Touch the Earth Lightly, Consider the Poor

Reading from Laudato Si’ of the Holy Father Francis

Saint Francis of Assisi

10. I do not want to write this Encyclical without turning to that attractive and compelling figure, whose name I took as my guide and inspiration when I was elected Bishop of Rome. I believe that Saint Francis is the example par excellence of care for the vulnerable and of an integral ecology lived out joyfully and authentically. He is the patron saint of all who study and work in the area of ecology, and he is also much loved by non-Christians. He was particularly concerned for God’s creation and for the poor and outcast. He loved, and was deeply loved for his joy, his generous self-giving, his openheartedness. He was a mystic and a pilgrim who lived in simplicity and in wonderful harmony with God, with others, with nature and with himself. He shows us just how inseparable the bond is be-  tween concern for nature, justice for the poor, commitment to society, and interior peace.

11. Francis helps us to see that an integral ecology calls for openness to categories which transcend the language of mathematics and biology, and take us to the heart of what it is to be human. Just as happens when we fall in love with someone, whenever he would gaze at the sun, the moon or the smallest of animals, he burst into song, drawing all other creatures into his praise. He communed with all creation, even preaching to the flowers, inviting them “to praise the Lord, just as if they were endowed with reason.”  His response to the world around him was so much more than intellectual appreciation or economic calculus, for to him each and every creature was a sister united to him by bonds of affection. That is why he felt called to care for all that exists. His disciple Saint Bonaventure tells us that, “from a reflection on the primary source of all things, filled with even more abundant piety, he would call creatures, no matter how small, by the name of ‘brother’ or ‘sister’.” Such a conviction cannot be written off as naive romanticism, for it affects the choices which determine our behavior. If we approach nature and the environment without this openness to awe and wonder, if we no longer speak the language of fraternity and beauty in our relationship with the world, our attitude will be that of masters, consumers, ruthless exploiters, unable to set limits on their immediate needs. By contrast, if we feel intimately united with all that exists, then sobriety and care will well up spontaneously. The poverty and austerity of Saint Francis were no mere veneer of asceticism, but something much more radical: a refusal to turn reality into an object simply to be used and controlled.

12. What is more, Saint Francis, faithful to Scripture, invites us to see nature as a magnificent book in which God speaks to us and grants us a glimpse of his in nite beauty and goodness. “Through the greatness and the beauty of creatures one comes to know by analogy their maker” (Wis 13:5); indeed, “his eternal power and divinity have been made known through his works since the creation of the world” (Rom 1:20). For this reason, Francis asked that part of the friary garden always be left untouched, so that wild flowers and herbs could grow there, and those who saw them could raise their minds to God, the Creator of such beauty. Rather than a problem to be solved, the world is a joyful mystery to be contemplated with gladness and praise.



“Touch the Earth Lightly,
Consider the Poor”

Rev. David Carl Olson
First Unitarian Church of Baltimore

What is an encyclical?

—simply a letter which is circulated, usually by a bishop, which invites exploration of ethical, theological and moral questions. Its authority lies in its capacity to express the tradition of the church and its application to new quesitons that have arisen.

How does Francis “place” his letter?

—in the tradition of Catholic Social Teaching (quoting John 23 “Pacem in Terris,” when the world teetering on nuclear war;
Paul 6 writing on the “tragic consequence” of human activity in the exploitation of nature; John Paul 2 on the degradation of the planet simply for human consumption; and Benedict 16 on the “dysfunctions of the world economy and correcting models of growth which have proved incapable of ensuring respect for the environment.”

—in the contemporary Church, international (quoting other bishops, especially South Africa, Latin America, developing world) and non-Catholic, (quoting Patriarch Barhtolomew of the need to repent of whe ways we have harmed the planet, and to “acknowledge our contribution, smaller or greater, to the disfigurement and destruction of creation.” 

—as a special, personal concern (as he named himself after Francis of Assisi). 

What problems does Francis see?

Our common home is being destroyed by 

  1. Pollution and climate change
  2. Depletion of water
  3. Loss of biodiversity of animals and plants
  4. Decline in the quality of human life, and the breakdown of society
  5. Growing global inequality
  6. Tepid and inadequate response by governments and corporations

Francis offers these thoughts. “60. Finally, we need to acknowledge that different approaches and lines of thought have emerged regarding this situation and its possible solutions. At one extreme, we find those who doggedly uphold the myth of progress and tell us that ecological problems will solve themselves simply with the application of new technology and without any need for ethical considerations or deep change. At the other extreme are those who view men and women and all their interventions as no more than a threat, jeopardizing the global ecosystem, and consequently the presence of human beings on the planet should be reduced and all forms of intervention prohibited. Viable future scenarios will have to be generated between these extremes, since there is no one path to a solution. This makes a variety of proposals possible, all capable of entering into dialogue with a view to developing comprehensive solutions.

61. On many concrete questions, the Church has no reason to offer a definitive opinion; she knows that honest debate must be encouraged among experts, while respecting divergent views. But we need only take a frank look at the facts to see that our common home is falling into serious disrepair. Hope would have us recognize that there is always a way out, that we can always redirect our steps, that we can always do something to solve our problems. Still, we can see signs that things are now reaching a breaking point, due to the rapid pace of change and degradation; these are evident in large-scale natural disasters as well as social and even financial crises, for the world’s problems cannot be analyzed or explained in isolation. There are regions now at high risk and, aside from all doomsday predictions, the present world system is certainly unsustainable from a number of points of view, for we have stopped thinking about the goals of human activity. “If we scan the regions of our planet, we immediately see that humanity has disappointed God’s expectations.”

What are his answers? And how does he respond when his answers are insufficient?

We must admit that Francis has college training in chemistry, but science has not been his career. Nor is he is a politician. He is a person of faith and a leader of morality and ethics. I think he says as much in his letter. What he offers will not solve the problems of maitaining the integrity of creation, but he nevertheless points to three overriding ethical positions that he hopes will help us address climate change.

First, that the challenges require a change of heart by humanity, what some might consider repentance. This, of course, is the Pope’s field, the notion of the human heart being changes, the question of our human capacity to live our lives another way. In my reading of what he writes, he shares a very optimistic view of what it means to be human; he is confident that we can perceive what we are doing, can appreciate the harm that we are causing, and that we can change our ways. He shares that in dialogue, we as a species will be able to hear newly our interconnectedness, our shared responsibility, and act in ways that show our care together for our common home.

Second, that the answers must exceed small technical solutions any of us might have. He speaks at length about the danger of imagining that there is one particular solution which will solve the “problem” of what we have done. Turning away from a dependence on fossil fuel as our primary energy source is something that we must do (and then there is the question of what we will depend on when the carbon is gone), but I think he imagines that there will be many solutions to the situation we face, and all solutions must work together so that, when we take a longer view, a more holistic view, that we can get beyond any sense that there is a single technique, a single Savior, which will save the world.

Francis also expresses some doubt about expertise. When someone develops expertise, it is likely that the expert will narrow their focus sufficiently to investigate a small area, but may lose the ability to step back and see how everything fits together, can lose the complex entirety of which creation is comprised. The comprehensive answers (plural!) we must find must not get lost in the smallness of their area of expertise, but placed in the greatness of all that is.

But the place that I really hear Franscis’s heart is this third ethical concern, that proposed solutions must call attention to the plight of the poor. We may know that it is the poorest people on the planet who are most bound to the earth itself, most tied to the economies of land or sea that they may have practiced in community for generations. As markets change the way poor people work, the consequences on those communities and our greater ecology can bring death. When a community that has been harvesting shrimp as their way of participating in a trade economy have to compete with newly created industrial enterprises in another part of the world, the shrimpers can’t just pack up and move the way a corporation can. When the climate changes so that fruit that have been harvested in a particular way by a particular people for generations suddenly can no longer be viable due to a change in temperature or rainfall, the poor cannot simply abandon their land and purchase and plant in other places. The world’s poor are bound to the land in ways that people in more developed countries may never understand.

A Unitarian Universalist appreciation, and our actions of study, dialogue, consideration of the green and the poor, appreciation of the whole.

It strikes me that Laudato si’ provides us an opportunity to realize our aspirations to be a religion that is guided by universalism. We are a small movement, just a few hundreds of thousands of us in the whole world; and we are by no means the sole practitioners of the liberal religion which locates the attention of our study and practice not in ancient texts alone but in the modern world. This letter written by the leader of a billion member religion and addressed to the whole world provides an opportunity for us to practice our universalism, to understand our own catholicity. What opportunities arise for us to be in conversation with Roman Catholics in this neiighborhood and in this city; with secularists and people of faith seeking a “greener” way of being in the world; with all who understand the myriad ways the poor are tied to the earth and most vulnerable to the changes in climate and other environmental realities that we are all experiencing; and all who, like Francis of Assisi, will call the Sun “Brother” and the Moon “Sister,” see as kindred each animal and hear the songs and prayers of every plant and rock. The call of Pope Francis is for us all to be in a great dialogue of religion and science, and what richness the scientists in our community can bring to this conversation. The reverence expressed in the encyclical for this great creation—of which we are a part, in which we are responsible, by which we see God—resonates with our own story, told by Emerson and Thoreau, by Joseph Priestley and Linus Pauling, maybe even by Tim Berners-Lee.

This letter is not our letter, of course, it is the statement of the leader of the Roman church. But Francis aims to make it a part of a great tradition, of the Christian faith, of Catholic social teaching; it is an invitation by the church to be in dialogue with science, a call for ethics that will shape economics and politics by a call for a theological anthropology that treasures each life, and especially the lives of the poor. (Theological anthropology answers the question, what does our faith say it means to be human? For us, this includes our interconnectedness with all existence, and our declaration of the inherent worth and dignity of each.) Francis invites us to be part of a great conversation among the world’s peoples, a step forward for humanity’s quest for truth; that same search which our faith endorses.

The letter is a call for humanity to be a whole people, shallow and profound, inhabiting this one planet, sacred and profane. Like our own congregation, Francis names us a people, a whole people, the whole of humanity one family; and assures us that we are all on a  journey together. We have a common home; we cannot escape it; it holds us and we have responsibilioty for us. May we find ways to deepen the conversation and to exhibit, in our practice of religion, a clarity of purpose and a heart filled with love for all of creation. Blessed be.


At the end of “Laudato si’” are two prayers, one specifically for the Christian faith, and the following for all the rest of us.

A prayer for our earth

All-powerful God,
you are present in the whole universe 

and in the smallest of your creatures.

You embrace with your tenderness all that exists. 

Pour out upon us the power of your love, 

that we may protect life and beauty.

Fill us with peace, that we may live

as brothers and sisters, harming no one.

O God of the poor, help us to rescue 

the abandoned and forgotten of this earth, so precious in your eyes.

Bring healing to our lives, that we may protect the world and not prey on it, 

that we may sow beauty, not pollution and destruction.

Touch the hearts of those who look only for gain

at the expense of the poor and the earth.

Teach us to discover the worth of each thing,

to be filled with awe and contemplation,

to recognize that we are profoundly united with every creature

as we journey towards your infinite light.

We thank you for being with us each day.

Encourage us, we pray, in our struggle for justice, love and peace. Amen.


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