Aug. 5, 2015
On May 24, 2015, Pentecost Sunday, Pope Francis issued his encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si’.
As we begin to reflect on this important document, it is important to understand what an ‘encyclical’ is and what it isn’t.
An encyclical is not intended to make dogmatic definitions nor pronounce scientific claims that rightfully belong to experts in the related technical field.
Rather, through this document the Holy Father gives counsel and sheds greater light on certain points of Church teaching.
A papal encyclical is, also, intended to help the bishops as they guide their faithful.
An encyclical is not a legislative text seeking to create new Church teaching.
In this encyclical, the Pope calls us to continuing conversion and action, particularly regarding our concern for the environment.
He humbly admits 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.” (#61)
Nevertheless, our decisions to act in certain ways must be well informed by what our faith teaches. This document is a welcome means of informing our consciences and challenging us to apply Church teaching in our everyday lives.
One of the first things we notice about an encyclical is its title. Traditionally, the titles of important papal documents, such as encyclicals, are derived from the first few Latin words of the document, called the incipit. Pope Francis begins his document with words from St. Francis of Assisi’s Canticle of the Creatures—“Praise be to you, my Lord.”
As we study the document, we will see a theme that weaves its way throughout: our relationship with creation is an expression of the praise we give (or don’t give) to God.
Another important aspect of this document to acknowledge at the start is the foundation upon which it rests. Pope Francis builds upon the extensive teachings of his predecessors and cites the work of Bishops’ Conferences from Canada, Australia, the United States, Bolivia, Japan, the Philippines, and southern Africa.
The Holy Father relies on the teachings of Vatican II, and cites the Catechism of the Catholic Church as well as great theologians such as Saints Thomas Aquinas and Justin.
The entire document is informed by Pope Francis’ own lived experience and pastoral ministry in South America. This document was not crafted from within an ivory tower far removed from the toils and joys of daily living.
Some have suggested that Laudato Si’ has caused the Holy Father’s popularity to nose-dive in the United States. (Although I sometimes wonder how, if He were walking among us today, even Jesus Himself would rank in such national polls.) Although many experts have already offered their extensive analyses and critiques, as time and space permits in the weeks ahead,I hope to review with you the rich fare that this important document offers. There is certainly much to digest and bring to prayer.