2015’s Laudato Si’ called “every person living on this planet” (LS3) to care for our common home. Pope Francis articulated that “the urgent challenge to protect our common home includes a concern to bring the whole human family together to seek a sustainable and integral development, for we know that things can change.” (LS13) Eight years on, Laudate Deum is a more explicit and urgent communication specifically about the climate crisis. Francis is responding to the ambivalence, delay, denial and our inadequate response to this emergency. While he addresses ‘all people of good will’ he is specifically addressing our leaders and people in positions of power. He appeals to their conscience by asking, “Why do you hold on to power, only to be remembered for your inability to take action when it was urgent and necessary?” (LD60)
What is Pope Francis calling us to do?
In Laudate Deum Francis appeals to our heads, hearts and hands. He opens with an immediate dismissal of climate denial stating that “despite all attempts to deny, conceal, gloss over or relativize the issue, the signs of climate change are here and increasingly evident.” (LD5) He reminds us that “living our vocation to be protectors of God’s handiwork is essential to a life of virtue; it is not an optional or a secondary aspect of our Christian experience” (LS217) and that grounding ecological care in “authentic faith not only gives strength to the human heart, but also transforms life, transfigures our goals and sheds light on our relationship to others and with creation as a whole.” (LD61) Finally, he calls us to action at every scale, from personal to political.
The urgency in Francis’ communication to us makes it clear that ecological action cannot wait until it feels comfortable – we do not have time to allow his message to transition slowly from head to heart to hands but we must consider how the action of our hands can help us understand the crisis both intellectually and emotionally. The potential of “mutually reinforcing elements of practical action and changing culture” has been observed in faith-based ecological groups where actions consisted both of practical sustainability initiatives as well as increasing awareness through education and prayer sustains the momentum of ecological conversion. There is a strong understanding that ecological action can be in itself an act of love for our brothers and sisters in our Common Home in that ecological degradation is a social justice issue. Ecological concern without social concern is not an ecological conversion. However, the inverse is also holds, in that concern for social justice without concern for ecology is incomplete. Pope Francis stresses that “the human environment and the natural environment deteriorate together; we cannot adequately combat environmental degradation unless we attend to causes related to human and social degradation.” (LS48)
Personal, communal and political action
In both Laudato Si’ and Laudate Deum Francis extols the importance of personal and communal action as well as political engagement, with Laudate Deum offering clarification as to how they interact. He argues that personal change is a matter of ‘personal dignity’ and asks “everyone to accompany this pilgrimage of reconciliation with the world that is our home and to help make it more beautiful”. (LD69) He acknowledges that individual actions are not sufficient where “social problems must be addressed by community networks and not simply by the sum of individual good deeds”. (LS219) The changes needed are at such a scale that “it is necessary to be honest and recognize that the most effective solutions will not come from individual efforts alone, but above all from major political decisions on the national and international level.” (LD69) Here we also have a role to play, political decisions can be a product of citizen engagement in the system.
At its most basic, those with democratically-elected representatives vote for the politicians and leaders in our Governments. However our collective influence runs deeper. Political change and cultural change are so closely interacting that one, without fail, impacts the other. Individual and collective actions to reduce our own carbon pollution may only have a small quantitative impact on the overall concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere but are fundamental in creating a new culture of ecological care. “The mere fact that personal, family and community habits are changing is contributing to greater concern about the unfulfilled responsibilities of the political sectors and indignation at the lack of interest shown by the powerful…. we are helping to bring about large processes of transformation rising from deep within society.” (LD71)
Creating a culture of change as well as actively engaging with political processes, such as the COP28 conference, is an integral part of ecological conversion. One of the most impactful individual actions a person can do is contacting their representatives, strongly advocating for a faster fairer transition out of fossil fuel reliance. In 2021 Pope Francis, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, and Archbishop Justin Welby of Canterbury modelled this action by issuing a ‘Joint Message for the Protection of Creation’ in the lead up to COP26 which directly asks leaders to “choose life”.
Acknowledging that system change and strong political action are needed to meaningfully address the climate crisis does not absolve us from the responsibility to take steps to live more harmoniously in our common home. In Laudato Si’ Francis calls us to Ecological Conversion; in Laudate Deum he specifically shines a light on the need to drastically alter the “irresponsible lifestyle connected with the Western model” (LD72) which contributes so much contamination into our shared atmosphere. While it is true that political decisions will be the deciding factor in addressing the climate crisis, individual action by the wealthiest people on the planet could have an outsized impact on carbon pollution.
In Laudato Si’ Francis laments the emergence of rapidification – “the continued acceleration of changes affecting humanity and the planet is coupled today with a more intensified pace of life and work”. (LS18) On reading his teachings we are challenged to consider what is ‘enough’? Unlimited economic growth is a fallacy, increases in power do not necessarily represent “progress for humanity” (LD24) and personal wealth correlates with increased contamination of our planet. Understanding that carbon pollution is intimately linked to what we consume, how we travel and how much, what we eat and how we heat our homes, this consideration of ‘enough’ feeds into a much broader question of how we structure our lives and ultimately ““What is the meaning of my life? What is the meaning of my time on this earth? And what is the ultimate meaning of all my work and effort?”” (LD13) In its essence an ecological conversion is a call to return to simplicity.
Laudate Deum was written after a summer of extreme weather. The impacts of climate change are both deadly and widespread Francis is consistent in telling us that “We are all connected” and that “no one is saved alone” (LD19) where system change can only stem from our own personal conviction that things must change. All people of good will, especially those with the power to enact real change must remember these truths.