The weeks and months leading up to the promulgation of Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home were spiked with excitement, speculation, and even a scandalous leak of the encyclical. Non-Catholics, and even non-Christians, waited with bated breath for Pope Francis’s document on the environment. In January, one of my dissertation committee members asked me to include the document in my proposal, even though it was not due out for nearly half a year. With eagerness and expectation, the world received the first encyclical entirely dedicated to the subject of the environment on June 18. But now a week after the encyclical, other stories dominate the headlines.
With Supreme Court rulings, concerns over shootings in Charleston, South Carolina, Greece’s economics, and even international yoga day, the much-awaited encyclical seemed to loose its shine. Ecology continued to make news, and religious media produced numerous stories, essays and blog posts about the encyclical, but it seemed that even the Pope himself moved on, touring Turin and continuing business as usual.
To be sure, the flagging interest from secular media is not too surprising: the Pope didn’t present the world with groundbreaking scientific claims supporting anthropogenic climate change, nor did he unveil a large-scale policy to reach sustainable energy by 2050. Rather, the most influential Catholic–the Bishop of Rome–the leader of the largest denomination in the world, issued a statement at the highest level of authoritative teaching, on one of the most pressing issues of the 21st century, urging the participation of all in pursuit of the common good. And this, I believe, will be the lasting legacy and primary contribution of the encyclical.
The introduction to Laudato Si’ traces previous teachings on creation care and emphasizes that authentic human development must be connected with ecology (#5). “Human life is grounded in three fundamental and closely intertwined relationships: with God, with our neighbour and with the earth itself,” (#66) writes the Pope. The title of the much-anticipated encyclical summarizes the 184-page document fittingly. The earth is the “common home” for human and animal, plant and water, all engendered through the Creator God. We share in its bounty, and whither in its dearth. The call to creation care is for “every person living on this planet” (#205) and “one single human family” (#52). Although we are all interconnected, culpability and responsibility are not distributed equally.
The Pope believes–and I agree–that living in a wealthy country translates to greater accountability for climate change. “Reducing greenhouse gases requires honesty, courage and responsibility, above all on the part of those countries which are more powerful and pollute the most” (#169). Recognizing varying levels of commitment is apparent not only in how responsibility is dolled out for the ecological crisis, but also in policymaking.
Francis writes, “There is an urgent need to develop policies so that, in the next few years, the emission of carbon dioxide and other highly polluting gases can be drastically reduced, for example, substituting for fossil fuels and developing sources of renewable energy” in paragraph 26. Obviously affluent countries are targeted. The “polluter-pays” principle (##167, 169) often touted in environmental ethics could take many forms. Countries obligated to reduce emissions must ensure “the establishment of a legal framework which can set clear boundaries and ensure the protection of ecosystems” (#53). These policies must be in line with the common good (#188), with clear attention to the role of those who disproportionately use more resources than their fair share.
The notion of the common good is clearly taught in paragraph 93, where the Pope writes, “the earth is essentially a shared inheritance, whose fruits are meant to benefit everyone.” Attention to the whole person within a society is foundational for the functioning of the common good, that is, individual flourishing, but in service to the group. The common good is disrupted when one cannot participate in society due to lack of opportunity, education or ability, or when others dominate society with self-centered interest; both are currently at play in ecological politics, and therefore Francis implores us to think of “one world with a common plan” (#164, emphasis in original).
In Climate Change: A Plea for Dialogue Prudence and the Common Good, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops state, “developing and poorer nations must have a genuine place at the negotiating table. Genuine participation for those most affected is a moral and political necessity for advancing the common good.” The common good is comprised of all humans, in conversation with one another, called to examine environmental concerns, and then mobilize for change. The entire world must participate with action for the common good (#135).
Yet, it is undeniable that “regarding climate change, there are differentiated responsibilities” (#52, emphasis in original). We cannot expect the developing world, which often gets blamed for ecological destruction despite scant resource use, to shoulder the burden of resource conservation alone. As moral agents participating in the common good, differentiated responsibilities are fully enacted through subsidiarity.
Francis writes that subsidiarity grants freedom “to develop the capabilities present at every level of society, while also demanding a greater sense of responsibility for the common good from those who wield greater power” (#196). If humans are to care for our common home it will take effort on the part of all in the moral community, which means not only placing responsibility on the rich, but also asking the poor to dialogue and participate in policymaking for the common good, as well as take responsibility for what they can. That is the way subsidiarity works.
I expect the proliferation of ecological policies, communal projects, and theological reflection on the common good, the poor and vulnerable, the earth and responsibility directly inspired by this encyclical will outlast fleeting headlines on the most significant effort to codify sustainability in Catholic social teaching. The Bishop of Rome will continue to do as much as he can later in September when he addresses the UN General Assembly and later the climate summit in Paris in November and December. In these ways he is influencing others at a level congruent with his position. He has asked us to do the same.
Cristina Richie is an adjunct professor of Health Care Ethics at Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences (MCPHS) University in Boston, MA. Her recent publication, “What Would An Environmentally Sustainable Reproductive Technology Industry Look Like?” appeared in the Journal of Medical Ethics. She is currently writing her dissertation on Green Bioethics at Boston College.