A commentary on the Pope’s Encyclical Laudato Si’

popeinside Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson and Archbishop Michael Miller will be the keynote speakers at the upcoming Laudato Si’ Symposium, October 21 at the John Paul II Pastoral Centre.

Laudato Si’, Pope Francis’s new document addressing the world’s ecological crisis, has caught the world’s attention, particularly in Vancouver; Robertson recently attended a conference at the Vatican on the role of cities in addressing climate change, sustainability and poverty.

For more than 40 years Loren Wilkinson (with his wife Mary Ruth) has been teaching and writing on the issues the pope addressed in Laudato Si’ – at Regent College and other settings. Here he analyzes the theology behind Pope Francis’s latest encyclical.

For all Christians, Pope Francis’s encyclical Laudato Si’, released last May, is an enormously important document. It may well turn out to be the most important in a long line of papal writings on Catholic social teaching – including Rerum Novarum by Pope Leo XIII in 1891, and Laborem Exercens by John Paul II in 1981.

Those important earlier documents outlined the possibilities for human flourishing by suggesting a middle way between capitalism and socialism. Laudato Si’ continues that tradition by unequivocally laying out the moral – and biblical – case that there can be no human flourishing apart from the health of the whole earth, and that the earth’s health is seriously threatened by the emerging worldwide culture in which everything is regarded as simply a commodity for purchase and consumption. Thus the encyclical’s subtitle: “On Care for Our Common Home.”

More deliberately than any previous encyclical, this declaration is addressed not just to clergy, or to Catholics, or even to Christians: rather, as Francis says in his introduction, “I wish to address every person living on this planet.”

And perhaps no encyclical has immediately been noticed, read and commented on by so many people, both inside and outside the church. Post-Christian BC is no exception.

This July, less than a month after Laudato Si’’s official publication, Island Tides, the feisty little newspaper that services the Gulf Islands where I live (which is hardly a hotbed of Christianity) featured as its front-page story a long, detailed, and very appreciative summary.

Even more remarkably, in the same month, that venerable countercultural Vancouver journal Common Ground featured Pope Francis on the cover, and in an article titled “God Bless the Pope” said of the encyclical that “it will profoundly change, or at least shape history. It is an explosive, unprecedented analysis that will inspire and inform action on climate change, poverty, and inequality for years to come.” Perhaps overstated – but quite possibly not.

That “explosive” content is, of course, as old as Genesis (Regent students encounter it often – most recently and eloquently in Iain Provan’s fine book Seriously Dangerous Religion: What the Old Testament Really Says and Why it Matters).

In Pope Francis’s lucid summary:

. . .human life is grounded in three fundamental and closely intertwined relationships: with God, with our neighbour and with the earth itself. According to the Bible, these three vital relationships have been broken, both outwardly and within us. This rupture is sin. The harmony between the Creator, humanity and creation as a whole was disrupted by our presuming to take the place of God and refusing to acknowledge our creaturely limitations. . . . We are not God. . . . This allows us to respond to the charge that Judeo-Christian thinking, on the basis of the Genesis account which grants man “dominion” (cf. Gen 1:28) over the earth has encouraged the unbridled exploitation of nature by painting him as domineering and destructive by nature.

That “charge” – that a biblical understanding encourages “unbridled exploitation” – has become unquestioned orthodoxy in the environmental movement. So perhaps the greatest service of Laudato Si’ is the way it both refutes and confirms the essay by Lynn White in the 1967 Science article, “The Historic Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis.”

The first part of White’s argument is endlessly cited and assumed as fact. In his words: “In its Western form, Christianity is the most anthropocentric religion the world has ever seen,” and thus “no item in the physical creation had any purpose save to serve man’s purposes.”

This is the assumption that any Christian working for the care of creation in the secular and academic world has to overcome.

St. Francis has been called 'the patron saint of ecologists.'

Pope Francis chose to name himself after Francis of Assisi and chose the first two words of the saint’s famous hymn – Laudato Si’ (Be praised) – for his encyclical.

But the conclusion of White’s article is usually forgotten. In it, White points to the man he calls “the greatest radical in Christian history since Christ: Saint Francis of Assisi.” White outlines Francis’s sense of humility, his identification with the humble Christ and his affirmation of humanity’s shared creatureliness with “Brother Ant and Sister Fire.” He concludes by proposing Francis as a “patron saint for ecologists.”

However, despite this confirmation of Francis’s creation-affirming Christianity, White makes the serious error of calling him “clearly heretical.”

This error Pope Francis magnificently reverses: he shows that the heresy lies instead in the anthropocentrism, technologically magnified, of the now-dominant Western approach, which has turned creation into a commodity.

The first mark of this reversal is the fact that this Argentine Christian, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, chose to be the first pope in history to take the name of Francis. The second is that the words Laudato si’, the title of this encyclical, are the Tuscan words of the opening of St. Francis’s great hymn, “The Canticle of the Sun” (which we know as the hymn, “All Creatures of Our God and King”) : “Be praised [Laudato si’] my Lord, through all your creatures.”

Pope Francis leaves no doubt that this encyclical is an attempt to apply the radical Christianity of his namesake to the problems of the contemporary world: he spends several paragraphs of his introduction explaining the relevance of Francis. Here are some excerpts, which form a good summary of his whole argument:

I believe that Saint Francis is an example par excellence of care for the vulnerable and of an integral ecology lived out joyfully and authentically. . .

He was particularly concerned for God’s creation, and for the poor and the outcast. . . .

He shows us just how inseparable the bond is between concern for nature, justice for the poor, commitment to society and interior peace. . . .

Francis helps us to see that an integral ecology calls for openness to categories which transcend the language of mathematics and biology, and take us to the heart of what it is to be human.

St. Francis, faithful to Scripture, invites us to see nature as a magnificent book in which God speaks to us and shows us a glimpse of his infinite beauty and goodness.

These prefatory words about St. Francis touch on most of the themes developed in the body of this small book. More importantly, they set the tone of worship and joy in which Pope Francis’s often-stringent calls for change are set. For this is not simply – as the subtitle given by one version names it – an “Encyclical on Climate Change and Inequality.” Rather, it is a recovery of the whole Christian gospel in terms that show how much that gospel is relevant for those crucial problems.

Thus, though the first chapter (“What is Happening to Our Common Home”) draws heavily on contemporary science to summarize starkly the degradations to creation brought about by human activity, the second chapter (“The Gospel of Creation”) draws heavily on scripture to show how thoroughly that creation is a good gift of God.

In this way, those two “books,” creation and scripture, along with their interpretations, science and theology, are seen as fully coherent and compatible with each other. (In this way, as well, Francis implicitly answers those critics who say that the church shouldn’t be dabbling in science. Such critics are ignorant of the crucial way in which early Western science grew from Christian – indeed from Franciscan – roots.)

In the third chapter (“The Human Roots of the Ecological Crisis”), Francis summarizes brilliantly what scholars of technology like Jacques Ellul and Albert Borgmann have argued at greater length. Many critics of the encyclical have missed his point here. He is by no means criticizing science or technology.

Far from it. Rather, he is making an eloquent case that “humanity has taken up technology and its development according to an undifferentiated and one-dimensional paradigm.

To return to Lynn White’s argument: the pragmatic anthropocentrism of the West (how can we make this knowledge humanly useful?) has crowded out the more worshipful attitude exemplified by Saint Francis and much of Eastern Christianity (how can this knowledge help me to further honour the creature and praise the Creator?).

This incisive reflection on technology prepares us for chapter four (“Integral Ecology”), which contains the central argument of the encyclical. In it, Francis shows decisively that a right “ecology” (a word that means, after all, something like “ordering the household”) must include both societal and environmental health. There can be no human well-being without planetary well-being. Thus, the problems of the poor are inseparable from “environmental” problems.

In the fifth chapter (“Lines of Approach and Action”), Francis makes the most pointed and controversial point of the encyclical: “technology based on the use of highly polluting fossil fuels – especially coal, but also oil and, to a lesser degree, gas – needs to be progressively replaced without delay.”

Such a replacement would challenge many powerful interests in our society, and the pope’s position is a bitter pill to swallow for those comfortable in their denial of the human role in climate change.

It has caused many to reject the encyclical outright, or to express “disappointment” (as in a recent First Things editorial) with what is seen as a selling out to a “liberal” point of view. As one critic put it decisively, “It could have been written by Al Gore!” or, as a New Republic writer gleefully wrote, “The entire Catholic neo-con[servative] agenda lies in ruins as Pope Francis makes demands for economic justice and environmental responsibility.”

So Laudato Si’ is deeply relevant to the upcoming elections in both Canada and the US.

In the sixth and final chapter of the encyclical (“Ecological Education and Spirituality”), Francis connects the global issues of the encyclical with people’s day-to-day life. He calls all people – but those of the wealthy world in particular – to question their habits of consumption, and to begin to live more simply and less wastefully.

But rather than approaching these suggestions with a kind of save-the-planet seriousness, Francis argues that we need to use the gifts of creation in an attitude of thankfulness and joy.

Perhaps his most helpful suggestions are to those Christians serious about the practice of their faith. He calls for a Christian understanding of the sabbath:

Sunday, like the Jewish Sabbath, is meant to be a day which heals our relationship with God, with ourselves, with others and with the world. Sunday is the day of the Resurrection, the “first day” of the new creation, whose first fruits are the Lord’s risen humanity, the pledge of the final transfiguration of all created reality . . . so the day of rest, centred on the Eucharist, sheds its light on the whole week, and motivates us to greater concern for nature and the poor.

His reference to the Eucharist is foundational, for it is the way in which we regularly participate in Christ’s incarnation:

For Christians, all the creatures of the material universe find their true meaning in the incarnate Word, for the Son of God has incorporated in his person part of the material world, planting in it a seed of definitive transformation. . . . It is in the Eucharist that all that has been created finds its greatest exaltation.

If these ideas sound familiar to those of us in the Regent community, it is, of course, because Pope Francis is drawing on the inexhaustible river of a great truth (though it has often gone underground): the truth that creation is God’s costly gift, reaffirmed and given back to us in the incarnation, and in the promise of the resurrection. Thus, there is nothing fundamentally new in Laudato Si’: but I mean that as high praise.

Mary Ruth and I have been teaching and writing on the issues the pope addresses here for over 40 years, beginning with an environmental studies program we started in the early 70s at Seattle Pacific’s “Casey Campus” on Whidbey Island. By coincidence, as I was writing this piece for the The Regent World, I was riding home on the ferry with a student who was in that program 40 years ago this fall. I gave her the introduction to Laudato Si’ to read and her response was, “this is what we were talking about back then at Casey – and it has changed my life.”

For Laudato Si’ outlines nothing less than the good news that in Christ there is a healing of creation. The encyclical grows from the same deep roots “evangelicals” have in common with true Catholicism. (Indeed, my only criticism of the encyclical is that it draws only on Catholic sources, passing over much of the good work other Christian thinkers have done on this question.)

But whether Catholic or Protestant – that gospel (“good news”) is empty if not lived out. And much of the criticism the encyclical has received amounts to an attempt to squirm out from the gospel’s implication for us contemporary rich Christians. Thus, those attempts to discredit it by saying that it sidesteps issues of contraception and birth control conveniently overlook the fact that the biggest problems in the world come not from too many people – but too many people who live – or are trying to live – like we do in North America.

Loren Wilkinson has been involved with, and written on, environmental issues for several decades.

Loren Wilkinson has been involved with, and written on, environmental issues for several decades.

So Laudato Si’ – like the gospel – has hard words for us. That’s why we should read and heed it.

This comment is re-posted by permission. It appeared first in The Regent World.

Loren Wilkinson, professor of philosophy and interdisciplinary studies, recently retired from Regent College, where he had taught since 1981.

In 1974, he and his wife Mary Ruth founded one of the first Christian Environmental Studies programs, at Seattle Pacific University

He edited two editions of Earthkeeping (1981, 1991), an interdisciplinary study addressing the same issues as Pope Francis’s Encyclical, “On Care for Our Common Home.” 

Loren and Mary Ruth co-wrote Caring for Creation in Your Own Back Yard.

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