Reviewing the Pope’s Encyclical

laudato siThe award-winning poet Alice Walker writes: “Earth itself has become the nigger of the world.” She goes on to elaborate:

“It is perceived, ironically, as other, as alien, evil, and threatening by those who are finding they cannot draw a healthful breath without its cooperation. While the Earth is poisoned, everything it supports is poisoned. While the earth is enslaved, none of us is free. While the Earth is a “nigger,” it has no choice but to think of us as all as Wasichus. While it is “treated like dirt,” so are we” (1981:147).

In his encyclical, Laudato Si’, Pope Francis I captures Walker’s sentiment early on when he writes, “We have come to see ourselves as [the earth’s] lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will” (par 2). Thus the Pope is correct to equate the degradation of the earth’s integrity with sin (par 8).

We live in a world where the overwhelming evidence concerning global warming exists, upon which 99.9% of scientist are in agreement, and where the world’s richest nations are spending billions to limit their own risks from rising sea levels and drought. And yet, while the earth is poisoned, we ignore our complicity, as the church, both Catholic and Protestant, remain asleep in the light. Those located farthest from the equator, specifically the industrial North is responsible for most of the global warming, will be affected the least. For example Africa, which accounts for less than 3 percent of the global emissions of carbon dioxide from fuel burning since 1900, faces the greatest risk caused by drought and the disruption of water supplies.[1] The poorest 40 percent of the world’s population, some 2.6 billion people, will experience “a future of diminished opportunity,” as they bear the brunt of climate change.[2]

Pope Francis’ encyclical has much for a liberationist to love. Because wealthy nations are mainly responsible for the current climate changes they are thus obligated to help poorer nations deal with the crises (par 195). He condemns transnational profit-making centers for weakening the power and ability of nation states to deal with the ecological crises (par 175, 196). He elevates water from a capitalist commodity upon which to profit to an essential universal human right (par 30). He critiques the neoliberal quest for quick and easy short-term gains as a major contributor to the planet’s ecological challenges (par 36, 184); redefines the very concept of private property (par 67) by insisting on a “social mortgage” (par 93); and rejects solutions based on market approaches (par 109) such as the buying and selling of “carbon credits” (par 171). Finally, he unmasks how foreign debt is employed by rich countries to control poor countries (par 52). In short, he centers the encyclical upon the crucified poor (par 241).

Crucial to the encyclical’s main thesis is linking the exploitation of the earth’s resources with the exploitation of the earth’s marginalized, making it difficult, if not impossible, to speak of one without mentioning the other. One cannot help but notice the Pope’s “shout-out” to Brazilian theologian Leonardo Boff (par 49), whose writings ironically elicited a formal Vatican inquiry that eventually lead to a one year silencing. Even though Boff is not mention in the encyclical, he was among the first liberationist thinkers within the Catholic Church to give voice to the cry of the oppressed, connecting it with the very cry of the earth. He insists that the logic and justification that lead the powerful and privileged to exploit and subjugate the world’s marginalized are the same logic and justification that plunder the earth’s wealth and lead to its devastation.[3]

While an intimate relationship exists between the global poor and the fragility of the planet (par 16) we must still ask, how does this link manifested within the United States? Missing from the encyclical is the role that race and ethnicity play in the equation. Race, according to a growing body of empirical evidence, continues to be the most significant variable in determining the location of commercial, industrial, and military hazardous-waste sites within the U.S. For example, using 2000 U.S. Census data, people of color represent 56 percent of the population living less than 1.8 miles from one of the 413 commercial waste facilities.[4] This means that of the nine million Americans living in neighborhoods hosting one of these commercial hazardous waste facilities, more than 5.1 million of them are of color.[5]

The poorer the community, the greater the risk of environmental abuse, because those economically privileged are able move away from such sites, a privilege not available to the poor, who are mostly people of color. Between 1999 and 2009, the National Academy of Science produced five environmental justice reports showing that “low-income and people of color communities are exposed to higher levels of pollution than the rest of the nation and that these same populations experience certain diseases in greater number than more affluent White communities.”[6] Black ethicist Emilie Townes has said that the effects of toxic waste on the lives of people of color who are relegated due to their poverty to live on ecologically hazardous lands are akin to a contemporary version of lynching a whole people.[7]

Until now, environmentalists from the dominant culture were mainly concerned with issues of clean air and water and the protection of habitats of endangered species. Robert Bullard observes that:

“The environmental-equity movement is an extension of the social justice movement. Environmentalists may be concerned about clean air, but may have opposing views on the construction of low-income housing in white, middle-class, suburban neighborhoods. . . . It is not surprising that mainstream environmental organizations have not been active on issues that disproportionately impact minority communities. . . . Yet, minorities are the ones accused of being ill-informed, unconcerned, and inactive on environmental issues” [8] (1994:128–29).

When those racially and ethnically marginalized compare the environmental quality of life of where they live with that of the larger white society, it becomes all too obvious that a link exists between polluted sites and disenfranchisement. Few white environmentalists seriously consider this link and consequently fail to understand a major reason why pollution occurs disproportionately in certain areas. The failure of the environmental justice movement to come to terms with the inherent racism that relegates those on the margins to the greatest ecological health risks prevents fostering a truly global, holistic approach to the environment. Continuing to mask environmental racism limits, if not frustrates any attempt or hope for the liberation of humans and creaturekind alike.

Although there is much to celebrate concerning the Pope’s encyclical, we must avoid the temptation of simply participating in a love feast. Hence, my concern is that the Pope’s romanticization of Natural Law (par 155) leads to problematic theological claims and a worldview disjointed from reality. His optimistic hope is incongruent with the ecological devastating future many will face, regardless of summoning us toward solidarity and having a preferential option for the poorest of our brothers and sisters (par 158). A call to a “change of lifestyle” (par 206) will simply not occur because the Pope calls for a “global ecological conversion” (par 5). The Pope fails to conduct a power analysis that recognizes the pursuit of short-term gain will not be abandoned just because the Pope calls all to embark on a new paths to authentic freedom (par 205). The power of profit will prevent the rich from moving away from their earthly treasures. The Pope’s claim that only by cultivating sound virtues (par 211) will people commit to ecological change ignores that those benefitting from oppressive structures will employ whatever means necessary to maintain their privilege at the expense of the ecology. Neither an encounter with Jesus (par 217) – especially for non-Christians, nor learning to recycle is enough (par 211). Those privileged by the current social arrangements will never willingly give up their power regardless of the cries of the earth. I argue that by embracing a theology of hopelessness, where there is nothing to lose, radical praxis becomes the necessary possibility that might push us to change.

                                                                                    Miguel A. De La Torre


[1] Andrew C. Revkin, “Poorest Nations Will Bear Brunt as World Warms,” The New York Times, April 1, 2007.

[2] United Nations Development Programme, 2007/2008 (UNDP), Fighting Climate Change: Human Solidarity in a Divided World (New York, NY: Palgrave McMillan, 2007), 2.

[3] Leonardo Boff, Cry of the Earth, Cry of the Poor, trans. by Phillip Berryman (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1997), xi.

[4] Dolores,Acevedo-Garcia, et. al. Unequal Health Outcomes in the United States: Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Health Care Treatment and Access, the Role of Social and Environmental Determinants of Health, and the Responsibility of the State (New York: United Nations, 2008), 27-28.

[5] Robert D. Bullard, Paul Mohai, Robin Saha, and Beverly Wright, Toxic Wastes and Race at Twenty, 1987-2007: A Report Prepared for the United Church of Christ Justice & Witness Ministries (Cleveland, OH: Justice and Witness Ministries of the United Church of Christ, 2007), 46.

[6] Ibid., 53.

[7] Emilie Townes, In a Blaze of Glory: Womanist Spirituality as Social Witness (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), 55.

[8] Robert D. Bullard, Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class, and Environmental Quality (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1994), 128-29.

One thought on “Reviewing the Pope’s Encyclical

  1. Pingback: Why So Shocked that the Pope is Anti-LGBT or Pro-Conquest? | Our Lucha

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