Laudato Si’ and Homelessness

by | Apr 29, 2019 | Formation

‘The baneful consequences,’ Pope Francis told the United Nations, ‘of an irresponsible mismanagement of the global economy, guided only by ambition for wealth and power, must serve as a summons to a forthright reflection on man.’ The poverty, the inequality, the environmental crisis. How has it come to this?

In some ways, Pope Francis is the modern Pope, conscious of a soundbite and even more of an image. But he is also mounting an authoritative and comprehensive critique of this modern era, accenting the people being failed.

That is contained above all in Laudato si’. His encyclical is a substantial, complex argument which demands attention. One of the most important documents this century for Catholics and maybe even for the world, Laudato si’ links climate change to poverty more powerfully than perhaps any previous assessment. We need to ‘hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor’ (#49).

Like me, they are young and Catholic but they are from the other side of the world. These activists from the Pacific Islands speak from a position of authority and experience ( Their families and friends and neighbours are suffering from climate change. They tell me their parents saw perhaps one or two strong cyclones in their youth – this generation see one or two a year.

A bad cyclone hit a couple of years ago. The flood waters rose and began gushing through the towns and villages. The streets became swimming pools and so did the houses. Mothers looked at their children and told them to swim to survive. But the babies couldn’t swim.

Buckets lay around so they put the babies in them. Resourceful but rudimentary, they hoped the buckets didn’t have any holes. The babies floated in the waters around their flooded houses, somewhat oblivious. The mothers prayed.

Babies in buckets. This is the face of climate change for the poorest.

Climate change is making people homeless and displacing them in many different ways but the world is not yet responding well enough. As the Holy Father writes: ‘There has been a tragic rise in the number of migrants seeking to flee from the growing poverty caused by environmental degradation. They are not recognised by international convention as refugees; they bear the loss of lives they have left behind, without enjoying any legal protection whatsoever.’ (#25)

Some from the Pacific Islands are leaving, forced to. They’re not alone. Two million people were rendered homeless in Kerala, south India, in August last year after flooding. But look ahead. A quarter of the world’s population live on the coast or nearby. A majority of the biggest cities are in coastal areas and it will be those in inadequate housing who will suffer first. The pacific islanders shout that they are the canaries down the mine for the world – but who’s listening?

If climate change isn’t flooding or destroying homes, it’s making them inhabitable in other ways. In 2017, 11 million people came within days of fatal starvation in east Africa owing to famine caused by disruption to harvest cycles.

And those homeless on the streets or living in slums are more susceptible to the pollutants released by fossil fuel addiction. This causes ‘millions of premature deaths’ among the poor (#20). People engaged in homelessness, displacement, inadequate housing, cannot ignore climate change. It is too relevant, too disruptive.

Pope Francis is often jovial and smiling but in Laudato si’ he is angry. ‘Our lack of response to these tragedies involving our brothers and sisters points to the loss of that sense of responsibility for our fellow man and woman upon which all civil society is founded.’ (#25) We have lost a sense of fraternity, of communion, he says repeatedly. The globalization of this last century has not produced a globalization of community, rather of ‘indifference.’

Those in the Pacific Islands talk of justice. This is not just a crisis of poverty but a crisis of fairness and accountability. The richest places have done most to cause this crisis but the poorest are the ones suffering. And who’s taking responsibility?

The Pope, in some ways, goes further. ‘We should be particularly indignant,’ he says, ‘at the enormous inequalities in our midst… In practice, we continue to tolerate that some consider themselves more human than others.’ (#90)


Just before Christmas four years ago, the environmental crisis was projected onto St Peter’s Basilica. In stunning imagery the great church was illuminated by pictures of beauty and nature and creatures. And then, slowly, this fell apart. The images became ones of waste and ice melting and communities destroyed. And then, amid the landscape of a flooded slum, a face appeared. Small, barely noticeable, a young girl was peering, staring through an opening in her shack, almost still to the destruction around her. Helpless, and without help.

That image was saying: there are people here. And they are suffering. Perhaps Pope Francis’ greatest message is the urgency of all this. People are being displaced and made homeless and dying because of climate change – and right now. ‘Let us keep not only the poor of the future in mind,’ he says, ‘but also today’s poor, whose life on this earth is brief and who cannot keep on waiting.’ (#164) They cannot keep on waiting.

Pope Francis told the United Nations in his 2015 address that it cannot ‘postpone “certain agendas” for the future’. But he isn’t just talking to world leaders, he’s talking to all of us. ‘There is a nobility,’ he says, ‘in the duty to care for creation through little daily actions…’ (#211) Everyone has responsibility for our common home. He ends his encyclical with a prayer. It is quietly hopeful, aware that we have caused this but we can change it too. It is ‘a prayer for our earth’, and for its people, that we may ‘rescue the abandoned and forgotten of this earth… that we may sow beauty, not pollution and destruction.’

Author: Ewan Day-Collins.