Media CenterCarolyn Woo’s CNS Column – Ecological Conversion

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On June 18, 2015, I had the unbelievable privilege and unforgettable experience of speaking at the Vatican press conference for the launch of Pope Francis' much-anticipated encyclical on the environment. Named "Laudato Si’" or "Praise Be to God," the encyclical draws from St. Francis' Canticle of the Sun which "invites us to see nature as a magnificent book in which God speaks to us and grants us a glimpse of his infinite beauty and goodness." (P12). In Genesis, we are called " 'till and keep’ the garden of the world." (Gen 2:15). ‘Tilling’ refers to cultivating, ploughing or working, while ‘keeping’ means caring, protecting, overseeing and preserving. This implies a relationship of mutual responsibility between human beings and nature." (P67).

Drawing on extensive evidence and consultation by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences and Social Sciences, this encyclical employs science as the tool for us to hear the cry of the earth. From this foundation, Pope Francis is unequivocal in his message that we have not treated our common home well. When it comes to the earth, we should think of ourselves as stewards rather than owners—tenants of God, as it were. The encyclical refers us to the concept of "global commons," i.e. the tangible and intangible assets that belong to all human kind across all generations necessary for our flourishing. Examples of these include water, atmosphere, fisheries, forestry, biodiversity. The encyclical raises objection to the loss of biodiversity that forever changes our eco-system and reminds us that diverse species are not just resources to be exploited for human purposes. These have an inherent value as "they have value in themselves." (P33) None is superfluous.

The teaching of this document is much broader than a treatise on the environment alone. It makes clear that all life on this planet is connected, bound together. Human life is grounded in three fundamental and intertwined relationships: with God, our neighbor and the earth.   When one of these relationships is damaged, then the others are damaged, too. We are called to recognize the connection between how we treat the planet and how we treat the poor. As Pope Francis puts it, we do not have two separate crises, social and economic, but “one complex crisis which is both social and environmental.” (P139)

The correct response, according to Pope Francis, is a true “ecological conversion." Conversion calls for us first to open our minds so as to cultivate our consciousness or acknowledgement of the scope and causes of the degradation of our environment; second, to listen with our hearts and probe our conscience for how we have not cared properly for God's creation; and third, to change our behavior particularly in our consumption habits to align our conduct with our new conviction. The encyclical is a rich resource for all three processes.

Ultimately, the framing question asked by Pope Francis in his encyclical is a simple one: “what kind of world do we want to leave to those who come after us, to children who are now growing up?” (P160) This question surely resonates with everyone in the world. It resonates with me as a mother, a professional in the development sector, a business woman and as a person of faith.

Read Pope Francis' encyclical, "Laudato Si'".

Dr. Carolyn Y. Woo is the president & CEO of Catholic Relief Services, the official overseas humanitarian agency of the Catholic community in the United States. This article is part of her ongoing monthly column, Our Global Family, written for Catholic News Service. You can follow Dr. Woo on Twitter at @WooCRS.

Read Dr. Woo’s previous columns