Laudato Sii: 5 key facts about the environmental encyclical

The Pope‘s much anticipated climate change encyclical – Laudato Sii: on the care of our common home – was leaked to an Italian magazine ahead of the scheduled official launch Thursday. The Vatican stressed this was not the final version, with a spokesperson even talking of a “sabotage” against the Pope. In any case, what happens next is just as important for the climate change debate.

Here are five key facts, to cut through the noise about Laudato Sii.

1. Encyclicals convey authoritative teaching by the Church, which 1.2 billion Catholics around the world are meant to consider for their own lives. Popes have in the past used them to intervene in global political debates and have on occasion – such as this one – addressed them to all humans, rather than just Catholics. Here’s some background. Yet this Encyclical is also grounded on detailed theological arguments. This is what Catholics may hear more about over the coming years during Mass and in schools, which is significant given that not many report having heard about climate change in church so far.

2. The Encyclical is not just about climate change, it is much broader. However it does call for replacing the most polluting fossil fuels and promoting renewable energy. It explains climate change as a largely human-made symptom of what is wrong in the world today, including social and economic injustice. It also places it within the wider picture of ecological damage caused by waste, pollution, biodiversity loss, and toxic chemicals. The key idea behind it is that of “integral ecology”, i.e. that people and planet are part of one family where the Earth is our common home. It invites people to protect God’s creation for future generations, to embrace a lifestyle change for their own good, and to take care of people who are poor and more vulnerable.

3. Its title Laudato Sii, or “Praised be You” is a reference to St. Francis of Assisi’s 13th century Canticle of the Creatures poem. Written in a Medieval Italian dialect, it praises God for providing “brother sun,” “sister water,” “brother wind”, and “sister Mother Earth.”

4. Laudato Sii does not mark a major departure from the Catholic Church’s recent relationship with science. A prominent US climate change sceptic has told the Pope to “stay with his job” rather than get involved with science. Yet the days of Galileo being condemned by the Church are long gone. Successive Popes have accepted modern science for a long time, including the theory of evolution and the Big Bang. The Pontifical Academy of Sciences has a long history, originating from an institution created in 1847. It has become a well respected scientific body, working on science and technology, scientific policy, bioethics and epistemology, with scientists from all – that is, not exclusively Catholic – backgrounds.

5. Far from being an isolated initiative by Pope Francis, Laudato Sii is part of wider efforts by faith communities worldwide to engage more deeply on climate change. The Orthodox Church was due to be present at the launch of the encyclical in Rome Thursday, and Patriarch Bartholomew was specifically quoted in the leaked draft Encyclical having previously said that “a crime against nature is a crime against ourselves and a sin against God.” Parallel efforts to boost environmental and climate change awareness have been going on in other faiths. More than 340 Rabbis have so far signed a letter calling for action to prevent worsening climate disruption and to seek eco-social justice. The Dalai Lama has been publicly speaking about environmental challenges since the 80s. Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard spoke earlier this year with Road to Paris about climate change.


Written by . Published on June 16, 2015. Last edited on July 29, 2015.

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