Guardians of the planet

Picture of Bruce Duncan CSSR

Bruce Duncan CSSR

Bruce is a Redemptorist priest who specialises in the areas of social justice

Pope Francis borrows from St Francis’s poem, ‘Song to the Creatures’, for the title of his new encyclical, Praise to You: on care for our common home, recalling for us today the spirituality of St Francis in his love and care for all God’s creatures and the earth itself.

Pope Francis is inviting everyone, whatever their belief system, to recover this sense of the preciousness and fragility of our environment, and rally in defence of human wellbeing, especially of those who are suffering exclusion and severe poverty.

First, Pope Francis is in no doubt that global warming will unleash terrible disasters unless we can control the greenhouse gases stemming from our use of fossil fuels. He says the problems from global warming highlight that we are all in this together. Climate disasters with all their frightful consequences threaten us on an unprecedented scale, and every country needs to take urgent action to preserve our ‘common good’.

Second, he wants to expand the conversation about how to safeguard this common good so that it is not just the rich and powerful who are making the decisions, but that the poor and marginalised should also be strongly involved. He considers that tackling social inequality and poverty worldwide is an essential part of our responsibility.

Third, Pope Francis believes that all people, believers or not, yearn for our genuinely human wellbeing; God’s Holy Spirit moves through the hearts and minds of everyone in this quest for the human good. He emphasises the need for people to share their experience in a respectful and honest dialogue, across religious or philosophical boundaries.

The pope knows there will always be debates about what constitutes the full human good, but he believes that it is vital we advance towards attainable versions of the human good, as spelt out in programs like the UN Sustainable Development Goals. He constantly prioritises practical pastoral responses over doctrinal formulations, recognising that we must do the best we can in the circumstances, which may fall short of an ideal.

Pope Francis also applies this to the church, which of course needs institutional forms and norms, but insists these be at the service of all humanity, and indeed the planet, and be constantly tested against the experience of Christians in their ordinary lives. Hence he has opened up the processes of the Synod of Bishops in Rome in October and invited all Catholics to join in this reflection on how better to sustain families. This is the first time the church has attempted such an extensive process of consultation.

While firm in his belief that Christ is the fullest manifestation to us of the Truth or Unveiling of God, Pope Francis does not consider that the church in its human reality has a monopoly on truth, but that historical change constantly unveils new aspects about our world and understanding of God and our human condition. He wants the church to be a learning church, listening to the experience and welcoming new insights of peoples today, and to listen to its critics and even enemies, as they may speak of important truths we need to hear.


For Pope Francis, true religion is firmly committed to enhancing human wellbeing, whether people are Christians or not. Total human wellbeing is what the biblical words salvation and liberation imply, in this world and the next. Jesus places his emphasis on our commitment to the wellbeing of others in this world as the sole criterion for entry to the Kingdom of God. As recounted in the Last Judgment scene in Matthew 25, God sternly rejects religiosity that neglects the hungry, the poor, the sick, the prisoners.

He insists that the mission of the church must be of real service, especially to those in need or distress. His writings and speeches keep calling all of us to an examination of conscience and to follow through with significant action in solidarity with the marginalised and poor.

Like much of the church in Latin America, Pope Francis is imbued with the spirit of the Young Christian Workers (YCW) movement, inspired by Canon (later Cardinal) Joseph Cardijn. Cardijn emphasised consciousness about people’s real life situation and urged them to take responsibility to challenge social injustice. This methodology underlies all the writings of the pope.

As in Australia, the YCW movement attracted young working people to adopt its see-judge-act method, reflecting in small groups, so they could support and encourage one another in possibly hostile environments. The method involved examining situations in their workplace or environment, reflecting on what the scriptures and church had to say, and then deciding on their own responsibility on action to change the situation, often in collaboration with other groups.

This is a means of empowerment as well as education and formation, and motivated them to undertake the lifelong struggle for social justice and equity, with confidence that this is what God asked of them: to promote human wellbeing in this world.

Pope Francis very deliberately addressed this encyclical to all people of good will, not just to Catholics. He particularly draws on the pioneering work about care for the environment by the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople. As Bishop of Rome, Pope Francis is opening new possibilities in ecumenical and inter-faith encounters, recognising that every believer has unique insights into the mystery of God; he is encouraging us to be attentive to the Spirit of God working in all of them, as well as in non-believers.

For Pope Francis this is a critical moment in human history, which helps explain the timing of the encyclical, in the lead-up to a series of major world conferences on how to manage global warming and climate change. But he also insists we can all do something within our homes and workplaces, living modestly and avoiding waste, taking greater care of the environment, as well as the flora and wildlife, and especially of the distressed and struggling among us.

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