Praise be to the planet

Local religious leaders sound off on Pope Francis’ encyclical addressing climate change

Pope Francis takes a strong stance on climate change in his recent encyclical about the environment and humanity’s duty to preserve it.

Pope Francis takes a strong stance on climate change in his recent encyclical about the environment and humanity’s duty to preserve it.

Pope Francis shook the world—in particular, denizens holding strong views on climate change—with an encyclical released on June 18 about the environment that’s been parsed by politicians, pundits and parishioners of many beliefs.

In the first two paragraphs of his letter—titled “Laudato Si’ (Praise be to you),” subtitled “On Care for Our Common Home”—he invoked words of the saint who inspired his name, laying the basis for an incisive epistle.

“Saint Francis of Assisi reminds us that our common home is like a sister with whom we share our life … This sister 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.”

Over the next 244 paragraphs, the pope delineates specific “symptoms of sickness” as well as his prescription.

He laments pollution, climate change, water issues, biodiversity loss and societal impacts of harmful actions. He criticizes “weak responses.” He traces root causes, calls for “integral ecology” (incorporating social and environmental factors) in addressing the problems and sets out a path for people—peoples—to follow, with lifestyle and policy changes.

The encyclical drew praise from environmentalists and scrutiny from skeptics. Contrarian commentaries, such as “Pope Francis’ Out of Touch Climate Change Warning” in the New York Post, and prominent Republicans have questioned whether the environment is an appropriate topic for him to address.

Is it? Do religious and environmental thought connect, or is Pope Francis alone with his ecotheology? Faith leaders in Chico say caring for the planet is a key principle across multiple religions.

The Rev. Richard B. Yale, rector at St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church in Chico, said that “at the heart of our theology is to see ourselves as stewards of God’s creation.” Talk of environmental issues “comes up naturally, I think, among parishioners; it comes up naturally in our theology; it comes up naturally in our liturgy, in our worship.”

Rabbi Mendy Zwiebel of the local Chabad Jewish Center said Judaism concerns myriad ways people impact our surroundings, which include the environment. Jewish prayers and laws specify ecological elements, such as the prescription to leave farmland fallow every seventh year, “and there are legal issues that are dealt with in Judaism about your interactions with the environment, how it affects others … When we realize our responsibilities, we conduct our lives in a better way, and that really is environmentalism but in a broader sense.”

Father Francis Stevenson, parochial administrator at Our Divine Savior Roman Catholic Church, articulated environmental sensibilities in Catholicism that predate the papal letter. As in the Episcopal church, Catholics commemorate St. Francis with a blessing of the animals; Catholic liturgy incorporates prayers for rain and farmers, along with blessings on farmland.

Pastor Dave Workman from Grace Community Church underscored “a wide perspective in what stewardship involves” for Christians: “Since there are no specifics given from God about that, people are free to bring their own convictions to bear.” His Protestant congregation, for example, acts on concerns about water conservation. Because they’re not a liturgical church, this sensibility traces to “an understanding from the Genesis accord that we’re supposed to be responsible … and not waste resources, not be greedy.”

After Pope Francis dispatched the encyclical, Stevenson felt moved to share it with his parishioners at Our Divine Savior. He read various accounts, including a synopsis in the New York Times, to craft a summary for his sermon that Sunday.

“Unfortunately, when you read things online, [an article author often] tries to parse them out into political terminology,” he said. “I really think, from a Catholic perspective, we really have to be careful that we don’t look at encyclicals or anything that the church tries to teach from strictly a political view.”

Doing so, he said, tends to reduce the reaction to simple assent or dissent, rather than a productive impulse. “An encyclical is really challenging people with a Gospel message, and now you have to do something.”

Workman shared a similar sentiment: “The challenge that any faith group has, if [a topic] plays out in the political arena, is not allowing what the Bible has said about this [topic] to become politicized by a particular political agenda, be it from the right or from the left.”

Stevenson said the fact that Pope Francis wrote “Laudato Si’” in Italian, not Latin, is significant. That means he intended it for a broad audience, not just his church.

“You really have to read the document yourself,” Stevenson recommended. “You have to go beyond what the media says, what politics says … It requires a personal commitment to really study it and try to articulate it in your life.”

The encyclical’s message resonated with Yale, the Episcopalian rector: “The world is going to cry out, whether it’s in praise or in groaning; we need to be attuned to that voice in the Earth. That’s how Pope Francis begins, and we would concur with that.”

Without wading into the encyclical, Zwiebel suggested divine providence in the very discussion.

“Maybe the reason why the climate issue is coming up so strongly is to make people aware of how important their actions are,” he said, “to inspire people to realize that we’re not just living our lives but that we’re affecting the world. We easily have the opportunity to make this world a better place.”