By Henry Longbottom
Henry Longbottom SJ is a member of a Roman Catholic religious order known as the Jesuits (to which Pope Francis belongs) and is currently studying for the priesthood. He is actively involved in London Mining Network.
When I became a Catholic seven years ago, never in my wildest dreams did I expect the appearance of an official church teaching document (an “encyclical”) dealing with the moral duty to combat climate change, a respect for the intrinsic value of all creation, and the need for solidarity with victims of global inequality.
Yet such is the whirlwind created by the “Pope Francis Effect” and the publication of his groundbreaking encyclical on ecology on 18 June 2015.
In truth of course, the Argentinian Pope’s text “On Care For Our Common Home” draws on the deeply ecologically-sensitive spirituality of St Francis of Assisi, hence the document’s opening words “Laudato Si” — citing the 13th Century saint’s hymn to Mother Earth. It also builds on the thinking of previous popes, particularly that of Benedict XVI’s savaging critique of unbridled consumerist capitalism. And it consolidates what is sometimes referred to as the church’s best kept secret, Catholic Social Teaching. But what is totally new and radical is the way Pope Francis brings all this together and speaks with great urgency about the action required on both a collective and individual scale.
Weighing in at over 100 pages, it’s no quick read! My aim here is therefore is briefly highlight five things that Laudato Si has to say to those of us involved in campaigning organisations and solidarity groups, particularly relating to mineral extraction. So here goes …
1. It is an appeal to all people, not just Catholics. Given the universal nature of our common home, Francis makes it clear that the encyclical attempts to “enter into dialogue” with all people who are “united by the same concern” [3,7]. Such a global target audience explains references in the document to other religious traditions (including Islamic mysticism) as well as secular sources like the Rio Declaration 1992 and the Earth Charter 2000.
2. It commends the achievements of those working for environmental and human rights justice. “Thanks to their efforts, environmental questions have increasingly found a place on public agendas and encouraged more farsighted approaches” . At the same time, it contrasts the success of NGOs with that of the political elite, lamenting the “lack of political will” to “reach truly meaningful and effective global agreements on the environment” .
3. It focuses on the harm done by global inequality caused by current economic systems, singling out extractive industries for particular criticism. “‘A true “ecological debt’ exists, particularly between the global north and south, connected with commercial imbalances with effects on the environment, and the disproportionate use of natural resources by certain countries over long periods of time. The export of raw materials to satisfy markets in the industrialised north has caused harm locally, as for example in mercury pollution in gold mining or sulphur dioxide pollution in copper mining” .
4. It calls for regulation and enforcement with respect to the activities of multinationals in developing countries. Drawing on the experience of the South American Church, the encyclical notes that international companies do things “they would never do in developed countries … after ceasing their activity and withdrawing, they leave behind great human and environmental liabilities such as unemployment, abandoned towns, the depletion of natural reserves, deforestation … open pits, riven hills, polluted rivers” . It therefore calls for an establishment of a legal framework which can set clear boundaries and ensure the protection of ecosystems … before the new power structures based on the techno-economic paradigm overwhelm not only our politics but freedom and justice as well” .
5. It calls for the protection of indigenous communities for whom the land is not just a commodity but a sacred space. The encyclical talks about the need for any development to respect “cultural ecology”, a shorthand for way the human environment and the natural environment are mutually interdependent. When nature suffers, so do cultural and social values. This is particularly true with respect to indigenous peoples who Pope Francis holds up as a model for “responsibility, a strong sense of community, a readiness to protect others, a spirit of creativity and a deep love for the land [which] they will eventually leave to their children and grandchildren” . The encyclical calls on more stringent legal measures to be put in place for their protection since “pressure is being put on them to abandon their homelands to make room for agricultural or mining projects which are undertaken without regard for the natural and cultural degradation” .
For those of us passionate about advocating the principle of Free Prior and Informed Consent, an official catholic teaching that indigenous people at “not merely one minority among others, but should be the principal dialogue partners, especially when large projects affecting their lands are proposed”  is very welcome. Indeed so is the overall theme of the encyclical, which is a call for a bold cultural revolution and ‘change of heart’ in our attitude to development and ‘progress’. A message for all who are concerned to protect our Common Home, Mother Earth.