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Spring 2016 stories

Laudato Si’ in Silicon Valley

Excerpt from Cardinal Peter Turkson's Keynote Address,
“Our Future on a Shared Planet” Conference,
Santa Clara University1
By Cardinal Peter Turkson

By Cardinal Peter Turkson
President of the Pontifical Council
for Justice and Peace

Santa Clara University has set itself the task of exploring the implications of Pope Francis’ recent encyclical on integral ecology. It seems especially fitting to talk about the encyclical of the first Jesuit pope at a leading Jesuit university.

You are probably aware of the broad vision of Laudato Si’. Here are some of its main points: Humanity is not separate from the environment in which we live; rather humanity and the natural environment are one. The accelerating change in climate is undeniable, catastrophic, and worsened by human activities, but it is also amenable to human intervention. The grave errors that underlie our disastrous indifference to the environment include a throwaway culture of consumerism, and the marginalization and trivialization of ethics. The twofold crisis can be overcome, not by more of the same, but through changes arising from generous dialogue and fundamental ethical, and indeed spiritual, decision-making at every level.

Even this brief summary makes clear that Laudato Si’ is not strictly a “green,” ecological, or climate-change document, but a full social encyclical in the Catholic Church’s tradition, going back to Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum encyclical on capital and labor in 1891. Social encyclicals apply the basic principles of the Church’s social teaching to the changing challenges of humanity. Laudato Si’ is solidly within this tradition. And its subtitle, “On Care for Our Common Home,” conveys an important conviction. Homes are not isolated, each on its own planet. They are located in neighborhoods and communities, and finally in a single, common home called “Earth,” where there are implications to living together.

The word “common” brings to mind the socalled tragedy of the commons, a circumstance where the self-interested actions of one or more agents deplete a common resource. For instance, in Laudato Si’ the Pope declares the climate and the atmosphere to be common goods “belonging to all and meant for all” (§23). The oceans and other natural resources should likewise be considered as a global commons and protected by an appropriate system of governance (§174). “The principle of the universal destination of the goods of creation is also applied to the global carbon sinks of the atmosphere, oceans and forests. In order to protect the poorest and to avoid dangerous climate change, these sinks must be prevented from overuse.”2

Joanne Lee

So who is going to decide, fairly and squarely, about preserving our common home? And are the decisions really going to be carried out? Among its main points, Laudato Si’ critiques a naïve confidence that technological advances and undirected commercial markets will inevitably and automatically solve our environmental problems. Let me pause here to dwell on “technological advances.” Few places in the world take such words more seriously than right here! Silicon Valley is the center of the major technological revolution of our times, the revolution that has taken the world beyond the industrial age and into the digital age.

The Pope’s approach is a balanced one. He does not call for a nostalgic reversal of history. He does not bemoan technological advance. He does decry the enormous but largely hidden power which technology bestows on those who control it, along with the economy and finance. Here in Silicon Valley, more specifically, I think he might say that, in the midst of so much creative technological thinking, there is far too little critical thinking about technology.

Your challenge is to think in this thoroughly balanced way. The world is expecting you, in this unique place of the planet, to ask bold and avantgarde questions about the future: How will the “digital ecology” keep the web open in order to democratize knowledge for everyone? How will the digital divide and the data gap be closed, to give all people access to information for a better quality of life? How will the Internet get beyond rampant consumerism and become a space of discussion, production, and solidarity? Moreover, how will Silicon Valley spearhead the right cultural, technological, and economic environment for a carbon-free civilization? In sum, to Santa Clara University, may I suggest that you help Silicon Valley communities focus the critical and prophetic light of Laudato Si’ on all new microtechnologies as they are created and applied.

Pope Francis’ concern for climate change as an integrally human, ethical, and spiritual issue, and his call for effective policies to reverse environmental degradation, are both firmly rooted in traditional Catholic teaching. The Christian commitment to care for our common home goes back to Genesis itself. There, we learn that all Creation is good (Genesis 1). Moreover, we are told that humanity is formed out of the “dust of the earth” and mandated by the loving Creator “to till and to keep” the Earth, the garden “given as a gift to the human family” (Genesis 2). Catholic social teaching since the Second Vatican Council has increasingly recognized that the care of creation is intimately connected to other Christian commitments. In particular, environmental harm compromises the commitments to promote the common good and protect the life and dignity of human persons—especially of the poor and vulnerable. Human-forced climate change is unequivocally a moral issue. Therefore the Church has called for public policies to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions and assist those most affected by the adverse effects of climate change. Blessed Paul VI first articulated such teaching in 1971; Saint John Paul II elaborated it greatly in the 1990s, and it was further developed by Pope Benedict XVI. Throughout these years, individual bishops and episcopal conferences, including the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, have spoken out powerfully.

Joanne Lee

What has Pope Francis contributed? Beginning with his choice of a name, he has made concern for the poor and the planet a signature of his papacy. Nature and the human family are both works of God, and they are fragile. Moreover, Pope Francis has deliberately inserted his teaching and indeed leadership into the international political process that is trying to respond to climate change. People trust Pope Francis as a deeply caring person; during his visit to the United States, observers were calling him “the people’s Pope.” For the sake of all, he calls for care, so that the marginalized can participate more fully in society, so that youth may find purpose in their lives and the elderly can end their days in dignity, so that the desperate victims of violence may reach a better life and not drown in their frantic flight.

The Pope speaks to the longing of people to be cared for and in turn to exercise caring. Laudato Si’ repeats “care” dozens of times, while the more usual word “stewardship” is mentioned just twice in the English version. Stewards take responsibility and fulfill their obligations to manage and to render an account. But one can be a competent or professional steward without feeling connected, without caring. Pope Francis brings the basic message of Jesus—“love one another, as I have loved you” (John 13:34, 15:12)—into the very heart of the world’s greatest challenges: to care for the poor and to care for the planet.

Where do we go from here? Parts of Laudato Si’ reiterate information and positions that are already widely known. But overall, the encyclical advances at least six significant perspectives.

First, these issues affect everyone. Climate, pollution, and weather events do not respect borders, nor wealth and privilege. No walls, no gated community, can keep the environment at bay. Some are more affected than others, because of geographical location or lack of power to protect themselves or to “escape the spiral of selfdestruction which currently engulfs us” (§163). At stake is justice between people and generations, the dignity of those who inhabit the planet now and those who will inhabit it in the future. At stake is the very possibility of human life on earth. The world’s poor are especially affected by climate change even though they play almost no role in it—the bottom three billion account for a mere six percent of cumulative carbon emissions. So while environmental deterioration affects everyone, the obligation of justice is weighted towards helping the poor to develop and avoid the fallout from climate change.

Second, everyone must act. We think automatically about the rulers, and several times the encyclical addresses those who have the power to decide, urging them to take responsibility for the common good, even if they have to go against “the mindset of short-term gain which dominates present-day economics and politics” (§181). But Pope Francis insists this is no topic for experts, technicians, and officials alone.

The world is expecting you, in this unique place of the planet, to ask bold and avant-garde questions about the future.

Everyone must act—even the child who turns off lights to reduce electricity consumption. More broadly, a popular movement of citizens needs to act communally to demand courageous action by leaders and negotiators in favor of the poor and of the planet.

Third, be truthful. We must have the courage to identify the problems. So many still deny the evident facts of what we are doing to our planet and to each other, “masking the problems or concealing their symptoms” (§26). We gain nothing when we deny the impact of fossil fuels both for good and for ill. Indeed, they powered the technology of the industrial revolution, which paved the way for unprecedented living standards. But time marches on, and now they threaten to undermine all we have achieved. Further, we must stop pretending that “infinite or unlimited growth” is possible, as if the supply of Earth’s resources is infinite (§106).

Joanne Lee

Fourth, embrace integrated ecology. Our ancient awareness tells us all living beings, human groups and systems as well as nonhuman ones—that is, all of creation—are fundamentally interconnected. Only with attentive care for these bonds will we come “to find adequate ways of solving the more complex problems of today’s world, particularly those regarding the environment and the poor; these problems cannot be dealt with from a single perspective or from a single set of interests” (§110). Reversing the degradation of both the natural environment and the human world requires the combined contribution of all; no branch of science, no form of wisdom including culture, religion and spirituality (cf §63), should be neglected.

Fifth, practice dialogue. Pope Francis insists on dialogue “as the only way to confront the problems of our world and to seek solutions that are truly effective.”3 Authentic dialogue is honest and transparent. It insists on open negotiation based on the principles which the social teachings of the Church vigorously promote: solidarity, subsidiarity, working for the common good, universal destination of goods, and preferential option for the poor and for the Earth. Real dialogue would not allow particular interests of individual countries or specific groups to hijack the negotiations.

And sixth, the Pope tells us, pray. Prayer is not the general fashion today. It takes humility and daring, because it challenges the hubris of our supposedly advanced, highly secular civilization. Pray for the Earth and humanity, pray for bold decisions now for the sake of future peoples and of the planet’s future.

From Silicon Valley and Santa Clara through the U.S.A. and around the world, let us learn to exercise global ecological citizenship. Having received nature from God the Creator as a gift, let us bequeath it to those who come after us, not as a wilderness, but as a garden. Let us sustain humanity and care for our common home, the beautiful planet, Earth.


Cardinal Peter Turkson is president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, archbishop emeritus of Cape Coast, Ghana. He served in several positions of leadership within the Episcopal Conference of West Africa and as chairman of the Ghana Chapter of the Conference of Religions for Peace before being appointed to his current post in Rome. On September 24, 2013, he was confirmed by Pope Francis as President of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. He has been awarded numerous honorary degrees and speaks six languages (Fante, English, French, Italian, German, and Hebrew). Cardinal Turkson is widely acknowledged as one of the most influential Vatican experts on the content of the encyclical, Laudato Si’, On Care for Our Common Home.





  1.  Cardinal Peter Turkson, “Laudato Si’ from Silicon Valley to Paris,” keynote address, Our Future on a Shared Planet: Silicon Valley in Conversation with the Environmental Teachings of Pope Francis conference, 3 November 2015, Santa Clara University. This essay is an excerpt from the lecture; a video of the full lecture is available at: scu.edu/ourcommonhome/ climate-conference-/
  2. Ottmar Edenhofer and Christian Flachsland, “Laudato Si’: Concern for Our Global Commons,” ThinkingFaith (23 September 2015), available at www.thinkingfaith.org/articles/ laudato-si%E2%80%99-concern-our-global-commons, accessed 1 November 2015.
  3. Pope Francis, Address on Environmental Justice and Climate Change, 9 September 2015, available at w2.vatican.va/ content/francesco/en/speeches/2015/september/documents/ papa-francesco_20150911_fondazione-sviluppo-sostenibile. html, accessed 1 November 2015.
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