Some Thoughts on Laudato Si

To me, one of the marks of Truth in the Catholic Church’s Social Doctrine is that it upsets people both on the Left and on the Right. Every time a new social encyclical comes out, both sides scramble to claim what they like and to ignore or outright dismiss those parts that do not fit into their overly simplistic ideological worldview. This was clear in the weeks prior to the release of Pope Francis’ most recent encyclical, Laudato Si, which came out last Thursday. As I have mentioned before, it seems that a good part of the more “conservative” sector of American Catholicism has been in a state of paranoia ever since Pope Francis was raised to the throne of Peter. From politicians telling the Pope to leave “science to the scientists” (oblivious to the fact that he is a scientist, and that he had the whole Pontifical Academy of the Sciences advising him), or to “not dictate my politics and economics”, to frankly insane Catholics pondering on how much of what the Pope says we have to believe, the internet was plagued with nonsense. And all of this before anyone had even read it. The “progressive” side, on the other hand, was more than elated that the Pope would finally embrace one of their pet causes, and were getting ready to use his encyclical as a beating stick to smack conservatives over the head. What we got was something that will leave both sides unsettled, because it is a document that did not fall anywhere along party lines. Yet it is perfectly in line with the Church’s Social Doctrine, drawing heavily from the teachings of Popes St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI, much to the chagrin of progressives and conservatives alike.

What we have in Laudato Si is a profoundly catholic document. What I mean by that is that it does not reflect on the issues affecting the environment from the limited and fragmentary point of view of ideology, but rather, looks at it from the point of view of the whole. If the word catholic means “according to the totality” or “in keeping with the whole” (CCC, 830), then Pope Francis’ encyclical is thoroughly catholic. The problem of the environment must be inscribed within an overarching understanding of Creation and of the role of Man in it. That is exactly what the Pope does. That is what none of his critics does. Let’s delve into the message of Laudato Si, not as followers of one or the other ideological camps, but as Catholics who are trying to find direction from their Shepherd.

I think the whole message of the encyclical can be summarized in a statement from Pope Benedict XVI quoted by Pope Francis: “the external deserts in the world are growing, because the internal deserts have become so vast.” (Laudato Si, 217) This statement places the blame of the ecological problem on our shoulders, in a way not even the most ardent supporters of man-made climate change could imagine. This might come as a surprise to many, but is actually something completely aligned with Catholic anthropology. And, as the pope says a few lines above that, “there can be no ecology without an adequate anthropology” (Laudato Si, 118), so we should start with a quick review of anthropology.

To do so, we must go back to the very beginning, to the book of Genesis, and we must understand the effects of original sin. We tend to have a very legalistic understanding of sin, in which sin is little more than a bad thing you do. The Biblical understanding of sin is quite different. The Bible understands sin in terms of relationship. Sin is a broken relationship, and the sinful act is simply a manifestation of that. The moment Adam and Eve ate from the fruit of the tree, their relationships became twisted. Catholic tradition (and Pope Francis echoes this tradition in his encyclical) has always held that three fundamental relationships were perverted by that original sin: our relationship with God, our relationships with each other, and our relationship with the rest of creation. When we understand sin in that way, the Popes’ call to conversion as a prerequisite for protecting the environment makes perfect sense. As the Pope insists over and over again, everything is connected. Our world is a world of relationships, and when these relationships are corrupted, things go awry. Pope Francis does not shy away from describing the various ways in which our relationships have become severely distorted. Our relationship with God has been ruptured by our attempts to deify ourselves, to make ourselves judges of right and wrong, of thinking ourselves possessors of an unlimited freedom. Our relationship to others has suffered due to the “throwaway culture,” that sees the weak, the poor, and the unproductive as disposable; by systems that value profit and power more than the dignity of the human person; by egotistic “rights” that kill the unborn and the elderly. Our relationship with the world has been corrupted by a misguided desire to dominate and possess all things. As Chesterton put it, we no longer see the Good, only the goods. And so Man is no longer considered the imago Dei, the image of God. He is now only a consumer or a cog in the service of the great machinery of the economy. Man no longer sees created things as vestigia Dei, pointing to and singing out to their Creator. He no longer sees in them the mark of the Trinity, but sees only products for exchange and profit. How can such a distorted view of things lead to anything but disaster? If our relationships are not set straight, it is to be expected that the created world—and all of us who are part of it—will suffer.

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The encyclical is titled Laudato Si, after the first words of Saint Francis of Assisi’s Canticle of the Creatures. It is known that Saint Francis (as well as other saints) had a very special relationship with creation.  In the words of the Holy Father:

“He communed with all creation, even preaching to the flowers, inviting them ‘to praise the Lord, just as if they were endowed with reason’. His response to the world around him was so much more than intellectual appreciation or economic calculus, for to him each and every creature was a sister united to him by bonds of affection. That is why he felt called to care for all that exists. His disciple Saint Bonaventure tells us that, ‘from a reflection on the primary source of all things, filled with even more abundant piety, he would call creatures, no matter how small, by the name of ‘brother’ or ‘sister.’’” (Laudato Si, 11)

He then continues:

“It is significant that the harmony which Saint Francis of Assisi experienced with all creatures was seen as a healing of that rupture. Saint Bonaventure held that, through universal reconciliation with every creature, Saint Francis in some way returned to the state of original innocence.” (Laudato Si, 66)

It is conversion that restores right relations. Conversion always manifests itself in a change of life. The Pope invites us to be bold in changing our life-styles, which often are not only bad for the environment, but are not even Christian. He asks of committed Christians to undergo a deep conversion, whereby “the effects of their encounter with Jesus Christ become evident in their relationship with the world around them. Living our vocation to be protectors of God’s handiwork is essential to a life of virtue; it is not an optional or a secondary aspect of our Christian experience.” (Laudato Si, 217)

There is also another way in which the pope invites us to imitate Saint Francis. Saint Francis possessed a sense of awe and wonder towards nature because he saw all created things as gifts given by God. It is only by seeing the world through the lens of the logic of gift (check out my previous posts on the subject) that we can see the true value and beauty of things. When all you see is a price tag, then you cannot, in principle, realize their true worth. You become entitled and begin to believe that they are owed to you, that you can possess them. You only see things to consume. In the degree that men are awakened to beauty and a sense of awe, they cease to be consumers. They are liberated from the enslavement of consumption which is what is driving the whole ecological crisis. This can only be achieved by restoring a contemplative attitude centered on creation as a gift, one that “listens” to nature and learns to appreciate its laws and its internal logic, one that does not rush in to manipulate and exploit.

However, personal conversion is not enough. We are, after all, social and incarnate beings. Conversion must extend to our social, cultural, economic, and political institutions, that is, to our culture at large:

 “Nevertheless, self-improvement on the part of individuals will not by itself remedy the extremely complex situation facing our world today. Isolated individuals can lose their ability and freedom to escape the utilitarian mindset, and end up prey to an unethical consumerism bereft of social or ecological awareness. Social problems must be addressed by community networks and not simply by the sum of individual good deeds.” (Laudato Si, 219)

Governments, businesses, non-profits, and international organizations all have a role to play, and one that we cannot, we should not, disregard.

There are many other things Pope Francis covers in his encyclical, but one blog post is not enough to address these. Perhaps I will write more about it in the near future. For now, I believe what I have said is sufficient enough to help you appreciate it for what it really is saying. I hope what I have said will help you not to be deceived by the politically charged narratives that plague the media and will help you understand why narrow, ideological views are so dangerous. They lead to false dichotomies, to all or nothing views that are not only naïve, but harmful to the common good. This is evidenced by some of the commentaries that I have read after the encyclical was released. For example, the Right has only focused on emphasizing how the encyclical says “the problem is us”, in a false opposition to having to change the social, political and economic system. To the Left, the solution lies in changing the social, political and economic system, leaving nothing to personal commitment and conversion. Pope Francis responds to both of these extremes by saying that they are right, but only up to a point. Yes, the root of the environmental problem lies deeply in human nature, but that does not mean that personal conversion is enough. We need a conversion of all social actors, from individual persons, to national governments, to international governing bodies, that will result in new social structures, new laws, new institutions. At the same time, thinking that the solution is purely technical and political, the “technocratic paradigm”, as Pope Francis calls it, is false. Conversion is necessary, but that does not exclude the bringing down of unjust institutions and systems, of what John Paul II termed “social structures of sin.” It actually should lead to that. In embracing one or the other of these two positions, we leave the problem unsolved. What the pope proposes, then, is a true solution. It’s up to the rest of us, especially the laity, to make it happen.

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