The Pope has spoken of his ‘integral ecology’ paradigm – is this a plausible position?

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The Pope has spoken of his ‘integral ecology’ paradigm – is this a plausible position?

Two years ago, Pope Francis published his with huge interest expected and frequently discussed encyclical letter Laudato Si: On Care for Our Common Home (O’Neill 2016; Spina 2015). In his proclamation to respect and fight for our common planet, Pope Francis introduces the term of ‘integral ecology’.

The overall aim of this paradigm is to demonstrate the sheer impossibility of separating social from ecological problems, e.g. in the case of climate change or tremendous social inequality. Therefore, Pope Francis dismantles the terminology ‘ecology’ into three different components: Firstly, environmental, economic and social ecology; secondly, cultural ecology and thirdly, ecology of daily life. Furthermore, he highlights that the principles of the common good and of justice between the generations go hand in hand with these components (Laudato Si).

In the following, I will discuss the plausibility of this paradigm by classifying it into different contexts. Firstly, the integral ecology paradigm will be set in the broader context of encyclicals and Catholic Church’s social teaching. Secondly, parallels to other religions and theoretical approaches will be drawn to demonstrate that this paradigm is neither unique nor strictly bound to (religious) faith. Finally, I will discuss the historical context in which the encyclical letter was being published and the paradigm’s inseparability from the figure of Pope Francis. The essay briefly concludes with a forecast of the practical applicability of the paradigm.

Integral ecology inside the Catholic Church

Pope Francis is deeply convinced that an ecological approach necessarily becomes a social approach. Therefore, “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” (Laudato Si, §49, highlighted in original). Repeatedly, Pope Francis stresses his conviction, constituting a binding element within Laudato Si. He thus lays the foundation for the first document of the Catholic Church dealing entirely with environmental issues (Spina 2015, p.579). This is of special importance when one looks more closely at what encyclicals are.

They address all bishops of the world to spread the teachings within their dioceses (Jayabalan 2014, p.58). The teachings themselves are theological and philosophical reflections of the Catholic Church (ibid., p.60) about wide-ranging themes, need to be universal (ibid., p.59) and explicitly have no scientifically consolidated aspiration (ibid., p.60). Moreover, “[e]ncyclicals are just one means of expressing papal teaching on a variety of matters” (ibid., p.58) to “help Christians and others build a more just, fraternal society that reflects God’s love of man and our subsequent duty to love God and neighbour” (ibid., p.60).

Against this background, integral ecology, understood as a key message of Laudato Si, seamlessly integrates itself into the conception of encyclicals and therefore appears to be a plausible position. The paradigm gains even more legitimacy when it is embedded in Catholic Church’s social teaching, consisting of the four main ideas of human dignity, the common good, solidarity and subsidiarity. In the case of human dignity, for example, Pope Francis emphasizes that “[h]ere [the current economic global system; note from the author] we see how environmental deterioration and human and ethical degradation are closely linked” (Laudato Si, §56).

By referring explicitly and implicitly to the social teaching of the Catholic Church, Laudato Si follows another tradition of encyclicals (Jayabalan 2014, p.61). Moreover, it should be emphasized that the social teaching is primarily developed by the encyclicals (ibid., p.56) to “assist in the resolution of problems in political and theory and for application to issues in law and public policy” (Wagner 2010, p. 307). In the step after the next one I will discuss how the paradigm can contribute to this.

Integral ecology outside the Catholic Church

The paradigm also appears to be a plausible position since its underlying ideas are not strictly bound to the Catholic Church. Instead, as Gardner (2006, quoted in Reder 2012, p.39) demonstrates for the idea of ‘sacred ground’, the moral values of religions root in more general worldviews. In statistical terms, in view of the numbers of roughly 100.000 religions to which nearly 85% of the world population belong (Gardner 2006, p.49, quoted in Reder 2012, p.41), it is moreover extremely unlikely that Pope Francis is the first (and last) who developed a paradigm that claims to tackle both social and ecological problems.

Besides the religious spheres of life, in recent decades an increasing number of scientific publications dealt with similar approaches. For example, focusing on the problems related with climate change, Hayward (2012, p.846) highlights that “[t]hose who already suffer most from socioeconomic disadvantage globally are generally most at risk of having their suffering compounded by the effects of climate change.” It is obvious that this position, besides other references to the paradigm, includes a perspective of intergenerational justice which also is one crucial element of integral ecology.

Moreover, it is striking that Pope Francis uses the same term of ‘ecological citizenship’ (Laudato Si, §211) with a similar understanding as Hayward (2006).1 Both stress the importance of the virtue of ‘resourcefulness’ (Hayward 2006, p.442; Laudato Si) which can be achieved most easily by education (Hayward 2006, p.446; Laudato Si, §211). What Pope Francis exemplifies with “[a] person who could afford to spend and consume more but regularly uses less […]” (ibid.) demonstrates in small what the paradigm is on a large scale.

Integral ecology as a contemporary idea

I have shown so far that the ideas behind integral ecology are neither new nor unique. Nevertheless, the historical context in which the encyclical letter was published gives the paradigm an outstanding importance and therewith further plausibility. Laudato Si was released in June 2015 – only half a year before the eagerly awaited climate conference in Paris took place. With nearly 1.2 billion followers behind him and by using predominantly emotive and carefully chosen language (O’Neill 2016, p.749), Pope Francis’ key message could not be ignored by the negotiators of the later officially decided ‘Paris Agreement’: our common home needs to be protected by the whole human family (Laudato Si, §13). Moreover, he explicitly drew attention for the need of an internationally binding agreement (e.g. Laudato Si, §173).

Reder (2012) demonstrates four general functions of religion in public and political debate on the same example of climate change, but also on the reduction of poverty: Its underpinning of worldviews via moral values, the generation and consolidation of a moral basis in public discourses, its function as social capital and as a genuine social factor. Consequently, applied to the Catholic Church and its followers, Laudato Si and the paradigm in particular must have led to a huge strengthening of the world’s civil society as well as a massive increase of pressure on opponents of an ambitious agreement.

The plausibility of the paradigm also results from the figure of Pope Francis himself. First of all, he took the name of Saint Francis of Assisi when he was elected to become Bishop of Rome. His patron saint is the example par excellence for an authentically lived integral ecology: “He shows us just how inseparable the bond is between concern for nature, justice for the poor, commitment to society, and interior peace” (Laudato Si, §10). Additionally, Pope Francis embodies the paradigm authentically, similar to his patron saint. This is because of his own Latin American origin while speaking about ‘ecological debts’ which exist between the global north and south due to unfair economical practises over a long period of time (Laudato Si, §51).

Integral ecology’s practical applicability

I have argued in this essay that the paradigm is a plausible position, both inside and outside the Catholic Church and cannot be separated from the figure of Pope Francis. Latter circumstance results in an open question: will the Catholic Church still support integral ecology when the next Pope succeeds Francis? Despite his huge popularity (Spina 2015, p.579), it also seems to be unlikely that the paradigm will be heard and consistently implemented outside the Catholic Church – and even within. This is because integral ecology has radical consequences especially for the global north for which he uses the term ‘ecological debts’ (Laudato Si, §51) and which have to be paid back, at least from a perspective of justice.

Although the paradigm’s accurate adoption by policymakers would have to take too many hurdles, its core idea of tackling both environmental and ecological problems at the same time appears to be more easily implementable. Outside the political sphere, the paradigm might be a model for other religions and secular organizations to empower their members to think about ecology in a holistic way, as far as they don’t already have a similar approach. Finally, understanding the paradigm as a deeply morally secured guidance which needs to be differently applied, depending on the context, could be integral ecology’s role for the future. For all these reasons, the paradigm is not only plausible but absolutely necessary for solving the global challenges of our time.


Dobson, A. 2003, Citizenship and the environment, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Gardner, G. T. 2006, Inspiring Progress. Religions’ Contributions to Sustainable Development, Worldwatch Institute, Washington.

Hayward, T. 2006, ‘Ecological citizenship: Justice, rights and the virtue of resourcefulness‘, Environmental Politics, vol. 15, no. 3, pp. 435-446.

Hayward, T. 2012, ‘Climate Change and Ethics', Nature Climate Change, vol 2, pp. 843-848.

Jayabalan, K. 2014, ‘The Catholic social encyclical tradition’ in Catholic Social Teaching and the Market Economy, eds. P. Booth, The Institute of Economic Affairs, London.

O’Neill, E. 2016, ‘The Pope and the environment: Towards an integral ecology?‘, Environmental Politics, vol. 25, no. 4, pp. 749-754.

Pope Francis 2015, Laudato Si, on care for our common home, [online], Available: francesco_20150524_enciclica-laudato-si.html [2017, October 23].

Reder, M. 2012, ‘Religion in the Public Sphere: The Social Function of Religion in the Context of Climate and Development Policy’ in Religion in Environmental and Climate Change: Suffering, Values, Lifestyles, eds D. Gerten & S. Bergmann, Bloomsbury Academic, London.

Spina, A. 2015, ‘Reflections on Science, Technology and Risk Regulation in Pope Francis' Encyclical Letter Laudato Si', European Journal of Risk Regulation, no. 4/2015, pp. 579-585.

Wagner, W. J. 2010, ‘Unlocking Catholic Social Doctrine: Narrative as Key’ , Journal of Catholic Social Thaught, vol. 7, no. 2, pp. 289-314.


1 The foundational idea behind ‘ecological citizenship’ itself is attributed to Dobson (2003).

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The Pope has spoken of his ‘integral ecology’ paradigm – is this a plausible position?
University of Edinburgh  (School of Social and Political Sciences)
Politics in a Changing World
Catalog Number
Pope, Climate Change, Laudato Si, Integral Ecology, Catholic Church
Quote paper
Max Schmidt (Author), 2017, The Pope has spoken of his ‘integral ecology’ paradigm – is this a plausible position?, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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