“We have to …integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.” (Pope Francis, Laudato Si’, #49)

As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, it’s worth pondering these words from Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si’, which marks its own fifth birthday later this spring.

The pope reminds us that honoring what he calls “our common home” isn’t just about polar bears and glaciers, while it is definitely about them. When he laments the “throw-away culture,” he’s talking not just about what we toss into the garbage, although he means to include that, too.

Pope Francis understands that how we view and care for nature is not unlike how we view and care for each other. We can mentally discard the homeless, the hungry, and indigenous communities lamenting harms from mining operations just as we discard plasticware and paper products. We can emotionally detach from racial inequities in sickness and death rates from COVID-19 just as we emotionally detach from disappearing species of animals and plants.

Pope Francis makes clear that “living our vocation to be protectors of God’s handiwork is … not an optional or a secondary aspect of our Christian experience” (Laudato Si' #217). And that handiwork includes all creatures great and small, all women and men no matter their immigration status, every plant hidden deep in the rainforest, all children no matter what trouble they may get into.

Pope Francis in his encyclical even helpfully gives us some ideas on how to spend Earth Day:

  • “Intergenerational solidarity is not optional.” As young people give up sports, prom and just hanging out with friends to protect their parents and grandparents from illness, we older folks can certainly find an hour or two to join the online climate strikes this week. 
  • “The use of highly polluting fossil fuels … needs to be progressively replaced without delay."Call your elected officials to urge them to invest in clean energy jobs and training when people are able to return to work. 
  • “Safe drinkable water is a basic and universal human right.” Make sure that none of our neighbors is having their water shut off due to inability to pay their bills during a pandemic.  
  • “All Christian communities have an important role to play in ecological education.” Plan an online faith formation class on care for creation, or for when in-person programming can resume.

The pope also has some advice for government leaders, if any of you happen to be reading this: “True statecraft is manifest when, in difficult times, we uphold high principles and think of the long-term common good.”  That certainly is as true when we’re talking about responses to a global pandemic and economic slowdown as when we’re talking about climate change, 

And, finally, the pope recognizes the importance of “simple everyday gestures.” So yes, on Earth Day recycle, cut down on single-use plastic, even plant a tree if you want. But don’t just do that. 

(Marianne Comfort is a parishioner at St. Camillus in Silver Spring, Maryland. She works as justice coordinator for Earth, anti-racism and women for the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas.)

(CS photo/Andrew Biraj)