By Rosie Dawson
The Roman Catholic Church is marking the fifth anniversary of the publication of Pope Francis’s encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si with nine days of events, as organisers say the Covid-19 crisis has made its message more urgent than ever.
On 3 March, the Pope announced Laudato Si Week would run from 16 to 24 May. Six days later, Italy went into national lockdown, followed by much of Europe. As of today, 31,908 people have died from the virus in Italy. Months of planning had gone into a series of campaigns, actions and liturgies which will now be taking place online.
“Laudato Si Week is an opportunity to join forces against a global system that doesn’t work,” says the Rev Dr Augusto Zampini Davies, adjunct secretary of the Vatican Dicastery which is heading the church’s response to Covid-19.
“Covid is not just a health crisis, it’s economic, political — and its ecological. If we don’t treat the ecological crisis, then there are even bigger problems to come.”
Laudato Si: On the Care of Our Common Home was Pope Francis’s second encyclical, published on 24 May 2015. It has had a far-reaching impact both within and beyond the church.
“Within the church it marks a huge step forward in how we conceive ourselves as human beings in relation to the planet, says Zampini Davies. “We are part of an ecological system not masters of it. There’s been not a change but a revolution in our understanding of who we are.”
Joe Ware, the communications manager at Christian Aid, says the timing of the publication ahead of the United Nations COP21 climate change conference later in 2015 added to its wider impact.
“It was hugely significant considering the context of the time, in the lead-up to the Paris agreement. No one knew at that time whether the Paris meeting would be a success or failure, and it really laid the groundwork for a positive outcome. So it made an impact not just among the world’s billion-plus Catholics, but millions of others. “
In the past Father Edmund Waldstein, a Cistercian monk and lecturer in moral theology in Austria, has criticised the Pope for falling prey to modern liberalism. However he says he was surprised by the richness of Laudato Si.
“It was a profound appreciation of the true beauty of creation and of how God reveals himself in it. It was also a profound critique of a modernity which is based on technocratic approaches to nature and the imposition of our own human project upon it.”
But he admits that the encyclical became the proxy battleground between supporters and opponents of the Pope.
“On the one side there’s a superficially conservative Catholicism that attacks Laudato Si as a capitulation to anti-human ecology. It supports liberal capitalism and technological progress, sometimes veering into climate change denial. For them Laudato Si is an unmitigated disaster.
“On the other hand a progressive Catholicism, marked by irrational romanticism, greeted Laudato Si with an enthusiasm that tended to erase the difference between the vision of the encyclical and that of the secular ecological thinking.”
Tina Beattie, professor of Catholic studies at Roehampton University, says that Laudato Si suffuses all of her work. She says that while she promotes the encyclical it fails to recognise the contribution that feminist scholarship and grassroots women’s movements have made to the debate over decades, and the ways in environmental degradation affects women.
“If Pope Francis wants a poor church for the poor how can he write a whole encyclical about Mother Earth which doesn’t mention the way that poverty and environmental abuse impact on women most acutely? I have immense sadness and anger about that.”
The Vatican’s Covid-19 Commission has been set up under the leadership of Cardinal Peter Turkson to co-ordinate the church’s response to the pandemic. Zampini Davies says it is working on two levels — assisting local churches to respond immediately to the needs caused by the crisis, and collaborating to “prepare a different future” with partners in the fields of ecology, economy, security and health. Partners include Georgetown University and the World Resources Institute in Washington DC, and in the UK, University College London and the international non-profit organisation FaithInvest.
The commission will also be involved in drawing up the Vatican’s contribution to COP26, which was to have been held in Glasgow in November but which has been postponed to 2021. Some fear that national governments’ preoccupation with the coronavirus will mean they are less likely commit to further action on carbon emissions.
Others, including Zampini Davies, hope that the likely ecological origins of the virus will convince the politicians that a new approach to the environment is needed.
“Before Covid people were saying that radical change is impossible and we have to go step by step,” he said. “This crisis has shown that radical change is possible where there is political will.”