by Stan Hirst
Pope Francis, 266th Pope of the Roman Catholic Church, has set the cat amongst the pigeons. On 18 June 2015 he formally presented his second encyclical to the world at a news conference in the Vatican. Entitled “Laudato Si (Be Praised), On the Care of Our Common Home“, the encyclical urges swift action to avert a global climate crisis, calls on world leaders to hear the cries of the earth and of the poor and, coincidentally, plunges the Catholic Church plus numerous other august institutions into political controversy.
The underlying thread in the encyclical is “connectedness.” Francis uses the language of his 13th century namesake in calling the earth “our common home” and “our sister and our mother”. But, he declares, we are harming this familial relationship as we damage the environment, and we are damaging our relationship with other humans, particularly those least equipped to defend themselves, i..e. the poor and the future generations. He suggests we are forgetting our interconnectedness with the earth and with those around and ahead of us who depend on our good stewardship of the gift of creation.
In an admittedly joyful yet troubling encyclical letter the Pope calls on his readership to consider what science is saying about global climate change, and warns that there is now a firm foundation for the ethical and spiritual itinerary that must follow. It also states that the issues are both ecological and social.
Francis speaks of the “cry of the earth” and the “cry of the poor“. He praises the achievements of the environmental movement, yet also critiques some firmly held environmental positions, e.g. that population growth is to blame for environmental damage. Such a suggestion, he says, is a way of refusing to address overconsumption by the affluent and is linked to abortion being viewed as a justification for environmental protection.
This is not the first time a Pope has used the environment as a platform. Francis’ predecessor Benedict XVI, usually typecast as a conservative, was in fact dubbed “the Green Pope” for his interest in environmental issues. He co-authored a number of books that espoused views on the real meaning of progress, development and the consequent implications for Earth, including Ten Commandments for the Environment (2009) and The Environment, (2012). Benedict was the first Pope to implement environmental actions by approving electric vehicles for use within the Vatican and approving $660 million to install a 100MW solar array on the roof of the Paul VI audience hall in Vatican City. It was in fact Benedict’s predecessor, Pope John Paul II, who presented the first truly environmental statement Redemptor Hominis (Redeemer of Man) in 1979.
Previous environmental dialogues from the pontiffs have been framed essentially in political, scientific and economic terms. With his encyclical Pope Francis adds a large dose of faith to the discussion. He does this by framing the environmental crisis largely from a spiritual perspective. He places great emphasis on the disproportionate impacts of climate change on the poor and on the developing world. He relates this to the power of the upper class to make decisions that largely exclude the interests of the poor, and to the fact that the poor have few financial resources to deploy against negative climate change impacts. Ironically, the natural resources of poorer countries fuel the development of the richer countries, as Francis expresses it “at the cost of their own present and future”. On doctrinal grounds the Pope critiques the exclusion of anyone from the benefits of the goods of creation. He wants an appreciation of the “immense dignity of the poor” in decisions made regarding the environment and the use of the earth’s common resources.
Pope Francis heavily criticizes our prevailing technocratic mindset, in which technology is seen as the key to human existence. He critiques the blind reliance on market forces in which technological, scientific and/or industrial advancement is deployed without due concern for the environment and without concern for its potential negative impact on human beings. He actually praises technological advances but he holds the view that a true believer needs to resist the idea that every increase in technology is good for the earth and for humanity.
Pope Francis deplores our prevailing society of extreme consumerism in which people are exhorted to embrace whatever the market places before them while the earth is despoiled and billions are left impoverished. His encyclical declares that it is now time to accept decreased growth in some parts of the world in order to provide recourse for other places to experience healthy growth. It states that, in contrast with the consumerist mindset, [Christian] spirituality offers a basis for growth marked by “moderation and the capacity to be happy with little”. In effect, the Pope is suggesting a redefinition of the notion of progress.
Drawing the natural environment closer to spiritual perceptions is hardly something new. Almost a century ago John Muir wrote eloquently of nature and had no problem in seeing it through the lens of someone well versed in Christian traditions. In 1927 a traditionally Calvinistic Jan Smuts published the first work describing the significance of holism in evolution. More than a half century ago Aldo Leopold described a community as including people as well as soils, water, plants and animals all occupying what he called “the land” and existing within a framework of respect for one’s fellow-members and respect for “the community as such”. Forty years ago the Norwegian philosopher Arne Næss established the discipline of deep ecology and declared “No single species of living being has more of this particular right to live and unfold than any other species.”
The big difference now is the size of the audience receiving the message. About 1.3 billion Catholics worldwide will receive the word in the encyclical through the Church via their bishops, priests and deacons. More countless billions of non-Catholics will hear about it online, via a technically highly connected world that, ironically, is one of the targets of Pope Francis’ encyclical ire.
Laudato Si is now added to the body of the Church’s social teachings, and enjoys the highest level of authority in the church, second only to the Gospels and church councils like Vatican II. As such, it continues the kind of reflection on modern-day problems that began way back Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 “Rerum Novarum” on capital and labour. It will almost certainly influence thinking and debate at every societal level where Catholics predominate, and will doubtless have political repercussions in many countries where capitalistic practices and environmental degradation are already significant points of unrest.
But it must be remembered that encyclicals, despite the fanfare that surrounds their unveiling, often do not produce the results the venerable pontiffs intended. Pope Pius XI issued an encyclical in 1930 on Christian marriage and conjugal faith. It has not exactly been a resounding success over the ensuing 85 years. Pope Pius XII issued ten anti-war encyclicals after 1945, three of them protesting the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956. Pope Paul VI spoke about the war in Vietnam and Pope John Paul II used speeches to protest against the war in Iraq. It could be argued that there resulted nary a blip on the world response radar. I fear that, in an online and cynical world already firmly connected and blitzed to near-oblivion by information, much of it crass and inane and of every conceivable kind and content, the impact of Laudato Si will likely be muffled and eventually stifled.
Against this we must weight the view of Pope Francis himself – “St. Francis brought to Christianity an idea of poverty against the luxury, pride, vanity of the civil and ecclesiastical powers of the time. He changed history.”