An enlightening handbook

Father Seán McDonagh, the Columban missionary who is certainly one of the most informed environmental experts of our time, has just published, On care for our common home: Laudato Si’, a commented edition of the groundbreaking encyclical of Pope Francis—only on par, in modern times, with the first social encyclical issued 125 years ago by Pope Leo XIII. A must read


I recommend Fr Seán McDonagh’s book very warmly. I believe that if it is widely read and acted on, it can inspire a new generation of committed Christians to play their part in saving our world from the enormous damage our present model of development is doing to it.
The book has two more-or-less equal parts. The second half of the book is the text of the ecology encyclical of Pope Francis, which as Seán McDonagh rightly points out, “is certainly one of the most important documents from the Holy See in recent decades” (p. xiii). In fact my own belief is that if Church leaders all over the world undertake the task of promoting and acting on the challenge put forward by Pope Francis, then his ecology encyclical will come to be seen as the same kind of groundbreaking document as the first social encyclical issued 125 years ago by Pope Leo XIII.
The first half of the book is a clear and helpful commentary by Seán McDonagh on the encyclical of Pope Francis. In these 150 pages he has managed to distil the huge amount of knowledge and experience he has gained as a scholar, writer, and campaigner on ecological issues over the past thirty-five years. By doing so, he enriches for the reader the text of the encyclical, focusing on, and developing, the key points emphasized by Pope Francis.
The seven succinct chapters in his commentary give a good indication of the topics he covers and of the comprehensive treatment of ecology-related issues in the encyclical itself. Each of these chapters is followed by a short bibliography of important books related to the topic covered in that chapter.

A wide diagnosis

– In the first of these chapters, McDonagh gives a clear outline of the historical background to the encyclical. He notes particularly the shift over the past fifty years away from a dualistic, other-worldly theology. He points out that Pope Francis takes this development a stage further by moving on from an unduly human-centred theology to one which takes seriously the fact that we human beings are one part of this universe which began 13.8 billion years ago.

– His second chapter deals with climate change. Of particular interest here is the brief, precise account which he gives of five key points: intergenerational justice, sustainable living, the precautionary principle, the preferential option for the poor (and its link with ecology), and an understanding of solidarity which extends to other parts of the earth community.

– The fifteen pages of chapter three give a quite harrowing account of the way in which very large numbers of species of plants, animals, and sea creatures have already been wiped out; and how so many others are under threat by what is happening in our world today. McDonagh then bravely addresses the controversial subject of how the ever-increasing population of the world is a major cause of environmental degradation. He goes on to say: “The concentration of population growth in the poorest countries makes it very difficult to eradicate poverty and inequality” (p. 66).

– His fourth chapter deals with the issue of the ever-increasing shortage of fresh water. He emphasizes the insistence of Pope Francis that “access to safe, drinkable water is a basic universal human right” (Laudato Si’, 30). He agrees with those who predict that whereas many of the wars in the past century were about oil, the wars of the twenty-first century will be about water (p. 76).

– The fifth chapter focuses on how the oceans are under very severe threat as a result of present-day human activity. The main threats are industrial and domestic pollution and run-off of chemicals used in agriculture; acidification as a result of emissions due to burning of coal, oil, and gas; the decrease of oxygen in the ocean caused by climate change; and the plundering of the seas by indiscriminate fishing and mining. The final pages of this chapter are devoted to an interesting account of how the oceans are seen in the Bible.

– The sixth chapter addresses the crucial issue of sustainable food. It notes that the new model of factory-type farming is widely seen as more efficient than traditional small-scale, labour-intensive farming—but the reality is that if one takes into account the cost of the energy used, and the environmental and social costs, then modern farming is actually less efficient (p. 107). Furthermore, rising sea levels as a result of global warming will mean that much of the most fertile land where food is currently grown will no longer be available. McDonagh goes on to address the challenging issue of our consumption of large amounts of meat. He points out that meat production uses up far more resources of the Earth and does far more damage to the environment than a diet which is vegetarian or involves eating a lot less meat. He puts forward a strong case for sustainable agriculture ‘by growing diversified crops, adding animal manure and green compost, and using natural pest control and crop rotation’ rather than using manufactured pesticides and fertilizers (p. 113). The final couple of pages in this chapter expand helpfully on the fine treatment of the Eucharist in the encyclical.

– The final chapter of Seán’s part of the book takes up and enlarges on the way forward proposed by Pope Francis in the encyclical. A key point is a serious commitment to ecological education. The author proposes a three-year synod in the Catholic Church, starting at local level, moving in the second year to the national level, and then, in the third year, having an international synod devoted to ecological issues. He concludes by giving a very interesting account of four ecological pioneers: Rachel Carson whose 1962 book, Silent spring, awakened people’s ecological awareness; Joe Farman whose painstaking study made the world aware of how the use of CFC chemicals in fridges and sprays was causing huge holes in the ozone layer; Sister Dorothy Stang who was murdered in Brazil because of her campaigning to protect the Amazon forest and its peoples; and Fr Thomas Berry who played a leading role in the development of a truly ecological theology and bridged the gap between liberation theology and ecological theology.

A dialogue with the Pope

I am not commenting here on the text of Laudato Si’ which constitutes the second half of the book. That is because The Furrow magazine already published an article of mine about this wonderful encyclical of Pope Francis when it was issued, and because I have written an extended treatment of it in the new edition of my book about Catholic Social Teaching (Option for the poor and for the Earth: from Leo XIII to Pope Francis. Orbis Books, 2016). I note, however, that all through his commentary, McDonagh quotes key passages from the encyclical. In this way he ensures that what he has to say is very closely related to what Pope Francis is saying.

I end this review as I began it by recommending this book highly. The text of the encyclical is a major contribution to Catholic teaching; and the commentary will help readers to appreciate the importance of the encyclical and the urgent need for Christians and others to commit themselves to acting on its recommendations.


“Fr McDonagh agrees with those who predict that whereas many of the wars in the past century were about oil, the wars of the twenty-first century will be about water.”