Pope Francis is exasperated. No, not over the recently concluded Synod of Bishops on Synodality in Rome last Sunday. His frustration, even despair, is all over his short Apostolic Exhortation Laudato Deum (“Praise God”) which came out last month on the 8th year anniversary of his landmark encyclical on the environment, “Laudato Si: On Care for Our Common Home.” He opens Laudato Deum with a tinge of sadness and a grave warning: “Eight years have passed since I published Laudato Si… yet, with the passage of time, I have realized that our responses have not been adequate, while the world in which we live is collapsing and may be nearing its breaking point (underscoring mine).”

The letter then aims to look back at what happened since the publication of Laudato Si in June 2015. It was at that time well-received internationally, hailed especially by civil society and the scientific community as a welcome boost in the critical and urgent fight for Mother Earth. It was released in time for the historical UN Climate Conference in Paris where countries finally agreed to limit global temperature to within 2 degrees Celsius. The whole world then took note of Vatican’s stance vis-à-vis the environmental crisis. Laudato Si signaled the serious and active involvement in the issue by the Catholic Church with Vatican representatives attending and speaking at UN and other important global ecological conferences. More importantly, within the 1.2 billion-strong Church, the Pope’s encyclical gave birth to a long overdue movement. The Laudato Si Movement now boasts of one thousand catholic organizations spread across 150 countries. Ottmar Edenhofer, co-chair of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change which prepared the monumental 2015 Conference of Parties (COP) in Paris, reflects on the influence of Pope Francis and Laudato Si on the global discussions on environmental issues. He says: “The impact was tremendous. Before Pope Francis, it was by no means clear that the Church was really prepared to take climate science seriously. It is now clear that you cannot be a Christian and at the same time deny that climate change is an issue (Time Magazine, March 2023).” He adds that the encyclical was a “powerful symbol” and that the “Vatican played a significant role in the negotiations for the Paris Agreement (to limit global warming), and as an actor was very helpful.”

And yet, eight years after Laudato Si’s publication, Pope Francis himself admits that we haven’t really moved the needle. In Laudato Deum, he observes that global warming continues with global temperatures expected to go beyond 1.5 degree Celsius soon. Indeed, 2023 stands to be the hottest year in history prompting the UN Secretary General to say that we can now speak about “global boiling” instead of global warming. The increasing warm temperature, due mainly to the accumulation of greenhouse gas in the atmosphere, in turn, has resulted in climate changes (extreme weather conditions), the melting of polar ice caps which is now causing sea level rise and flooding, and the extinction of animal and plant species. The Chemistry undergraduate that he is, Pope Francis explains how the global climate crisis leads to the obliteration of animal life: “Some effects of the climate crisis are already irreversible, at least for several hundred years, such as the increase in the global temperature of the oceans, their acidification and the decrease of oxygen. Ocean waters have a thermal inertia and centuries are needed to normalize their temperature and salinity, which affects the survival of many species. This is one of the many signs that the other creatures of this world have stopped being our companions along the way and have become instead our victims (underscoring mine).”

There is plenty of blame to go around for the inaction that has happened the last eight years. Pope Francis picks on each one of them. There is big business, of course, whose only interest is profit and so continues to engage in the wanton extraction of earth’s limited resources, including fossil fuel. Pope Francis laments: “the mentality of maximum gain at minimal cost, disguised in terms of reasonableness, progress, and illusory promises, makes impossible any sincere concern for our common home.” In utter amazement, the Pope wonders why the next UN Climate Conference or the Conference of Parties (COP 28) scheduled at the end of this month is taking place in the United Arab Emirates whose economy, like many OPEC members, is founded on the export of fossil fuels. At fault also for Pope Francis is the international political community. In Laudate Deum, he goes through the UN Conferences on Climate Change since the 1992 Rio de Janeiro Conference where it all started or where, as it were, the world finally had the political will to face the environmental crisis.  He looks at the gains and the failures of these supposedly concerted global action through the years, and, almost in exasperation, says, “despite the many negotiations and agreements, global emissions continue to increase… We must move beyond the mentality of appearing to be concerned but not having the courage needed to produce substantial changes.”

Finally, at the core of the problem, the Pope reiterates what he has written in Laudato Si—the philosophical underpinnings of the abuse of the planet. There is the anthropocentric view of the world which, simply stated, sees man as the center of the universe and the universe is merely an object to be used and exploited. Connected to this, according to the Pope, is the growing influence of what he calls the “Technocratic Paradigm” which places exaggerated trust and hope in scientific inventions even if many of these have proven disastrous such as the atomic bombs dropped in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. (Now scientists are warning us about Artificial Intelligence.) Pope Francis explains, “contrary to this technocratic paradigm, we say that the world that surrounds us is not an object of exploitation, unbridled use and unlimited ambition. Nor can we claim that nature is a mere setting in which we develop our lives and our projects. For we are part of nature…thus we do not look at the world from without but from within.”

In the end, Pope Francis offers a few words about possible solutions to the global ecological crisis. Instead, he ends Laudato Deum ominously: “Praise God” is the title of this letter. For when human beings claim to take God’s place, they become their own worst enemies.”

(On Wednesday, November 8, I will facilitate a panel discussion on Laudate Deum with experts from the Asia Pacific region: Julie Edwards, CEO of Jesuit Social Services in Australia; Fr. Sunu Hardiyanta, SJ, former Provincial Superior of Indonesian Jesuits; Mary Khine, social worker in Myanmar; Fr. Jose Villarin, SJ, Director of Manila Observatory, Philippines. The show will be livestreamed worldwide at 10 AM via Facebook and YouTube pages of Jesuit Communications and Radyo Katipunan. Please join us.)