Part 1: Stumbling Blocks
In 2015, Pope Francis released his first encyclical to the world. Encyclicals are a formal letter from the Pope circulated to all the Catholic churches on matters of great importance. In Laudato Si’, the Pope, in consultation with many advisers from around the globe, addresses environmental stewardship and climate change through the lense of the Gospel. The document was about so more than picking up trash and going “green”; it offered a radical critique of our consumerist society and carbon-dependent economy.
Laudato Si’ calls for nothing less than a peaceful revolution.
In the months following, the document received extensive coverage in the media, and it was lauded by many as important intervention on climate change negotiations. Within Catholic circles, many were hopeful that the encyclical would encourage Catholic communities to embrace and embody a culture of simplicity and ecological responsibility.
Two years out, I think it’s fair to say that the reception of the encyclical by Catholics in the United States has been mixed. My former parish hosted a small reading group, had a weekly bulletin with quotes and tips, and staff members ordered biodegradable plates (a big source of waste in parishes). I heard stories about other parishes adopting small measures to be more sustainable.
There are also some incredible national and international organizations that have been empowered by the encyclical. For example, The Catholic Climate Covenant is doing advocacy work in Washigton D.C. and mobilizing and educating Creation care teams around the country. Some dioceses and religious orders have implemented more sustainable policies. The archdiocese of San Francisco sponsored a workshop for parishes to get started on sustainability.
All of this is great. Without dismissing the hard work that is already happening, my impression the overall reception of the encyclical by the Catholics in the Unites States leaves something to be desired.
There has been no revolution. To the best of my knowledge, nothing has been organized by any diocese in my region of the country, nor are there any special parish initiatives in our area. By last summer, one year out from the release of the encyclical, only 32% of American Catholics recalled even hearing about Laudato Si’ at their Churches. A recent survey confirmed that most American Catholics are not hearing about the encyclical on Sunday.
What explains the lukewarm reception? I see at least at least five good reasons for this.
Our country continues to be deeply polarized. Attitudes toward climate change and ecology have been caught up in questions of identity and societal conflicts. Unfortunately, the Catholic Church in America has not escaped this polarization. According to a study covered by the Gaurdian, the encyclical did little to change Catholics minds about environmental issues, at least in the months following the release of the encyclical.
The Church is slow
The Church moves on a different timeline than the American news cycle (or presidential elections). Social encyclicals and other documents can take years to be fully appreciated. The Francis papacy has reminded us that the Church is continuing to reflect and debate the implications of the Second Vatican Council over fifty years after it adjourned! This can be frustrating for those who us who think that the time for serious action on climate change is running out.
We’re not hearing about it
Many Catholics haven’t encountered the document in any substantive way at their parishes. Papal documents as a rule don’t make for a particularly riveting reading experience, so it’s understandable that people are not reading it from cover to cover. Laudato Si’ has many beautiful passages, but it also contains a lot of somewhat dry social-cultural critique. It’s less excusable that Catholics are not hearing about the ideas raised by the encyclical from parish or diocesan leaders or in popular parish programing (with exceptions). Why this is the case deserves some unpacking in a later post, but fears over #1 is likely a strong driver.
An inconvenient truth
The encyclical is a very hard pill to swallow. Francis is not simply telling us to show concern about climate change by contacting representatives or examining you carbon footprint (although those things are important). The letter offers a radical critique of our economic and societal systems that we participate in on a daily basis. Francis challenges our consumer driven economy and the “dominant technocratic paradigm,” outlining the damaging cultural and spiritual effects while also offering suggestions toward cultivating an alternative way of life. Those who care may find themselves frustrated by global inaction or paralyzed by the immensity and complexity of the issue.
“What does this have to do with the salvation of souls?”
I was asked this question in earnest shortly after the encyclical was released. Questionable theological premise aside, this sentiment is understandable. How can my relationship with Jesus have any impact on these admittedly bleak and complicated global problems? Jesus lived two thousand years ago; the environmental issues of our day were not on his radar. Some Catholics, and not just the climate change deniers, suspect that the Church is intervening in an area that is beyond her competency. Maybe it is best to leave this issue to the power-brokers and experts, they say, and focus on things that are closer to home – closer to your actual sphere of influence.
Perhaps some of the people see in the Church a refuge from the arguments and problems playing out on the global stage. Bringing some of those problems in would spoil one of the comforts that draw them the Eucharist on Sunday.
These are some of the reasons – largely speculative on my part – for why Catholics in the United States have been slow to respond to Laudato Si’. In the second part of this article, I will turn the encyclical on its head, literally, and show how the end of letter can provide readers (and teachers) a way out of these stumbling blocks.