By Emilie Teresa Smith
Rome on October 4 was sweltering. In the week that followed, the heat skyrocketed to an unimaginable extreme — more than 20 degrees Fahrenheit above what used to be a normal high for early fall.
October 4 is the feast day of Pope Francis’s namesake, and on that date the pope released Laudate Deum. Like its sister document, the encyclical Laudato Si’, released on the same date in 2015, this papal exhortation lands right in the fight to address the complexity of climate change.
In Laudate Deum, addressed to all people of good will, Francis is unsparing in his criticism of the greed and short-sightedness he believes are driving the crisis. Dr. Andrew Thompson, director of the Center for Religion and Environment at the University of the South’s School of Theology, says the pope is “clearly affirming the scientific consensus around climate change. For that to come from such a prominent religious leader is really significant.”
Laudate Deum, shorter than Laudato Si’ and focused solely on one issue, is organized into six sections that lead the reader through a rigorous study of the science of climate change, and then the crux of the Franciscan critique: our dependence on a false sense of the great power of the human being, and our belief in “infinite or unlimited growth.”
“The world sings of an infinite Love: how can we fail to care for it?” Francis writes.
“Pope Francis’s identification of the ‘technocratic paradigm’ has been one of the major hallmarks of his pontificate,” said Dr. Lucas Briola, assistant professor of theology at Saint Vincent College in Pennsylvania. “It names quite well the deeper cultural crisis that afflicts our common home, harming both human and natural ecologies alike.”
Thompson concurs: “I do think his critique of the ‘technocratic paradigm’ is an apt diagnosis of the spiritual and ethical blindness that underlies the climate crisis, and his turn to indigenous peoples as an example of a ‘healthy ecology’ seems helpful.” A more thorough exchange with Indigenous concepts of the interconnection of all creation, mentioned in Laudate Deum, can be found in a more complete form, Briola said, in an earlier papal exhortation, Querida Amazonia, delivered after the 2019 Synod on the Amazon.
Francis critiques various conferences that since 1992 have worked hard toward solutions, but have failed to make enough difference. He writes about COP28 (the 2023 United Nations Climate Change Conference), scheduled for in November in Dubai:
“Despite the many negotiations and agreements, global emissions continue to increase. Certainly, it could be said that, without those agreements, they would have increased even more. Still, in other themes related to the environment, when there was a will, very significant results were obtained, as was the case with the protection of the ozone layer. Yet, the necessary transition towards clean energy sources such as wind and solar energy, and the abandonment of fossil fuels, is not progressing at the necessary speed. Consequently, whatever is being done risks being seen only as a ploy to distract attention.”
In “Spiritual Motivations,” the final section of Laudate Deum, Francis underlines that at the heart of climate change there is a struggle to define the world and our place as created human beings in it. We are reminded that after God created all things, he said that it was all good. And we are reminded of the ancient wisdom revealed in Holy Scripture that the Earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it. This document of the Catholic Church invites people of all faiths to act out of their deepest beliefs for our common good.
“Care for creation is a preeminently ecumenical question,” Briola said. “In particular, Pope Francis’s focus on the spiritual roots of the crisis (as a reflection of idolatry; see Laudate Deum 73) can direct our common attention to solutions that attend to those roots. The joint United Methodist and Roman Catholic statement on the Eucharist and ecology (Heaven and Earth Are Full of Your Glory) is exemplary in this regard. As the footnotes to Laudate Deum and Laudato Si’ indicate, I think Catholicism is particularly poised to capturing the global dimensions of the crisis and fostering the type of transnational solidarity we need.”
“God has joined us so closely to the world around us that we can feel the desertification of the soil almost as a physical ailment, and the extinction of a species as a painful disfigurement,” Laudate Deum says, quoting part of the papal exhortation Evangelii Gaudium. “Let us stop thinking, then, of human beings as autonomous, omnipotent, and limitless, and begin to think of ourselves differently, in a humbler but more fruitful way.”
In the penultimate paragraph of Laudate Deum, Francis offers his most pointed critique, laying the greatest responsibility for the destruction of the earth and its creatures at the foot of an “irresponsible lifestyle connected with the Western model.”
“Frankly, I think his critique of developed countries, especially the U.S., for their per-capita emissions could be even stronger,” Thompson said. “In any case, I think he’s correct that reducing those irresponsible levels of consumption is both the most effective and the most just way to confront the crisis.”
“The most powerful tool this document can offer is the radical examination of conscience it affords,” Briola said. “The theme of praise bookends Laudate Deum. The most fundamental question of Laudate Deum is: What do we praise? What do I put my hopes in? What structures our collective lives in a definitive way? What ultimately shapes our economy, politics, and culture? To answer that question in any way other than God is to doom ourselves and our common home.”