The Cry of the Earth in Pan-Amazonia

On October 15, 2017, Pope Francis announced that the next synod of bishops would gather to discuss the Church’s mission in the Pan-Amazon region. The region holds a prominent place in his papal ministry, as evidence by his 2013 World Youth Day visit to Brazil and in his 2018 meeting with Amazonians in Peru. The 2015 promulgation of Laudato si’ provided further impetus for attending to the “world’s lung,” the name some have given the Amazon rainforest for the large amounts of carbon dioxide it absorbs and oxygen it releases for the planet.

Official preparations for the synod have been underway since its announcement. Last August, the general secretariat of the Synod of Bishops, in consultation with the Pan-Amazon Ecclesial Network (REPAM), released a preparatory document to solicit responses from participants for this year’s October meeting.

That document, “Amazonia: New Paths for the Church and for an Integral Ecology,” offers a telling study in the ongoing reception of Laudato si’. It can reveal which elements might “stick” from the most recent iteration of Catholic Social Teaching. As Ormond Rush has stressed, any process of ecclesial reception “includes judgments as to value and importance of some elements over others; it involves selection, that is, decisions to explicitly retrieve and foreground a particular dimension of the tradition and to allow another dimension to recede into the background.”[1] Along with the original authorial intentions and actual texts, this process can also capture the ever-evolving meaning of a document like Laudato si’. Indeed, the preparatory document uncovers those “judgments” and “selections” actively being made in the reception of Laudato si’ as well as designates future paths of reception. We will discuss three key features of this reception that deserve mention below.

The Cries of the Poor and of the Earth

In Laudato si’, Pope Francis urges us to “hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor” (LS §49). For the pope, as Bruno Latour detects, social concern and environmental concern intersect at these joined cries.[2] References to them fill the pages of the encyclical: “Sister [earth] cries out to us,” indicating that “the earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor” (LS §2, emphasis added). Social fragmentation and environmental degradation “have caused sister earth, along with all the abandoned of our world, to cry out, pleading that we take another course” (LS §53, emphasis added).

Such rhetoric evokes Cry of the Earth, Cry of the Poor, the seminal work of Brazilian liberation theologian Leonardo Boff.[3] By incorporating this voice, Laudato si’ innovates in two ways. On the one hand, “cry” language signals a predominantly inductive approach. In a way characteristic of liberation theology, the earth and the poor both possess a hermeneutical priority in ascertaining what is happening to our common home and how to care for it.[4] On the other hand, while the “cry of the poor” found magisterial expression prior to Laudato si’, Pope Francis’s reference to a “cry of the earth” introduced a novelty within Catholic Social Teaching. In addition to the plight of the poor, so too must the travails of creation determine the shape of the Church’s mission. Cardinal Peter Turkson, a chief architect of Laudato si’, has since coined the term “preferential option for the earth” (along with the more traditional preferential option for the poor) to crystalize this insight and secure its place in ecclesial discourse.

The preparatory document on the Amazon region confirms this prominence of the twin cries within Catholic social teaching. Like Laudato si’, it too takes an inductive approach by dividing its sections through “see, judge, act.” The title of the document’s first section, focused on “seeing,” refers to the “cries of the Pan-Amazonia.” The authors intend their inductive approach to foster an “attentive listening to the twin cry of the poor and of the earth” (Amazonia §8). They continue:

Today the cry of the Amazonia to the Creator is similar to the cry of God’s People in Egypt (cf. Ex 3:7). It is a cry of slavery and abandonment, which clamors for freedom and God’s care. It is a cry that yearns for the presence of God, especially when the Amazonian peoples, in order to defend their lands, stumble upon the criminalization of protest—both by the authorities and public opinion—or when they witness the destruction of the rainforest, which serves as their ancient habitat; or when the waters of their rivers are filled with deadly substances instead of life (A §8).

Akin to the “technocratic paradigm” denounced in Laudato si’ (LS §101-114), what the authors christen a “neo-extractivism” and a “model of development [that is] faceless, suffocating, and motherless, and [is] obsessed only with material goods and the idols of money and power,” endanger the earth and the poor equally in the region (A §5). The document emphasizes how the cries bellow most loudly from indigenous Amazonian communities, who risk losing both their livelihood—the land—and their cultural heritage through these “new ideological colonialisms” (A §5). Cardinal Cláudio Hummes, president of REPAM and recently named relator general of the Synod, famously whispered in Jorge Bergoglio’s ear as he was elected pope, “Don’t forget the poor.” The continued linking of these cries ensures that we will not.

Integral Ecology

These intertwined cries demand a comprehensive response; attempting to answer one of these cries necessarily entails addressing both cries. As Celia Deane-Drummond notes, Catholic Social Teaching takes a distinctly social approach to the environmental crisis.[5] In Laudato si’, Pope Francis urges what he referred to as an “integral ecology,” a neologism in papal vocabulary (LS §137-162). Kevin Irwin captures the importance of the term by labeling it “the most distinctive contribution of the encyclical” and “the most important theological insight about ecology in the document.”[6] For the pope, integral ecology conveys the need both to see the current ecological crisis within a broader web of other social crises and to resolve that multi-faceted crisis in a holistic fashion. The term also expresses a shift in the Catholic Social Teaching. Previously, Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI highlighted the need to preserve a “human ecology” alongside a “natural ecology.”[7] While aligned with both popes’ intentions, Pope Francis’s use of integral ecology precludes the possibility of one ecology overshadowing the other and better captures the seamless connection between both ecologies.

With Laudato si’, Pope Francis has seemingly enshrined integral ecology as a new foundational category for Catholic Social Teaching. As Donal Dorr comments on the encyclical, “I am inclined to say that what [Pope Francis] offers us is not just an integral ecology but a framework for an integral Catholic social teaching, which includes not just the items that Francis emphasizes but also all the other significant elements in the Catholic social tradition.”[8] Indeed, integral ecology appears poised to play a framing role similar to the “integral human development” of Populorum progressio (perhaps broadening or at least complementing it).

As an instance within the reception of Laudato si’, the preparatory document furthers this development. The very title of the document, “Amazonia: New Paths for the Church and for an Integral Ecology,” indicates the central place that integral ecology holds for articulating the church’s social mission today. While “integral ecology” receives nine mentions in the document, “human ecology” receives only one. The writers speak, for instance, of the following:

A relational paradigm called integral ecology, which articulates the fundamental links that make true development possible…. Since human beings are part of the ecosystems which facilitate the relationships that give life to our planet, caring for them—given that everything is interconnected—is fundamental to promoting the dignity of each individual, the common good of society, social progress, and care for the environment” (A §9, emphasis original).

So also, following Laudato si’, does integral ecology remain a call. As the writers of the preparatory document remind us, “integral ecology is more than just the connection between the social and the environmental spheres. It also encompasses the need to promote personal, social, and ecological harmony, for which all are called to a personal, social, and ecological conversion. Integral ecology, then, invites us to an integral conversion” (A §9). That is, it directs the Church to “care for the environment and for the lives of the most vulnerable,” to answer those twin cries (A §13). Genuine evangelization must include this integral component:

Accordingly, the task of evangelization invites us to strive against social inequalities and the lack of solidarity through the promotion of charity, justice, compassion, and care amongst ourselves and with animals, plants, and all creation . . . . This social—and even cosmic—dimension of the mission of evangelization is particularly relevant in the Amazon region, where the interconnectivity between human life, ecosystems, and spiritual life was, and continues to be, apparent to the vast majority of its inhabitants (A §8).

The writers note here how the deeply communal spirituality of indigenous Amazonian traditions strengthens this relational paradigm in the Church’s own life (see also: A §6). In other words, the cries of those communities signify not simply victims that require assistance, but sources of the sensus fidei that require attentive listening (A §11).

Doxology, Sacramentality, and Liturgy

Laudato si’ is a social encyclical sui generis. Taken from a prayer of St. Francis of Assisi, the very title of Laudato si’—“Praised be!”—signals the encyclical’s distinctly doxological, prayerful character. As Cardinal Peter Turkson recounted in his official presentation of Laudato si’, “The reference to St. Francis also indicates the attitude upon which the entire Encyclical is based, that of prayerful contemplation,” and the two prayers at the encyclical’s end illustrate that Laudato si’ “concludes, as it opened, in a spirit of prayerful contemplation.” Admonishing us to read Laudato si’ “on our knees,” Mary Taylor thus correctly suggests that this doxological spirit provides a hermeneutical guide for the encyclical.[9]

References to doxology dot the encyclical since, “Rather than a problem to be solved, the world is a joyful mystery to be contemplated with gladness and praise” (LS §12). Pope Francis, for instance, roots the intrinsic value of creatures in their ability to “give [God] glory” (LS §69; see also: §33). Moreover, precisely through this praise, creation reveals God’s presence (LS §87). The “sacramental principle” saturates Laudato si’: “there is a mystical meaning to be found in a leaf, in a mountain trail, in a dewdrop, in a poor person’s face” (LS §233).[10]

This doxological lens and sacramental worldview quite naturally foreground Pope Francis’s extended reflections on the liturgy in the encyclical. He speaks of how, generally, “Sacraments are a privileged way in which nature is taken up by God to become a means of mediating supernatural life . . .  Water, oil, fire and colors are taken up in all their symbolic power and incorporated in our act of praise” (LS §235). In the final chapter of Laudato si’, he provides an extended and particularly moving reflection on how “in the Eucharist . . . all that has been created finds its greatest exaltation” (LS §236) and how “the day of rest, centered on the Eucharist, sheds it light on the whole week, and motivates us to greater concern for nature and the poor” (LS §237). This liturgical-Eucharistic focus affords yet another unique feature of the encyclical. Besides John Paul II’s Sollicitudo rei socialis, no other social encyclical mentions the Eucharist, let alone dedicates substantial attention to it in the way that Francis does in Laudato si’.

The preparatory document on the Pan-Amazon region demonstrates that this doxological, sacramental, and Eucharistic tenor of Laudato si’ is, despite its distinctiveness, not an anomaly. Citing Laudato si’ and John Paul II, the authors stress how “‘Soil, water . . . everything is a caress of God,’ a divine song, whose lyrics are made up of ‘the multitude of creatures present in the universe’” (A §7). That is, the relational paradigm of the integral ecology of Laudato si’ rests upon the one chorus of praise that joins creation (cf. Ps 148). Nevertheless, today, the staccato rhythm of the song sounds an alarm: “When the life of any of these creatures is snuffed out by human causes, they can no longer sing praise to the Creator” (A §7). An integral ecology, as task, simultaneously charges the church to restore creation’s doxological end, to transform the twin cries of the earth and the poor into a joined channel of praise to the Creator.

It is for this reason that, like Pope Francis in Laudato si’, the authors of the preparatory document view the Church’s sacramental-liturgical life as integral to this mission. As in Laudato si’, this theme plays a surprisingly prominent role in the document and accordingly sanctions its essential place within an integral ecology. The tenth section of the preparatory document highlights the “sacramental dimension” of the Church’s mission in the Pan-Amazon region. As it states, “A contemplative ecclesial gaze and sacramental practice are the keys to evangelization in the Amazonia” (A §10). In order to reverse the neo-extractivist lens that causes the earth and the poor to cry out, “the Christian community, especially in the Amazon region, is invited to see reality with a contemplative gaze, through which it can grasp the presence and action of God in all creation and in all history” (A §10). In the words of Laudato si’, the sacramental life invites us “to embrace the world on a different plane” (LS 235).

The authors’ reflections on specific sacramental practices show how it in fact does. Regarding baptism, they write how,

The celebration of Baptism invites us to consider the importance of “water” as a source of life, not only as a tool or material resource, and it makes the community of believers responsible for guarding this element as a gift of God for the whole planet. Furthermore, since the water of Baptism purifies the baptized of all sins, its celebration allows the Christian community to adopt the value of water and “the river” as a source of purification, thus facilitating the inculturation of the water-related rites that come from the ancient wisdom of the Amazonian peoples (A §10).

Citing Laudato si’ extensively, the document includes a similar reflection on the ecological significance of the Eucharistic celebration:

The celebration of the Eucharist invites us to rediscover how the “Lord, in the culmination of the mystery of the Incarnation, chose to reach our intimate depths through a fragment of matter” (LS §236). In the Eucharist, the community celebrates an act of cosmic love, in which human beings, together with the incarnate Son of God and all creation, give thanks to God for new life in the risen Christ (cf. LS §236) . . . At the same time, the blood of so many men and women that has been shed—bathing the Amazonian lands for the good of its inhabitants and of the territory—is joined to the Blood of Christ, which was poured out for all and for all creation (A §10).

In an emphasis not found in Laudato si’, the authors here remind us of how participants in the Eucharist “dangerously remember” each and every forcibly stifled cry of protest in the Amazon region, such as that of Sr. Dorothy Stang.[11] Throughout the preparatory document, the authors repeatedly underscore the need for an “intercultural spirituality” (A §15). By incorporating particularities of the Pan-Amazon region in the above reflections, along with their stated appreciation for the inherently mystical character of Amazonian indigenous communities (e.g. A §6), the authors begin to show how the Church’s sacramental-liturgical life might foster such a spirituality.

So too do the writers begin to answer their own plea that the “praise of God needs to be accompanied by the practice of justice on behalf of the poor” (A §11). Laudato si’ invites the church to holiness in a way that befits our common home. As the preparatory document confirms, the holiness that enlivens an integral ecology is radically doxological, sacramental, and, ultimately, Eucharistic.

The Ongoing Reception of Laudato Si’

The soon forthcoming instrumentum laboris, the deliberations of the Synod, and the final post-synodal apostolic exhortation will continue to detail the ongoing reception of Laudato si’. Since they represent distinctive features of Laudato si’, the three themes discussed above warrant particular attention throughout this process.

At the same time, the preparations for the upcoming Synod—on the Pan-Amazon region—illustrate the importance of receiving Laudato si’ in particular contexts. Ecclesial reception occurs most concretely in the local Church, and the implementation of the integral ecology of Laudato si’ must attend to the particularities of place. In the United States at least, already efforts are underway to discern how the Church might enact an integral ecology in places like Northern Appalachia, Minnesota, or the Archdiocese of Atlanta. The Synod teaches us that, propelled by a worship that does justice, such creative labors must continue so as to answer the cries of the earth and the poor echoing across our common home.

[1] Ormond Rush, Still Interpreting Vatican II: Some Hermeneutical Principles (New York: Paulist Press, 2004), 3. See also 52-68. While Rush focuses his study on the Second Vatican Council, his proposals quite readily apply to other events of the Church’s life.

[2] Bruno Latour, “La grande clameur relayée par le pape François,” in Laudato si’: Encyclique, édition commentée: Texte intégral, réactions et commentaires, eds. F. Louzeau and B. Toger (Paris: Parole et silence, 2015), 222-223.

[3] Leonardo Boff, Cry of the Earth, Cry of the Poor, trans. Phillip Berryman (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1997).

[4] See, e.g., Gustavo Gutiérrez, “Theology from the Underside of History,” in The Power of the Poor in History, trans. Robert R. Barr (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1983), 169-221.

[5] Celia Deane-Drummond, “Joining in the Dance: Catholic Social Teaching and Ecology,” New Blackfriars 93, no. 1044 (2012): 193-212, at 197.

[6] Kevin W. Irwin, A Commentary on Laudato Si’: Examining the Background, Contributions, Implementation, and Future of Pope Francis’s Encyclical (New York: Paulist Press, 2016), 102, 117.

[7] See, e.g., John Paul II, Centesimus Annus [Encyclical on the Hundredth Anniversary of Rerum Novarum], May 1, 1991, §38; and Benedict XVI, Caritas in Veritate [Encyclical on Integral Human Development in Charity and Truth], June 29, 2009, §51.

[8] Donal Dorr, Option for the Poor and for the Earth: From Leo XIII to Pope Francis, rev. ed. (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2016), 467. Emphasis original.

[9] Mary Taylor, “Ecology on One’s Knees: Reading Laudato Si’,” Communio 42, no. 4 (Winter 2015): 618-651.

[10] On the “sacramental principle,” see Kevin W. Irwin, Context and Text: A Method for Liturgical Theology, rev. ed. (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2018), 123-186.

[11] See Bruce T. Morill, Anamnesis as Dangerous Memory: Political and Liturgical Theology in Dialogue (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2000).

Featured Image: Alexander Gerst, Amazon River Seen from Space, 14 July 2018; Source: Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 2.0.


Lucas Briola

Lucas Briola is an assistant professor of theology at Saint Vincent College (Latrobe, PA). His most recent book, The Eucharistic Vision of Laudato Si' Praise, Conversion, and Integral Ecology, was published in 2023 by The Catholic University of America Press.

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