The legacy of Laudato Si’

by Tom Hoopes

Five years after the encyclical Laudato Si’ was promulgated by Pope Francis, it has left its unusual mark.

What other encyclical has ever been translated into operatic classical music? Laudato Si’: A Franciscan Magnificat debuted at the Cathedral of St. George in Limburg, Germany, with voices for St. Francis, St. Clare, and a deep, insistent baritone singing Pope Francis’ words.

What other encyclical temporarily changed the look of two basilicas in Rome? In 2015, nature images were projected onto St. Peter’s Basilica to commemorate the encyclical. Last December, St. John Lateran was filled with trees and other plants for a conference on it.

What other encyclical attracted celebrities such as Leonardo DiCaprio, Katy Perry, and Orlando Bloom to visit the pope —not to mention 17-year-old Time Person of the Year Greta Thunberg and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg?

“I am concerned that Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si’ is missing from the pulpit,” Oregonian Catholic John Springer wrote to the Catholic Sentinel. “Please, let the worldsaving message be shouted in all our public liturgies.”

Representatives at national Catholic organizations also had a hard time thinking of programs at parishes that share the encyclical’s principles.

“The problem is not with its theology, which is good, even profound,” said Michael Liccione, who works at the Solidarity Party in Ohio. But “the pope has politicized ecotheology to the point where people don’t even want to talk about its principles.”

Speaker and author Coleen Mast has seen some change as a result of the encyclical. “Yes, I think it had some impact,” she said. “It bridged a gap for people in parishes who criticized the ‘earth-loving’ movement groups for putting the creation before the creator, and helped the critics see that there is some legitimate prolife sacredness to environmental responsibility.”

However, she said, “I don’t think it has changed anybody’s opinion on global warming. The two sides are still the same.”


The encyclical is closely identified with climate change issues. Pope Francis, like popes St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI before him, is a passionate believer in global warming, but is careful in the encyclical to say that “a scientifically determinable cause cannot be assigned” to the phenomenon (LS, 23). Francis insists that “on many concrete questions, the Church has no reason to offer a definitive opinion; she knows that honest debate must be encouraged among experts, while respecting divergent views” (LS, 61).

At the same time, Pope Francis has focused on climate policy recently, writing in December 2019 to the United Nations climate change conference: “We must seriously ask ourselves if there is the political will to allocate with honesty, responsibility, and courage more human, financial, and technological resources to mitigate the negative effects of climate change.”

During his November 2019 visit to Thailand, he worried that “some countries have withdrawn” from the Paris climate change agreement, most likely alluding to the United States.

I am concerned that Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si’ is missing from the pulpit.

Inside the Church, climate change issues have passionate defenders and detractors. The Global Catholic Climate Movement includes 650 Catholic organizations, ranging from large international networks to religious orders, parishes, and local activist groups.

“Concerned about human-made climate change, we have come together to care for God’s creation, for the poor who are the most vulnerable to extreme weather events, and for our children who will face the worst impacts,” declares the movement on its Facebook page.

Others point to dissenter climate scientists and the variability of computer models to question global warming.

Meanwhile, the scientific community continues to develop its understanding of climate science. Variable cloud cover, with causes such as El Nino, are directly related to temperature changes. Whale experts wonder if the reduction of whale populations has had a major impact on climate change. There is even evidence that giant icebergs separating and floating into the ocean could enrich the water with minerals that would bring new sea life and significantly affect carbon dioxide levels.


Secular voices that share Pope Francis’ urgency about climate change often do not share his answers to the problem.

The Green New Deal, a proposal by members of Congress led by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., would overhaul the nation’s transportation systems to maximize the use of low-emission options, upgrade buildings and the energy grid —as well as a free college program that would hurt many Catholic colleges if it became reality. Catholic leaders who have raised questions about free university programs include Michael Galligan-Stierle, past president of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities; New York Catholic university presidents; and the Cardinal Newman Society.

Worse, though, is the growing sentiment that population control is the best answer to climate change. Ocasio-Cortez said people should be asking themselves whether it is OK to have children. “Science proves kids are bad for the Earth. Morality suggests we stop having them,” said one recent NBC News headline.

News organizations in late 2019 reported that a new “study” produced by an “international consortium of more than 11,000 scientists” needed immediate action. Called “World Scientists’ Warning of a Climate Emergency,” the paper reported that “economic and population growth are among the most important drivers of increases in CO2 emissions from fossil fuel combustion; therefore, we need bold and drastic transformations regarding economic and population policies.”

Inside the Church, climate change issues have passionate defendants and detractors.

The paper demanded policies that “make family-planning services available to all people” and “remove barriers to their access.”

Detractors had a field day with the report, pointing out that it was not a study, but a “viewpoint” column, andthat it wasn’t signed by scientists, but by visitors to an environmental website.

In the Los Angeles Times, University of California-San Francisco researcher Kelsey Holt responded to the report, questioning the paper’s logic and saying, “The global scientific and policy communities’ response should be laser-focused on bold systemic changes, such as restraining the use of fossil fuels, rather than persuading people to have fewer children.”

Yale University environmental re-searcher Fred Pearce has also shown that consumerism, not population, is the problem. “Rising consumption today far outstrips the rising head count as a threat to the planet,” he wrote in Britain’s Prospect magazine.

This is exactly what Pope Francis argues in Laudato Si’:

To blame population growth instead of extreme and selective consumerism on the part of some, is one way of refusing to face the issues. It is an attempt to legitimize the present model of distribution, where a minority believes that it has the right to consume in a way which can never be universalized, since the planet could not even contain the waste products of such consumption. (LS, 50)

Ultimately, Laudato Si’ can be read as a detailed, bold application of the Beatitudes to modern life, demanding an end to thoughtless consumerism.

A whirlwind of needless buying and spending … leads people to believe that they are free as long as they have the supposed freedom to consume. But those really free are the minority who wield economic and financial power. (LS, 203) A constant flood of new consumer goods can baffle the heart and prevent us from cherishing each thing and each moment. To be serenely present to each reality, however small it may be, opens us to much greater horizons of understanding and personal fulfillment. (LS, 222)

Pope Francis connects this to prolife issues.

Since everything is interrelated, concern for the protection of nature is also incompatible with the justification of abortion. How can we genuinely teach the importance of concern for other vulnerable beings, however troublesome or inconvenient they may be, if we fail to protect a human embryo? (LS, 120)

The pope even connects respect for nature with respect for human nature. “Thinking that we enjoy absolute power over our own bodies turns, often subtly, into thinking that we enjoy absolute power over creation,” he writes, and adds that “valuing one’s own body in its femininity or masculinity is necessary.


Pope Francis is the man who said, “With these two things you have the action plan: theBeatitudes and Matthew 25. You do not need to read anything else.”

atholics I spoke with also wish that the encyclical’s larger message about the human person would sink in. “But I haven’t seen how it has had any influence on consumerism and big business development, either,” Coleen Mast said.

British Catholic Louise Howard told me that she was introduced to Laudato Si’ by her local parish in August 2019. “It opened my eyes up completely to the environment crisis,” she said, and now she has introduced a number of practices in her life to reduce consumerism.

She joined the private Facebook group Laudato Si’, which promotes environmental innovations: leather made of cactus leaves and new low-cost housing in Mexico; a Cameroon man’s canoe built from plastic bottles and a new Kenya nonprofit that is turning ocean water into drinking water. Another one, Living Laudato Si’, lists ways to be environmentally conscious, from “I will start using energy-efficient appliances” to “I will turn my car off during traffic,” and “repair rather than replace.”

The changes Laudato Si’ advocates are radical: Living simply, for others, without trying to change everything about reality. The biggest tragedy might be that we cannot simply say, “Live as we Catholics live” —but Catholics can be proud that we have a pope who can say, “Live as I do.”


environmental crisisLaudato SiPope FrancisThe global catholic climate movementTom Hoopes
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