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What Laudato Si’ is really about

I have read and heard many comments by politicians and activists on Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si’. But all the comments focus on the question of human-caused global warming, the reality of which the Pope accepts. Thus comments from “liberals” predictably express agreement with what the Pope has written (except of course for his rejection of carbon credits). And comments from “conservatives” predictably express dismay that the Pope has weighed in on a disputed question (since the encyclical may be used to justify regressive taxation).

It is a safe assumption that the percentage of these politicians and activists who have read the encyclical rounds to zero. What happens is that some staffer skims through the text and notes the one or two pragmatic points which bear on the party line. Accordingly, an official quote expressing pleasure or pain is released to the media. I even heard President Obama praise the courage it took for the Pope to recognize climate change.

But it is not that recognition that took courage, so I wanted to ask every politician one simple question: “Now that you have made your predictable and self-serving comment, would you summarize for me what the Pope said?” Sadly, the news machine does not thrive on blank stares.

Not about Climate Change

Laudato Si’ is not fundamentally about climate change. Only a few sentences in the entire encyclical speak about that. The Pope summarizes and takes for granted the prevailing scientific opinion that most warming in recent decades is attributable to human activity (especially fossil fuels); he accepts that this warming causes a variety of largely unpredictable and harmful climate problems; he sees this as adding urgency to our need to take very seriously the message of the encyclical.

None of this is surprising or particularly significant. Even if some of us find anthropogenic global warming a debatable hypothesis, accepting its signfiicance is a normal response to what the dominant experts in the field have been saying for many years. The Pope could stake out a claim to some alternative hypothesis, but he is not a scientist, so—even if he wanted to—why would he? As we will see, the spiritual and moral teaching of the encyclical does not stand or fall on whether this most prevalent scientific judgment is correct. This judgment simply adds an additional note of urgency to the Pope’s timeless message.

Indeed, Francis expends far more space on other kinds of evidence that man’s relationship with nature is suffering. He considers the depletion of non-renewable resources; the destruction of forests; the pollution of huge areas of land and water; the tendency of international corporations to “hit and run”, leaving local populations without a sustainable environment; the problematic disruption of key components in the balance of nature; the elimination of a great many species entirely; the common destruction of important elements of nature without a real awareness of the long-term consequences; the very serious lack of clean water in many communities; our tremendous global inequality; the frequent diminishment of natural beauty, harmony and peace as industrialization proceeds; the assumption that “progress” is always beneficial; the trust that all these problems will be solved with one technocratic solution after another, with no understanding of the consequences—and accompanied by no change in attitude.

As the encyclical progresses, Francis even notices that men and women today are alienated from their own nature, from their bodies, which they tend to exploit in the very same way as the rest of nature, with horrendous consequences. Regardless of the truth about anthropogenic global warming—arguments over which are likely to prevent those with a horse in the race from getting the papal point—the wide-scale ecological problems created by the technocratic mastery of modern man are as clear as they are ominous. Nobody denies them, though they are often selectively hidden out of self-interest.

But Pope Francis sees in all these things a growing alienation of man from nature. He knows that these issues are not only important but actually resonate with people today. And he recognizes that this opens the possibility for a deeper reflection on shared concerns. Hence Laudato Si’.

Addressed to the Whole World

Laudato Si’ is addressed to everyone in the entire world, not just Catholics, and not just Christians. The Pope sees that a mistaken understanding of nature, and of our role in nature, causes problems for everyone. (In fact, even if none of these problems had yet occurred, our mistaken approach to nature would inevitably cause them over time.) He sees that we have a strongly instrumentalized vision of nature. We regard it, in essence, as a kind of accident demanding technological mastery and manipulation for our own self-centered purposes.

Nor is it any use criticizing the Pope for choosing to write on this topic, when (as many might say) “there are so many more pressing moral issues.” The whole point of the encyclical is that this instrumentalization of nature is a foundational problem. It shapes everything we do, including the pervasive contemporary tendency to undertake ever more grotesque and peculiar manipulations of nature in order to escape from despair. This instrumentalization poisons everything, not only our environment but our self-understanding. It affects our use of our own bodies, our grasp of the meaning and purpose of our sexuality, the relations between the sexes, and our attitude toward children, marriage and family life.

This instrumentalization of nature causes us not only to abuse and dispose of the poor and marginalized through garden-variety selfishness. It is even worse than that. It causes us to abuse and dispose of ourselves.

The Encyclical Is about Creation

After outlining the ecological problem in Chapter One, “What Is Happening to Our Common Home”, Francis reveals his fundamental purpose in Chapter Two, “The Gospel of Creation”. He argues that even though the problem is of concern to all, Christianity has something special to offer in its understanding that nature is a tremendous gift of a personal Creator, and that God has set man over this gift of nature to conserve and develop it for the purposes God has ordained. The Pope insists that only if we begin again to see ourselves in relationship to God can we begin again to understand this gift of nature, its meaning, the gratitude it evokes, and the limits and ends it imposes on our stewardship.

In the third and fourth chapters, Francis traces “The Human Roots of the Ecological Crisis” (that is, where we have gone wrong in adopting a technocratic paradigm for interaction with the world and each other) and explains what an “Integral Ecology” looks like. Thus chapters 2, 3 and 4 form the heart of the encyclical. The Pope sets forth the fundamental principles of the Catholic understanding of God, nature and ourselves; he describes how everything fits together; and he explains what this ought to mean for our attitudes, goals and actions. These chapters are, in fact, a deep and inspiring Christian reflection on what it means to be human in a universe governed by what his predecessors called “the law of the gift”.

I had already mentioned in my pre-encyclical admonition (see Read like a Catholic: Avoid category mistakes in assessing the new encyclical) that reading a social encyclical as a Catholic means paying special attention to the principles it proposes and striving to let those principles reshape our own prudential ways of observing, evaluating, planning and acting. This is actually the primary point of Laudato Si’. This is exactly what Pope Francis calls for in the text.

Francis closes with a chapter on “Lines of Approach and Action” (5) and another on “Ecological Education and Spirituality” (6). This final chapter ends on the sublime note of God’s sacramental presence in His creation, especially in the Eucharist.

In the course of the entire encyclical, the Pope makes only two specific requests. First, he insists on an effective human dialogue, ideally incorporating the principles he has enunciated, in order to gradually transform the way we interact with nature, including each other and, yes, even ourselves. With respect to environmental degradation and climate change, he naturally hopes this dialogue will result in concerted and effective action. For Francis, effective discussion must incorporate first and foremost all affected parties. Real solutions will not emerge from one-sided impositions designed to benefit the wealthy and powerful.

Second, in order to stimulate the recovery of proper habits of interaction with creation, he asks each family to adopt the regular practice of grace before and after meals.


That’s it.

I have deliberately avoided quoting. The encyclical does not lend itself (thank God) to cherry picking, though I see that it is already being used in that way. The Holy Father’s whole point is to stimulate a deep reflection and renewal of the human heart—the Christian heart. But we should not be astonished at the Pope’s modesty, and I am willing to use two quotes to justify his two specific requests.

First, Pope Francis sees straight through the “moral high ground” so often claimed by the rich and famous when it comes to these issues, and especially their tendency to exclude the most vulnerable from any meaningful consultation. In a rare burst of solutionary specificity, he takes on the Holy Grail of carbon credits:

This system seems to provide a quick and easy solution under the guise of a certain commitment to the environment, but in no way does it allow for the radical change which present circumstances require. Rather, it may simply become a ploy which permits maintaining the excessive consumption of some countries and sectors. (#171)
And then, very near the end, he explains the one thing needful:

We are speaking of an attitude of the heart, one which approaches life with serene attentiveness, which is capable of being fully present to someone without thinking of what comes next, which accepts each moment as a gift from God to be lived to the full….
One expression of this attitude is when we stop and give thanks to God before and after meals. I ask all believers to return to this beautiful and meaningful custom. That moment of blessing, however brief, reminds us of our dependence on God for life; it strengthens our feeling of gratitude for the gifts of creation; it acknowledges those who by their labors provide us with these goods; and it reaffirms our solidarity with those in greatest need. [#226-227]
Laudato Si’ is not, I think, fundamentally a topic for debate. Its main point ought to be self-evident to all of us. The encyclical is as simple and as profound as saying grace.


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