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Praise to You, Through our Sister, Mother Earth

An Introduction to the papal encyclical Laudato Si’: On Care for our Common Home

Rosalie Riegle

With words from a song in the Umbrian vernacular--St. Francis of Assisi’s “Canticle of the Sun”--Pope Francis opens what one realizes immediately is no ordinary encyclical. For starters, Laudato Si’ isn’t addressed to prelates, or people who call themselves Roman Catholics, or even to all Christians or to men of good will, as prior papal letters have done. It’s addressed to “every living person on the planet.” As such, it invites all people into dialogue, which means even those goofy climate-change deniers who think Popes shouldn’t be meddling in matters of Mother Earth.

Also, it was written in Italian, not the usual Latin of papal encyclicals, and it even cites Bishops’ conferences, apparently quite a new thing in this genre, proving that Pope Francis is more collegial than his last two predecessors. And it’s long. At eighty pages and over 40,000 words, it’s three times as long as Pope John XXIII’s lovely call for Pacem in Terris. Commentaries and synopses abound, including some who fault the pope for meddling in politics but here’s a link to the whole thing:’s an easy read, so read it yourself. Because it’s not written in the cumbersome abstract language that makes even revolutionary encyclicals like Leo XIII's Rerum Novarum difficult reading, Laudato Si’ is stylistically a joy, with specific examples and everyday language. Clearly Pope Francis is appealing to both our hearts and our minds. He wants people to hear and to understand and to make the personal, national, and international sacrifices necessary to save the planet.

As in all his pronouncements, the emphasis in Laudato Si’ is on how the actions of the privileged hurt the poor and powerless. Again and again in the Introduction and six clearly titled chapters, he points out that rampant global capitalism, compulsive consumerism, and over-consumption of vital resources have the heaviest repercussions on the poorest areas of the world and will doom the planet if we don’t change.

He calls us to see that we are now at a breaking point with ecological damage, and to take concrete steps now, before it’s too late. He discusses the notion of the common good, so neglected in our consumerist “throwaway” society and says we must extend the concept to future generations.

After an introduction and forecast, there’s a chapter on the origins of the crisis and one on its human roots. Interspersed is a chapter on the Biblical basis for the care of creation. “God created the world for everyone,” he says, so he challenges people to broaden their focus beyond self-interest and to regain the conviction that we need one another and that being good and decent are worth it.
Chapter Four argues that the environmental and social crises are integrally related and that solutions must combat poverty and restore dignity to the excluded as they address the environmental crisis. Chapter Five gives specific plans for action, including dialogue, transparent decision making, and enforceable international agreements. He warns against solutions which place an even heavier burden on poor countries and says developed countries must repay an “ecological debt” to poor nations. Chapter Six calls us to education and conversion and says that adopting policies that undo the damage humankind has inflicted on the environment is essential to spirituality. What is needed, he says, is an “ecological culture,” which involves “a distinctive way of looking at things. . .which generate(s) resistance to the assault of the technocratic paradigm.” The encyclical concludes with two prayers, a prayer for the earth and one asking God’s help as we make the individual and world-wide changes necessary to save it.

Now what’s a secular ‘zine doing talking about an encyclical from the leader of the Roman Catholic Church? Because Pope Francis is the most political and politically savvy of leaders. He timed Laudato Si’ to come out just before the UN Climate Change Conference. He addresses not only all people but all leaders of nations and corporate game-changers. We sense his sincerity because in his lifestyle and his personal concern for the poor, he constantly preaches with his feet. But while as a Christian, he remains hopeful that change can come, he’s being not political but prophetic when he tells us what we don’t want to hear: simply speaking, that to turn the tide and save the earth, we must give up our stuff. Viva Il Papa!

Rosalie Riegle is professor emerita in English at Saginaw Valley State University and a grandmother of seven whom she hopes will have a planet to live in when they are adults. She has published four oral histories, including one on Dorothy Day, co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement. Her two latest books profile resisters who have been imprisoned for nonviolent resistance to war: Doing Time for Peace: Resistance, Family, and Community and Crossing the Line: Nonviolent Resisters Speak Out for Peace. Rosalie is on the National Committee of the War Resisters League and currently very involved with Su Casa Catholic Worker in Chicago.

Untitled digital photographs © Barbara Grothus 2014.

Copyright © Rosalie Riegle. All rights reserved.