Pope Francis’ new encyclical letter: connecting ecology and social justice by Jan van Ballegooijen

2014 Pastoral Visit of Pope Francis to Korea Closing Mass for Asian Youth Day August 17, 2014 (www.korea.net) Official Photographer : Jeon Han

Pope Francis’ new encyclical letter: connecting ecology and social justice
By: Jan van Ballegooijen

Pope Francis’ much anticipated ‘ecological’ encyclical letter ‘Laudato Si’’ was published on June 16th 2015. Encyclical letters are usually concerned with religious doctrine and addressed to bishops, cardinals and other members of the Church. However, Francis’ second encyclical does emphasize that this specific edition of the encyclical letter is not only addressed to Catholic Christians but rather ambitiously aims at entering ‘into dialogue with all people’ about issues such as the environment, global warming, development and the economy [1].

Encyclical letters are frequently used as a point of reference among Catholic religious leaders, academics, and politicians. It is also a source of inspiration and debate. It is unlikely that all Catholic SUV-owners will change to electric cars, install solar panels, and turn off the heating in their spacious church buildings, but social encyclicals such as Laudato Si’ often lead to gradual shifts in the large sphere of influence of the worldwide Catholic Church, even if only small numbers of the 1.2 billion members of the Church take notice of it.

Many NGO’s, social movements, political parties in both the developed and the developing world are connected to the Catholic Church or have Catholic roots. Here encyclical letters are usually taken rather seriously and often bring about new social initiatives.

In this article, I will outline the central thesis of the encyclical letter Laudato Si’ (Italian for “Praise be to You”, words from a poem by Saint Francis of Assisi). I will pay special attention to Pope Francis’ remarks on the urban dimension of ecology and its relation to urban poverty and slum dwelling.

The encyclical leaves no room for climate skeptics or people who deny that climate change is caused by human activity. The third chapter, titled “The human roots of the ecological crisis” deals entirely with the ecological problems caused by increasing technological development and the human desire to dominate and exploit nature. The encyclical, following scientific consensus, is quite clear: the environmental crisis of today is caused by irresponsible human activity. Pope Francis thus strongly rejects the claims of climate skeptics, who are also among his fellow Catholics especially in politically conservative circles.

But according to the pope, humanity is not only the cause of the current crisis, but also holds the key to a new beginning. In Francis’ own words: ‘There can be no ecology without an adequate anthropology.’ He does not think some smart technological fix will solve the problems we are facing today and tomorrow, but what is needed is a new relationship between humanity and the natural environment. For Francis this cannot be separated from a healing of broken human relationships. Environmental degradation is always related to some sort of uprootedness related to urbanization, industrialization and spatial and social segregation. He draws a dark picture of a wasteful and consumerist developed world, plundering the Earth’s natural resources, destroying along the way the livelihood of the poor. This cycle of overconsumption, exploitation, poverty and environmental degradation can only stop if we ask ethical, spiritual and social questions. Pope Francis believes that the age-old Christian tradition provides deep insights and answers for dealing with this multifaceted ecological crisis.

However, Laudato Si’ does not provide a one-dimensional solution to the current environmental challenges. Francis is not a miracle worker but brings forward the concept of ‘integral ecology’, an ecology that takes into account not only environmental ecology, but also economic, cultural and social ecology. Those familiar with the teachings of Pope Francis during his pontificate and before, would not be surprised that the needs of the world’s poor play a significant role in this concept of integral ecology: ‘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’, says Francis.

On the city and the poor 

The letter ‘on the care of our common home’, which is the subtitle of Laudato Si’ does not only focus on the protection and challenges of our ‘natural home’ (i.e. global warming, cutting down of rainforests, pollution of oceans, etc.) but also develops arguments for the care of our ‘cultural homes’ like cities and neighborhoods. In this letter, the city is often associated with social disintegration, chaos, poverty and pollution. This is not surprising for a man who has spent most of his life in the urban jungle of Buenos Aires with its traffic jams, slums and social unrest. The spaces of the 21st-century mega-cities are incorporated into his concept of the ‘ecology of daily life’, another aspect of the integral ecology. Our everyday urban environment is closely connected to our identity, writes Francis. Our ‘rootedness’ and our ability of ‘feeling at home’ in a city depends on the spatial and material quality of this city. This should also take into account the protection of local building styles, monuments, city-scapes, and other forms of cultural heritage. ‘Ecology, then,’ he concludes, ‘also involves protecting the cultural treasures of humanity in the broadest sense.’

The encyclical letter Laudato Si’ speaks also about the problems of the urban poor and slum dwellers. Before his election as pope, he paid, as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, special attention to the inhabitants of the Villas Miserias, the city’s poor, slum-like neighborhoods. He visited those parts of Buenos Aires often and supported different charity organizations and priests who where working with the urban poor. As pope, the poor are have always been central to his ministry. He visited the neighborhood of Varginha in the Manguinhos favela in Rio de Janeiro in July 2013, reaffirming that the Church is ‘the defender of the poor in the face of intolerable social and economic inequalities which cry to heaven’ [2].  Also in Laudato Si’ he addresses the rights of slum dwellers when he states:

Lack of housing is a grave problem in many parts of the world, both in rural areas and in large cities, since state budgets usually cover only a small portion of the demand. Not only the poor, but many other members of society as well, find it difficult to own a home. Having a home has much to do with a sense of personal dignity and the growth of families. This is a major issue for human ecology. In some places, where makeshift shanty towns have sprung up, this will mean developing those neighbourhoods rather than razing or displacing them. When the poor live in unsanitary slums or in dangerous tenements, “in cases where it is necessary to relocate them, in order not to heap suffering upon suffering, adequate information needs to be given beforehand, with choices of decent housing offered, and the people directly involved must be part of the process”. At the same time, creativity should be shown in integrating rundown neighbourhoods into a welcoming city (…)

Pope Francis is probably right when he points out that the highly segregated cities that have developed over the past decades are not only obstacles for social sustainability, but are eventually also thresholds for ecologically sustainable cities. When the urban poor are left to their own devices in vast peripheral slums without proper basic infrastructure, we shouldn’t be surprised if this leads to contamination due to a lack of sewers; or if poorly developed public transport leads to congestion. It is not enough to only search for technocratic solutions to these urban ecological challenges. Francis’ letter emphasizes the importance a new solidarity among different social classes, especially in the increasingly segregating cities of today.

Within this urban ecological crisis there is a role to play for good urban planning, Francis writes, but mere beautification of the urban environment is not enough:

‘More precious still is the service we offer to another kind of beauty: people’s quality of life, their adaptation to the environment, encounter and mutual assistance. Here too, we see how important it is that urban planning always take into consideration the views of those who will live in these areas’,

Thereby, he underscores the need for a participatory approach in the context of slums and rundown neighborhoods.

Laudato Si’ clearly rejects a dogmatic conception of private property: ‘The principle of the subordination of private property to the universal destination of goods, and thus the right of everyone to their use, is a golden rule of social conduct and “the first principle of the whole ethical and social order”’, Francis states, referring to the earlier encyclical letter Laborem Exercens (1981) by his predecessor Pope John Paul II. The right to private property is not rejected altogether, but clearly subordinate to a fair distribution of common goods.

These statements on property in Laudato Si’ are particularly important with regard to the rights of slum dwellers and landless farmers. This becomes clear from a quotation from an earlier pastoral letter from the Paraguayan Bishops’ Conference saying that everyone ‘has a natural right to possess a reasonable allotment of land where he can establish a home, work for subsistence of his family and secure a life.’ This right to possess land is not necessarily the same as the right to legal, private property but means that everyone, both in urban and rural areas should have the right to the basic necessities of life. In practice this means that forced evictions of slum dwellers – who rarely hold legal property rights to their possessions – are strongly rejected by Pope Francis.

When it comes to Pope Francis’ stance on urban ecology the following aspects are important: (1) The city is an essential aspect of the ‘common home’ of humanity but merely technocratic or artistic approach towards the city is rejected. The city should be a place of belonging, a place of identity, and interaction between different social groups. These social aspects are fundamental prerequisites for a sustainable integral ecology. Respect for cultural heritage and the existing urban fabric is essential for ‘feeling at home’ in the city. (2) Integral ecology also means that everyone has the right to decent housing and a dignified living environment. Special attention should be paid to those living in slums or dangerous tenements. If their rights are not respected, one cannot speak of sustainable cities. Respecting the natural rights of the urban poor means among others their right home ownership.

Pope Francis’ vision of an integral ecology is deeply rooted in Franciscan spirituality. This 13th-century monk and founder of the Franciscan order, Saint Francis of Assisi, is ‘the example par excellence of care for the vulnerable and of an integral ecology lived out joyfully and authentically. (…) He was a mystic and a pilgrim who lived in simplicity and in wonderful harmony with God, with others with nature and with himself’, the pope writes. Laudato Si’ connects environmental issues to social justice and provides support and inspiration from a wide variety of Christian sources, such as biblical scripture, hagiographies, excising social doctrine of the Church, and earlier encyclical letters.

About the Author: Jan van Ballegooijen (1984) works as a researcher and practicing architect in the Netherlands and Belgium. His research interests are the politics of informal urbanization and the relationship between urbanization, democratization and human rights. Together with Roberto Rocco he is the editor of the Routledge Handbook on Informal Urbanization (forthcoming 2016).

[1] All the following quotations from Laudato Si’ come from the English translation which is accessible at: http://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/encyclicals/documents/papa-francesco_20150524_enciclica-laudato-si.html

[2] Zenit.org: Pope Francis’ adressin the neighborhood of Varginha in the Manguinhos Favela:

accessed at: 22 June 2015.


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