Pope Francis had it right. His Papal encyclical, Laudato si (Praise Be to You — On Care for Our Common Home) makes a passionate case for environmental awareness, concern, and action. Most of the media coverage focused on the Pope’s commentary about climate change. The Pope’s strong statements in support of the scientific consensus are indeed notable—but not in my opinion the most important part of the encyclical. Laudato si’s most important aspect is the clear building of a moral case for sustainable development–sustainable in terms of including a far greater share of the world’s population than the current system does and sustainable in terms of treating the Earth like the treasure it is and not simply as a resource to be exploited and left for dead.
Part of the significance of Laudato si is, of course, the fact that its message is now part of the official teachings of the Catholic Church. It is true that environmental consciousness is not the encylical’s sole aspect–however this is surely the first encyclical where the environment plays so prominent a role. An environmental perspective is in fact part and parcel of a moral aspect that must accompany economic development. Simply by dedicating such a large portion of Laudato si to concerns of the environment, Pope Francis has ensured that many, many people will make the environment part of their concerns, also.
But Pope Francis raises issues far beyond environmental awareness. He challenges all of us (not limited to Catholics) to consider “the relationship of human beings to the world”–and by extension, one’s own relationship to the world. This is the foundation of adding a moral dimension to the environmental/economic equation. In the Pope’s view, much of the economic system of the developed world is built on a foundation of ultimate environmental degradation. The introduction of another dimension (in this case, a moral/spiritual one) can only help address the imbalance of economic prosperity (for some) at the cost of environmental desecration (for too many others).
The Pope is especially concerned about how humanity relates to God’s gift of the earth. He considers the earth as a “shared inheritance” for all humanity. Not unique to Catholic teachings, the Pope elevates environmental awareness to a core moral obligation, with a strong spiritual component as well. This moral/spiritual component transforms the economic/environmental discussion from a duopoly into a triangle. As the zone of discussion widens, the ultimate results will probably be different than what we have now in terms of development.
I have read several commentaries to the effect that the Pope’s words will remain that, simply words. They will fail in the realm of realpolitick, I think that is beside the point. The strongest impact of the Pope’s words will be how they are absorbed and repeated, both within the Catholic Church as part of significant Church teaching, and probably even more importantly, by laypeople (not just Catholics) who are inspired by the Pope’s message of adding a moral and spiritual dimension to their consideration of how economic growth and environmental awareness should interact.