicals: “all Catholics are bound seriously in conscience to accept the teaching contained in these documents.”
  3.   Francis notes in ¶3 of the encyclical that Pope Saint John XXIII addressed the encyclical Pacem in Terris (1963) to the entire “Catholic world” and to “all men and women of good will,” and then says that “now, faced as we are with global environmental deterioration, I wish to address every person living on this planet.”
  4.  Traditionally offered in defense or vindication, Christian apologetics is “a branch of Christian theology that aims to present historical, reasoned, and evidential bases for Christianity, defending it against objections”; in this case, however, Pope Francis simply seems to be apologizing to those who aren’t interested in Christian or Catholic theology by acknowledging their view and offering Catholic theology “for what it’s worth”...
  5.  Note that references to specific paragraphs of Laudato Si’ will be signaled with the symbol for paragraph: “¶”, followed by the paragraph number.
  6.  ¶62 says: “Why should this document, addressed to all people of good will, include a chapter dealing with the convictions of believers? I am well aware that in the area of politics and philosophy there are those who firmly reject the idea of a Creator, or consider it irrelevant, and consequently dismiss as irrational the rich contribution which religions can make towards an integral ecology and the full development of humanity. Others view religions simply as a subculture to be tolerated. Nonetheless, science and religion, with their distinctive approaches to understanding reality, can enter into an intense dialogue fruitful for both.”
  7. Pope Francis U.S. approval ratings from Pew have risen to around 70%:   
  8.   A number of these can be found here.
  9.  One example of the latter is the Diocese of Columbus, whose creation care efforts are highlighted here.
  10.  Presidents of the Ecological Society of America, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Chemical Society, and the Society for Conservation Biology have all issued statements commending the encyclical, accessible here.
  11.; Alternatively, consider the ecological implications of Fr. Robert Barron’s presentation on the seven deadly sins and the seven lively virtues, which contains links to Niebuhr’s commentary on the sin of pride, and looks forward to our consideration of environmental virtue in chapter 12:; Barron also comments on Laudato Si’: .
  12.  Turkson is a valuable commentator about Laudato Si’, particularly since he was charged by Pope Francis to write the first draft of the encyclical and was the primary author of the theology chapter.
  13.  A commentary on Turkson’s visit to Ohio State is found here, and the full text of his prepared remarks at Ohio State can be found here.
  14.  Chapter one provides an excellent summary of what Francis sees as the key environmental issues of our time, and it was clearly crafted in consult with a number of scientists; the chapter reads as one of the best overviews of this sort currently available, so I would recommend it for any environmental studies course.
  15.  For example, scientific sources like the Millenium Ecosystem Assessment and Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports are referenced in some religious environmental statements.


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Religion and Environmental Values in America Copyright © 2019 by Gregory E Hitzhusen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.