Pope Francis, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Social Justice: Why Laudato Si’ is Worth Reading

By Ki Joo Choi

Some people may wonder whether they should invest the time to read Laudato Si’, the pope’s encyclical on the environment, given the letter's religious provenance. While such hesitation especially for non-religious persons is understandable, the encyclical’s focus on the environment as a social justice issue deserves to be widely studied. After all, aren’t there other letters on social justice written by prominent religious figures that are regarded as indispensible by religious and non-religious persons alike? 

We need only recall the impassioned letter that the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote while jailed in Birmingham, Alabama in the spring of 1963. No mindful student of civics, regardless of racial identity or religion, would consider that letter a marginal contribution to our understanding of social justice. With references to St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, and Judeo-Christian scripture, a letter that originally responded to the criticisms of a group of white southern clergy is now relevant to all persons interested in advancing a just society. 

Pope Francis’s encyclical is also a religiously framed letter of universal relevance.  Even amidst several theological arguments, Laudato Si’ provides a new opportunity for Christians and non-Christians, religious and non-religious persons, to reflect together on the kind of society we ought to strive for.

To date, mainstream news outlets reporting on the encyclical have focused primarily on its review of the latest science on climate change and the reactions to it across the political spectrum.  In so doing, they have paid too little attention to how Francis’s approach to the environment is couched within a particular conception of social justice.  Consider just one passage that reflects Francis’s definition of justice. In paragraph 49, he writes: 

“[The excluded] are the majority of the planet’s population, billions of people.  These days, they are mentioned in international political and economic discussions, but one often has the impression that their problems are brought up as an afterthought.... This is due partly to the fact that many professionals, opinion makers, communications media and centers of power, being located in affluent urban areas, are far removed from the poor, with little direct contact with their problems.... Today, however,...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.”

This provocative passage articulates a key tenet of Catholic social teaching: that the best measure of justice in any society is how the poor or excluded are faring rather than an aggregate economic indicator such as, say, the gross domestic product.  A society is genuinely just if all persons are meaningful stakeholders and participants in our economic, political, and cultural institutions.  By extension, those who have greater access to our institutions cannot simply ignore the afflictions of those who have less access to them. The excluded, and the marginalized, or the poor—they too are our brothers and sisters and merit our moral concern. 

The encyclical’s commitment to the poor or excluded recalls the powerful proposition in the Letter from Birmingham Jail, where King writes that we must be “cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states.... Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”  Likewise for Francis, the problems of the world’s poor are also our problems, the more so since the environmental degradation experienced by many poorer nations (e.g., air and water pollution, deforestation, natural resource depletion) is not their own doing, but exacerbated by the extraordinary material consumption of countries that were the first to industrialize. 

Francis’s pointed attention to the environmental consequences of overconsumption by industrialized and industrializing countries is an important expansion of King’s reflections on justice.  For those who have been purportedly "lifted out of poverty" through free market mechanisms, how genuinely or fully “out of poverty” are they, when, for instance, their environment is increasingly hostile to their health and quality of life?  (Think of the air in Beijing, the Ganges River in India…)  This is a question worth debating, and Laudato Si’ brings it to the fore.

Insofar as Laudato Si’ aims to train its readers’ eyes on the kinds of environmental poverty that disadvantaged populations experience in addition to other forms of poverty, the encyclical affords an opportunity to recall and extend King’s Birmingham letter in another critical way. For King, social justice without racial equality is no justice at all.  That may sound obvious to many of us nowadays.  But when Francis’s articulation of the relationship between the poor and the environment is brought to bear on the ongoing struggle with racism in the U.S., Laudato Si’ presses us to consider whether the push for racial justice must also be a push for environmental justice. Consider for instance, that many African American communities live with greater air pollution than many non-black communities; and that 1 in 6 black children suffers from asthma while only 1 in 10 white children do.

To take these environmental and health disparities seriously, as the encyclical urges us to do, is to consider how environmental inequality may be just as insidious as racial profiling, voter disenfranchisement, unequal access to housing and education, and discriminatory policing and incarceration. Inasmuch as we live in a time so strikingly framed by the recent events in Ferguson, Staten Island, Oakland, McKinney, Baltimore, and Charleston, the importance of those questions alone should be reason enough for all of us—in news media, politics, finance, education, ministry, and beyond—to read and enter into dialogue with Francis’s encyclical now.  

Ki Joo Choi is an Associate Professor in the Department of Religion at Seton Hall University.