Laudato Sí: Facing the challenge of ‘ecological conversion’

11 Apr 2019


Ahead of a major conference tomorrow examining the faith responsibilities posed by Laudato Sí, Pope Francis’s encyclical on the environment, Fr Tim Bartlett explains why Lent is an ideal time to reflect on the challenge of ‘ecological conversion’ at personal and parish levels.

As the temperature rises in the 2020 US Presidential campaign, one of the major fault lines in the debate is the issue of climate change.

Those on the left highlight the claim of the United Nations Panel on Climate Change that unless we take urgent action to reduce carbon emissions over the next 12 years, our planet will reach a tipping point of destruction from which there may be no return.

In response, leading Democratic candidates say they will dramatically reduce carbon emissions by eliminating fossil-based fuels such as oil and gas.

Those on the right – US Republicans – argue that climate change is a naturally occurring phenomenon and that to cut back on oil and gas will seriously damage US economic growth.

They argue, with some justification, that such economic growth is essential to fund the action needed to address the negative impacts of climate change.

Interestingly, in contrast to the last US Presidential campaign, few, if any politicians argue that climate change is not a real threat.

In his encyclical letter Laudato Sí: On Care for Our Common Home, Pope Francis offers a ‘third way’.

Pope Francis’s ‘environmental encyclical’, Laudato Sí: On Care for Our Common HomeHe points out that, irrespective of the science – which he accepts – caring for this fragile, beautiful planet we share together, is a moral duty in its own right.

Just like looking after our own home, we don’t have to accept the science to realise that we are treating our earthly home abominably.

The masses of plastic bags and bottles clogging up our beaches and rivers, the dangerous chemicals we are pumping into our seas and skies suggest Pope Francis was right when he said our home, the Earth, “is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth”.

Faced with our common home being in such a dangerous mess, rallying behind the politics of right or left doesn’t seem that helpful.

More importantly, it wastes another precious resource we do not have – time.

What is needed, Pope Francis argues, is a more holistic, integrated approach – what he calls an “integral ecology”.

This is one that brings together the best of ‘right’ and ‘left’ into a third way.

This way holds that we can develop a global model of economic growth that lifts people out of poverty, creates employment and funds innovation while at the same time moving us away from attitudes, activities and technologies that are clearly damaging the well-being of our planet.

Pursuing profit in a just manner, promoting sustainable economic growth from which all can benefit and caring for our common home are not mutually exclusive possibilities.

With the right attitude and approach, Pope Francis believes we can even turn the historic threat posed by climate change in to a defining moment in addressing poverty and the sustainability of our planet once and for all.

What is needed for this is to happen, however, is something much more challenging and fundamental – an “ecological conversion”, as he calls it.

The United Nations has said countries must take “unprecedented” action to slash carbon emissions to zero by 2050 to limit global warmingAt the heart of this ecological conversion, are two ideas from Catholic social teaching: subsidiarity and solidarity.

While international agreements have a vital role in bringing about changes in global behaviour, the fundamental insight of our Lenten journey is that the most lasting change begins in the heart.

Without a personal change of heart, one that moves us away from self-absorption to concern for the other, laws or agreements between nations will be limited in their impact.

Such personal change of heart, the Pope suggests, also involves a conversion to solidarity, the willingness to accept that one’s own personal happiness and freedom cannot be achieved in isolation from the good and freedom of others.

This is what Catholic social teaching calls the common good.

When it comes to climate change, this involves the global common good. The climate belongs to us all and impacts on us all.

If one person, or one nation state decides to act in a selfish or wantonly reckless way, eventually all of us suffer.

In the case of climate change, Pope Francis reminds us that it is the poorest in our world who will suffer most.

So, another vital part of his ‘integral’ approach involves conversion to another key principle of Catholic social teaching: our Gospel duty to have a preferential concern for the poor.

Lent is an ideal time to reflect on the challenge of ‘ecological conversion’ at both a personal and a parish level.

After all, the reason for the sacrifices and positive choices we commit to during Lent is to challenge our selfishness and move us to greater solidarity with those in need.

This includes solidarity with this fragile, precious Earth and all the life that teems within it.

The resurrection of the body of Jesus we will celebrate at Easter, and the promise that our own bodies will one day be risen too, is the ultimate affirmation that all creation is God’s gift and that our duty to care for it is fundamental to our discipleship of Jesus, irrespective of political debates and the competing claims of left and right.


Fr Tim Bartlett is a priest of the Diocese of Down and Connor and will be a moderator at tomorrow’s ‘Our Parish, Our Common Home’ conference which will examine the issues raised by Laudato Sí: On Care for Our Common Home.

It is being held in the SMA Dromantine Centre, Co Down and will be hosted by the Northern Ireland Catholic Council on Social Affairs, the Bishops’ Council for Justice and Peace and the Laudato Si’ Working Group of the Council for Catechetics.

This article appears in the Faith Matters column in The Irish News of 11 April 2019 and is reproduced here with permission.