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Latin American and Ecumenical Insights in Laudato Si'.

A Much-expected and Remarked-upon Encyclical

Pope Francis' encyclical Laudato Si' (Praised be) on "care for our common home" had, in 2015, an incredible outreach. Media from different parts of the world commented on it even before it was officially presented. Political and religious leaders, scientists, and civil society organizations have spoken about it. It was, indeed, a much-expected document from this pope, the first one coming from Latin America. The encyclical was seen as the first complete document from Pope Francis to show at least part of his understanding of crucial matters for our time. It is almost certain that his previous encyclical, Lumen Fidei (June 2013), had been, in effect, finalized by the previous pope, Benedict XVI, and simply signed by Pope Francis.

Laudato Si' is a personal commitment of the pope. As expressed in "My appeal" ([section]13ff) (1) and through the title itself, it shows the pope's interests and concerns. While we know that the pope chose his name because of St Francis of Assisi, it is not by chance that in his first encyclical he chose as the title the beginning of one of the best-known pieces of St Francis, the "Canticle of the Creatures." Saint Francis is, in fact, a continuous reference throughout the encyclical, and the relationships between care for creation and care for the poor is a leitmotiv.

Indeed, critical expressions of the ecological crisis--pollution, climate change, the water crisis, the loss of biodiversity ([section]20-31)--are intimately connected with poverty and inequality: "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" ([section]49). (2)

Winking to Liberation Theology?

Can we then say that given the emphasis put on the poor, Laudato Si' is an expression of Latin American liberation theology (LALT)? What are the links between Laudato Si' and LALT?

Let us start with a clear affirmation: Pope Francis is not a liberation theologian, nor was Jorge Bergoglio, the Jesuit and archbishop of Buenos Aires. Explicit references to liberation theology in Laudato Si' are nonexistent, unless we consider Fr Juan Carlos Scannone a liberation theologian. Scannone, also a Jesuit priest, was a professor of Bergoglio's at San Miguel, Argentina, and developed a "people's theology" (but mainly a philosophy), where "the poor" have a relevant place. But in my view, he cannot be identified as a Latin American liberation theologian.

I think that in the encyclical, however, we can find what I would call several "winks" to liberation theology, in the sense of one of the definitions given by the Oxford Dictionary, which relates "wink" to "a signal of affection and greeting." (3)

First wink: The structure of the encyclical

If we look at the structure of Laudato Si', we can recognize the "See--Judge--Act" methodology in how the encyclical has been put together.

See: What is happening to our home (Chapter 1)

Judge: The Gospel of Creation (Chapter 2);

The human roots of the ecological crisis (Chapter 3);

An integral ecology (Chapter 4)

Act: Some guidelines and action points (Chapter 5);

Ecological education and spirituality (Chapter 6)

The "See--Judge--Act" methodology was recommended in 1961 by Pope John XXIII in his encyclical Mater et Magistra, for the social doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church:
There are three stages which should normally be followed in putting
social principles into practice. First, one reviews the concrete
situation; secondly, one forms a judgment on it in the light of these
same principles; thirdly, one decides what in the circumstances can and
should be done to implement these principles. These are the three
stages that are usually expressed in the three terms: see, judge, act.

The methodology has an earlier history with Catholic Action movements (of workers, students, intellectuals, etc.) since the first half of the 20th century and it was one of the main contents of liberation theologies in Latin America in the 1970s. A very good analysis of the use of the methodology in theology is provided by Clodovis Boff's 1978 doctoral thesis (Louvain University), published in English as "Theology and Praxis," (5) in which he presents the different mediations: socio-analytical (see), hermeneutical (judge), practical (act).

It is also interesting to note that beyond the Latin American continent, the methodology has also been used in ecumenical circles. For instance, the South African Council of Churches study on climate change' included the following chapters: "Christian Responses to Climate Change (Acting' and the Need for Ecclesial Analysis)"; "Investigating What Is at Stake ('Seeing' and the Need for Social Analysis)"; "Identifying the Roots of the Problem ('Judging' and the Need for Theological Discernment)"; and "Responding to This Vision (Renewed Acting)."

Second wink: The contents--the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor

As said earlier, the intimate relationship between the ecological crisis and poverty and inequality is affirmed several times in the encyclical. Together with the already mentioned quotation from [section]49, similar affirmations are made in [section]14, 53 and 117. The "cry of the earth and the cry of the poor"--in italics in the text of the encyclical--mirrors the book on theology and ecology authored by Brazilian liberation theologian Leonardo Boff, whose title was precisely "Cry of the earth, cry of the poor." (7)

Third wink: An invitation to dialogue for liberation

Pope Francis said several times that this encyclical is addressed to everyone. It is an invitation to a dialogue (the word is used 26 times in the encyclical) to all and not only to Catholics. From the beginning he stated, "In this Encyclical, I would like to enter into dialogue with all people about our common home" ([section]3). Dialogue is not only with all people, it is also a dialogue between religion and science: "Science and religion, with their distinctive approaches to understanding reality, can enter into an intense dialogue fruitful for both" ([section]62). Furthermore, it should be a dialogue with philosophical thought as well ([section]63). This dialogue has a purpose: "Dialogue with everyone so that together we can seek paths of liberation" ([section]64). Liberation is, thus, one of the goals of this dialogue.

Fourth wink: Structural and personal change

Liberation theology (especially Latin American LT) has insisted on the need for structural change. Revolution, structural sin, and change of structures have been key affirmations over the decades. Pope Francis did not hesitate to call for changes at the structural level: "Every effort to protect and improve our world entails profound changes in 'lifestyles, models of production and consumption, and the established structures of power which today govern societies'" ([section]5, quoting John Paul II) and later "humanity is called to recognize the need for changes of lifestyle, production and consumption"([section]23).

These profound changes are also called radical changes: "the urgent need for a radical change in the conduct of humanity" ([section]4) and "the radical change which present circumstances require" ([section]171), or "deep change" ([section]215). Special attention is paid to the change of "models of global development" ([section]194) as "a strategy for real change calls for rethinking processes in their entirety, for it is not enough to include a few superficial ecological considerations while failing to question the logic which underlies present-day culture" ([section]197). He did not hesitate either in recalling that "all of this shows the urgent need for us to move forward in a bold cultural revolution" ([section]114).

But these changes should be related to personal changes: "We need to experience a conversion, or change of heart" ([section]218); "the ecological conversion needed to bring about lasting change is also a community conversion" ([section]220). In this way, the intimate relationship between action and spirituality (see chapter 6)--strongly emphasized by LA liberation theologians, among them Gustavo Gutierrez or Jon Sobrino--is also stressed.

An Ecumenical Insight

As I mentioned earlier, Laudato Si' is an invitation to dialogue. Together with the "winks" made to liberation theology, I want now to focus on some ecumenical insights to Laudato Si'. As the pope himself stated, the concerns for our common home had previously been addressed by other churches and Christian communities, especially by the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew ([section]7).

The Ecumenical Patriarch's concern for the environment

The reference to and recognition of Patriarch Bartholomew's contributions to the topic ([section]7--9) were also reflected in the invitation to a representative of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, Metropolitan John Zizoulas of Pergamon, to be part of the official release of the encyclical in the Vatican. Metropolitan John of Pergamon started his speech (10) by expressing the Ecumenical Patriarch's "personal joy and satisfaction for the issuing of the Encyclical." It continued by reminding the audience that
the Ecumenical Patriarchate has been the first one in the Christian
world to draw the attention of the world community to the seriousness
of the ecological problem and the duty of the Church to voice its
concern and try to contribute with all the spiritual means at its
disposal towards the protection of our natural environment. Thus, back
already in the year 1989, Ecumenical Patriarch Dimitrios issued an
encyclical to the faithful Christians and to all people of good will,
in which he underlined the seriousness of the ecological problem and
its theological and spiritual dimensions.

With this encyclical, Patriarch Dimitrios established September 1st, the beginning of the liturgical year in the Orthodox Church, as a day "when prayers and supplications should be offered for all creation and for the reparation of the impairment caused to the natural environment." Later, the day became the "Day of prayer for the protection of the whole creation." The Third European Ecumenical Assembly in Sibiu, Romania, in September 2007, took this initiative and called for a Time for Creation, between September 1 and October 4 (the festivity of Saint Francis of Assisi), which was reaffirmed at the global level by the WCC. Nowadays, in many churches around the world, this time is used to focus on care for creation through special prayers, reflections, and actions.

When the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew was elected in 1991, following the death of Patriarch Dimitrios, the former took a leading role in addressing the ecological crisis to the extent he has been called the "Green Patriarch." (11) Among his many statements he has declared, for instance, that "humanity, both individually and collectively... has succumbed to a theory of development that values production over human dignity and wealth over human integrity... This is why nature 'groans and travails' in all its parts (Rom. 8:22)." (12)

In Laudato Si', Pope Francis quoted Patriarch Bartholomew's address to the Environmental Symposium in California in November 1997 ([section]8). It is worth looking at the whole paragraph of his address, "To Commit a Crime against the Natural World Is a Sin":
For humans to cause species to become extinct and to destroy the
biological diversity of God's creation; for humans to degrade the
integrity of the Earth by causing changes in its climate, by stripping
the Earth of its natural forests, or destroying its wetlands; for
humans to injure other humans with disease; for humans to contaminate
the Earth's waters, its land, its air, and its life with poisonous
substances: these are sins. (13)

Furthermore, in particular in relation to climate change, the Ecumenical Patriarch declared:
Climate change constitutes a matter of social and economic justice.
Because those who will most directly and severely be affected by
climate change will be the poorer and most vulnerable nations... as
well as the younger and future generations... There is a close link
between the economy of the poor and the warming of our planet... The
web of life is a sacred gift of God--so precious and ever so delicate.

For the ecumenical patriarch, therefore, there is a strong relationship between the protection of creation and concern for the poor, which, as we saw, is stressed several times by Pope Francis. And this relationship constitutes a matter of social and ecological justice.

Patriarch Bartholomew has addressed the ecological crisis not only by the way of encyclicals and statements. He has also organized several international scientific environmental symposia, for instance in Patmos (1995) and around the Black Sea (1997), along the Danube River (1999), on the Adriatic Sea (2002), on the Baltic Sea (2003), on the Amazon River (2006), in the Arctic (2007), on the Mississippi River (2009), and most recently the Green Attica symposium in Greece (2018). We cannot forget either that concern for the scientific, ethical, theological, and spiritual dimensions of ecological degradation has been addressed through the establishment in 1991 of the Institute for Theology and Ecology at the Orthodox Academy of Crete, which through its many activities has deepened these links. (15)

The work of the World Council of Churches

If the ecumenical patriarch has played a leading role on ecological issues at the global level, ecumenical organizations like the World Council of Churches (WCC) have also, for a long time, addressed these topics. The two intertwined aspects mentioned by the pope--care for creation and concern for the poor--have been at the core of the work of the WCC's Care for Creation and Climate Justice programme.

The WCC started discussing sustainable communities in the mid-1970s, addressing at the same time economic and ecological threats. In the late 1980s and in the 1990s the Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation (JPIC) conciliar process deepened the relationships between the wholeness or integrity of creation, economic justice issues, and peace concerns. The JPIC process culminated at a World Convocation in Seoul in 1990. The preamble of the Act of Covenanting of this convocation stated that participants came "to consider their common response to the threats the present generation faces confronted by new and complexly interwoven threats, among them, the entrenched and deadly forms of injustice, universal violence and the rapid degradation of the environment. The real danger lies in the interaction of these threats. Together they represent a global crisis." (16) The affirmation that "everything is connected, interrelated, interconnected" which appeared several times in Laudato Si' (for instance [section]70, 92, 117, 120, 137, 142, 240) has here a clear precedent.

The outcome text of the JPIC Convocation also included a critique of anthropocentrism:
We will resist the claim that anything in creation is merely a resource
for human exploitation. We will resist species extinction for human
benefit; consumerism and harmful mass production; pollution of land,
air and waters; all human activities which are now leading to probable
rapid climate change; and policies and plans which contribute to the
disintegration of creation. (17)

This resonates very closely with Pope Francis' critique of modern excessive anthropocentrism ([section]115--119). (18) Over the years, the WCC has continued to address the interrelated ness of the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor, stressing its justice implications. At the programme level in the last decade--through programmes such as Poverty, Wealth and Ecology, Care for Creation and Climate Justice, Economy of Life for All, and presently Economic and Ecological Justice--the council has encouraged and has inspired churches to develop effective responses to threats to life and to advocate at the national and international level. The theological rationale for these programmes and concrete implications for churches and regions have been published in various books and in this journal. (19)

Given this long-standing concern and commitment, it was not strange to read what WCC General Secretary Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit expressed when the encyclical was released: "Laudato Si' addresses, in fact, one of the more important challenges of our time: the ecological crisis. This has various components, among them, climate change, the water crisis, the loss of biodiversity. As churches have often said, climate change has to be seen as a global problem with environmental, social, economic, distributive and political implications." (20)

From Ecumenical to Interfaith Advocacy

Although the interfaith perspective is not a core component of Laudato Si', we can see two explicit mentions of other faiths. The first is in the already quoted [section]7, when Pope Francis affirmed that "outside the Catholic Church, other Churches and Christian communities--and other religions as well--have expressed deep concern and offered valuable reflections on issues which all of us find disturbing" ([section]7). And the second is in the last chapter, on "ecological education and spirituality," when he quoted 9th-century Muslim mystical writer Ali-al-Khawas ([section]233): "The universe unfolds in God, who fills it completely. Hence, there is a mystical meaning to be found in a leaf, in a mountain trail, in a dewdrop, in a poor person's face." In this last quotation, the relationship between nature and poor people is again highlighted.

The gravity of the ecological crisis has pushed the WCC to join other faith-based organizations in interfaith advocacy, especially on the issue of climate change. (21) For instance, two interfaith statements promoted by the WCC in 2014 (responding to the Climate Summit in New York called by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon in September) and in 2015 (as a contribution to the UN Climate Conference in Paris) clearly addressed the link between ecological destruction and vulnerable communities and its ethical implications for climate justice. The 2015 statement, signed by more than 150 faith and spiritual leaders from all continents, read:
Our religious convictions, social codes and customs tell us about the
concern for the vulnerable: climate change is leading to unprecedented
ecological degradation, affecting in particular the lives and
livelihoods of the most vulnerable populations. It is an irrefutable
moral duty for all governments to agree on concrete and measurable
steps towards global climate justice and partnerships for climate
resilience. It is the right time for ensuring climate justice. (22)


Although Laudato Si' does not quote liberation theologians, the structure, content, and some precise affirmations allow us to see the encyclical in the tradition of liberation theology by highlighting the strong link between care for creation and care for the poor and its various consequences. Moreover, in the context of the social teaching of the Roman Catholic Church, Laudato Si' implies a turning point by including ecological destruction and its expressions as one of its core concerns together with the long-standing Roman Catholic magisterium for social justice.

As I have showed, many of the key contents of the encyclical were addressed earlier by the ecumenical movement, notably by the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew and the WCC. But the new synthesis proposed by Laudato Si' serves as catalyzer and enhances what Christian and other faith communities all over the world have done to address one of the most important challenges of our time. It calls for urgent and concrete actions at the personal, community, national, and international levels to implement the "ecological conversion" urged by Pope Francis.

Guillermo Kerber, a theologian originally from Uruguay, was formerly programme executive for climate justice at the World Council of Churches and is presently teaching at the Atelier Oecumenique de Theologie, Geneva, Switzerland.

(1) The sign [section] refers to paragraphs in Laudato Si': Pope Francis, Encyclical Letter Laudato Si' of The Holy Father Francis on Care for Our Common Home (Vatican Press, 2015),

(2) Italics in the text of the encyclical.

(3) See "Wink" at Oxford dictionary,

(4) John XXIII, Encyclical Mater et Magistra (Vatican Press, 1961), [section]236.

(5) See Clodovis Boff, Theology and Praxis: Epistemological Foundations (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis, 1987). There are also translations in German, Clodovis Boff, Theologie und Praxis. Die erkenntnistheoretischen Grundlagen der Theologie der Befreiung (Munchen: Kaiser, 1983); and in Spanish, Clodovis Boff, Teologia de lo Politico. Sus mediaciones (Salamanca: Sigueme, 1980).

(6) South African Council of Churches, Study on Climate Change: A Challenge to the Churches in South Africa (Marshalltown: SACC, 2009).

(7) See Leonardo Boff, Cry of the Earth, Cry of the Poor (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis, 1997). Original edition in Portuguese: Ecologia: grito da terra, grito dos povres (Sao Paulo: Attica, 1995).

(8) See also the quotation of French philosopher Paul Ricoeur in footnote 59 of LS.

(9) Pope Francis here quoted Pope Paul VI, "Address to FAO on the 25th Anniversary of its Institution," 16 November 1970.

(10) It is worth reading the whole speech: "Pope Francis Encyclical Laudato Si': A Comment by Metropolitan John (Zizioulas) of Pergamon,"

(11) An excellent collection of the Patriarch's ecological writings can be found at Fr John Chrvssavgis (ed.), Cosmic Grace, Humble Prayer: The Ecological Vision of the Green Patriarch Bartholomew I (Grand Rapids, MI: Ecrdmans, 2009), from which most of the following quotations are taken. See also another book by Fr John Chrvssavgis quoted in the encvclical (note 15): John Chrvssavgis, On Earth as in Heaven: Ecological Vision and Initiatives of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew (New York: Fordham University Press, 2012).

(12) Message of the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew on the "Day of Prayer for the Protection of All Creation," 1 September 1994.

(13) Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew: "Address at the Environmental Symposium," Santa Barbara, California, USA, November 1997; see Chryssavgis, Cosmic Grace, 190.

(14) Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, "Statement for the WCC Working Group on Climate Change," August 2005 (Geneva: WCC Publications, 2006).

(15) See for instance the OAC publications on Ecological Theology and Environmental Ethics (vols. 1-3) (Chania, Greece: OAC, 2009, 2012, 2014); and on Sustainable Alternatives for Poverty Reduction and Ecological Justice (Cambridge: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2014).

(16) Preman D. Niles, Between the Flood and the Rainbow (Geneva: WCC Publications, 1992), 164--65. Italics are mine.

(17) Ibid., 173.

(18) Anthropocentrism has been one of the main critiques of the Judeo-Christian tradition since the publication of Lynn White Jr's famous article blaming Christianity for the domination of human beings over nature. White stated that "especially in its Western form, Christianity is the most anthropocentric religion the world has seen." Lynn White Jr, "The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis," Science 155:3767 (1967), 1205.

(19) See among the books the collection on Poverty, Wealth and Ecology in Latin America and the Caribbean (Geneva: WCC, 2009), in Asia and the Pacific (Geneva: WCC, 2010), in Europe (Geneva: WCC, 2011), in Africa (Geneva: WCC, 2012), and in North America (Geneva: WCC, 2012); also see Rogate Mshana and Athena Peralta (eds.), Emmmy of Life (Geneva: WCC Publications, 2015) and David G. Hallman, Spiritual Values for Earth Community (Geneva: WCC Publications, 2010). Among the issues of the Ecumenical Review see e.g., Churches Caring for Creation and Climate fustice, July 2010; Peace on Earth, Peace with the Earth, March 2011; Ecumenical and Ecological Perspectives of the God of Life, March 2013; and Economy of Life, July 2015.

(20) Olav Fykse Tveit, "Statement on the Encyclical Letter Laudato Si' of His Holiness Pope Francis on Care for Our Common Home," WCC, 18 June 2015,

(21) I have examined the interfaith action on climate at the global level in Guillermo Kerber, "International Advocacy for Climate Justice," in How the World's Religions Are Responding to Climate Change: Social Scientific Investigations, ed. R. Veldman, A. Szasz, and R. Haluza-Delay (Abingdon, UK: Routledge, 2013), 278-94.

(22) "Statement of Faith and Spiritual Leaders on the upcoming United Nations Climate Change Conference, COP21 in Paris in December 2015," WCC, 19 October 2015, p. 1, Globethics has collected the main interfaith climate statements in Religions jar Climate Justice: International Interfaith Statements 2008--2014 (Geneva: Globethics, 2015).

DOI: 10.1111/erev.12389
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Author:Kerber, Guillermo
Publication:The Ecumenical Review
Date:Dec 1, 2018
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