Laudato Si: reflections on the papal encyclical

by frankbeswick

The papal encyclical on the environment drew Catholic ideas on eco-theology together and mobilized the church behind the environmental movement.

It might surprise people to know that Pope Francis' teachings are not entirely new, as he drew upon teachings of earlier popes and theologians. But what is new is the concentration on environmental issues. What is also important is the strong, very Catholic, emphasis on the human and sacred dimensions of the issue. The encyclical [letter] breaks new ground in its language, which departs from the abstruse Latinate prose of earlier encyclicals, which make for heavy reading. It is intended to be read by as many people as possible and is therefore meant to be comprehensible to ordinary readers.

Photo courtesy of philip kinsey

On Care for our Common Home

"Laudato Si" is a mediaeval Italian phrase for praised be you. It is drawn from St Francis of Assisi's Canticle of the Sun, a hymn that praises God's presence in nature, and it is a favourite of Pope Francis, who took his papal name from the man who inspired him. Encyclicals generally have a Latin name, but the pope has diverted from custom and practice to emphasize ideas that are important to him. But the subtitle is "On Care for our Common Home." This itself is a slight deviation from those theologians and clerics  who claim that heaven is our true home. For the pope our home is here, though he has said that he has not long ere he goes to the house of the Father. Well, we all move house sometimes, but for the moment for all of us home is here, and this means that we are bound to look after it and those with whom we share it. 

The encyclical cites previous, of-neglected papal teachings. From Paul the Sixth's encyclical Pacem in Terris [Peace on Earth, 1971] he cites the teaching that the growth of humanity cannot be purely technological,  but must go hand in hand with moral and spiritual progress, and notes that this has not happened. From John Paul the Second he draws upon a heightened awareness of the ecological threat to which Paul the Sixth alluded and re-states the principle that ecological well-being and the well being of humans go hand in hand and that we must therefore seek a genuinely human ecology in which humanity and nature are seen as a unity. From Benedict the Sixteenth, he draws upon the statement that social and economic structures must radically change to save the planet and those in it. 

But other sources are significant. Following the citation of previous popes's social teaching, he makes extended reference to the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholemew, head of the Orthodox church, whose teaching on ecological matters Francis cites with enthusiasm. Francis re-states Bartholemew's teaching that we all must be aware that we are guilty of environmental sins in small ways, by excess, by waste and by unsustainable lifestyles. This is the first time that a pope has ever cited a patriarch and is a sign of the growing friendship between Catholic and Orthodox churches that the popes have sought to develop. The encyclical also makes extended reference to Francis of Assisi, the saint whose love of nature was renowned, and he  affirms Francis' belief that the earth is our sister. From Francis' disciple Bonaventure he takes the view that St Francis gained his deep love for nature from contemplation of the source of nature, God, and the pope implies that humans too must return to the source of all being to  safeguard their common home.

Originality is more often in the combination than the elements themselves. This is not the first encyclical to be addressed to all humankind, that was from John the Twenty Third;and  it was not the first encyclical to have a non-Latin title, that was Mitt Brendender Sorge, Pius the Eleventh's anti-Nazi letter in the 1930s. But it is original in its preference for simple language and for citing a source from non-Catholic churches. It is also the first papal encyclical  on the environment. 

Basic principles

It was shortly after reading this encyclical that I realized the scale of the task of doing justice to this work. Though short in length, the encyclical  is very concise and is replete with theological and ethical ideas, all of which are capable of being developed more richly than I have space for here. The encyclical is the product of a fine mind who has done much scholarship and is capable of distilling it into a work of quality. It is a work that repays one who reads it over, thinks about it and then re-visits later. 

The idea underlying this encyclical is that humanity and nature are part of an integral unity under God. Think of it as a triangle with the individual at the centre. The corners are God, others and nature. But humans have created a rupture in their relationships with these three poles, and this rupture is sin. The cause of this rupture is a nexus of wrongful attitudes, The first of these attitudes is to think of humans as autonomous of God and to forget the sacred dimension that should underpin our lives. The result of this omission is to elevate humanity to a level that it should not have. In denying God the individual makes himself the measure of things and in making his own interests absolute denies the rights of others and of nature, and all the creatures therein. Humans thus begin to regard nature as being exclusively there for their consumption and the creatures in it as mere chattels. And this attitude applies to other people, who as slaves, serfs and exploited workers are treated as mere tools by those in power.

Of critical importance in this encyclical is an awareness that creation as a whole gives glory to God. Francis follows the thought of Thomas Aquinas, the thirteenth century theologian, in declaring that each species of creature gives glory to God in a unique way, and that therefore the glory of God cannot be honored by the extinction of any species. 

But what is specifically Catholic about Laudato Si is the belief that you cannot separate care for the poor from care for the environment. For the popes the poor are the benchmark for the ethical and political legitimacy of a system. Poverty is the product of defective social and economic structures, and also of ecologically defective political and economic arrangements. A genuine and workable solution to the ecological crisis can only come when poor people and nature are both respected. 

What marks this work is the intense coverage of the scale and dimensions of the ecological crisis. Francis strives to cover all aspects of the issue, and he does so with the clarity that can only be found in the writing of one who understands in great depth. Of course, Francis is a member of the Jesuit order, an intellectually elite order of Catholic priests dedicated to service of the church through scholarship, and the intellectual rigour of his Jesuit training shows through at all times in this opus. It is clear that he has done much research into the subject and put much thought into what he is saying. 

Integral Ecology

Of all the rich mine of wisdom in this encyclical integral ecology is a precious nugget. Francis sees that as ecology is the study of beings in their intricate harmony, the concept of ecology must be widened to include more than the interplay of animals, plants and the Earth. Economics is part of ecology, as are human cultures and societies. All must be studied in the context of their part in the interacting whole. Furthermore, any study of human life must take into account that humans are part of this complex nexus of factors. 

But the implications of integral ecology for humans are that we have to realize that we do not have unlimited freedom to do as we wish with our bodies and minds. Francis cites his predecessor, Benedict, in observing that humans are not only freedom, but also nature, and that there is therefore something  given about who we are and that therefore our choices might harm us. The papal view is that there is an internal ecology of the human being that determines whether and how we thrive. 

This emphasis on the interactions of which humans are a part leads Francis to bemoan concentrations of political and economic power, and he cites as examples the destruction of native cultures by big economic interests which ravage working eco-systems and ecologically harmonious communities  in pursuit of gain, and he argues for the empowerment of communities against such interests. 

Furthermore, he resurrects a philosophically unpopular concept, the Common Good and celebrates it. The common good has been criticized for vagueness, but it reflects a deep insight that we are not just individuals, but are members of a community whose fellowship bonds give us a stake in each others' well-being. This concept needs some work to be clarified, but there is life and a philosophical future in it, and Francis is right to  affirm its significance. 

Conclusion

Years ago when I was a student I learned a powerful lesson. I was translating Latin texts sent by the Vatican and having difficulty with the complex grammar. But one line stood out as simple and clear. It was a quote from Jesus found in the gospels. The lesson that I learned is that true profundity of thought is expressed in simple language. The wisest are the clearest . 

Laudato Si is simple of language and profound of thought. It is the work of a wise person who wishes to share his wisdom with others. 

I also note the complete absence of any reference to authority in the text. In the past Catholic clerics were wont to be authoritarian and expect to be believed because of their position. This has done massive damage to the church, and the last two popes have simply done away with authoritarian pronouncements. There is nowhere any claim that the author's elevated rank gives him a special claim to be believed. He stands or falls on the strength of his arguments and knowledge, and the church and the world are the better for it. 

What is also important is that the pope declares that there must be a dialogue between not only religion and science, both of which are important, but all religions and cultures, as each can bring its special insights to the table. This document is therefore opposed to any kind of elitism and status systems in knowledge. For Francis the insights of an Amazon peasant have as much claim to be heard as the ruminations of a professor. The encyclical is therefore a celebration of genuine cultural and political democracy in an ecological context. 

This work will stand out in the long history of papal encyclicals. I commend it to you.

Updated: 06/28/2015, frankbeswick
 
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Veronica on 06/26/2015

You are obviously totally focussed when you have a mind to be !

frankbeswick on 06/26/2015

Thanks. I hoped to give a taste of the encyclical, but it is a work that people need to read for themselves, as it is so detailed. Francis' ability to summarize Catholic teaching and express it succinctly is magnificent. All the major issues are covered.

There is something that I missed in my reading, as I did not go through the citations in great detail. Among the references to Christian thinkers there is also one reference to a Sufi, someone from a tolerant and scholarly branch of Islam, reference 159, the writer being Ali al Khawas. Let no one say that the pope is narrow in his views.

It did not take long to research, as it has not been published long, but I put down all other books while I read this one and gave it as much attention as I could.

ologsinquito on 06/26/2015

You covered this very well Frank and it must have taken a really long time to research and write.

frankbeswick on 06/25/2015

Thanks Henry. After writing the article I realized that what I was reading was a rethinking of Catholic Social teaching in the light of ecological concern and research. The encyclical has the advantage that it speaks so succinctly that it tends to get to the nub of an the issues that it addresses.

blackspanielgallery on 06/24/2015

I have heard of this release but have not read the test. ou have done quite well summarizing it. We must all take charge of our environment.

frankbeswick on 06/24/2015

This is the most challenging review that I have undertaken, as I struggled to do justice to the thinking in the 1500 words or so that are upper limit of the proper length for reviews.

Veronica on 06/24/2015

It is interesting to see that the Pope gives guidance on many issues and not just moral ones which are the ones that receive all the publicity.

A good in-depth review.

Thank You.

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