Pope Francis has written an extraordinary letter to every person on the planet. It seeks to start a global conversation between all people of good will about how to protect and preserve our common home from destruction.
In the document, "Laudato Si," Pope Francis encourages everyone to thoughtfully consider the best information that science has to offer about the condition of our natural environment, and exhorts leaders in business and politics to address challenging problems such as climate change and ensuring access for all to clean drinking water.
Environmental discussions, Francis notes, take on particular importance this year in light of past failures to enact policies that protect the global commons. Minnesota legislators, for example, are considering plans to strengthen the state's renewable energy standard; on the federal level, the EPA will introduce the final rules for its Clean Power Plan; and the United Nations will convene a climate change conference in Paris.
Public policy is an important component of environmental stewardship. But if we limit the conversation to politicians and CEOs, each of us shirks our own responsibility, regardless of our faith, to be stewards of creation. Pope Francis's proposal asks us, in our personal life and in our communities, to turn away from the injustice of environmental degradation and care for our shared planet.
This is the most extraordinary aspect of the letter: Pope Francis calls each of us to an "ecological conversion" — a repenting of the sin and violence that most, if not all, have committed against the planet through everyday wasteful actions and our embrace of a throwaway culture.
Even if you do not share the vocabulary of sin, the pope has given everyone an examination of conscience about how we can measure our own actions toward the Earth. Especially for Christians, he has firmly established that care for creation is not optional, but one important measure of discipleship.
The extent to which he encourages us all to limit our consumption and activities will, indeed, be a challenge for us all. Besides just cutting down on paper and plastic, Pope Francis encourages us to limit the use of air conditioning, to conserve water and cut down on the use of cars. He practices what he is preaching, and is known for his simplicity of life, using public transportation and even recycling clerical garments.
But more fundamental than simply adopting new personal habits, undergoing an ecological conversion means embracing a worldview rooted in an understanding of right relationships, based on justice and solidarity.
According to Pope Francis: "A true ecological approach always becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor."
For a Christian like Pope Francis, living in harmony with other people and the environment is rooted in a conviction that if we truly love God, we will love what he has created. "The misuse of creation," he says, "begins when we no longer recognize any higher instance than ourselves, when we see nothing else but ourselves."
Regardless of one's views on faith, Pope Francis identifies that living in right relationship with others and the environment requires "respect[ing] the natural and moral structure with which [man] has been endowed." In other words, we must respect the possibilities and limitations offered by our human nature, and not seek to manipulate them like raw material for our own ends.
The environment also possesses both natural and moral possibilities and limitations that must be respected. "The human environment and the natural environment deteriorate together," says Pope Francis, who proposes that we embrace an "integral ecology," which respects both humans and the natural order.
"We cannot presume to heal our relationship with nature and the environment without healing all fundamental human relationships."
Embrace of an integral ecology will mean "redefining our notion of progress" and development, and moving away from models based on growth and consumerism, to one that focuses on the holistic development of people and communities in conjunction with ecological stewardship. Ultimately, it means, for many of us, living with less, so that the poor, and the planet, may have more.
As a voice of conscience, Pope Francis has movingly appealed to the heart of every person and started a conversation in the hope of rebuilding a troubled world, not just the Church. Hopefully, many will take up this invitation to dialogue and conversion.
Jason Adkins is executive director of the Minnesota Catholic Conference.