Pope Francis’s recent encyclical Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home is a remarkable document in many respects. It deals with a several themes that I’ve already discussed in this blog, and it points to a Church that is attempting to address critical new issues in a complex and diverse world.
Recent popes have written encyclicals about every two or three years. Laudato Si’ is Francis’s first major encyclical since he became pope in 2013 (the previous one was drafted by Benedict XVI and only completed by Francis). Encyclicals are letters issued by the pope usually to his bishops to help guide them in matters of faith or practice; they are, in other words, something like policy statements dealing with special concerns of the reigning pope. This encyclical is not specifically addressed to bishops or the Catholic faithful, however, and its tone and language make clear that Francis wants this document to be read widely both inside and outside of the Church. The document is written in a dialogical fashion urging engagement, not absolute obedience.
We learn a lot about this pope from this document. He is deeply concerned about the environment and about the poor and sees these issues as going hand in hand. The encyclical is imbued throughout with references to the man and the ideas that have inspired and guided him, namely St. Francis of Assisi. If it wasn’t clear from his choice of name, Francis has made it clear in this encyclical just how he intends to interpret the mission of the Church, and he does so by embracing what some people see as radical and controversial positions, but, as I hope to make clear, the extent and nature of that radicalism has been overblown, especially by opponents of environmentalism and apologists for capitalism. Most of the major points he makes in his encyclical are simply restatements of previous Church policies. What he does is to focus attention on them and force us to consider them in the context of the 21st-century’s pressing global problems.
The central contention of the encyclical is that humanity needs to adopt what Francis calls an integral ecology. Integral ecology is not a biological term. In Frances’s usage, it refers to a complex and nuanced perspective on the natural world and our place within it. In particular, he sees deep relationships between our actions toward the natural environment, our actions toward other human beings, and our own spiritual welfare. This is hardly a radical notion for the church, as several of Francis’s predecessors have urged a similar outlook: the idea of integral human development, in particular, presented by Paul VI in 1967 and reiterated in Benedict’s 2009 encyclical contains the nucleus of this notion. Francis has merely chosen to foreground the importance of man’s relationship to the earth as a key aspect of the social and economic message that these other popes promoted.
Seeing Laudato Si’ in the context of a string of past encyclicals dealing with human society and the great human suffering caused by the maldistribution of wealth around the globe, makes it possible to understand better how Francis wants the Catholic tradition to meet the demands of a crowded and increasingly human-dominated planet.
Francis talks about excessive anthropocentrism, and he argues for the traditional Catholic viewpoint: anthropocentrism is hubris that leads to the dehumanizing of man because it fosters unrestrained desires and promotes a materialistic outlook that is inimical to spiritual values. Catholics have long argued that anthropocentrism mistakenly portrays human beings as autonomous and in complete control of their world. As Francis points out, even when we consider only the natural surroundings, humans do not have the mastery over their world that they often think:
But human beings are not completely autonomous. Our freedom fades when it is handed over to the blind forces of the unconscious, of immediate needs, of self-interest, and of violence. In this sense, we stand naked and exposed in the face of our ever-increasing power, lacking the wherewithal to control it. We have certain superficial mechanisms, but we cannot claim to have a sound ethics, a culture and spirituality genuinely capable of setting limits and teaching clear-minded self-restraint. (105)
The idea that we can simply find technological fixes to solve our most pressing problems, he tells us, is a myth. We need to back away from the unadulterated utilitarianism that pervades our global technological and economic system. That system reduces everything in the world (minerals, animals, and people, alike) to currency. The radicalism of Francis is the radicalism that one finds within the core traditions of most spiritually-based worldviews; it is the search for a more authentic or holistic perspective than the one we have as we go about our day-to-day lives.
In terms of the Christian understanding of the environment, Francis embraces the stewardship view in opposition to the dominion view. In an earlier post, we saw how Lynn White blamed the current ecological crisis on the Biblical language in Genesis that seemed to suggest that God gave mankind the right and ability to do anything he desired with the Creation. It was his to conquer. In a clear reference to White’s essay, chapter three of Laudato Si’ is entitled “The Human Roots of the Ecological Crisis,” where Francis makes the counter-argument that the crisis results from a global paradigm of technological and economic domination.
Although many critics of Francis have seen his attack on technology as simply that of a Romantic idealist longing for an unadulterated communion with nature, several parts of his encyclical show that this is not at all what his is doing. First, his attack on GM foods is not based on a concern that it will get out of control and cause great biological or ecological harm on its own—he’s not fear mongering about a Frankenfood making people ill. Rather, his main concern that this particular technology has already caused harm by concentrating wealth. In other words, it is a human economic activity that is creating more poverty as farm oligopolies expand.
Second, he is no naïve utopian who thinks that we can all go back to nature. Many of his concerns relate to the extraordinary growth of megacities around the world and the growing poverty and social displacement that they are causing. It is the rich, he notes, who have access to green spaces and bucolic vacation spots, while it is the poor who feel the brunt of all of our environmental problems. Pollution, rising ocean levels, and dirty water are all pressing harder on the poor than on the rich. What are needed are ways of making life in cities more livable for the poor. Pollution, for example, is not just a problem that affects the wild; it is endemic to most modern city life, especially for the poor. Only by dealing directly with pollution can we make life around the world more inhabitable.
His strongest critics are those who will claim that his focus on the poor will derail a capitalist system that has helped to pull more people out of poverty than any other ideology. He clearly disagrees with them and believes that unbridled capitalism will only make pollution and poverty worse. He’s not embracing communism, as American right-wing critics have suggested. Indeed, there’s been no radical change to the Church’s longstanding support for private ownership. He is asking for the same kind of moderation of capitalism that the Church has long asked for when it comes to helping the poor. (See the extraordinary language about “the hardheartedness of employers and the greed of unchecked competition” in Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum encyclical of 1891 and the more recent attacks on deregulation and cuts in social spending in Benedict XVI’s Caritas in Veritate only a few years ago.) Francis is deeply concerned about the ways in which consolidated capital is used to undermine the livelihoods of people at the bottom by promoting and sustaining wealth inequality.
So what does Laudato Si’ have to say about the issues that this blog has grappled with: the Anthropocene and habitability? This encyclical is the latest, and most widely publicized, religious statement to deal with our unprecedented and historic transformation of the Earth’s natural and social ecology. It does not refer to our age as the Anthropocene, but I don’t think Francis would disagree with that term, at least if it is confined to a description of how we are now transforming the earth’s entire ecology. The wide scope of this encyclical–the fact that it sees ecological concerns as more than simply scientific, technological, or economic issues–also resonates with ideas posed in this blog. And finally, the fact that the focus throughout is on how to make a livable place on earth for all of us, means that it fits precisely what we have been talking about here. It is about habitability.
In this blog, we have talked about engaging in conversations with others who both understand the seriousness of the global ecological problems and who recognize that the problems are multidimensional. Laudato Si’ puts these issues right in front of Catholics the world over. The longstanding Catholic reluctance to embrace technological fixes is central to the pope’s message. The pope believes that the environmental problems cannot be addressed without looking at them in an integrated way. The direction that he offers is a challenging one because it asks us to understand our problem with the natural world as a spiritual problem as well as a physical one. Moreover, he asks us to reject technocratic capitalist solutions.
Encouraging a spiritually engaged approach to nature and fighting a powerful economic system are daunting tasks, and they will not appeal to everyone. These proposals come from a historical tradition that guides and constrains them. I certainly would not suggest that this encyclical has all the answers or that all of the solutions Francis offers are necessarily good ones. The document does, however, ask searching questions in the spirit of dialog, and it reflects concerns that we as a civilization should address if we are serious about finding our way to a habitable future on our common home.