What You Might Overlook in the Papal Encyclical

by | Jun 21, 2015 | Creation, Pope Francis

Just before the release of Laudato Si, American Magazine writer Kerry Weber tweeted, “Is it normal for the night before a new #encyclical to feel like Christmas Eve?” I completely understood – I was excitedly anticipating the release of the new encyclical as well.

Like a kid tearing into a fresh christmas gift, sentences started to pop out at me with the same excitement I remember from seeing those first telltale signs that Santa’s elves had actually listened and delivered that new LEGO set. But like all good presents, the meaning deepens when we actually play with the encyclical and spend some serious time with our new toy. While I still remember first opening that box of LEGOs, the best memories are tied to the hours of building and learning new things.

4 days to go! byKenny Louie, Flickr CC

4 days to go! byKenny Louie, Flickr CC

So it is with Laudato Si. In the hours immediately following its release, buzzwords and excerpts exploded across social media and the news. You should definitely read Henry Longbottom’s helpful overview to get a good lay of the land. But first glances should not be the only glance, especially for a document as rich and full as this one.

Laudato Si is packed with nuance and subtlety that can be easily overlooked. With the help of some other Jesuits, writers, and theologians, I want to point out a few things to enrich your playtime.

Pope Francis opens by saying that the encyclical is for every living person on the planet. He traces this tradition to John XXIII’s encyclical Pacem in Terris, in which John XXIII addressed “all men and women of good will.” Both Francis and John XXIII opened their remarks to the wider world. For Francis it’s an acknowledgement of the global responsibility and solidarity necessary for addressing environmental degradation.

Francis’ allusion to Pacem in Terris, is more than a simple recognition of worldwide unity. Pacem in Terris dealt with nuclear war and Francis equates the havoc, death, and destruction possible through nuclear weapons to the damage wrought by ecological ruin. Nuclear weapons leave behind utter catastrophe in their wake. Millions lay dead and future generations face the suffering of extended radioactivity.

Ecological destruction, while not as sudden and obvious, nevertheless leaves us with consequences like those of nuclear weapons. Millions die every year because of lack of clean drinking water. Hundreds of thousands become incredibly ill due to water and airborne pollution. Poor communities face the brunt of environmental damage, bearing the costs of oil & gas extraction, mining, urban pollution, and waste disposal. These consequences are just as heartbreaking as those of nuclear weapons.

Let it be praised

Let it be praised

Though easily overlooked in the introduction, Francis slips in a small phrase that has tremendous impact. In paragraph 15, he writes of his hope that Laudato Si will help us acknowledge the environmental situation and take action. Deftly adding the phrase, “which is now added to the body of the Church’s social teaching…” Francis reminds us that we do not get to ignore this encyclical and return to business as usual.

The Church’s social teaching is vast and has frequently touched on the environment. Pope Saint John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI both added significant documents to the body of teaching. Sollicitudo Rei Socialis and Caritas in Veritate, for example, forcefully call for action to protect the earth and the poor. Many people overlooked or deemphasized those environmental admonitions in past encyclicals. Francis’ is saying: “Oh no you don’t!” He makes it abundantly clear that catholic social teaching necessarily includes ecological care and love of the poor.


Kevin Ahern’s article in America highlighted the wealth of footnotes. They range from the UN’s Food and Agriculture organization, and a sufi mystic, to the more predictable John Paul II. Francis’ choice of sources says a great deal about both the encyclical and his leadership. He also includes references to NGOs and scientific organizations, showing that we have much to learn from the scientific community.

Francis’ predecessors usually cited other official Vatican documents. This demonstrated the continuity of papal authority. While Francis does not ignore previous papal teaching,
Francis uses a much broader range of sources than previous popes. Laudato Si contains quotes from 18 different bishops conferences. In using these citations, Francis is giving a nod to local teaching authority. He’s highlighting the importance of the local church in responding to ecological and social challenges. These problems are immediate questions that we as the local church must address.



Perhaps easiest to miss is the richness of the title – Francis calls earth our common home. It is not simply a house. As Eric Immel puts it, it is hogar, not casa. Home implies memories, love, sadness, growth, challenges, and life.

In paragraph 84, Francis states:

The history of our friendship with God is always linked to particular places which take on an intensely personal meaning; we all remember places, and revisiting those memories does us much good. Anyone who has grown up in the hills or used to sit by the spring to drink, or played outdoors in the neighbourhood square – going back to these places is a chance to recover something of their true selves.

We know our homes intimately – which floorboards squeak, which couch brings back fond memories of movies with dad, and which windows let in the sweet smell of spring blooms immediately following the rain. When I worked for the National Park Service and US Forest Service, I came to see the earth as home. When my family visited, I excitedly told them the stories of every little place in the cave, the plain, and mountainside.

Not everyone gets to experience home so lovingly and wonderful as I have. Billions around the world live in poverty. Billions know only the stench of industrial waste and foul water. In calling earth home, Francis has reminded us that though we would not destroy our immediate home, we have willingly strewn garbage across the homes and lives of billions of people.

Our faith moves us to build homes for one another, places of safety, rest, peace, and wholeness. We want to share those memories and that love with which God fills us. We must go back to those places, those places full of God’s mercy and joy. Those are the places we will find the inspiration to renew and protect our common home. Then may we “sing as we go. May our struggles and our concern for this planet never take away the joy of our hope.”