‘Laudato Si’: What’s the controversy?

Poor Pope Francis. An awful lot of what he says gets misconstrued.

With ‘Laudato Si’, the environmental encyclical, his comments on global warming and air conditioning opened the floodgates. On the first topic, one online source charged him with being a Communist, implying that he advocates totalitarian regulation of fossil fuel use. On the second, the outcry implied that His Holiness wants everyone to spend our summers sizzling.

It’s true that Pope Francis (a trained chemist) acknowledges evidence of climate change. The latest statistics from NOAA (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), NASA, the EPA, and WMO (the World Meteorological Organization) show an ongoing trend of rising temperatures and severe weather events. The pope warns that we can anticipate an escalation in the number of environmental refugees if such phenomena as desertification and rise in sea levels come to pass. He does not, however, say that the solution is massive governmental intervention.

The pope notes that resolutions from various World Summits have largely failed and remarks, “We should not think that political efforts or the force of law will be sufficient to prevent actions which affect the environment.” The Church does, we recall, preach the principle of subsidiarity, which means that problems should first be addressed on the local level. Pope Francis says that, in his words, “a real difference” can be made in voluntary actions taken close to home.

For example, individuals can purchase produce at farmers’ markets and roadside stands. Families can develop strategies for conservative use of water, electricity, and disposables. Neighborhoods can repurpose, reuse, and recycle. Towns can pro-rate garbage collection according to volume. States can enact vehicle and industrial emissions inspections and impose limits. All of this can minimize the need for federal legislation or international eco-treaties. The pope cautions that “the internationalization of environmental costs” will cripple poor nations.

The second topic, air conditioning, comes up when Pope Francis addresses our habits of consumption, particularly over-consumption. Father Alexander Lucie-Smith, a Catholic priest writing from the U.K., has offered a good explanation of the pope’s remarks. Quite simply, Father Lucie-Smith says, the pope is concerned that we are over-reliant on air conditioning and use it in ways that exceed our need. The pope himself lives in an apartment which is cooled. We know that air conditioning is essential for urban apartment dwellers in simmering cities. It is also a must for people with heart and respiratory ailments in the midst of heat waves. Sprawling factories and museums and archives need cooling systems to preserve workers and cultural treasures. However, Pope Francis’s remarks lead us to consider that there are cases in which open windows, screen doors, fans, and canopies of shade trees would serve us well.

Throughout the encyclical, the pope steers clear of recommendations that we renounce the modern world. Instead, he asks us to use technology, utilities, land, and water wisely. He challenges us be good stewards of God-given earthly goods.


By Sister Pamela Smith, SSCM