On October 4, 2023, the feast of St. Francis of Assisi, the pope issued an apostolic exhortation devoted to the climate crisis. The document’s title comes from its opening two words in Latin, a quotation from il poverello: “Laudate Deum for all his creatures.”
The saint, who seems to have had difficulty writing a rule to guide religious life, liked to sing with words and gestures to express the joy of living together with other creatures, his sisters. Hence the opening words, providing a perspective from which to read this document of the magisterium of the present pope. The mysticism of St. Francis is fundamental for a correct interpretation of the text.
In this sense, as we proceed in reading the document, it is important not to lose sight of the centrality of God, whom we praise for his creatures. Otherwise, we could easily come to think that the pope is adhering to whatever ideology is fashionable today, devised by some secular environmental group advocating the protection of nature as against human beings and the progress of their societies.
Whether they are long or short, whether they are found at the beginning or at the end of the exhortation, the biblical references are fundamental to a correct interpretation of the document. From these links, it is easy to see that the pope is not speaking as the head of some NGO, but as a true spiritual leader, especially when he lays the foundation for what is characteristic of an ecology which is explicitly “Christian.”
This is the thesis we will try to expound in the following pages. Always appealing to the sensitivity and urgency of caring for the environment and our common home, Francis relies on Scripture and Tradition as the depositum fidei, so as to show the Christian vision of the commitment to protect creation in the current context of environmental crisis. In doing so, the pope clearly addresses the perspectives of Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955).
In this regard, it is worth mentioning Francis’ reference to Teilhard in his first social encyclical, Laudato Si’ (LS). He named the Jesuit paleontologist in a footnote to No. 83, to show that the “journey of the universe” toward its “universal maturation” implies that the attitude of “tyrannical and irresponsible domination of human beings over other creatures” needs to be overcome (LS 83).
For the critique of this attitude to be authentic and explicitly Christian, it is necessary to establish three basic principles, which we find in the task of caring for our common home advocated by Pope Francis. First, respect for nature must be based on the creative act of God, since the world, that is, our “common home,” contains intrinsic value that must be respected insofar as it is a free gift coming from divine love. Second, the ecological sensitivity promoted by the pope emerges from a “situated anthropocentrism,” which the Christian tradition can never renounce. Third, since respect for nature derives above all from a spirituality that makes us see ourselves as brothers and sisters among ourselves and in our relationship other creatures, the civic or even political activism to which Francis urges us will always include dialogue, reflection and cooperation, renouncing in every case the violence of actions that set us against each other, causing the destruction of the social fabric, and thus of our common home.
God of the universe
In the first paragraph of the apostolic exhortation, the pope explains that in his care for nature, Francis of Assisi embraced the sensitivity of Jesus revealed to us in the Gospels. In fact, the images of Him that are proposed to us in the Gospels are of someone who appears more at ease in nature than in an urban environment. He is probably close to the farmers, who know how the “lilies of the field” grow and how the “birds of the air” feed. Moreover, Jesus has the sensibility of a poet capable of marveling at God’s gifts, seeing their traces in nature. If God dresses the “lilies of the field” in a more beautiful way than Solomon in his royal robes, (cf. Matt 6:28-29), it is because nature has a value in itself that goes beyond its usefulness to human beings. If God does not forget the “sparrows” despite their seeming lack of value (cf. Luke 12:6), it implies that these creatures are loved by Him intensely.
The Gospel values apply both to the saint of Assisi and to us who live in a world where we are increasingly sensitive to ecological issues. In this context, sometimes confused by uncertainties and divergences of opinion, the pope emphasizes “the spiritual motivations” of his approach.
The crux of the matter consists first of all in the biblical statement that when God created the world, he called it “very good ” (Gen 1:31). Insofar as nature belongs to God alone, its Creator, the Bible declares that “lands cannot be sold in perpetuity” (Lev 25:23). Indeed, we human beings are only “aliens and tenants” (ibid.) in this “shared house” that has been entrusted to us out of love. This is the reason why we are responsible “for a land that is God’s.”
The basis of the respect due to nature thus resides in God as its Creator. It is no accident that Francis of Assisi begins his Canticle with the praise of God. And it is with an invitation that the pope introduces the ecological question, “Laudate Deum (Praise God) for all his creatures.” This vertical praise due only to God is indispensable for that ecological sensitivity which should be part of the Christian tradition. In other words, the horizontal respect for other creatures is stimulated by the vertical respect that makes us praise God above all things.
For the pope, it is clear that with St. Francis’ praise of God, loved above all things, love for creatures is not diminished at all. On the contrary, love for God intensifies respect for nature for two fundamental reasons: first, we understand that, in loving God, we must also love what belongs to him and what he loves, that is, the creation he brought into existence out of love; second, to the extent that God wills, desires and loves them, creatures have an intrinsic value that must be respected.
This cruciform dynamic described by Pope Francis is close to the vision of Teilhard de Chardin, who was also inspired by the insights of the Franciscan school. Particular mention should be made of the dynamic of divine love that links the act of creation with that of incarnation and redemption. We can understand this from the pope’s statement – with its explicit reference to the Jesuit scientist – that “our insistence that each human being is an image of God should not make us overlook the fact that each creature has its own purpose. None is superfluous. The entire material universe speaks of God’s love, his boundless affection for us. Soil, water, mountains: everything is, as it were, a caress of God” (LS 84).
In this paragraph of Laudato Si’ the pope undoubtedly embraces the Teilhardian vision. It is a matter of contemplating, with a mystical heart, a universe on a constant “journey” toward a “fullness” that is realized only in God, who transcends the universe. This universe is not reduced to nature on its own, matter closed to spirit. Indeed, having been created and loved by God from the beginning, it cannot be reduced to a purely “natural” order. This is the Theilhardian vision, which contemplates the evolution of the universe as a “Christogenesis” and consists in the communion between the whole universe and its Omega point through human mediation.
Human beings are therefore called to actively participate in this dynamism, acting as custodians of creation and leading all things toward their ultimate fulfillment. Moreover, it is not possible to give the world a greater value than that which is conferred on it by the Christian vision. It seems that it is not possible to ground in a better way the respect we should have for creation, since nothing or no one can ascribe a higher value to creation than God himself. The value of creatures, which come from God’s love and move toward Him with their praise, thus seems to constitute the most complete foundation of all the care we must have for ecology. Only in a nature that is open to such a dynamic, rather than folded in on itself, can we truly appreciate its beauty, recognize its intrinsic value and fully understand the responsibility we have to all the creatures who share this world with us.
In this regard, we should note how Francis condemns the “technocratic paradigm underlying the current process of environmental decay” (LD 20). The first problem underlying this perverse paradigm does not immediately concern the destruction of nature that is connected to it: it is first and foremost a perspective that makes human beings assume the role of the creator themselves.
Not surprisingly, the pope begins Laudate Deum in the same way he concludes it, by evoking the praise due to God. In choosing the expression “Praise God” as the title for his exhortation, Francis did so deliberately, “for when human beings claim to take God’s place, they become their own worst enemies” (LD 73). This critique is based on the idea that the technocratic approach, with its emphasis on total domination and control of nature, implies a human pride that wants to replace the divine. As human beings increasingly exaggerate their cognitive faculties so that they consider themselves capable of knowing, predicting and transforming the world at will, the personal value in their relationships is obscured and disenchantment regarding contemplation of the world asserts itself. In the determinism behind technocratic scientism, humans lose the ability to gaze in wonder at the intrinsic beauty of creation.
The wonder of creation is enhanced by the Christian perspective, according to which the world is a free gift from God. By placing God at the foundation, not only is it possible to rationally ground the intrinsic value of nature that we must respect, but it is also possible to foster an experience similar to that lived by St. Francis of Assisi and to that described in the Gospels by Jesus. This mystical experience impels us to inhabit this Earth with gratitude and respect for the creatures with whom we share a common home. Thus awareness of this free gift from God induces us to act as custodians of creation, rather than seeking to manipulate or exploit it without limit.
The role of human beings in nature
We therefore understand that love toward God does not hinder but rather stimulates love toward creatures. The Gospel law of love in its three dimensions – God, neighbor and self (cf. Matt 22:37-40; Mark 12:29-31; Luke 10:26-28) – must be extended to our relationships with creatures.
On the one hand, loving our neighbor constitutes an act that naturally extends to creatures. Insofar as we are part of the universe, alongside the other beings on Earth, we regard them as our brothers and sisters. As the pope states, in keeping with the Gospel and Franciscan mysticism, “everything is related, and we human beings are united as brothers and sisters on a wonderful pilgrimage, woven together by the love that God has for each of his creatures and that also unites us in fond affection to brother sun, sister moon, brother river and mother earth” (LS 92). It is thus clear that this mysticism assumes a deep respect for life in all its forms: promoting animal welfare, the protection of ecosystems and equity in the distribution of resources.
On the other hand, with regard to today’s ecological sensitivity, taking into account the urgency that the climate crisis imposes on us, we can deepen our love for ourselves in close connection with the care of our common home, the preservation of which is essential for a worthwhile life. It is from this deepening of the Gospel law of love that the pope appeals for sustainable resource management, reduction of pollution and protection of ecosystems. In other words, loving ourselves as human beings today implies taking action for the generations to come so that they can develop their lives in a healthy and prosperous environment.
Here is manifested the central role that the human being assumes in the “journey” of the universe toward its “fullness” in God. Therefore, the pope clearly explicates the “anthropocentrism” of his perspective, faithful to the Judeo-Christian tradition, whereby the human being has a “unique and central value […] amid the marvelous concert of all beings.” It is, admittedly, a “situated anthropocentrism,” insofar as “human life” is neither conceived nor subsists “without other creatures” (LD 67).
This kind of anthropocentrism is the opposite of the anthropocentrism promoted by the technocratic paradigm, in which human beings consider themselves the owners of the world, free to transform it at will through their techno-scientific knowledge. Indeed, according to the pope, regardless of whether or not we are sure of humanity’s involvement in climate change, it is clear that human intervention in nature is destroying the planet and life, including our own.
In this perspective, we notice how Francis’ anthropocentrism comes close to Teilhard de Chardin’s vision. While the French Jesuit sees the human being as the “arrow of the universe,” the pope believes that ecology should not be conceived without “an adequate anthropology” (LS 118). While Teilhard sees the human person as the result of the evolution of the whole universe, Francis affirms anthropocentrism as a sign of the conferring on humans of the responsibility to care for the world, the environment.
Teilhard tries to show the evolution of the universe as a path based on two essential principles. On the one hand, in each change in the Tree of Life, he identifies an association, that is, the socialization of different individuals. Indeed, from the concurrence of different atoms to occupy the same space emerges the cell. And from the confluence of cells new life forms originate. Similarly, the union between different living things also leads us to transitions in the Tree of Life. On the other hand, Teilhard emphasizes the fact that evolution has been moving us toward an increasing complexity of consciousness, that is, of the personal being of the individual. Thus he makes us understand that evolution does not achieve a fusion among all the elements of the universe, insofar as the union among individuals gives rise to a progressive distinction between them, emphasizing singularity or personality.
Continuing this account, Teilhard argues that the meaning of evolution, that is, its full intelligibility, depends on us: through our freedom we human beings can continue to put these two principles into practice, bringing them to their culmination. This is the phase of the “noosphere,” in which we find ourselves. In doing so, we will be able to see how Christian love, which embraces all peoples and all creatures, respecting the singularity of each person, represents the apex of such an evolution, integrating spirituality and science into a holistic worldview. It is not difficult then to understand the need, according to Teilhard, to assume the transcendence of the Omega point, with which the Universe, distinct, is united by love, by attraction, without becoming confused with God.
Now, the “hope” Francis expresses in the possibility of a future to be built together goes hand in hand with this Teilhardian vision. In fact, both assume a type of anthropocentrism that is neither “modern,” “deviant,” nor “despotic,” insofar as it implies the affirmation of humanity guided by an ethic that renounces “individualism,” respecting and valuing nature in the development of a life in which all the elements of the universe are integrated.
Here we can see an argument for anthropocentrism, which is expressed very simply: in the world we inhabit, only human beings possess the freedom to love nature or to destroy it. It is up to us to choose our way of life: only our societies can make that choice, and the fate of the world depends on this fundamental option that human beings must take. It is in this sense that the human person occupies the center of nature.
In any case, both Teilhard’s Christian anthropocentrism and Francis’ “situated anthropocentrism” reject the anthropocentrism of the techno-scientific paradigm according to which nature belongs to humans who can do whatever they want with its transformative possibilities. It is not enough to affirm that the human being occupies a central place in the universe, but it is necessary to place this anthropocentric perspective in a context that urges us to value and respect all the creatures in the universe that were created by God and therefore do not belong to us. It is from this deeply Christian, Bible-based perspective that the pope calls for a more sober transformation of our lifestyle, in order to preserve our common home. It is obvious that this appeal takes on particular relevance in the context of the current alterations to our climate, which are recognized by the majority of scientists.
However, this transformation to a more restrained lifestyle is primarily driven by “spiritual motivations,” which urge us to set aside the “ideology” of modern scientism. It is about “rethinking our use of the power” bestowed upon us by technology. Without neglecting the importance of scientific knowledge and the progress it allows us, we cannot assume that there are no limits to technology and that nature is human property. On the contrary, it is possible and desirable to live in harmony with the world and the elements in it, including ourselves. We thus understand how Pope Francis’ anthropocentrism seeks to avoid excessive separation between human beings and nature.
In this context, we still need to note how the pope’s teaching differs from all the ideologies that are sweeping over us today. In fact, both the technocratic paradigm of modern scientism and some contemporary radical ecological movements tend, starting from a Manichean vision, to detach human beings from nature. In the first case, nature is seen as something to be shaped at the will of the individualistic, selfish human being, with little regard for long-term consequences. In the second case, while well-intentioned in many respects, these ecological movements sometimes adopt a view that regards the progress of human life as inherently harmful to nature: it is as if we have to choose between humanity and nature. Both perspectives, by excessively separating human beings from the rest of creation, hinder the harmonious development of respectful human life in concert with the environment.
In this regard, let us recall what the pope says, after quoting his social encyclical Laudato Si’: “[If] the world is not contemplated from the outside but from within,” then we must exclude “the idea that the human being is an outsider, an external factor capable only of harming the environment.” On the contrary, the human being “must be recognized as a part of nature. Human life, intelligence and freedom are elements of the nature that enriches our planet, part of its internal workings and its equilibrium” (LD 26).
It is therefore essential to seek a more balanced and integral approach that recognizes the interconnectedness of humans and nature in order to achieve sustainable coexistence. This is the Christian spirituality that the pope, aligned with Teilhard de Chardin and St. Francis, seeks to promote in the present context.
Fraternity extended to all creatures
Pope Francis’ “spiritual motivations” take his teaching beyond all ideologies. In this regard, the biblical roots of his statements must be kept in mind. In Laudate Deum the pontiff seems to move away from apocalyptic fundamentalisms that reduce the current crisis solely to an ecological issue and also from irresponsible deniers who do not want to change anything in our current societies. While the former tend to blame “the poor, since they have many children, and even attempt to resolve the problem by mutilating women in less developed countries” (LD 9), the latter “bring up allegedly solid scientific data” because they do not want to accept the anthropogenic cause of rapid climate change. This irrationality, which scorns the conclusions of the majority of scientists, also manifests itself in radical ecologists who tend to paint a catastrophic scenario, proposing unrealistic measures based on “apocalyptic diagnoses […] that are scarcely reasonable or insufficiently grounded” (LD 17).
The pope’s balanced approach neither leads us to ignore the possibility of reaching an irreversible point nor to limit the issue to a purely ecological ideology. If we are facing a climate crisis today, the problem is not only ecological. Therefore, solutions to be sought are those that are capable of integrating the human and social issues at stake. If a so-called “political” element can be discerned in the pope’s teaching, it consists of an effort to circumvent the ideologies that threaten our societies today. In fact, Francis seeks to avoid the division of our social fabric into opposing parties that interact through violent words and gestures. Indeed, it is important to consider that the crisis that characterizes our political context is linked to the increasing polarization and radicalization of political spheres, as well as the climate, environmental, social and economic crises.
Thus, both Laudato Si’ and Laudate Deum must be read from the perspective of a pope who wants to distance himself from the political ideologies that manifest themselves in our social fabric. In these documents he promotes a Christian civic activism, based on dialogue and cooperation between people from different social and religious backgrounds. He considers, in a manner similar to Teilhard, what the current context makes manifest. From the 2019 pandemic crisis to the challenge of today’s climate changes, the pope unquestionably recognizes that “‘everything is connected’ and ‘no one is saved alone’” (LD 19). In clear correlation with what he wrote in the encyclical Fratelli Tutti, Francis not only affirms the interconnectedness of all the elements of the Earth, to the extent that God has united us indissolubly with all creatures, but also insists on the consequences of this principle: the fact that everything is connected affects the way we act. If we adopt this holistic principle that governs true integral ecology, we will not be able to act in a violent way that separates us from one another. Instead of violent behavior and attitudes, we can bring the data offered to us by the scientific community to a convergence in which we can discuss and cooperate for the common good. Only then will it be possible to build the unity and love that give meaning to the evolving world.
But we see yet another aspect in which the pope approaches Teilhard. While God, according to the Jesuit paleontologist, creates by unifying, the pope seeks to promote fraternity among people of all nations and religions. Henri de Lubac has spoken of Teilhard’s vision as a “metaphysics of union.” The French theologian, who defended Teilhard so consistently within Church circles and significantly influenced Jorge Bergoglio’s intellectual formation, shows us, from the work of his fellow Jesuit, a specific vision of the development of humanity fostered by Christianity. Progress, rather than taking place through the confrontation of violently clashing affirmations and negations of positions held consists in the movement of convergence toward possible communion, which allows us to advance toward the resolution of the problems we face today, while at the same time making us preserve the distinctive identity of each person.
Pope Francis, to the extent that he recognizes the gravity of the situation while avoiding the exaggeration of apocalyptic ideologies, shows that he is balanced in his positions. Welcoming the contributions that come from the scientific community, he shows himself willing to work with all people of good will to develop increasingly authentic technology and promote a thoughtful energy transition.
On his recent trip to Mongolia, the pope made a reference to Teilhard. Approaching China, where the Jesuit paleontologist lived, and being near the place where Teilhard had composed the famous Mass on the World, he recalled the cosmic dimension of the Eucharist. In a context that made it impossible for him to celebrate Mass with bread and wine, Teilhard composed the famous prayer in which the entire creation is offered to its Creator, ever present in his work of love.
In this article we sought to show a connection between Pope Francis and Teilhard in the pontiff’s reflection on today’s climate crisis. In the wake of Teilhard, Francis embraces an ecological vision rooted in the biblical Judeo-Christian vision. It is an ecology that flows from a clearly Franciscan spirituality, a mysticism that invites us to feel fully integrated into a world that is not ours, but created by God. In light of the environmental urgency we are facing, this urges us to cooperate and discuss with one another in order to preserve the common home entrusted to us. The pope’s call for a more sober lifestyle in the use and production of material goods embodies this spirituality in the current context.
We can conclude by referring to the Bible, which expresses the praise of the Creator in the words of the prophet Daniel (cf. Dan 3:52-88). His song resonates in our hearts, calling us to action as a Church on the way. Whenever we proclaim, “Bless the Lord, all you works of the Lord; sing praise to him and highly exalt him forever! […] Bless the Lord, sun and moon…” (Dan 3:57-62), we are in communion with other creatures. Whenever we call upon the “stars of the heavens,” “seas and rivers,” “mountains and hills,” the “birds,” and everything “that moves in the water” to proclaim God’s praise, our voices rise as a participant in the cosmic symphony. Deeply united with other creatures, we feel integrated into the harmony of the Creator’s work. It is allied with the cosmic fraternity, which St. Francis experienced through his mysticism and which Teilhard saw in the evolution of the universe. It is ultimately about the wonder of creation, the beauty of the Earth that welcomes us. Beginning with this mysticism, we are invited to collaborate with God’s work. In doing so, we will be able to extend the Church beyond a merely human and self-enclosed community. Daniel’s canticle integrates God’s people on the way and all of creation.
The ecology promoted by the pope’s teaching is based on this biblical spirituality. Instead of throwing us into an abyss of ideological catastrophism, it urges us to believe that by our responsible action we can contribute to the restoration and preservation of our common home. In communion with all creation, we can continue the journey of care and respect for the Earth, moved by the hope that a better future is possible. Praise of the Lord should not enclose us in pessimism in the face of crisis, but urge us to believe in the newness that will germinate from our collaboration with God’s work.
. Francis, Laudate Deum (LD), No. 1.
. In this regard, one must remember what Pope Francis said to Rabbi Abraham Skorka, establishing a clear difference between a leader of an NGO and a leader of a Community or Church. The key word to understand the difference between them and between their plans is “holiness,” which opens to the “transcendent” dimension: cf. J. M. Bergoglio – A. Skorka, On Heaven and Earth. Pope Francis on Faith, Family, and the Church in the 21st Century, London, Bloomsbury, 2013, 38f.
. Cf. LD 1.
. Cf. LD 61-73.
. Cf. LD 62.
. Ibid., citing Pope Francis’ encyclical Fratelli Tutti (FT), No. 68.
. Cf. LS 83.
. Cf. LS 100; LD 65.
. Cf. Fr. Teilhard de Chardin, La mia fede, Brescia, Queriniana, 1993, 173.
. Cf. LD 14.
. Cf. P. Teilhard de Chardin, Il fenomeno umano, Brescia, Queriniana, 1995, 75.
. Cf. ibid., 161f.
. This is why the arrival of humans in the universe constitutes a “revolution” in the stages of evolution and its destiny: cf. Id., Il posto dell’uomo nella natura. Il gruppo zoologico umano, Milan, Il Saggiatore, 1970, 46f.
. Cf. Id., Il fenomeno umano, op. cit., 275.
. Cf. ibid., 249; Id., Il posto dell’uomo nella natura…, op. cit., 21-23.
. Cf. LS 68; 118; 119; 208.
. Cf. LS 222.
. Cf. LD 13.
. Cf. LD 21-25.
. See LD 6.
. Cf. FT 34; 54.
. Cf. H. de Lubac, Il pensiero religioso del padre Teilhard de Chardin, Milan, Jaca Book, 1983, 274f.
. Cf. A. Spadaro, “‘Inhabiting the Earthly Home and Embracing Heaven’. Francis’ apostolic journey to Mongolia”, in Civ. Catt. En, October 2023, https://www.laciviltacattolica.com/inhabiting-the-earthly-home-and-embracing-heaven/