Last week, Pope Francis released his second Encyclical Letter, entitled “Laudato Si” (“Blessed Be” in English), a beautiful line taken from St. Francis of Assisi’s famous Canticle of the Sun.
In the ensuing days, much of the world proceeded to lose its mind.
While some environmentally-minded people have used the Holy Father’s ecology-heavy encyclical to further their own political agendas, others have vilified the Pope, calling him everything from a communist, to a Marxist, to someone who has no place speaking into political matters.
All of these competing voices make it remarkably difficult to understand what the Holy Father is actually trying to say.
So what does the Church have to say about the environment? And why has the Pope chosen now to speak out about it? The answers to both of these questions are actually quite simple.
As to the environment, the Church believes that because God took on physical nature, everything in the world matters. As to the question, “why now?” you may have noticed that levels of human selfishness have reached climactic proportions. We’ve become the kind of people who don’t believe anything matters, except us!
At the end of the day, Laudato Si isn’t really a document about climate change, or biodiversity, or public policy—although it does speak to all of those (and more) issues.
At the end of the day, Laudato Si is a document about the need for people to be holy; for governments to be holy; for corporations to be holy; for those who produce technology to be holy. In a nutshell, it’s a document about holiness.
What Christianity fundamentally teaches is that Jesus took on human flesh to restore our relationship with God.
And if that’s true, all of the other relationships in our lives—our relationship with ourselves, with the people around us, and even with the rest of creation can actually make sense. They can all be made holy! That’s why the book of Romans says that creation is actually “groaning out,” waiting for us to act like the redeemed sons and daughters of God that we really are.
The problem is, at least according to Pope Francis; we have become a culture of people who don’t know how to think outside of ourselves. We don’t know how to sacrifice; we don’t understand that we have been offered reconciliation.
The way in which we treat the natural world is symptomatic of this. And when we only think of ourselves, the result is that the people at the lowest end of the food chain—the most vulnerable members of human society, the poor, the elderly, the unborn—usually pay the price.
But wait…why should Christians care about the natural world in the first place? Don’t Christians believe that Jesus will return someday, take all of the righteous off to heaven, and obliterate the world as we know it? Well, yes and no.
Yes, the physical world will someday come to an end, but that’s not the end of the story. Just as our bodies will be raised up on the last day, Christianity believes that the created world will be resurrected as well.
Belief in Jesus Christ is not escapism. We don’t believe that as long as we cling to Jesus, we can eventually escape this world of suffering and woe and float off to the clouds with him when we die. That’s not enough for God.
We believe in a God who is taking our world of suffering and woe, and transforming it into something beautiful. He already uses the stuff of this world to show forth his glory! Think of our Sacraments. God uses bread, wine, water, oil—the things of the earth—to make Himself known.
What’s more, someday our King will return and we will have to account for how we have treated the world he gave us. Self sacrifice, using fewer resources, being conscious of our impact; all of these things can help to make us holy. They make us mindful of our place in the world; a world that we will have to present back to God someday.
So…why should Catholics care about the environment? Ultimately, it’s because when Jesus took on human flesh, he changed the whole cosmos—down to the rocks, the grass and even the water we drink. As Gregory of Nazianzen once said, “That which is not assumed is not redeemed.”
In other words, Christ either redeemed everything, or he redeemed nothing. We believe in a God who has transformed the world—a world that is waiting for Christians to act like the children of God that we are—to till and keep and care for our world—and in doing so, to care especially for the smallest and most vulnerable among us.
Everything matters, because after all, why would we believe in a God who asks for anything less?