By Sister Áine O’Connor, Mercy Global Action Coordinator at the United Nations
Laudato Si’ is exactly what the Church needed.
People of faith, including Sisters of Mercy, have long been standing in solidarity with marginalized peoples and Earth and challenging unjust economic, political and social systems that cause poverty, violate human rights, and exploit and degrade Earth and our climate. But as an interconnected collective, these were issues and challenges you rarely heard mentioned from pulpits.
In Laudato Si’, Pope Francis affirms these as integral components of Catholic Social Teaching:
“If we are truly concerned to develop an ecology capable of remedying the damage we have done, no branch of the sciences and no form of wisdom can be left out … The development of the Church’s social teaching represents such a synthesis with regard to social issues; this teaching is called to be enriched by taking up new challenges “(63).
For me one of the most important, and most challenging, aspects of Laudato Si’ is Pope Francis’ appeal that we “must acknowledge the human origins of the ecological crisis “(101). Our prevailing economic, political and social systems have significantly helped to create the grave and unjust global poverty, inequality, water and climate concerns of our day. To undo the widespread injustice in our world and pursue the common good, we must have frank conversations about these systems and their short-term goals, which are so often driven by power and profits. “We fail to see the deepest roots of our present failures, which have to do with the direction, goals, meaning and social implications of technology and economic growth,” he writes (109).
Pope Francis is saying that instead, our economic and our political systems must be guided by gospel values, prioritizing the most vulnerable and serving the well-being of people and planet over profit, growth or benefit for a few.
There is an inner call to all of us to do what is right for the world. Pope Francis says, “We have to realize that a true ecological approach always becomes a social approach; it must 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” (49). He asks us to consider: “What is the purpose of our life in this world? Why are we here? What is the goal of our work and all our efforts? What need does the earth have of us?” (47).
And he reminds all of us that in serving those who are made poor and vulnerable, charity is not enough. While we need to tend to the immediate needs of the most marginalized, we also need to dig deeper into the global policies, systems, decisions and rules causing and perpetuating their impoverishment and the denial of their dignity. In confronting grave and global injustices, including human rights and ecological violations due to unsustainable and unjust development models and the exploitation of peoples and Earth, we must move from a model of charity to justice.
As Sisters of Mercy worldwide, we strive for both mercy and justice: we stand on the margins with and tend to those in need, while at the same time standing at the front lines to advocate for root cause analysis and speak out against critical systemic issues—growing global inequality, fracking, extractive mining and the privatization of water—to name a few.
Water: A Human Right and a Common Good
Part of the role of the Sisters of Mercy’s NGO, in special consultative status with the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations, is to advocate and provide critique and consultation to Member States and decision-makers based on grassroots experience. For example, we consistently caution Member States working on global development policies to prioritize peoples’ domestic need for water over corporate and industrial demands; we stress how critical it is not to privatize water, which we hold as a basic human right. Our engagement enables Nation States to better understand critical issues such as the fulfillment of basic human rights, ecological sustainability, and just, sustainable and equitable development.
Pope Francis also spoke to this critical issue, calling water “a fundamental right which conditions the exercise of other human rights” (89). Water is necessary for life on Earth, yet so many large companies have turned it into a commodity, have obtained more local access to water than communities, or have contaminated it. So often this results in life-threating depletion and degradation of essential aquifers and leaves those who are most impoverished without access to safe drinking water.
The Sisters of Mercy at the United Nations, along with many other faith-based and water justice groups, advocated tirelessly on the human right to water in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. As a result of these advocacy efforts with Member States and with national governments, the human right to water and sanitation is now included in the political Declaration which introduces the SDGs and will frame a water justice and rights-based approach to the implementation of Goal 6 on water and sanitation (learn more about the SDGs).
Not Just for Catholics
The Sisters of Mercy and other faith-based groups know we have a champion in Pope Francis. His encyclical Laudato Si’ is now added to the body of Catholic Social Teaching, opening up dialogue about systems of justice in churches, colleges and universities.
But his message is not limited to Catholics alone; above all we must act in solidarity with others:
“In the present condition of global society, where injustices abound and growing numbers of people are deprived of basic human rights and considered expendable, the principle of the common good immediately becomes, logically and inevitably, a summons to solidarity and a preferential option for the poorest of our brothers and sisters” (158).
His message also addresses politicians, economists and more! He admonishes, “Today, in view of the common good, there is an urgent need for politics and economics to enter into a frank dialogue in the service of life” (189). Practically and radically speaking, Pope Francis is asking politicians, economists, bankers and others to look honestly at the systems, decisions and international rules they make and to stop, for example, the harmful impacts of:
- special clauses in trade deals that allow corporations to sue governments for profits not realized;
- tax loopholes that rob people in developing countries of more than $100 billion each year through tax evasion and enable $21 trillion to be hidden in tax havens giving wealth and privilege to a few, thus preventing the necessary and just redistribution of wealth;
- corporate power and opportunity overriding independent scientists and medical professionals in influencing and determining the outcomes of environmental protection assessments for oil, gas and mining project impact;
- new energy technology, such as hydraulic fracturing, on peoples and Earth.
Today faith leaders and political leaders must be radical and bold. We need to stop the injustices and global harm done to whole populations, peoples and Earth through prevailing economic and unsustainable models of development. We need to realize global justice and the common good!
This is what Pope Francis called for and demonstrated when he addressed the United Nations General Assembly in New York on September 25, 2015. He stood before these decision-makers and pushed them to see beyond their respective national interests to a universally shared responsibility for the future of Earth and the future of people.
Laudato Si’ is now part of our conversation as a Church, and also as a world. I feel energized that more people will feel and act upon these connections now, seeing that social justice is as much a part of living a faith-filled life as are the Eucharist and the Gospel. Beyond our Church, people are uniting. Laudato Si’ has helped them see that issues do not stand alone. Their awakening could rewrite the course of justice and history!
While the Sisters of Mercy are always seeking to make connections among service, solidarity, social justice and our Catholic identity for peoples and planet, we are called anew to seize the opportunity to take bold and radical steps to exercise mercy and justice by facing global systemic challenges like unregulated capitalism and climate change. Beginning December 8, 2015, the Mercy family worldwide is presented with a unique and wonderful opportunity in this Year of Mercy to engage in an international reflection process so that worldwide we can discern a shared response to the cry of the Earth and the cry of the Poor.
Above all, we are invited to seize this moment, to go forward bold in hope and confident in the knowledge that, “the Spirit of God has filled the universe with possibilities and therefore, from the very heart of things, something new can always emerge” (80).