Praise God - On Laudate Deum
The Pope is probably the furthest from the periphery you could get when considering voices in the Church. However, yesterday Pope Francis shared an Apostolic Exhortation called Laudate Deum which is a follow up to his encyclical Laudato Sí.
First some background. An Apostolic Exhortation is basically third in importance when it comes to things written by a pope. First would be an Apostolic Constitution and second an Encyclical. In general, apostolic constitutions have the feel of something concrete - rules for the Church or procedures. A recent example is Praedicate evangelium, which Pope Francis wrote last year to reform the Curia, the offices of the Vatican. Encyclicals are far more well known among average folks and most popes issue many (here are the ones so far from Pope Francis). These often are teaching and pastorally focused documents. Sometimes they are specific to the Catholic Church, other times the Pope might use them to speak to the wider world. Apostolic Exhortations are usually pretty specific - they focus on one idea, issue, or practice (again, here are the ones from Pope Francis).
Given that exhortations are focused, it is unsurprising Laudate Deum only runs 18 pages in English. However, it is a significant document. Here are a few takeaways on my first reading and reflection on the document.
A significant portion of the document, the first sections, seem to offer a synopsis of the current scientific understanding of climate change. In fact, it doesn’t seem to have much theology or spirituality in those first pages. Thus it could be tempting to dismiss the document because of this - it isn’t ‘churchy’ enough or isn’t something for a faith based discussion. But if you do that, you miss the critical framing that Pope Francis articulates at the start. “Attacks on nature have consequences for people’s lives.’ And to express bluntly that this is no longer a secondary or ideological question, but a drama that harms us all, the African bishops stated that climate change makes manifest ‘a tragic and striking example of structural sin’” (Laudate Deum, 3).
Understanding, acknowledging, and owning the sinfulness of each of our participation in climate change as individuals and collectively is a critical teaching. This moves climate change from a concept to something we each are responsible for and held accountable to by our faith.
Pope Francis goes on to continue a consistent theme in his pontificate - the interconnectivity of all people and Creation. In his encyclicals, homilies, and prayers we hear him return to this essential idea. We also have him repeatedly raise the attacks on this - the technocratic reality of our systems, abuse of power, lies of false prophets, consumerism, and capitalism. Laudate Deum is a reminder of the need to focus on the common good, not nationalistic goals or elitist privilege (and let’s never forget that by virtue of the country in which we reside, we are subject to both temptations).
Our national narrative has never put the common good first. Rugged individualism, ‘pulling yourself up by your bootstraps’, nationalism, capitalism - these overvalued ideals all put individuals or the few over the good of all. As Catholics this is anathema. The common good is an essential part of our theology. Our God did not come to save the few, Jesus Christ died for all and to strive for anything less than the good of all in our own building of the kingdom on earth betrays the sacrifice we honor each time we consume the broken Body of Christ in the Eucharist.
I am sure plenty will be in uproar over this document. Not only because they are some of those, as named by Pope Francis, who choose not to accept the reality of climate change, but also because he specifically calls out the United States for our exceptionally high emissions. This exhortation is a call to fully accept the reality we are in, our role (and sinfulness), and take immediate individual and collective action. “What is important is something less quantitative: the need to realize that there are no lasting changes without cultural changes, without a maturing of lifestyles and convictions within societies, and there are no cultural changes without personal changes” (Laudate Deum, 70).
Ultimately, Laudate Deum is not a complex theological treatise. Rather it is a bold, blunt declaration of scientific fact and sociological truth declared by a deeply pastoral soul. This is the leader of our Church, the Vicar of Christ, reminding us that as individuals and a society our role in the climate crisis is a sin. As with all sin we are called to repentance and penance. May we finally be quick and brave enough to accept the dramatic work needed in our penance to stop the current trajectory.
After all, as we celebrate the Eucharistic Revival, that very sacrament reminds us of the sacrificial love for the good of the world we are called to embody. We cannot dare to do anything less.
Jennifer is the founder and woman behind the curtain here at Wisdom's Dwelling. Her day job is in Mission Integration for a women's religious congregation and their health care management company. She's a long time veteran of parish and diocesan ministry with a heart for accompaniment, social justice, and formation.