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Laudato Si’: On Care for our Common Home

by Pope Francis
Our Sunday Visitor Publishing Division, Our Sunday Visitor, Inc., Huntington, Indiana, 2015
176 pp. Paper, $12.95
ISBN: 978-1-61278-386-4.

Reviewed by George Gessert


For decades science has been bringing news of climate change and mass extinction to the public, but science can only inform, not create political will or determine change. So far in spite of many hopeful developments, politics has largely failed. A few scientists, accepting that most people most of the time, are not guided by reason, have made appeals to religion for help. E. O. Wilson reached out to Evangelicals for dialog about our relationship with nonhuman species. James Lovelock, in The Vanishing Face of Gaia (2009), called for a new Earth-centered religion. (He did not discuss Earth-centered religions that already exist, presumably because he considered them inadequate to the task at hand: Most are rooted in local landscapes and conditions, and are pre-scientific in outlook.)

Appeals to religion may seem like a waste of time. For many years, much of organized religion, especially in the United States, has been silent or in denial about climate change and mass extinction. However, that situation seems to be changing. People of many faiths have been playing increasingly important roles in efforts to slow climate change and environmental destruction. And in 2015 Pope Francis released Laudato Si’. It is the most encompassing, powerful, and determinedly public response to environmental crisis ever made by a major religious organization.

Laudato Si’, which means “Blessed be” (a reference to "The Canticle of the Creatures" by St. Francis of Assisi), is an encyclical, or letter concerning Church doctrine. Ordinarily encyclicals are addressed to bishops and others in the Catholic hierarchy, but Laudato Si’ is addressed in addition “to every person living on this planet.” The encyclical’s release was timed to influence the UN Climate Change Conference in Paris.

The crisis is described in language that is mytho-poetic, value-laden, and urgent:

“the earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor.”

“...the post-industrial period may well be remembered as one of the most irresponsible in history.”

“Doomsday predictions can no longer be met with irony or disdain.”

“...the earth, our home is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth.

All this is due to human activities. The encyclical calls for “radical change” - not something we would expect of a Pope. In particular, Pope Francis implores us to reject consumer culture and individualism, abandon attempts to dominate nature, and replace faith in technology and market forces with “integral ecology.” This term, which is repeated and echoed throughout the encyclical, means interdependence, with emphasis on community and concern for the poor. The encyclical stops short of rejecting capitalism, but is informed by Liberation Theology, which tentatively synthesizes Catholicism, Marxism, and ecology.

Before proceeding, I should say that I am an atheist, but an ecumenical one. By that I mean that I share many values and some spiritual experiences with religious people. However, my understanding of life and being is shaped largely by science.

Laudato Si’s accounts of climate change and humanly caused environmental destruction are for the most part scientifically sound, which perhaps is not surprising, considering that Jorge Mario Bergoglio, who would become Pope Francis, was trained as a chemical technician and worked for several years in a laboratory. Of course, empirical evidence is never the final arbiter of ethics or sole determiner of policy for Pope Francis. He tells us, for example, that economic justice would solve the population problem, and that “demographic growth is fully compatible with an integral and shared development.” Of a piece with these claims is opposition to abortion, and silence about birth control and the condition of women. Behind the gaps and (from the perspective of climate change and mass extinction) rationally indefensible assertions are unspecified doctrines about souls and reproduction.

Still, one does not have to be a Catholic to agree with Pope Francis that today we need an ecological ethics that applies to everyone everywhere.

Laudato Si’ proposes just that: a universal ethics for an era of mass extinction and catastrophic climate change. Whether we agree or disagree about particulars (I disagree very strongly with many) is less important than that the encyclical provides a model.

Considering the encyclical’s great ambitions, unanswered questions are to be expected. One of the largest is: Should we be most deeply committed to our own species, or to life as a whole? The encyclical moves between recognition that “the ultimate purpose of other creatures is not to be found in us” and assertions that humankind must come first. We are reminded that nonhumans, while deserving of care and respect, are “finite things of the world” and not divine, while humans, who belong not only to the Earth but also to a transcendent realm, have “unique worth.” All this is consistent with the Church’s history of anthropocentrism and what Joseph Needham called the West’s “schizophrenia of the soul.”

The encyclical does its best to explain that history away even while asserting over and over again that humans must always come first. Nor does the letter mention the monster waiting to be born, when much of the biosphere, and perhaps even our own species, can no longer be salvaged without abandoning justice for the poor, or for anyone. No doubt silences, contradictions, and contortions are inevitable when an ancient institution attempts to align itself with unprecedented realities, but the result is that fresh hope at times gets buried in baggage.

For at least half a century, a new, ecologically grounded culture has been taking shape within the shell of consumer society. The Encyclical represents qualified endorsement of that emergent culture - this by one of the most ancient and powerful institutions on earth. It is a step in the right direction, and as a result the future looks slightly less grim. Some sort of ecological social order, or orders, seem more likely to come about, whether or not embryos have souls, and whether or not we succeed in keeping temperature rise to 1.5 degrees centigrade, or 4 or 10.

Last Updated 1st February 2016

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