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Laudato Si': A Plea from Pope Francis to Protect "Our Common Home" - A Sympathetic Critique

Humanity has a serious problem.[1] We have failed to love, cherish, and protect God’s creation.


 We have not been wise stewards of the Earth’s resources. We have failed to exercise proper prudence, anticipate and mitigate risks, and take adequate precautionary measures. We now face a grave ecological crisis.[2] According to many leading scientists, we are exceeding critical planetary boundaries – mostly notably with respect to biodiversity loss and climate change – and time is running out.[3] In short, our economies are environmentally unsustainable; our ecological footprints are too large and our carbon emissions are excessive. We are borrowing from the future and leaving our children and grandchildren a terrible legacy – a huge, unsustainable environmental debt and colossal, irreversible damage.

In response to the ecological crisis, Pope Francis published an Encyclical Letter on 18 June 2015 known as Laudato Si’. It is a significant and deeply moving Letter. It outlines how humanity has been failing, as Pope Francis puts it, to “care for our common home.” In what follows, I will summarize the contents of Laudato Si’. I will then consider the Encyclical’s strengths and weaknesses, endeavouring to provide a sympathetic critique. I will conclude with some brief reflections on how humanity can better protect our common home.

Two caveats need emphasis. First, I cannot do justice to Laudato Si’ in the brief space available. It is a substantial document – some 246 paragraphs and close to 50,000 words. It traverses numerous theological, biblical, ethical, cultural, scientific, political, and policy matters. I could readily spend an entire article on any one of these topics and even then only scratch the surface.

Second, I will not dwell in length on the scope, scale, or gravity of the current environmental crisis. It will be assumed that basic problems are widely known. But they include: widespread habitat destruction and degradation; air, land and water pollution; ozone depletion; soil erosion and desertification; the over-exploitation of very scarce natural resources; climate change; ocean acidification; and massive deforestation. Globally, the species extinction rate is now about 1,000 times above the normal background rate, and we have entered the early stages of the sixth great mass extinction event since about 540 million years ago. Such events are where more than fifty percent of the planet's species are destroyed. As the OECD argued in a recent major report, humanity faces a risk of “irreversible changes that could endanger two centuries of rising living standards.”[4]

Aotearoa New Zealand is not immune. Our environmental problems include: deteriorating water quality, the over-allocation of scarce fresh water resources, a significant per capita carbon footprint, poor land-use management with soil loss ten times the global average, weak marine governance, and threats to numerous native species.[5] Since human settlement, New Zealand has lost eighty-five percent of its indigenous forests, over fifty bird species and ninety-percent of its wetlands, and a high proportion of the rivers are polluted. Any suggestion that these islands are “clean and green” is patently false.

Summary of Laudato Si’

Turning then to Laudato Si, the Encyclical begins with an overview of the current global ecological crisis and, drawing on the statements and insights of former popes and Christian saints, especially Saint Francis of Assisi, it highlights why human beings should care for creation.

Then, in Chapter 1, Laudato Si’ outlines what is happening to our planet and discusses recent economic and social trends. It focuses especially on pollution and climate change, the degradation of water resources, the loss of biodiversity, the decline in the quality of human life, the weakening of societal bonds, the growth of income and wealth inequality, and the failure of governments to act as wise environmental stewards. The fundamental argument advanced in this chapter is that humanity faces both an environmental crisis and a social crisis, and that the two are inextricably linked.

Next, in Chapter 2, Pope Francis outlines his “gospel of creation.” He discusses the doctrine of creation; relevant Biblical sources; the mystery of life; the value, interconnectedness and indivisibility of every part of the created order; and the subordination of private property to the universal destination of all things. He also reflects on the significance of the Incarnation – that is, the life, teaching, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. He emphasizes God’s intimate relationship with nature and the model Jesus provides in living in harmony with creation.

Turning to Chapter 3, the Encyclical reflects on the human roots of the ecological crisis. In so doing, it discusses the role of the technocratic paradigm, the contribution of globalization, the impact of rampant individualism and an excessive anthropocentrism, the misguided Promethean vision of humanity’s mastery over the world, the culture of relativism, the importance of employment (that is, a vocation or calling to work), and the ethical issues raised by biotechnology, such as genetic modification.

Chapter 4 then addresses the critical importance for what Pope Francis calls an “integral ecology” or an “economic ecology,” that is, an approach which respects its human and social dimensions. As he puts it, “We urgently need a humanism capable of bringing together the different fields of knowledge, including economics, in the service of a more integral and integrating vision” (para 106). The chapter goes on to discuss authentic development, an integral improvement in the quality of life, and the pursuit of the common good.

Following this, Chapter 5 turns to the question of how, from a governmental or policy perspective, humanity should address the ecological crisis. Significantly, Pope Francis criticizes the recent emphasis in many countries on market-based solutions, such as emissions trading schemes, and urges governments to ensure that environmental effects are properly taken into account in all aspects of economic development.

The final chapter, entitled “Ecological Education and Spirituality,” focuses on the need for what Pope John Paul II called an “ecological conversion.” This entails changes of lifestyle, habits and beliefs, including the need for greater moderation, sobriety and humility, and freedom from an obsession with consumption and consumerism. The Encyclical also calls for better environmental education and the development of a new “ecological citizenship,” one marked by a deep gratitude for the gifts of creation, the celebration of rest, and an abiding hope in the Sabbath of eternity when God will make “all things new” (Rev 21:5) and every creature is “resplendently transfigured” (para 243). To quote, “Living our vocation to be protectors of God’s handiwork is essential to a life of virtue; it is not an optional or a secondary aspect of our Christian experience” (para 217). The Encyclical concludes with two beautiful and thoughtful prayers which focus on the wondrous majesty and diversity of God’s creation.

Assessing Laudato Si’

Turning next to an assessment, the Encyclical has generated numerous commentaries and critiques.[6] Unsurprisingly, many of these have been written by Christian scholars, mostly Catholics. Often these have focused on the extent to which Laudato Si’ is consistent with, or departs from, long-standing Catholic doctrines, and especially Catholic social teaching (CST). Many commentaries, however, have been from those with no apparent religious affiliations, in some cases, distinguished academics from leading academic institutions. This is significant as most documents published by religious leaders are ignored by the secular press and academics. They are not normally reviewed by The Guardian or the New York Review of Books. Laudato Si’ is an exception. I will commence with some positive observations and then outline three specific concerns.

Positive elements

There is much to commend this document. Laudato Si’ is deeply rooted in Christian theology. It is strongly trinitarian and christological. It contains many strikingly beautiful passages and evocative images. It is lucidly written, passionate, and readily accessible. It creatively weaves together a multiplicity of ideas, themes and issues, and provides a comprehensive overview of the challenges facing humanity. It offers powerful theological and ethical reasons for caring for creation. It recognizes the power of sin, both individual and structural. Likewise, it takes seriously the compelling scientific evidence regarding the current ecological crisis, especially climate change, and highlights the need for urgent responses – by governments, businesses, and individuals. It offers a thoughtful and distinctively Christian perspective on the causes of this crisis and affirms the need for a holistic, integrated, and radical response, one which recognises the interconnectedness and value of all living things. To quote the Encyclical:

Doomsday predictions can no longer be met with irony or disdain … The pace of consumption, waste and environmental change has so stretched the planet’s capacity that our contemporary lifestyle, unsustainable as it is, can only precipitate catastrophes, such as those which even now periodically occur in different areas of the world. The effects of the present imbalance can only be reduced by our decisive action, here and now (para 161).

At the same time, Laudato Si’ avoids bleak catastrophism or fatalism. Instead, it offers hope – hope based on God’s sustaining and redeeming work. Thus, ecocide is not inevitable. To quote:

hope would have us recognize that there is always a way out, that we can always redirect our steps (para. 61) … gestures of generosity, solidarity and care cannot but well up within us, since we are made for love (para. 58) … God who created the universe out of nothing can also intervene in this world and overcome every form of evil. Injustice is not invincible (para. 74).

The former Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, offers a similar assessment: “God’s faithfulness stands, assuring us that even in the most appalling disaster, love will not let go.”[7] But he also adds an important qualification:

… to suggest that God might intervene to protect us from the corporate folly of our practices is as unchristian and unbiblical as to suggest that he protects us from the results of individual folly or sin. This is not a creation in which there are no real risks; our [Christian] faith has always held that the inexhaustible love of God cannot compel justice or virtue; we are capable of doing immeasurable damage to ourselves as individuals, and it seems clear that we have the same terrible freedom as a human race.[8]

The power and importance of language

The language of the Encyclical is vigorous, poignant, compelling, even haunting. It speaks of humanity’s “ill-considered exploitation,” “a tragic consequence,” a “spiral of self-destruction,” “degradation,” “debasement,” “disfigurement,” “contamination,” “greed,” “wastefulness,” and the “potential for an ecological catastrophe under the explosion of industrial civilization.” Using the metaphorical language of St Francis of Assisi, the Encyclical personifies nature. It speaks of the Earth, “our common home,” being “like a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us” (para 1). Yet, “this sister,” Pope Francis asserts

now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irre­sponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her. We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will. The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life. This is why the earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor … We have forgotten that we are dust of the earth … (para 2).

The Pope’s reference to “mother” and “sister” is significant. It is more than simply a rhetorical device. It highlights humanity’s close relationship with the rest of nature. Our bodies are composed of the same star-dust as every other form of life that has existed on this planet over billions of years. Likewise, much of our DNA is similar to that of other animals – about ninety-five percent in the case of chimps. Personifying nature also affects our emotional and psychological engagement. It frames reality in ways that can elicit a greater identification and sympathy with the suffering of God’s creatures, thereby provoking a stronger and more heart-felt response. Identification and sympathy matter. If democratic governments are to respond effectively to the ecological crisis, enough citizens must care about the natural world. Seeing the creation and creatures in terms of mothers and sisters may encourage such care, at least for those who value motherhood and sisterhood.

Interdependence and solidarity

Such language also helps citizens to understand the interconnectedness and mutual dependence of all forms of life. It encourages people to think in terms of systems and to recognize that humanity is an integral part of nature. Human beings are not above, outside, or beyond the natural realm. As Pope Francis reminds us, our physical bodies consist of the creation’s elements, “we breathe her air and we re­ceive life and refreshment from her waters” (para 2). We are creatures. We are a fundamental part of the community of creation. The New Testament scholar Richard Bauckham puts it this way: “Humans are not demi-Gods ... set like God above creation, but creatures among other creatures, dependent, like other creatures, on the material world of which they are part, and immersed in a web of reciprocal relationships with other creatures.”[9]

Furthermore, Bauckham argues that we need to recognize the “fundamental solidarity of humans with the rest of creation.”[10] Humans cannot flourish in the long term in a scarred, degraded and impoverished biosphere. Our prospering is dependent upon the prospering of the rest of creation. A biblical worldview suggests that humanity is called to live in mutuality and harmony with the natural world, not seek emancipation from it. To quote Bauckham again:

God's purpose in history and in the eschatological future does not abstract humans from nature, but heals the human relationship with nature. Only after fully appreciating that human embeddedness in, and solidarity with, the rest of creation, can we then understand rightly the sense in which humanity is in certain ways highly distinctive by comparison with the rest of creation ...[11]

Lynn White’s famous article in 1967 is highly relevant here.[12] White argues passionately, drawing heavily on the ideas of St Francis of Assisi, that nature has intrinsic worth – a worth endowed by God. It is not simply instrumentally valuable. To quote White, “we shall,” he argued, “continue to have a worsening ecologic crisis until we reject the Christian axiom that nature has no reason for existence save to serve man.” Laudato Si’ offers a broadly similar perspective. It recognizes that how human beings see and value nature has a profound impact on our behaviour.

Ecological and social justice

There are many other aspects of Laudato Si’ that resonate strongly with me. One of these is the powerful connection that Pope Francis draws between the need for ecological justice and the need for social justice, including the relationship specifically between climate justice and serving the poor. As he argues, humanity ought to be concerned for every part of creation that is weak, poor, vulnerable, or suffering. In this regard, Pope Francis draws heavily on the inspiration of St Francis of Assisi, the thirteenth-century Italian friar. St Francis demonstrated how we should show our creaturely love and care, not only for the needy and marginalized amongst humanity but also for everything that God has created, everything that is fragile and defenceless, everything that needs our loving protection. As the Pope underscores, St Francis of Assisi demonstrated through his life and teaching the inseparable bonds that link “concern for nature, justice for the poor, commitment to society, and interior peace” (para.10). Ecological concern and wise environmental stewardship[13] must thus go hand-in-hand with the pursuit of social justice; the two are inextricably linked. After all, if we fail to protect nature, it will be the poor who suffer most from the loss of ecosystem services, more severe droughts and storms, and rising sea levels. Witness, for example, the terrible damage and suffering in the Caribbean during the 2017 hurricane season as a result of Irma and Maria.

Assessing progress

Finally, Laudato Si’ makes a strong case for forging new “models of global development” (para 194), new ways of assessing social and economic progress, and reformed modes of governance that are more far-sighted and “capable of a new, integral and interdisciplinary approach” to policy-making (para 197). To quote Pope Francis:

Put simply, it is a matter of redefining our notion of progress. A technological and economic development which does not leave in its wake a better world and an integrally higher quality of life cannot be consid­ered progress. Frequently, in fact, people’s quality of life actually diminishes – by the deterioration of the environment, the low quality of food or the depletion of resources – in the midst of eco­nomic growth (para 194).

This, of course, begs many questions. How exactly should societies measure progress? What are the appropriate criteria and performance indicators? And how do we ensure that governments, in an age of populism, impatience, and democratic myopia, take such measures seriously? Perhaps it is expecting too much of a papal encyclical to answer such questions, but I think Pope Francis could have ventured further – moving from general propositions to more explicit guidance, including perhaps some specific recommendations.

Matters of concern

Turning now to some of the weaknesses of Laudato Si’; numerous criticisms have been raised by scholars in various disciplines. Not all of these are fair or well-founded, but some certainly are, at least in my view. Here are three:

1. The Encyclical fails to engage adequately with academic literature in the natural, physical, and social sciences, and more generally, fails to draw explicitly on mainstream scientific evidence;

2. The Encyclical blames the ecological crisis largely on the market economy, and argues that consumerism and the market economy are inherently linked; and

3. The Encyclical rejects market mechanisms to mitigate environmental problems like climate change.

The Encyclical’s handling of scientific evidence

Academic disciplines tend to be siloed. Take theology and politics for example. Political theorists and political philosophers rarely seem to read or cite works in the field of political theology. Equally, theologians with an interest in political issues engage only modestly with the work of leading political scientists and philosophers. The same dichotomy inhabits Laudato Si’. The distinguished Yale economist, William Nordhaus, in a thoughtful article on the Encyclical in the New York Review of Books in October 2015, commented as follows:

In reading the encyclical, one senses the struggle of an ancient institution, immersed in its doctrine and history, slowly and incompletely adapting to modern science … Its quotations and references are virtually entirely to pronouncements of earlier popes or others in the church hierarchy. There are a few references to secular environmental documents, such as the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (1992) … but no references to scientific studies. Similarly, there is much discussion about economics, finance, and inequality, but no citations of any data or sources.[14]

It must be recognized, of course, that Papal encyclicals constitute a distinctive literary genre. They are not intended to read like governmental documents or the reports of expert scientific bodies, with copious references and footnotes. Accordingly, encyclicals have not traditionally engaged in detail with the scientific evidence pertaining to the subject(s) under discussion. But is there not a case for moving with the times – perhaps by publishing a companion document which explicitly addresses the relevant scientific evidence? After all, Laudato Si’ states that its aim is to draw “on results of the best scientific research available today … [to] provide a concrete foundation for the ethical and spiritual itinerary that follows” (para 15). Yet, if none of the available research is cited or assessed, does this not risk raising questions about the robustness of the foundations? Moreover, science is not static; paradigms shift; and on many important contemporary matters our scientific understanding is not settled.

Such concerns raise deeper issues about how the Christian community, and especially its leaders and scholars, should interact with the global research community across the natural, physical, and social sciences. As it stands, the two worlds are often divorced; they operate on parallel tracks, like a motorway running alongside a railway line. They deal with the same issues and challenges, but separately, often in splendid isolation, rarely crossing or interacting. The first track is the Christian church and its largely in-house scholarly community. Its focus is inward rather than outward. It only briefly engages with scientific evidence or so-called “secular” thinking – and typically only when it is thought safe to do so or when there is no option. The other track is the vast global research community. The scientists and scholars in this latter world rarely seek out the views of the church or its leading scholars and theologians, and rarely cite their work. Papal Encyclicals do not grace the course outlines of university programmes, except perhaps in theology or religious studies.

Can these parallel tracks be brought together? Can the two communities of faith and science interact to a greater extent? Is there any reason, especially in the scientific and technological age in which we now inhabit, why Papal encyclicals do not quote rigorous scientific evidence in a similar way as they quote the Bible or leading Christian scholars, whether past or present? Is not the book of Nature as relevant as the books of Scripture? Is not God the author of both?

The attribution of environmental degradation to “the market” and “consumerism”

A second concern is the tendency of Laudato Si’ to blame the market economy for the current ecological crisis and a related tendency to blame “compulsive consumerism” on market forces (para 203). Unlike Lynn White, Pope Francis does not lay the ecological crisis primarily at the feet of misguided Christian theology, such as an emphasis on humanity’s domination over nature rather than our responsibility for good stewardship.

Significantly, too, he gives little attention to the environmental damage inflicted by humanity long before the emergence of modern market economies. Equally, he ignores the huge scarred wastelands or the grossly polluted rivers and lakes in China, Russia, and North Korea resulting from decades of communist-inspired state planning. Rather, his focus is on the ecological damage wrought by dark market forces.

The Encyclical criticizes those “who are obsessed with maximizing profits” and it rejects what it calls “a magical conception of the market, which would suggest that problems can be solved simply by an increase in the profits of companies or individuals” (para 190). It goes on to say that:

As long as production is increased, little concern is given to whether it is at the cost of future resources or the health of the environment; as long as the clearing of a for­est increases production, no one calculates the losses entailed in the desertification of the land, the harm done to biodiversity or the increased pollution. In a word, businesses profit by calcu­lating and paying only a fraction of the costs in­volved (para 195).

It is true that businesses can – and often do – profit at the expense of the environment. But they can equally profit from operating within a regulatory framework that properly protects natural capital and ecosystem services. Moreover, in the long-term, economic progress and commercial profitability will only be possible if nations protect their environments. The problem, then, is not that a market economy is evil or that profits are wicked. Rather, the roots of the ecological crisis lie in humanity’s greed and the failure of governments to regulate economic activity effectively so that harmful environmental effects – or what are called “negative environmental externalities” by economists – are properly priced or prevented altogether. Put differently, in most cases environmental degradation has been caused by a combination of market failures and government failures. Market prices have not reflected the environmental and social harm that various economic activities have been causing, and governments too often have failed to rectify the problem.

The reasons for such government failures are not hard to identify. For instance, powerful commercial interests, such as fossil fuel companies and agribusiness, have lobbied against effective governmental regulation, and governments, fearful of electoral defeat, have lacked the political will to act. In short, near-term interests have prevailed over long-term interests and long-term environment pain has been inflicted on the altar of short-term economic gain. Of course, governments would not be fearful of electoral defeat if citizens cared enough about their future interests and those of future generations – or if they placed a sufficiently high value on environmental goods and ecosystem services. So, again, the issue comes back to the question of what people value: markets largely reflect what people value and the choices they make; they do not cause such values or operate independently of human choices, although we must not underestimate the importance of manipulative advertising and commercially-inspired assaults on truth and reason.

In short, blaming “markets” for the ecological crisis is questionable. Rather, we should blame business leaders, investors, voters, and their governments. To some extent, Laudato Si’ recognizes this. It talks, for instance, about the lack of “honesty, courage and responsibility,” and observes that countries have demonstrated a “failure of conscience and responsibility” (para 169). But the Encyclical’s tendency to lay our planet’s environmental woes at the feet of markets and capitalism is problematic.

Policy solutions – the rejection of market mechanisms

This leads to a third concern: if the problem definition and diagnosis is faulty, then the recommended treatment is also likely to be faulty. As noted, for Pope Francis the primary cause of the ecological crisis, and especially climate change, is the operation of market forces and their impact on consumer behaviour. Hence, he rejects using market mechanisms to solve the problem. In particular, he opposes any reliance on emissions trading schemes and carbon credits to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions. To quote:

The strategy of buying and selling “carbon credits” can lead to a new form of speculation which would not help reduce the emission of polluting gases worldwide. This system seems to provide a quick and easy solution under the guise of a certain commitment to the environment, but in no way does it allow for the radical change which present circumstances require. Rather, it may simply become a ploy which permits maintaining the excessive consumption of some countries and sectors (para 171).

Understandably, such comments have been criticized by leading environmental economists, such as Professor Robert Stavins of Harvard University.[15] The issues surrounding climate change mitigation are complex. Several brief comments must suffice.

First, church leaders, like Popes and Archbishops, clearly have both a right and a responsibility to comment from time to time on important policy matters and societal problems, including the relative merits of the possible solutions. After all, policy-making raises significant ethical issues, and church leaders must address such issues. Hence, the Pope’s willingness to comment on ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is welcome. It would be wrong for such grave policy issues to be out of bounds. He is also correct to argue that policies should serve “the common good,” and that any valid conception of the common good must include the interests of future generations.

Second, Papal pronouncements on specific policy matters should be informed by the best available empirical evidence. Unfortunately, Laudato Si’ makes little effort to engage with such evidence. It relies, instead, on assertions. Many economists have disputed these assertions. In my view, their concerns are justified.

Third, and related to this, designing policies to remedy serious societal problems generally requires trade-offs. Some of these are intra-generational while others are inter-generational. Often, too, there is much uncertainty and complexity. Typically, every option has weaknesses or adverse impacts.

This is certainly true of climate change policies. Every available option is problematic, economically, politically, or in other ways. That is why economists and many others continue to debate the relative merits of emissions trading schemes and emissions taxes, and why debate also continues about the relative merits of price-based mechanisms and non-priced-based mechanisms. The latter include direct regulatory interventions, such as fuel efficiency standards, energy efficiency standards for buildings, bans on coal-fired power stations and directives to phase out internal combustion engines. Moreover, whatever the virtues and vices of the different options, each approach can either be well-designed or poorly designed. Sadly, many emissions trading schemes around the world, including New Zealand’s current version, have serious flaws. Hence, they have been much less effective than intended. This is partly because governments have bowed to pressure from powerful commercial interests.

Church leaders, theologians, and ethicists, when commenting on complex policy matters, need to be mindful of the multiple challenges facing policy-makers. Theology has a vital role to play in public debate. But theological reflection must take seriously such factors as uncertainty, risk, political constraints, and administrative complexity. Merely stating high-level ethical principles is not enough; nor is it acceptable to ignore the problem of trade-offs – whether intergenerational or intragenerational.

Finally, it is worth noting that an ethical case can be made against emissions trading schemes and related schemes that involve the trading of pollution rights in a market context. For instance, the Harvard political philosopher, Michael Sandel, has written extensively about the moral limits, and corrupting influence, of market mechanisms of this kind.[16] Unfortunately, Laudato Si’ does not do justice to Sandel’s arguments or those of other scholars. Equally important, it fails to address the various objections to Sandel’s arguments, not least the view that all the alternative policy options are ethically inferior.

Safeguarding the future

There is a further matter that deserves mention and which Laudato Si’, unsurprisingly, does not discuss, namely, how to enhance the capacity of democratic political systems to address important long-term issues like climate change, biodiversity loss, and the fourth industrial revolution. In recent years, I have written several books and many papers on such matters.[17] I will not attempt to repeat all my arguments and reform proposals here. But I would like to make a plea for more attention to be given to the design of our public institutions, including those of the executive and legislative branches. For instance, we currently have a Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment who has a mandate to speak on behalf of environmental interests. But we have no equivalent independent Commissioner to speak for future generations or to undertake the critical task of foresight – including horizon scanning, scenario analysis, and risk assessment. Similarly, our current modes of performance monitoring and assessment tend to focus on flow measures, like GDP, rather than changes in capital stocks, such as renewable and non-renewable natural capital. Equally, we concentrate on the net level of public debt but have no measures of comprehensive wealth, that is, measures that incorporate all forms of capital – financial, manufactured, human, intellectual, social, cultural, and natural. What is measured matters. What is not measured is often ignored or downplayed. This must change. In short, we need stronger institutional voices to safeguard our long-term interests and more comprehensive ways of embedding the future in our day-to-day policy-making processes. To put it differently, we need to find ways to bring the long-term into short-term political focus.


To sum up, humanity faces an unprecedented environmental crisis. Laudato Si’ correctly recognizes the gravity of this crisis, it rightly laments humanity’s culpability, and it fittingly offers a timely, powerful and passionate call to arms. Whatever the limitations and weaknesses of the Encyclical, Pope Francis is absolutely correct, in my opinion, in urging Christians, and indeed all people of goodwill, to act faithfully and responsibly to tackle the crisis. This includes thoughtful and effective responses at levels – by citizens, congregations, communities, businesses and government.

Here in New Zealand there is much work to do. I argue that recent governments have failed to provide leadership. Businesses have too often prioritized their short-term profits over the long-term common good. Meanwhile, many citizens appear unconcerned and apathetic, while many Christians remain asleep in the light. Humanity needs an ecological conversion and an environmental reformation. Laudato Si’ powerfully illuminates this need. Pope Francis deserves our grateful thanks. Maybe the newly elected Labour-led government will respond more actively and effectively than its recent counterparts. Let us hope and pray that this is the case.

Jonathan Boston is Professor of Public Policy in the School of Government at Victoria University of Wellington. He has previously served as Director of the Institute of Policy Studies and as the Director of the Institute for Governance and Policy Studies. He and his wife, Mary, attend St John's in the City in central Wellington.

[1] The article is based on a paper delivered at a conference on “Beyond Blame: Christianity and the Future of Creation,” sponsored by the Centre for Theology and Public Issues, University of Otago, New Zealand Christians in Science, and A Rocha Aotearoa New Zealand, and held at the St John’s Centre, Wellington, 7 October 2017. I am most grateful for the helpful comments I received on an earlier draft by Andrew Shepherd, David Tombs, Derek Woodard-Lehman, and an anonymous referee.

[2] The word “ecology” refers to the scientific study of the interactions among living things and their environment. Hence, the “ecological” crisis generally refers to the largescale disruption to, and serious degradation of, ecological systems, such as the loss of biodiversity and the pollution of the atmospheric, marine and terrestrial environments. Significantly, in Laudato Si’ Pope Francis draws a strong connection between the ecological crisis (in its environmental sense) and a range of social issues. He argues, for instance, that a “true ecological approach always becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment …” (para 49). For the purposes of this article, I will assume that the ecological crisis includes the related social dimensions.

[3] See, for instance, Johan Rockström, et al., “A Safe Operating Space for Humanity,” Nature, 461, 24 (September 2009): 472-475; John Rockström, et al., “Planetary Boundaries: Exploring the Safe Operating Space for Humanity,” Ecology and Society, 14, 2 (2009), 32pp.

[4] OECD, OECD Environmental Outlook to 2050: The Consequences of Inaction (Paris: OECD, 2012), Highlights, 1.

[5] There is a large literature on New Zealand’s environmental problems. For an authoritative perspective see OECD, OECD Environmental Performance Reviews: New Zealand 2017 (Paris, OECD, 2017).

[6] See, for instance, Colin Bell, “Laudato Si’ and its impacts on the environmental debate,” Kirby Laing Institute (2015); Jonathan Chaplin, “Laudato Si’; Structural causes of the ecological crisis: What hath air conditioning to do with Jerusalem?” (2015); Samuel Gregg, “Laudato Si’: Well intentioned, economically flawed,” The American Spectator, 63, 160 (2015):;

Thomas Insua, “The Cry of the Climate and the Cry of the Poor: Pope Francis’s Appeal for Climate Justice,” Kennedy School Review (8 August 2017):; Daniel Mahoney, “Laudato Si’ and the Catholic Social Tradition,” National Review (10 October 2015):;

R. R. Reno, “The Weakness of Laudato Si,” First Things (1 July 2015):

[7] Rowan Williams Faith in the Public Square (London, Bloomsbury, 2012), 190.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Richard Bauckham, The Bible and Ecology: Rediscovering the Community of Creation (Waco, Baylor University Press, 2010), 27-28.

[10] Ibid., 28.

[11] Ibid., 150.

[12] Lynn White, “The Historical Roots of our Ecologic Crisis,” Science, 155, 3767, (March 1967): 1203-07.

[13] Interestingly, the word “stewardship” appears only once in Laudato Si’. Although the idea of stewardship is certainly implicit in much of the encyclical, Pope Francis places his primary emphasis on the idea of caring for “our common home.” Arguably, this change in emphasis involves a shift from the ethical management of nature to the ethical management of human behaviour.

[14] William Nordhaus, “The Pope and the Market,” New York Review of Books (8 October 2015):;

[15] Robert Stavins, “The Papal Encyclical and Climate Change Policy,” (5 October 2015):

[16] Michael Sandel, What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits to Markets (London, Penguin, 2013).

[17] See, for instance, Jonathan Boston, Governing for the Future: Designing Democratic Institutions for a Better Tomorrow (Bingley, Emerald, 2017); idem, Safeguarding the Future: Governing in an Uncertain World (Wellington, Bridget Williams Books, 2017).