Even before Pope Francis released his second encyclical, Laudato si’, five years ago May 24, it was pigeonholed as an “environmentalist” document. A magisterial text weighing in at over 40,000 words, Laudato si’ was reduced, in public discourse, to its 12 uses of the phrase “climate change.” The 24-hour news cycle and internet punditry ensured that everyone had an opinion on the encyclical before anyone had read it.
While such snap judgments did not do justice to the document, they did, in a roundabout way, illustrate the central theme of Laudato si’: the interconnectedness of all aspects of human life and creation. Five years later, in the midst of a pandemic that has brought much of the world to a screeching halt, this central message is more relevant than ever — and in unexpected ways.
Subtitled “On Care for Our Common Home,” Laudato si’ reminds us that the world we have been given is both a great gift and a great responsibility. We are not separate from creation but an integral part of it. Our care for the world around us cannot be separated from any other aspect of our lives, since, as Pope Francis notes (quoting Pope Benedict XVI), “‘the book of nature is one and indivisible,’ and includes the environment, life, sexuality, the family, social relations and so forth.”
Human culture — the way in which we, as a society, choose to live — shapes not only the natural world around us but our relations with one another. Pope Benedict, Francis noted, had pointed out that damage to nature and to society are “ultimately due to the same evil: the notion that there are no indisputable truths to guide our lives, and hence human freedom is limitless.”
Freedom, the Church teaches, is a good thing, but it must be seen in a context in which all of us are responsible for one another and for the world around us. The very first moral lesson in the Book of Genesis is that freedom can be misused when we consider only our own desires. Adam brought death and destruction — including environmental degradation — into the world, but Christ, in sacrificing himself to undo Adam’s sin, showed us how freedom can be used responsibly to build up rather than to tear down, to unify rather than to divide.
Our shared experience worldwide over the last few months has reminded us that humanity is a single family, despite our political, geographic and ethnic divisions. This global pandemic also has called us to consider more deliberately what changes we need to make in our lives for the good of others and our common home.
After decades of growing interconnectedness with people we have never met, being thrown into social distancing and sheltering in place has, ironically, reminded us of the importance of face-to-face contact. We have a new appreciation for those we too often took for granted — our families, our coworkers, our friends, local business owners and waitresses, and priests and public servants.
As we begin to emerge once again from our homes, we have an opportunity to use our freedom wisely to benefit those around us — for instance (to quote Laudato si’), “to promote an economy which favors productive diversity and business creativity” by spending our money at the local businesses run by our neighbors rather than at large chain stores and internet retailers. We have come to recognize the fragility of our centralized agricultural economy as massive meat-processing plants have been closed after COVID-19 swept through their workforce and farmers have been forced to slaughter entire herds of pigs and cattle, and to dump millions of gallons of milk and plow under tons of vegetables, even as many grocery stores and food pantries have experienced shortages. The supposed advantages of “economies of scale” have turned out to be another example of what Pope Francis calls in Laudato si’ “the technocratic paradigm” in which “finance overwhelms the real economy.” Supporting diversified local economies is a way to ensure that our local community has the resources it needs in both good times and bad.
The Church, as always, provides the best example of such interconnectedness and diversity, of how the local and the global work together. As public Masses resume, we unite in our local parishes with the Church as a whole, the Body of Christ. There, in our common home on this earth, “even now we are journeying,” Pope Francis reminds us, “toward the sabbath of eternity, the new Jerusalem, toward our common home in heaven.”
Our Sunday Visitor Editorial Board: Gretchen R. Crowe, Scott P. Richert, Scott Warden, York Young