Concern for the planet’s climate and its ecology has occupied the world’s attention for many decades. In the 1980s, the ozone layer depletion caused by chlorofluorocarbons and similar gases was observed, and in 1987, the Montreal Protocol was finalised.
This agreement was ratified by all countries. Today, the almost complete phase-out of these substances has been reached and the ozone layer continues to recover. In 1988, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was established, which evaluates research in the field and presents the conclusions in synthesis reports.
The Kyoto Protocol was proposed and adopted in 1997, after it was observed that the excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is causing a greenhouse effect. The protocol was applied in 2005. It aimed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 5 per cent, compared to the level of the 1990s. A progress tracking system was established for this purpose. In 2015, the Paris Agreement followed, which required a commitment to reduce these gases from all countries, with the purpose of holding the global average temperature at well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Each country had to establish a specific target of reducing the carbon footprint and achieve carbon neutrality.
Notwithstanding, the effects of global warming can be observed in the disruption of the cycle of the seasons, and in the form of extreme weather phenomena and humanitarian catastrophes. The projections of the application of the Paris Agreement indicate too great of an increase in the average global temperature: by 2.7 degrees Celsius by 2100. As such, it was considered necessary to increase the level of the previous commitments. The Glasgow Climate Pact, from November 2021, introduced a more ambitious emission reduction threshold and an explicit commitment to reduce the use of coal, as well as increased financial support for developing countries for the transition to a more environmentally friendly industry.
These global discussions and agreements with ecological targets have effects at the micro-social level: packaging in supermarkets is changing, production cycles are being rethought, pollution taxes are being imposed, entire industries are being transformed or disappearing, the exploitation of natural resources is being vigorously regulated, investments in renewable resources are being made, and solutions for the responsible processing of waste are being sought.
However, not all societies prioritise responsibility, sustainability, and efficiency—or, at least, not at the same time. Some populations or societies are primarily oriented towards technical-economic progress and are willing to sacrifice resources to achieve it, so that only after reaching their development targets will they manage conservation.
Crisis management and the temptation of conspiracy explanations
When dealing with ecological issues, observations are simple, but solidarity is rare. Not all of us care if the river is still clean when it reaches our neighbour’s house after passing our own. So, when they learn that they have to make major changes for the benefit of a world that is beyond their own life horizon, people begin to ask questions: how does it affect them and what do they have to do? Therefore, in the face of objective realities, we are dealing with a subjective orientation. In an attempt to get close to the people and secure their electorate, leaders of society frequently make use of subjective elements in their arguments. However, the constant recourse to this kind of argument feeds uncertainty and doubt.
Thus, ending up in ideological confusion, the electorate becomes sceptical of the solutions and arguments provided. Therefore, when faced with a crisis for which there are no accessible explanations, the human mind tries to make sense of the data it has access to. If these are not enough to understand things, the solution is extrapolated to other possible horizons, where unknown forces that generate the crisis are at work and have hidden goals, which must be revealed in order for us to defend ourselves.
Committing to the ecological theme in the religious environment also attracts conspiratorial interpretations. This was the case for the papal encyclical, Laudato si’ of May 24, 2015, and the Climate Sunday initiative, in the run-up to the Glasgow Climate Pact of 2021.
Oftentimes, the act of communication is filtered through the lens of the past. The tensions between the Catholic Church in the West and Orthodox Christianity in the East, the religious wars between the Church of Rome and the Protestants, and the tensions between the Magisterial Protestants and the followers of the radical Reformation are still present in the historically sensitive consciousness and may re-emerge between the current descendants of the parties involved, regardless of the present context.
The history of the excess of religious authority manifested politically and administratively by the papal office, by persecuting those of different beliefs, as well as the expectation that history will repeat itself in the future (in accordance with apocalyptic prophetic images in which a secular and religious authority persecutes opponents) facilitates the tendency to apply the most negative possible interpretation to each papal initiative. The reading of the papal encyclical Laudato si’ is no exception.
In this document, Pope Francis proposes a profound change through which people would rethink their place in humanity and adopt an integral ecology that views the planet as our common home, which deserves to be treated with respect. The trend of technical and economic development leads to industrial pollution, unsustainable exploitation of the environment, as well as socioeconomic discrepancies between people. In order to stop the vicious cycle of economic development driven by the consumerist trend, a cultural revolution is needed, to ensure ecological sustainability for the next generations.
Although it leaves room for local solutions, the encyclical has radical proposals: to curb the consumerism of the technocratic paradigm, to slow down the pace of development in certain parts of the world, to increase the economic solidarity between countries, and to heavily regulate the industry needs, for development to be sustainable, fair, and balanced. This requires an ecological conversion of the Christian life. The religious individual’s involvement in this field adds ecological reverberations to the sacramental acts of the church, especially the Eucharist and, by extension, to the day on which it is celebrated—Sunday—translating worship as care and appreciation for creation. The encyclical concludes, among other things, with the presentation of the Trinity as a model for the relationship between humans and the entire creation.
Some moderate critics note that the encyclical makes use of the theory of economic dependence, as well as an over-simplification of the understanding of capitalism and the free market. Observant critics notice the call for a global ecological management of the planet, the call for technocratic corporatist elements, and generalised solutions, but also notice the insufficient appeals for the principles of solidarity and subsidiarity regarding the rights of individuals. Other sceptical critics from the American liberal area believe that the encyclical suffers from economic and political weaknesses. And other more radical interpreters even read it as a papal intention to divert ecological catastrophism for the advancement of a predetermined spiritual agenda with socio-economic goals. From this last interpretation, it is easy to reach the denial of climate change, a position shared especially in the circles of American right-wing politics.
Although it was published in 2015, the encyclical came to attention again in 2021, due to the correlation with the ecumenical initiative called Climate Sunday, an initiative that seems to take on some of the encyclical’s aims, at a discursive level. This initiative was an invitation addressed to churches in Great Britain and Ireland to dedicate religious services to the ecological theme on one of the Sundays ahead of November 2021, when the meeting of world leaders would take place in Glasgow (also called COP26).
Also, in addition to a freely chosen and dedicated Sunday at the level of the local congregation, the initiative held a religious service on September 5 in Glasgow Cathedral, dedicated to the event itself, called the Nations’ Climate Sunday Service, with the support of the Cathedral community and the organisations Glasgow Churches Together and Churches Together in Britain and Ireland. In continuation of the initiative, on January 20, 2022, a webinar was held that aims to “deepen their understanding of creation care and climate justice, to continue to take action in their buildings and community for the environment, and to raise their voices to put pressure on the UK government to scale up and follow through on climate commitments made in Glasgow.”
Through the lens of climate change denial, the correlation of Laudato si’ encyclical calls—and events such as Climate Sunday—with forms of religious dissemination of papal supremacy views leads some to believe that the world’s elites are conspiring to create a false agitation around climate change, in order to promote their hidden agenda. The interpretation sees the politicisation of the discourse about saving the planet from an ecological catastrophe as a conspiracy designed to promote the supremacy of the Sovereign Pontiff or the entities supported by his office.
Still, this correlation only infers papal influence in the Climate Sunday initiative and fails to note that the initiative is only addressed to churches in Great Britain. Only by speculating that Laudato si’ is at the basis of Climate Sunday can one formulate the hypothesis that this British initiative would function as a “pilot” for a global plan. The explicit foundation for these inferences is missing.
Concern among those who worship on Saturday
A particular concern, especially regarding the discourse in the encyclical, comes from those believers who worship on Saturday, not Sunday. For Christians and Jews who celebrate the biblical Sabbath of the seventh day, things are clear: the Sabbath is a memorial of creation and a time dedicated to one’s relationship with God. Their concern starts from article 237, in which the encyclical presents Sunday, the first day of the week, as the day of the celebration of the Eucharist and the day of the “New Creation in Christ,” in remembrance of the resurrection and the promise it contains.
In the encyclical, Pope Francis charges Sunday with meanings openly borrowed from the biblical commandment to keep the Sabbath (Exodus 20:8-11), which presents the seventh day, Saturday, as a time dedicated to God and a tribute to the Creator, in which care and appreciation towards creation are manifested. For Christians who worship on the seventh day as the biblically mandated day of worship, bringing Sunday to the forefront underpins a specific concern: elevating Sunday to the status of a universal day of worship.
A trans-liturgical elevation is taken into account: it starts from the Eucharistic celebration, then it appropriates the dimensions of the new creation in Christ, and it is oriented towards the new world, becoming relevant outside the religious space as well. However, in the text of the encyclical, there is nothing explicit that suggests the obligation or the norming of this day of worship, but only its character is presented, as it is understood and contextualised primarily in the Catholic Church.
Nevertheless, considering that at the beginning of the encyclical, the Pope states that he wants to address all the people on the planet, the dilemma of placing Sunday in a non-Catholic context arises: Is the Sovereign Pontiff suggesting that even those who do not understand Sunday in a Catholic way must consider stopping any economic activities on Sunday, so that, regardless of one’s beliefs, they will reach the preservation of a form of societal, Sunday rest?
The extension of the prohibition regarding work on Sunday is not explicit in the encyclical, but the document implicitly preserves the provision of this sabbatical commandment because it refers to Sunday with the phrase “day of rest.” The question may remain open regarding the recipients of this emphasis on the meaning of Sunday, although basic rules of interpretation might tell us that the Sunday Eucharistic reading applies to those who celebrate it. However, the encyclical could have been more explicit because, otherwise, it is not impossible to assume that a discrete desire of the discourse, evident by the omission of limitations, would be the undertaking of Sunday as a globally accepted rest day, if not religious, then at least social and economic, for the benefit of the planet.
Attaching the ecological dimension to Sunday worship has brought some Christians—who are concerned with the elevation and imposition of Sunday as a day of universal worship and therefore campaign for religious freedom—closer to critics who deny climate change. This ideological closeness to climate change deniers is not justified and should be avoided, because it has nothing to do with the concern for supporting religious freedom.
The biblical foundations of a correct interpretation
Returning to the questions that the encyclical Laudato si’ can raise, they are certainly worth asking, especially since the encyclical aims to open a dialogue. Nevertheless, the answers cannot simply be imagined based on correlations and assumptions. Rather, questions should be directed to the sender. The assumption of guardianship of religious freedom by Christians who worship on a day other than Sunday does not mean that any overt display of the pro-Sunday majority option should be panic-read as having ulterior motives.
Still, at the spiritual level, a biblically-informed conscience has the mandate to check the secular interferences in its domain.
An excessively spiritualising reading of the secular, even through criticism, leads to the devaluation of the spiritual. Jesus’s statement that His Kingdom is not of this world must remain the profound landmark of the stake of the battle between good and evil. Since they are secular, proposals—even from the highest religious authorities—must receive a secular response and be applied secularly, while spiritual ones must receive a spiritual response, and their applications must also be kept distinct.
We have enough biblical landmarks to identify spiritual dangers. An example would be the description of the actions of the forces that oppose God’s people provided by the book of Revelation. The first of the actions is the restriction of freedom of conscience, and the second, which derives from it, is the fusion of the religious and political powers in the state, so that the conscience is forced through the political. None of these are represented in any aspect of the above-mentioned encyclical. The recommendations of various decision-making factors for orientation towards the global economic good do not involve and do not call for coercion or the suppression of individual freedom (although additional provisions in this sense would have been welcome). Favouring a more socially solidary economy does not mean forcing a conscience—the functional European social democracies, where freedom of conscience exists but wild capitalism is curbed, are proof of that.
Also in Revelation, there are descriptions of some of the ways in which the forces of evil work among people (Revelation 14:8, 17:2, 18:2-3, cf. Jeremiah 51:6-8). The destruction of creation (Revelation 11:17) would be one of the explicit and easily observable ones. Moreover, Revelation states that the opposition against those who remain faithful to God will be explicit and clear, evident on many levels, not obscure and accessible only to some intellectuals, and the broad agreement for this opposition will be primarily spiritual, but manifested politically and in a generalised way (Revelation 16:13-14).
Impatiently searching for an interpretation of current reality that matches the expected prophetic elements is not a beneficial approach. Asked anxiously about the end of history, the Saviour redirected the attention of the disciples to the entrusted mission rather than the scrutiny of the divine agenda.
To insist on identifying a prophetic fulfilment without having verifiable criteria constitutes an erroneous theological interpretation of reality, which does not remain without consequences—out of the conviction that they are doing a good thing, hasty interpreters end up identifying meanings where there are none. The divine perspective is enlightening (Job 42:8): apologetic discourses based on assumptions and statistical or probabilistic extrapolations cannot be valid theological interpretations or moral judgments.
On a practical level, haphazard interpretations of current events distort the correct perception of preparation for God’s kingdom by reducing it to a reading of the news in line with a specific note. This diminishes the importance of the relationship between God and mankind within spiritual preparation, as it leads the battle for the human soul into a false arena: it confuses the spiritual with the mundane because it emphasises reactivity to external factors at the expense of spiritual ones.
Extended to the level of personal and social responsibility, the application of limited interpretations functions as an element that relieves responsibility, which leads to the annulment of the divine mandate to care for and appreciate creation.
Laurentiu Nistor believes that impatience regarding the return of the Lord Jesus Christ compels some Christians to insist on the prophetic interpretation of the present, which distorts and decreases the active investment in the missionary mandate given by the Saviour Himself.