Six years ago this past May 24, our Holy Father Pope Francis issued his second encyclical letter, “Laudato Si: On Care for Our Common Home.”  He focused our attention as Catholics, as inhabitants of this earth, on another type of disaster among those that confront our world, this one man-made and not natural. 

Calling our planet “Sister Earth,” the Holy Father wrote — not about “what nature can do to us” but, rather, about what we do to nature, to our “common home” — to a planet that “cries out because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her.” Pope Francis is sounding the alarm, the warning.  We cannot, we must not remain unprepared for this storm of our own making.

Pope Francis is not the first Successor of Peter to call our attention to the environment.  His predecessors Popes St. Paul VI, St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI have each provided similar warnings. 

Pope St. Paul VI: (We have wished) … “to underline better the urgent need of a radical change in the conduct of humanity if it wishes to assure its survival. It took millennia for man to learn how to dominate, ‘to subdue the earth’ according to the inspired word of the first book of the Bible (Genesis 1:28). The hour has now come for him to dominate his domination; this essential undertaking requires no less courage and dauntlessness than the conquest of nature itself. Will the prodigious progressive mastery of plant, animal and human life and the discovery of even the secrets of matter lead to anti-matter and to the explosion of death? In this decisive moment of its history, humanity hesitates, uncertain before fear and hope. Who still does not see this? The most extraordinary scientific progress, the most astounding technical feats and the most amazing economic growth, unless accompanied by authentic moral and social progress, will in the long run go against man (Address to the UN Organization of Food and Agriculture, November 16, 1970, para. 4).”

“Due to an ill-considered exploitation of nature, humanity runs the risk of destroying it and becoming in turn a victim of this degradation (Apostolic letter, Octogesima Adveniens, May 14, 1971, para. 21).”

Pope St. John Paul II: “This state of menace for man from what he produces shows itself in various directions and various degrees of intensity. We seem to be increasingly aware of the fact that the exploitation of the earth, the planet on which we are living, demands rational and honest planning. At the same time, exploitation of the earth not only for industrial but also for military purposes and the uncontrolled development of technology outside the framework of a long-range authentically humanistic plan often bring with them a threat to man's natural environment, alienate him in his relations with nature and remove him from nature. Man often seems to see no other meaning in his natural environment than what serves for immediate use and consumption. Yet it was the Creator's will that man should communicate with nature as an intelligent and noble ‘master’ and ‘guardian,’ and not as a heedless ‘exploiter’ and ‘destroyer’ (Encyclical, Redemptor Hominis, March 4, 1979, para. 15).”

Pope Benedict XVI: “(proposed) eliminating the structural causes of the dysfunctions of the world economy and correcting models of growth which have proved incapable of ensuring respect for the environment (Address to the Diplomatic Corps, Jan. 8, 2007, para. 73).”

“The deterioration of nature is closely connected to the culture which shapes human coexistence (Encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, June 29, 2009, para, 51).”  

Creation is harmed “where we ourselves have the final word, where everything is simply our property and we use it for ourselves alone. The misuse of creation begins when we no longer recognize any higher instance than ourselves, when we see nothing else but ourselves (“Meeting with the Clergy of the Diocese of Balzano-Bressanone,” Aug. 6, 2008).”

These reflections and others similar comments made by popes within the last 50 years serve as foundations for the urgency expressed by Pope Francis throughout his pontificate.  In the past eight years since his election, he has gained the respect of all people of good will — Catholic and non-Catholic, believer and non-believer alike.  People listen to him.  

“The earth,” he noted in Laudato Si “is essentially a shared inheritance, whose fruits are meant to benefit everyone (Chapter 2).” It is not the “sharing” or the “benefit” that concerns him.  It is, rather, the attitude seemingly ingrained in human society that God’s gifts, the fruits of his creation, are limitless and inexhaustible, things to be squeezed and squandered with little regard for the consequences.  That’s the issue! The negative effects of our unrelenting assaults on the environment, what he calls “one of the principal challenges facing humanity in our day,” extend far beyond air, water, oil, energy, land and climate. These assaults are symptoms of a “throwaway culture” that places little value on the human beings and their sacred, God-given dignity and worth.

The crisis we experience in the environment and ecology has become symbolic of what we do to and how we treat one another on the face of God’s good earth, what the Holy Father calls “human and social degradation.” If we are so careless about human life, how could we expect to care about the resources given to support it?  And, conversely, if we are so careless about the earth, our “common home,” how could we expect to care about the people who share it?

The nay-sayers have countered, “The Pope is not a scientist …  His words are inflammatory, merely an invitation to enter into the politicized debate over climate change and global warming.  These issues are admittedly complex and multifaceted.  While science cannot or should not be ignored and political exchange has its rightful place, the Pope is calling all people of God will — believer and non-believer alike — but especially Christians and Catholics to be good, responsible stewards of creation and of our “common home.” 

That call is not a negligible part of our faith and morality, regardless of what the Pope’s critics may say. He is our spiritual father, our chief shepherd and teacher of Catholic faith and morality, roles that are uniquely his as the Vicar of Christ on earth.  If the believer ignores responsibility for the world in which we live, the resources it provides and the people with whom we share them, what can we possibly expect from those who do not believe? If we show no regard or respect for the divine plan for creation, what can we say of human plans, human possibilities, human hopes for a sustainable future?

Pope Francis has asked all people, especially Catholics and the Orthodox with whom we share so much in common, to respond to the crises we face, precisely as people of faith. For that reason, he has invited us to enter into this World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation “to reaffirm their/our personal vocation to be stewards of creation.” Authentic, true prayer deepens our faith.  Authentic, true faith moves us to conviction.  Authentic, true conviction leads to action. Today is a day for us to examine our consciences, to decide what action we must take here and now, not when it’s too late.

If we kneel in prayer before the God of creation and fail to rise as its stewards and his servants our efforts, our “cries” will neither reach heaven nor renew the face of the earth and generations to come will never see or enjoy what today’s psalm calls “the good things of the Lord in the land of the living.” We cannot let that happen. Creation is God’s work, God’s gift. Care for creation is our work and our gift back.