But David had come up with a more productive way for us to spend the day. The thought flashed through my mind that one should always be wary about befriending a theologian. The kettle whistled, and while I brewed a steaming cup of oolong, I banished any theological negativity from my head. After taking a cautious first sip, I sat down at the navigation station to read.
Chapter one, paragraph two, is when I first realized: He’s talking to me. The pope used the term “rapidification,” which describes my life (and too many of our lives) perfectly. He wrote about the acceleration of changes affecting humanity. He wrote about the intensified pace of life. He wrote, “Change is something desirable, yet it becomes a source of anxiety when it causes harm to the world and to the quality of life of much of humanity.” Had I not been reading on an iPad I would have penciled a quiet “Amen” into the margins.
A couple more turns of the electronic page, and I knew that this wasn’t the old stuff that I’d been listening to since my days as an altar boy. This guy Francis was inviting me to take a critical approach toward progress itself, and he seemed to be joining me, like a fellow environmentalist, in questioning our throwaway culture. This was an encyclical about lifestyle—written by a man who’d decided not to reside in the luxurious papal apartments of his predecessors—to a man who lives as an advisor in Swig Hall, a dormitory he shares with 400+ Ruff Riders.
My colleagues, working at home in the South Bay and on the Santa Cruz coast, experienced a similar sense of papal solidarity. As a data-driven engineer, Ed Maurer was excited to read such a clear summary of climate science coupled with a profound call to personal and societal transformation. When the pope wrote about the phenomenon of “water poverty,” he was describing a major issue that Ed has devoted his career to, trying to resolve humanity’s water crisis drip by drip. When the Bishop of Rome described access to safe drinkable water as a universal human right, he was gazing directly into Dr. Maurer’s eyes.
David DeCosse was making similar discoveries as he read the text. He called the encyclical “a game changer.” He found that in addition to offering a comprehensive critique of the climate crisis, Pope Francis had provided a compelling vision of how to move ahead. He also noted the challenges that the pope had laid out for his followers, especially in terms of working toward a framework that links economic prosperity with both social inclusion and protection of the natural world.
There we were, reading through the viewpoints of three distinct disciplinary lenses, all amazed at the radical lines that had been laid down by the papal pen.
Despite our looming deadline, I had to put the encyclical down for a moment when I got to paragraph 33. Now the pope was talking about extinction, a topic dear to me ever since I started spending time with California condors. He wrote, “Because of us, thousands of species will no longer give glory to God by their very existence, nor convey their message to us. We have no such right.”
No such right. I’ve had a long flirtation with Deep Ecology, an environmental philosophy that advocates for biodiversity out of a deep respect for the inherent worth of all life. Was it possible, I found myself asking, that the Holy Father was one of us?
In the fourth chapter, about integral ecology, the pontiff wrote:
“It cannot be emphasized enough how everything is interconnected. Time and space are not independent of one another, and not even atoms or subatomic particles can be considered in isolation. Just as the different aspects of the planet—physical, chemical, and biological—are interrelated, so too living species are part of a network which we will never fully explore and understand.”
I already felt like writing, since I often do my thinking with my pen. But I didn’t want to start forming a scholarly opinion about this encyclical until I’d read the whole thing. Though the morning was no longer young, the only sensible solution was to take a short walk. Before I did that, I reread a section that had struck me as particularly poignant: “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” (emphasis original).
I grabbed my binoculars, which are always close at hand on the sailboat, and climbed the companionway into the cockpit. The breeze was already up but still just a hint of what was to come in the afternoon. One of my neighbors was swabbing his deck, and he greeted me with the grumbled observation, “The starlings are back.” This was old news to me, but I waved cheerfully anyway and made my way up to the boardwalk, reminding myself that I could only spare 15 minutes before heading back to the boat to finish Laudato Si.
The pope’s words buzzed in my head. The cry of the earth.
I stopped walking and listened. Within moments I could hear the wheezy chatter of a pair of oystercatchers—they sound like squeeze toys on the wing. These are among my favorite shorebirds, as students in my Baja class quickly learn. Whenever you see oystercatchers they will be close to where the land and the sea come together, and they seldom move along the water’s edge without their characteristic chatter. They are loudest during the morning hours, and they’re inevitably the first birds my students learn to identify by sound.