Papal Encyclical on Human Ecology

The rumors about a new encyclical dedicated to the environment were leaked a while ago. Articles can be seen here, here and here. While Vatican insider Andrea Torniele broke the news, the official News.Va site said the following:

 The Director of the Holy See Press Office, Father Federico Lombardi, S.J., confirmed on Friday that Pope Francis has begun work on a draft text on the topic of ecology, which could become an encyclical. But, Father Lombardi said, the project is in an early stage, so it is too early to make any prediction about the timing of possible publication.
Father Lombardi said it is important to note that Pope Francis intends to put particular emphasis on the theme of “human ecology,” a phrase used by Pope Benedict to describe not only how people must defend and respect nature but how the nature of the person – masculine and feminine as created by God – must also be defended.

This is not surprising considering Francis’ many comments and speeches about the environment (see examples here, here and here) and the continuity of ecology in the Magisterium of Benedict XVI and Pope John Paul II. However, until this point no single encyclical has dealt with ecology as the central theme- and this is a huge step, crystalizing into a Magisterial response what Pope Benedict XVI identified as a “sign of the times” – the care for creation.

What Pope Francis will say exactly only a few people probably know. We can guess that he will connect ecology with poverty and solidarity, the culture of waste, the value of life and need for conversion and mercy… themes he often speaks about. Here, Creatio offers a few suggestions of important themes such a momentous encyclical should also include:

1. Ecology, Human ecology and holiness

            The ecology of nature and human ecology are deeply intertwined. Not only injustice and abuse in one affects the other[1], but the response of humankind very closely decides the fate of the creation we so much love and care for. Along with care for the natural environment, we also have to care for a “human ecology” that provides the space for the dignity and fulfillment of the human person and the good life for all according to God’s plan.[2] Following Vatican II, both the social and ecological problems rest in the heart of man: “The truth is that the imbalances under which the modern world labors are linked with that more basic imbalance which is rooted in the heart of man.”[3] It is in our hearts, each one’s heart, where the fate of mankind and of creation is decided. Jesus Christ gives us back our heart so we can love and serve (see Ez 36, 26). The environment suffers because the human person and society suffer. Every time we choose evil and sin, we are harming the little ones; creation and especially our vulnerable brothers and sisters. Human ecology shows that the best environmentalist is the saint, who loves in the image of Jesus Christ.


2. Reconciliation and Ecology

The theology of reconciliation helps Christians understand the human relationship with creation. Ecology and human ecology, all of reality, have as their foundation a Trinitarian dimension that impresses its relational dynamic of love. The anthropological consequence of the Trinity is the human being made for relationship and encounter at his deepest core. Relationship and love are what fulfills man; this has been broken by original sin and our own sins. We therefore are called to reconciliation at four fundamental levels, in order of importance, as outlined in Pope John Paul II’s encyclical Reconciliatio et paenitentia: “four reconciliations which repair the four fundamental rifts; reconciliation of man with God, with self, with the brethren and with the whole of creation.”[4] This reconciliatory perspective lends itself to exploring the “culture of encounter” (so often repeated by Pope Francis and the CELAM document of Aparecida) for the environment and our relationship with it. The answer to a “culture of waste” is the “culture of encounter”, of giving and of charity.


3. Christocentrism

           This leads to a way of encounter as a positive response to ecological challenges. Inspired by anthropological pessimism, the environmental landscape of ideas is often littered with moralistic and conflictive approaches that often emphasize the negative aspects of our relationship and impact on nature, resulting in a “grave assault not only on nature, but also on human dignity itself.”[5] The Catholic faith rather than limit and place conditions on human interaction looks to an overabundance of relationship with creation in love, as expressed magnificently by St. Paul: “For all things are yours, and you are Christ’s; and Christ is God’s” (1 Cor 21.23). All things belong to man, in full conformity with the biblical account of Genesis; but mankind understood in a distinctive Christological way. It is because man is made for God (CCC 27.45.356), called to live in the image of Christ (GS 22), that all things belong to him. A theologal anthropocentrism, or christocentrism, which affirms the unique dignity of man as the center of creation and whose distinctive trait is the relationship with God, is able to harmonize the “superior role of human beings”[6] with the responsibility to serve creation.


4. Power is service

            Biblical scholarship helps understand today’s environmental challenges. God’s command for man to ‘subdue’ and ‘lord’ over creation in the book of Genesis (see Gn 1), is within our sharing in the kingly mission of Christ[7], and so, profoundly Christological. Likewise is our duty to order society according to a human ecology. To criticize Christianity for promoting the abuse of creation or our fellow men is to misunderstand the meaning Jesus has given to power and authority: “the exercise of authority is service: we must never forget that true power, at any level, is service, whose bright summit is upon the Cross. John Paul II said “dominion granted to man by the Creator is not an absolute power, nor can one speak of a freedom to “use and misuse,” or to dispose of things as one pleases.”[8] Benedict XVI reminded that although man frequently equates authority with control, dominion, success, for God authority is always synonymous with service, humility, love; as Jesus who kneels to wash the Apostles’ feet (cf. Angelus, 29 January 2012), and says to his disciples: “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them… It shall not be so among you.”[9] Abuse to both the natural and human ecology comes from revering the power of exercising reason and freedom without reference to what is good and true;[10] this is not Christianity but its corruption and betrayal.


5. Charity, Solidarity and Human Ecology

            Human ecology is the healthy environment conducive to authentic human fulfillment.[11] Charity in truth is the force that leads to human development and fulfillment as well as to the healthy ordering of society through justice and the common good,[12] fostering a human ecology. Being a common space, human ecology requires the existence of a public space and language for the community of peoples and states to reflect and debate what is truly right and just; drawing from nature, conscience and reason to seek in common the defense of human rights, peace and justice.[13] Human ecology also requires that family, work, architecture, urbanism, lifestyles and all of culture respond to authentic human nature. A human economy must not be ruled by greed or consumerism, but use its wealth and resources in solidarity, among people and nations, so the world’s population can satisfy its needs and live in dignity. Responsible stewardship over nature must ensure its protection and the sustainability of the entire human family now and in the future.[14]

Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI emphasized the need for a change of lifestyle. Solidarity, suffering with others, using and having less in order to give more to others. Solidarity should be a guiding principle upon engaging specific environmental problems. In the complex and multivariate issue of climate change, solidarity privileges approaches that emphasize adaptation, that is helping vulnerable communities and even ecosystems who are at risk, rather than first investing in technological or long term economic solutions that disregard the immediate needs of the poor. In this regards, it is important that the encyclical engage specific ecological issues such as climate change, water availability, food, biodiversity, energy, resources extraction and economics, pollution, etc. However, we caution the Magisterium to use prudential judgment and to be careful in use of information available from experts, the media and academics. Many environmental issues are used as a screen for projecting particular ideologies and perspectives that the Church should be cautious about endorsing. In climate change for example, there is an important need for recognizing the reality of the situation while not amplifying the apocalyptic prophecies of the academic elite. Nonetheless, the Church must not shy away from engaging these topics specifically. Precise knowledge, wording and careful language will be crucial on these controversial issues.


6. Ecology, Human Ecology and evangelization

            Finally, the interest among modern culture, and especially the youth, on issues of ecology and human ecology can be a great avenue to encounter Jesus Christ. Pope Benedict XVI alerted: “And in this we must take care to perceive the signs of the times in our epoch, namely, to identify the potentials, aspirations and obstacles we encounter in today’s culture and in particular the wish for authenticity, the yearning for transcendence, and concern to safeguard Creation and to communicate fearlessly the response that faith in God offers.”[15] Reflection, experience and action in nature can point any person, believers and non-believers alike, to authentic transcendence itself, the Creator of the world. Human ecology can also help to evangelize culture by framing urgent social issues, such as those related to the family or to sustainable development, in an appealing way, with an objective reference to nature and in the context of the common good.

This invites Catholics to evangelize and reach those who are on the peripheries: “we cannot forget that evangelization is first and foremost about preaching the Gospel to those who do not know Jesus Christ or who have always rejected him. Many of them are quietly seeking God, led by a yearning to see his face, even in countries of ancient Christian tradition.”[16] Experiences in nature and beauty can provide opportunities for responding to “missionary activity [which] still represents the greatest challenge for the Church.”[17] Since we “cannot passively and calmly wait in our church buildings”[18], by living a human ecology in communion with creation we can literally move into the streets, fields and forests.


[1] Centesimus annus 37; World Day of Peace 2007, 8; Caritas in veritate, 51; World Day of Peace 2010, 11.

[2] Centesimus annus 38; Evangelium Vitae, 42.

[3] Gaudium et spes, 10.

[4] Pope John Paul II, Reconciliatio et paenitentia, 26.

[5]Benedict XVI, Message for the World Day of Peace 2010, 13.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Christifideles laici, 14.

[8] Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, 34

[9](Pope Francis, Address to the International Union of Superiors General, 8 May 2013).

[10] Leo XIII, Libertas, 15; Centesimus annus, 4.

[11] Centesimus annus, 38.

[12] Caritas in veritate, 1, 2, 6, 7.

[13]Benedict XVI, Address to German Parliament, Sept. 2011.

[14] Caritas in veritate, 50, 51.

[15]Benedict XVI, Catechesis, 28 Nov. 2012.

[16]Pope Francis, Evangelii gaudium 15.

[17]Redemptoris Missio, 40.

[18]Aparecida Document, 548.

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