On October 4, 2023, Pope Francis released his recent apostolic exhortation Laudate Deum, “Praise God,” as a follow up to his 2015 encylical Laudato si’. The team at Catholic Re-Visions asked some activists, organizers, and scholars to give their immediate thoughts and reactions on the new document here.
Early discussions before the publication of Laudate Deum suggested that the document would provide an extension and an update of the encyclical Laudato si’. Whilst this is true for the most part, there is a sensibility in Laudate Deum that, at least for this reader, provided a more pointed critique of power, particularly global power structures, and of the politics that not only deny the climate crisis, but also work to entrench inequities of power.
Laudate Deum reflects the fact that in the eight years since the promulgation of Laudato si’, we have seen a worrying shift towards climate denialism and climate skepticism. A 2023 report by the Institute of Strategic Dialogue found that in 2022, there had been a significant resurgence of such denial. They, as well as others, see worrying links between the global anti-rights campaign and climate denialism rhetoric, not only in terms of funding, but also in terms of the appropriation of the language of human rights and freedoms. The purpose of such strategies is to undermine social movements, as well as any moves toward progression on anti-racist, anti-capitalist, pro-gender justice, pro-climate policies and to actively protect the systems and institutions that reproduce inequality, thus “solidifying and extending patriarchal power and control” (ODI 2023). Francis calls this out quite directly in LD, noting that ‘ethical decadence of power is disguised through false information (29).’
It is perhaps this observation that leads Francis to provide a fairly extended reflection on the ‘weakness of international politics’. Francis argues powerfully for a reconfigured global politics that is not focused on keeping power to a select few, but one that thinks and acts more cooperatively. Underlining his commitment to liberation theology and celebrating the power of collective action, Francis suggests transforming multilateralism so that it is guided by the social movements and complex narratives that arise “from below.” Or, to put it in the terms of Rosemary Radford Ruether, to pay attention to the grace that wells up from below.
Although Francis himself does not say this himself,(the reference to Donna Haraway aside), with no explicit references to feminist thinking or feminist theology, his argument for a reconfigured global politics mirrors some feminist critique. This is particularly evident in sections three and four on the need for conversation, collaboration, and a dismantling of the egotism of state structures. For this reader, the Pope was channeling the work of the late feminist political theorist Lily Ling, who, working from a Buddhist perspective, argued for international politics to be guided by the principle of epistemic compassion. Ling defined this as “respect for each source of difference despite its multiplicities. Epistemic compassion thus enables a moral imagination to balance Westphalia’s power politics with the multiple worlds surfaced in [the post-colonial world]” (Ling 2018). There is a mirroring of language between Ling and Francis, demonstrating not only the strength of the critique within the document, but also its interreligious reach.
It is the principle of epistemic compassion contained within Laudate Deum that also underlines the Pope’s anger at the reluctance of states to abandon national interests in order to commit fully to the mechanism of Loss and Damage. The document does not use the word reparations, but the message is clear: world powers must recognize their responsibilities and pay attention to the social movements calling for transformation. For the Christian, and in particular the Catholic faithful, we are reminded that our work for environmental justice must center global social movements, and insistently demand for the dismantling of those power relationships that entrench and reproduce inequality.
Capitalism! There, I said it.
Pope Francis, God bless him, never names capitalism outright in either Laudate Deum or its predecessor, Laudato si’. Actually, it goes unnamed in all three of his encyclicals. How could it be that the global economic system that gave rise to the ecological crisis can only be perceived indirectly through its symptoms: a “throwaway culture,” the primacy of use-value, politics that abandon the poor and serve the interests of the business class? How can we have a drama without a clearly defined protagonist? It’s a strange but understandable tic in his official writing.
Simply put, to name capitalism would be to cast it as the villain. The fact is, the Cold War is over everywhere except the Church – ask your local “anti-woke” bishop if you’re unsure. However understandable given his political situation within the institution of the Church, it is not a silence we can afford to observe. We must say the things that would provide ammunition for Pope Francis’ detractors were he to commit them to writing in the Church’s authoritative documents.
Capitalism, and the profit motive that drives it, is wholly incompatible with an integral ecology that sees all of humanity as equally dignified creatures, with the poor and vulnerable as first among equals. The preferential option for the poor and vulnerable is the key to understanding Francis’ account of integral ecology, and the Church’s account of community: God has a special love for those who are vulnerable; individually, we are to recreate that special love in our interpersonal dealings; collectively, we are to recreate it in communal and political life. It’s insufficient to say, “We are all connected.” The option gives us a description of how, as well as a normative guide for what to fight for and why.
Thankfully, Laudate Deum is an invitation to political life. The text is rooted in a concern for the primary objects of all popular movements; namely, the material conditions with which people contend. As paragraph 2 concludes: “We will feel its [the climate crisis’] effects in the areas of healthcare, sources of employment, access to resources, housing, forced migration, etc.” Continuing his opening analysis, Francis grapples with an especially contemporary danger to political life: misinformation [5 – 14].
Where Laudato si’ emphasizes seeing and judging, Laudato Deum is about that action. A significant portion of Laudate Deum is a litany of the moral and political failures of the business class and the governments that serve them to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This is not a call to resignation, but the opening through which movements from below will assert the legitimacy of their cause. Speaking of the public demonstrations that take place during COP gatherings, he notes, “…they are filling a space left empty by society as a whole, which ought to exercise a healthy ‘pressure’, since every family ought to realize that the future of their children is at stake” . We are in an emergency.
Apostolic exhortations are not legal documents in the life of the Church. The law does not spur us to action. Rather, they are meant to motivate their intended audience to self-improvement. By releasing the document less than two months before COP28 kicks off in Dubai, Pope Francis anticipates and rejects modest framings of what the public ought to expect from the summit. He’s taken a side by encouraging protesters and admonishing elites. Laudate Deum is a confrontation with world leaders and the business interests that have degraded our planet and us along with it.
Catholic teaching on global governance can elicit hostile responses, including (antisemitic) conspiracies about a new world order and fundamentalist narratives about the end of times. With Laudate Deum, Pope Francis develops this teaching by highlighting the necessity for a more expansive and equitable order to be built not from national capitals or the United Nations (UN) headquarters, but from the bottom-up. Such a new ordering, which may not be so dissimilar from his vision of a synodal church, is urgently needed so that people can work together to respond to the existential threats facing people and the planet.
Lauate Deum highlights Francis’ growing frustrations with the inability of the present system to efficiently and justly respond to the climate crisis. This is not a new line of critique. In his 2015 UN address, Franics lamented “declarationist nominalism,” where countries make commitments without action, and called for more just distributions of power in the UN Security Council, a body disproportionately controlled by the five victors of the Second World War. Five years later, in both a video address to the UN and in Fratelli tutti, he advocated for UN reforms to create a system of global governance “equipped with the power to provide for the global common good, the elimination of hunger and poverty and the sure defense of fundamental human rights” (172).
With Laudate Deum, Francis goes a step further by centering attention on the work of organizations and movements in civil society that “help to compensate for the shortcomings of the international community” (37). What is needed, he argues, is a “multilateralism ‘from below’ and not simply one determined by the elites of power.” For Francis, the momentum emerging from civil society, which includes many faith-based groups and movements, offers the possibility for citizens to take control over political power (38).
To be clear, Francis does not advocate that we should give up on the present multilateral structures, including the United Nations, or what he describes as “the old democracy” (41). These structures remain important, but must be “reconfigured” with new procedures for decision making (43).
Practically, this means at least two things. First, those of us in powerful countries, including the United States, are called to advocate for effective reforms of the UN system, especially the Security Council and its veto power. We cannot, as Laudate Deum points out, “support institutions in order to preserve the rights of the more powerful without caring for those of all” (43). This also means doing more to educate people about the UN, its successes and its failures.
Secondly and more urgently, Catholics ought to become engaged in civil society movements, NGOs, and groups working for change across borders. Nearly every advancement in human rights, climate justice, or disarmament can be traced to the coordinated efforts of civil society actors. Interestingly, on this point Francis uplifts the experience of the Ottawa Process, which led to most countries adopting a treaty banning landmines (37). This process began with a campaign of civil society groups, including the significant involvement of Jesuit Refugee Service.
Ultimately, Laudate Deum’s call for a new multilateralism ‘from below,’ is a call for a global participatory democracy. In his 2015 address to Popular Movements in Bolivia, the Pope made a similar call. “The future of humanity,” he concluded, “does not lie solely in the hands of great leaders, the great powers and the elites. It is fundamentally in the hands of peoples and in their ability to organize.” As a global community, with thousands of educational institutions and civil society organizations, the Catholic church is uniquely positioned to support and empower this shift. Let’s hope we are up for this task.
On October 4, the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi, Pope Francis released the apostolic exhortation Laudate Deum, an assessment of the world’s progress in combating climate change in the eight years since the release of his pioneering encyclical Laudato si’. His assessment is dire. He points to rising carbon emissions, stalled efforts at crafting a global consensus to reduce emissions and develop renewable energy alternatives, and the increasingly visible, perhaps irreversible, effects of global warming, such as rising ocean temperatures, melting ice sheets, and the aridification of farmland.
Notably, however, in an exhortation some have even described as “despairing,” Francis overlooks one crucial sign of hope: the rapid decline in the price of renewable energy over the past decade and the increasingly widespread adoption of these technologies worldwide.
As technologies have improved and production methods become more efficient, the cost of renewable energy sources and battery storage have declined dramatically and are now competitive with, if not cheaper than, fossil fuels. This year, over 60 percent of capital investments in the energy sector worldwide will go toward developing renewable sources of energy, and wind and solar will represent over half of worldwide energy generation by the 2030s. It’s likely global demand for fossil fuels has already peaked, and global carbon emissions, particularly those associated with power generation and transportation, will soon begin declining significantly.
These technological developments are not enough to curtail the worst effects of climate change. BloombergNEF assesses that current economic forces and technological developments may only be sufficient to limit warming to 2.6 degrees Celsius by 2050. Concerted government policy, including not only speeding the development of renewable power generation and electrical vehicles, but also reducing emissions caused by industrial production, will be needed to achieve net zero emissions by 2050 and limit warming to about 1.77 degrees Celsius. Recent technological progress won’t solve the climate crisis, but it gives us a fighting chance. It is odd that Francis doesn’t mention these insights in Laudate Deum.
In his new apostolic exhortation, Francis appeals to the notion of the “technocratic paradigm,” a concept he first put forward in Laudato si’. The technocratic paradigm is a mindset that conceives of humankind’s relationship with the natural world primarily in terms of control, manipulation, “possession, mastery, and transformation” (106). Francis also links this paradigm with the notion of infinite economic growth (106) and the belief that technology can solve all of our problems, including technological problems (109).
Francis seems to be so concerned with the risk of seeking purely technological solutions without a deeper change in our relationship with the natural world (e.g., 60, 111), however, that he does not sufficiently explore the role of technology in helping us achieve necessary change. Francis also seems to suggest that it is only when there is a “global consensus” around a “common plan” that humankind will succeed in “developing renewable and less polluting forms of energy” (164). Although it’s certainly true that global coordination will be needed to ramp up renewable energy production sufficiently to reach net zero emissions by 2050, Francis’s assessment in 2015 missed the way that scientific discoveries and economic incentives might contribute to technological development even without global coordination.
This lacuna—driven by his general skepticism toward technology and market forces—seems to explain Francis’s emphasis in Laudate Deum on the upcoming, high-level negotiations at the COP28 meeting in the United Arab Emirates, while ignoring the immense progress that has already been made on the ground. Again, the point is not that his focus on international negotiations is misplaced. Rather, an added emphasis on the technological progress that has already been made would offer hope that efforts to reach a global consensus are worthwhile. Rather than focusing on how we can’t rely on technology alone for a solution (as true as that is), we should recognize how technology—seen from the integrated, ecological perspective Francis himself has proposed—can become the grounds for the possibility of a more comprehensive solution.
Laudate Deum highlights once again the crisis of the planet and the threat to billions of people’s basic security and human rights: food security, housing, access to resources, etc. The Pope raises his concerns about intentional disinformation, false blaming, especially of the poor, or even fear-mongering regarding the ramifications of the economic transformation towards renewable energy. Together, these factors result in people’s disorientation and their underestimation of the dramatic effects the state of the planet will have on everybody’s life.
Pointing to the root cause modernity’s wrongs, namely the reification of nature, resources, and creatures, together with power as the motor and end of technocratic thinking, Francis repeats his critique of the habitus of (capitalist) societies with their almost blind faith in technocratic solutions: “as if reality, goodness and truth automatically flow from technological and economic power as such” (105). Companies lure citizens into believing that projects will offer simple solutions, create jobs, and increase overall prosperity – while downplaying the risks for the population, for instance:
the clearing of their lands, a decline in the quality of their lives, a desolate and less habitable landscape lacking in life, the joy of community and hope for the future; in addition to the global damage that eventually compromises many other people as wellLaudate Deum, 29.
Francis knows that the international order is working against the time that is left before an irreversible crisis point will be reached. If he does not want to sound apocalyptic, this is only because it would itself be “suicidal” (53). And indeed, there has been some progress since the publication of Laudato Si and COP21, the Paris Conference, both landmarks from 2015. But it is far from enough, and the determination to collaborate and transform the way we all live is still lacking, on the personal as well as on the political level.
The Pope, often echoing the urgent tone of the biblical prophets, calls for a true “metanoia” – the transformation that is pivotal – but especially pivotal for those of us who live in the United States whose “emissions per individual […] are about two times greater than those of individuals living in China, and about seven times greater than the average of the poorest countries.”
How, then, can we learn to recognize the fragile ecological equilibrium? The interdependency between all creatures, the “mystical meaning” found in nature that reflects “God’s infinite Love”? (65). If we do not want to fail caring for it – what is needed?
Apart from his appeal to change, reconciliation with nature, and new forms of decision-making procedures, the Pope continues the renewal of Catholic Ethics: no less than a personal-political virtue ethics is needed that aims at transforming the habitus and the habits of our everyday life. The principle of dignity, which I interpret as the intertwining of vulnerable agency, seeks to ensure that every person is respected and cared for.
The call to responsibility for the planet follows Hans Jonas’ warning to not fall into the trap of naïve faith in new technologies. But it also echoes the call for reciprocal responsibility as the commitment to care for the earth on the basis of interdependency. Though Francis does not elaborate explicitly on this, I would add that the counter-concept to power as domination is indeed the power as cooperation to which he points. Its normative foundation is mutual recognition and responsibility among actors. Cooperative actions, be it on the local level (following the principle of subsidiarity) or at the level of international negotiations and deliberations (following the principle of justice) may well motivate and inspire Christians when remembering the foundations of their commitment: the beauty of God’s creation on the one hand, which humans are called to sustain and care for, and on the other hand, God’s promise of ever-new beginnings.
For Pope Francis to revisit “our common home” in Laudato Deum (LD), eight years after writing Laudato si’ (LS) is no surprise, given that the original document used the “see-judge-act” methodology that is so prominent in the Latin American Church for applying the gospel to our world and its challenges. The process is iterative: one “sees” the current situation, using human reason (in philosophy and in the natural and human sciences), “judges” what one sees based on Revelation (Scripture & Tradition), and then proposes “action” to bring the former into closer coherence with the latter. At the end, one must go through the process again to judge whether the “action” proposed made a difference. Pope Francis’s answer on this is “not much.” We can categorize how he decided to “clarify and complete” (§4) his earlier teaching by looking at each step. He does not so much add or subtract from LS, but chooses to emphasize what he believes was not heard, while also moving the biblical center of gravity more stridently into the prophetic tradition.
See. The more irenic tone of much of LS is replaced by a straightforward, and at times deeply satirical confrontation with climate change deniers. He refers to “dismissive and scarcely reasonable options [he] confront[s], even with the Catholic Church” (§14). These deniers engage in irresponsible derision, resort to ridicule, are victims of (or exploit) lack of information and confusion, simplify reality, end up, “as usual,” blaming everything on the poor, and are motivated by their economic interests. For him, moreover, the technocratic paradigm is even more entrenched now than eight years ago. In a new, and sharper formulation, he describes it as an “ideology underlying an obsession: to increase human power beyond anything imaginable” (§22). Power, the abuse of power, and its distorting impact (including on media reporting) is a central focus. In short, I would argue that the biblical register has moved decisively from the genre of wisdom literature (“Let the wise man . . .”) into prophecy (“Woe to you, shepherds of Israel . . .).”
Judge. In LS’s articulation of a theology and spirituality of creation, a major strand was that each created thing, in its own way, reflects, uniquely and irreplaceably, the beauty and goodness of God, so that the accelerating loss of species is not only a loss of biodiversity, but of what one might call a loss of “theophanic diversity.” This theme is more muted in LD, while the Pope doubles down on the impact of our gross failure to take the necessary steps to address climate change’s impacts on the poor and on future generations of humans (perhaps thinking of those who want to blame this crisis on the poor).
Act. In LS, the Pope proposed a two-pronged strategy of individual actions (saying grace before meals, for instance: ways of living Thérèse of Lisieux’s little way of love), and large-scale political actions. In LD, he is far more insistent on the latter, and far more critical of weak or ineffectual political responses, and a lack of nerve: “We must move beyond the mentality of appearing to be concerned but not having the courage needed to produce substantial changes” (§56). Finally, there is evidence here for the claim that Pope Francis is growing increasingly impatient with the United States and the US Catholic Church. He starts by quoting the US Catholic Bishops on climate change, putting a spotlight on the conference’s lack of coordinated action. Moreover, in the paragraph in which he speaks of “the irresponsible lifestyle connected with the Western model,” he singles out the United States (something he did not do with any country, really, in LS) in comparing emissions per individual (“about seven times greater than in the average of the poorest countries” (§72)).