CNEWA Connections: A Landmark Encyclical, Five Years Later

Five years ago, on Pentecost Sunday 24 May 2015, Pope Francis published the encyclical “Laudato Si’.” The name was taken from one of the opening lines of the Canticle of the Sun of St. Francis of Assisi: “Laudato Si’, mi Signore cum tucte le Tue creature” (“Be praised, my Lord, in all your creatures”)!

Dealing with the relationship of human beings to the planet/environment, this was no ordinary papal encyclical. Encyclicals are typically letters that the Bishop of Rome writes to the bishops and faithful of the Catholic Church, as Pope Francis recognizes. However, in this document he writes with a different audience in mind: “In this encyclical I wish to enter into dialogue with all people about our common home” (Par. 3). As the environment — the planet —involves all of humanity, Pope Francis wishes to address all humanity. His openness to all is evidenced at the end of the encyclical where he adds two prayers: A prayer for our earth and A Christian prayer in union with creation.

Much has been written about “Laudato Si’ ” over the past five years — and perhaps even more has been ignored, either from indifference or opposition. It is not my intention here to deal with the encyclical itself. (We did that last year in another blog piece.) But attention must be paid. The CNEWA connection is unmistakable, because so much of the world we serve has been impacted by dramatic climate events — everything from drought to flooding — and so many are now being impacted by a health crisis few could have predicted.

At the end of 2019, the coronavirus appeared in our world. It received the scientific title “novel,” new. And new it was indeed. In 1872 Jules Verne published Around the World in Eighty Days. It was about a wager that was considered almost impossible at the time. In the opening two months of 2020 the coronavirus and its deadly disease COVID-19 had spread all over the world. In 80 days, it had infected millions and killed tens of thousands. In many parts of the world it continues to rage almost unchecked.

Among other things, the phenomenon of the coronavirus has reminded us of the interconnectedness of creation. “We’re in this together” has been a common refrain. And this is very much an idea Francis explores in “Laudato si’.”

One of the things the pope stresses is an “integral ecology,” which flows from the deep interconnectedness which Francis sees in creation. He writes “Time and space are not independent of one another, and not even atoms or subatomic particles can be considered in isolation” (Par. 138). Keeping that deep interconnectedness in mind, it might be helpful to recall some recent events. Most of the events did not impact the lives of most of us and we either did not know of them or knew and did not care—it was not my problem. If anything, the coronavirus has taught us that regardless what or where something happens on our planet, it is foolhardy to dismiss it as “not my problem.”

“ ‘Laudato Si’ ’ was always a significant, even prophetic document. Five years after its publication, as the world finds itself in the midst of a deadly, still uncontrolled pandemic, the encyclical is more important than ever.”

Elias D. Mallon, S.A., Ph.D.

On 31 July and 1 August 2019 over twenty billion tons of ice melted in Greenland. To get some proportion, one billion tons of ice could fill 400,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools.

The amount of water generated by the melt in 48 hours was enough to put all of Germany under three inches of water. London, New York, Naples, etc. were not flooded. However, to think it is not our problem is a mistake. It may not be our problem — yet.

Even more ominous is something that has received little coverage and less public education — namely epidemics. Although it probably surfaced considerably earlier, AIDS had spread to five continents by 1980 and became an epidemic. While HIV deaths were covered extensively in the developed world, some countries in the developing word had infection rates of over 50 percent, with devastating effects on society and the economies. AIDS is considered zoonotic, i.e. started in one species and jumped to humans. This is an important fact.

Since the turn of the millennium, there have been at least three epidemics, two of which were pandemics. In 2002, a coronavirus surfaced and was known as SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) With a fatality rate of 11 percent, SARS was also zoonotic. It was effectively controlled by the end of 2003. MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) appeared in Saudi Arabia in 2012. The virus H1N1 also known as Swine Flu, hence also zoonotic, surfaced and was declared a pandemic.  In the U.S. alone, it is estimated that there were over 60 million cases with 12, 469 fatalities. On 10 August 2010, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the pandemic at an end. Less than a decade later a new, also zoonotic, virus has surfaced which is much more virulent. As of the beginning of July, 10,682,243 cases of the coronavirus have occurred worldwide with 516,306 fatalities.

The interconnectedness which Pope Francis sees between all creatures means that the above statistics are alarming. Several things are to be noted. First and most importantly, each of these diseases impacts all of us. Secondly, it is significant that many are zoonotic diseases. The most dangerous diseases of the 21st century have been passed from animals to humans. Scientists believe that as natural habitats are reduced by human encroachment, we come in increasing contact with wild animals, which increases the chances for viruses to jump species. Viruses evolve rapidly and there is some indication that the outbreaks are becoming more virulent. Lack of coordinated responses, indifference to the lot of others, egotistical rejection of the common good in the name of “freedom” can cost literally hundreds of thousands of human lives and perhaps ultimately end civilization on the planet when faced with a pandemic like COVID-19.  Lastly, modern transportation provides the viruses literally with wings to engulf the planet in far less than Jules Verne’s 80 days.

“Laudato si’ ” was always a significant, even prophetic document. Five years after its publication, as the world finds itself in the midst of a deadly, still uncontrolled pandemic, the encyclical is more important than ever.

With his penetrating insight into the interconnectedness of all creation, Pope Francis is not merely suggesting something that is nice, something that would be helpful. He is reminding us all of our responsibility for “our common home” and the fearsome price of ignoring that responsibility.

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