Embracing Our Limits

The Lessons of Laudato Si'
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Perhaps the first thing that needs to be said about Pope Francis’s encyclical on the environment is that it is an entirely natural development not only of the theology of Evangelii gaudium but also—as the extensive citations show—of the theology of Pope Benedict, especially as found in Caritas in veritate. Both the pope’s critics and his supporters have often missed the point: Benedict’s Christian humanism, his consistent theology of the dignity of the human person, his concern for a culture in which there is no longer a viable understanding of any given order independent of human will—all this is reiterated with force and clarity by Pope Francis. This encyclical is emphatically not charting a new course in papal theology, and those who speak as if this were the case have not been reading either pope with attention. What is uncomfortable for some is that a number of points clearly but briefly made by the previous pontiff have been drawn out in unmistakable terms. The fact that we live in a culture tone-deaf to any sense of natural law is here starkly illustrated by the persistent tendency of modern human agents to act as though the naked fact of personal desire for unlimited acquisition were the only “given” in the universe, so that ordinary calculations of prudence must be ignored. Measureless acquisition, consumption, or economic growth in a finite environment is a literally nonsensical idea; yet the imperative of growth remains unassailable, as though we did not really inhabit a material world.

It is this fantasy of living in an endlessly adjustable world, in which every physical boundary can be renegotiated, that shapes the opening reflections of the encyclical and pervades a great deal of its argument. The paradox, noted by a good many other commentators, is that our supposed “materialism” is actually a deeply anti-material thing. The plain thereness of the physical world we inhabit tells us from our first emergence into consciousness that our will is not the foundation of everything—and so its proper working is essentially about creative adjustment to an agenda set not by our fantasy but by the qualities and complexities of what we encounter. The material world tells us that to be human is to be in dialogue with what is other: what is physically other, what is humanly other in the solid three-dimensionality of other persons, ultimately what is divinely other. And in a world created by the God Christians believe in, this otherness is always communicating: meaning arises in this encounter, it is not devised by our ingenuity. Hence the pope’s significant and powerful appeal to be aware of the incalculable impact of the loss of biodiversity: it is not only a loss of resource but a diminution of meaning. “Because of us, thousands of species will no longer give glory to God by their very existence, nor convey their message to us” (33).

The argument of these opening sections of Laudato si’ repeatedly points us back to a fundamental lesson: We as human beings are not the source of meaning or value; if we believe we are, we exchange the real world for a virtual one, a world in which—to echo Lewis Carroll’s Humpty Dumpty—the only question is who is to be master. A culture in which managing limits is an embarrassing and unwelcome imperative is a culture that has lost touch with the very idea of a world, let alone a created world (i.e., one in which a creative intelligence communicates with us and leads us into meanings and visions we could not have generated ourselves). The discussion in Chapter III of the obsessive pursuit of novelty in our lives draws out very effectively how the multiplication of pure consumer choice produces not greater diversity or liberty but a sense of endless repetition of the same and a lack of hope in the future. Once again, the underlying issue is the loss of meaning. It is fully in keeping with this general perspective that what Pope Francis has to say about the rights and dignities of the unborn (120) is seamlessly connected with the dangers of a culture of “disposability” in which the solid presence of those others who do not instantly appear to contribute to our narrowly conceived well-being can so readily be forgotten. Ultimately, as the pope lucidly puts it, “when the culture itself is corrupt and objective truth and universally valid principles are no longer upheld, then laws can only be seen as arbitrary impositions or obstacles to be avoided” (123). Battling about legal controls is pointless unless we are able to persuade people of the human richness of a culture informed by that radical openness to meaning that is ready to leave behind the calculations of profit and public utility as the only tests of success and political viability. The encyclical makes various points in its later sections about the need for a robust international legal framework for addressing our environmental crisis, but its focal concern is that we should face the need for “a bold cultural revolution” (114).


BECAUSE OF THE eagerness of some commentators to stir the pot of controversy over the causes of climate change, this appeal for cultural revolution has been pushed to one side in a predictable flurry of what it’s tempting to call counter-pontification. Some have said indignantly that the pope has no charism of authoritative teaching on scientific matters, and so have excused themselves from thinking about the underlying theological point (rooted, as I have already said, in the same theology as Pope Benedict’s, a theology of human vocation in a limited material world and the decadence of a human culture incapable of facing non-negotiable truth). In fact, of course, no one, least of all the pope, has claimed or would claim such a magisterium; but what the pope actually says on this subject is grounded, entirely justifiably, in two things—first, a massive professional consensus on the rate of climate modification; and second, the direct experience of those living in the world’s most vulnerable environments, who will bear witness to the measurable effect of desertification or rising sea levels. In such a situation, if it is rationally arguable (as it unquestionably is) that certain modifications in human behavior can alter the situation, even marginally, for the better, and if it is theologically arguable (as it unquestionably is) that our habits of consumption reveal a spiritually disastrous condition, then it is frankly a diversionary tactic to make debating points about the pope’s non-infallibility on scientific affairs.

Also striking is the encyclical’s consistent emphasis on solidarity as a rule-of-thumb test for the moral defensibility of this or that policy. In Chapter IV especially, the pope reflects on the inseparability of social health and cohesion on the one hand and harmony with the environment on the other (yet again, there is conspicuous reference to Pope Benedict’s thought, as in 142). Pope Francis comes back here to the question of law: in many settings, the rule of law is a sorry fiction, with an administrative elite exploiting public process to advance private interest; and even in less corrupt environments, the law loses credibility when the social order manifestly fails to protect the poorest.

In a passage clearly marked by Pope Francis’s experience as a pastor in Latin America, he lays out the connections between a lawlessly drug-abusing culture in a wealthy society, the toxic social and political distortions imposed by this on poorer societies, the economic and environmental degradation produced by the requirements of drug supply, and the resultant decay of the rule of law all round (142). The pope’s vision—crucially—holds together what the rule of law is about (the security of persons from harm and the possibility of equal access to redress for all) with the acceptance of a world of mutual respect and the understanding of limits. Here, as at several points, Pope Francis makes it clear that his commitment to environmental justice is not in the least an advocacy of political primitivism or benign anarchy. Indeed, you could fairly say that he is suggesting that only when his “cultural revolution” is in hand can we properly understand politics itself. If our thinking and sensibilities are wedded to the will and its dramas, politics slips toward that marketized condition that increasingly dominates electoral campaigns—tell us (aspirant politicians) what you want and we shall argue about which of us can give it to you most effectively; never mind what our social life might be for. Solidarity with the world we’re part of and solidarity among us as its inhabitants belong together; environmental justice (justice for the poor, justice for the next generation, as spelled out in 159–60) teaches us about ordinary justice and lawfulness between citizens—and vice versa.

So it is no surprise that the argument returns more than once to the question of how local cultures are to be heard, respected, and given real agency (144); how we escape from the assumption that the discourse of the “developed” world is the only unchallengeable orthodoxy around the globe today. Change involves valuing the local, and so valuing the apparently modest gesture, the symbolically weighty but practically limited action that simply declares what might be done differently. St. Thérèse of Lisieux is invoked to good effect here (230), and this is a very significant issue if we are to avoid giving the impression of a crisis so intense that no small gesture is worthwhile. And it is with this in mind that the encyclical in its final pages (233–7) sets out a strong theology of the sacramental life, underlining not only the way in which the Eucharist reveals the inner energy of all material creation by the grace of the Incarnate Word but also the “sabbatical” vision of time made spacious in the celebration of God’s gifts. “We are called to include in our work a dimension of receptivity and gratuity” (237); and, strikingly, St. John of the Cross is cited (234) as establishing the continuity in absolute difference that is God’s presence in the created order. Ignoring or distorting our responsibility in the material world is ultimately a denial of that eternal relatedness that is God’s own trinitarian life: we need to discover a spirituality rooted in “that global solidarity which flows from the mystery of the Trinity” (240).

In short, this is more than an encyclical on the environment: it has clear and provocative things to say about our environmental responsibility and our current cultural malaise in this regard, but, by grounding its environmental critique in a critique of the soul of the contemporary developed world, it presents a genuinely theological vision with implications in several distinct areas. It was, for example, good to read (149 ff.) a brief but penetrating reflection on the actual geography of our urban environments, on how we display what we think matters in the way we design our civic spaces. These paragraphs should be a powerful diagnostic tool for understanding better what has to be done to rescue urban society—not only what support services should be available but what absolutely practical considerations should enter into the design of shared space, even the materials used in building. And, again echoing things that have been said from the Vatican often enough in the past decade, the issues around environmental risk prompt some hard questions about how a world still passionately committed to a model of absolute state sovereignty (except where globalized finance is concerned, of course) devises effective instruments for international monitoring and sanctioning of ecological threats.

This is one area in which the encyclical—like earlier papal pronouncements on the subject—will inevitably feel over-idealistic: we are not going to have a world government any time soon, and the problems in creating any such entity are pretty well insurmountable. The truth is that we are pretty much condemned to an endless and generally frustrating series of arguments over where any authority might lie for the monitoring of the environmental record of sovereign states—looking ultimately, perhaps, to a regime like the UN nuclear inspectorate. There could be more about the UN in these pages, though it is true that this is not a period where high expectations of that body are easy to sustain. And there is one other area where I feel more nuance could be added, though I mention it in full awareness of its delicacy, and of the fact that, as a non–Roman Catholic, I do not have exactly the same specific commitments about the ethics of birth control. I entirely agree that identifying a rising birth rate as the root of the problem or suggesting that ecological crisis is best resolved in terms of population limitation is often another displacement activity on the part of developed cultures unwilling to adjust their behavior (50): the burden on the planet represented by large poor families is incomparably less than the burden of the lifestyles of “developed” economies, and we need to be reminded unsparingly of this bald fact. But is there a question, in the longest view, about what population the earth can sustain? All the arguments about living in a limited environment (which make it clear that unlimited economic growth is nonsense) bear eventually on the issue of unlimited population growth. The pope has given indications that he is not insensitive to this question, but there is more to do here, I suspect, in clarifying what a response that was grounded in Catholic theology but clear-eyed about the challenge might look like.


A FINAL POINT: If I had a single reservation about the theology of Evangelii gaudium, it would have been that an understandable desire to avoid any churchy preciousness about liturgy made the brief remarks about the sacramental life in that document feel just a little perfunctory. This encyclical more than makes up for that in the eloquent reflections on the sacraments in its concluding pages. It is interesting that the theologian most often quoted in the document, apart from previous pontiffs, is Romano Guardini—not only a writer admired by Pope Benedict, but one who represents just that ecclesially and liturgically informed theology which came to fruition in Europe on the eve of Vatican II, presenting a coherent, imaginatively vivid, socially and politically critical worldview profoundly rooted in a highly traditional dogmatics, looking back to those patristic and monastic sources in which ethics, liturgy, spirituality, and doctrine were not separated. It is this hinterland that makes Pope Francis so hard to categorize in the eyes of those who think only in terms of left and right as conventionally imagined. And that is, I believe, a very healthy place for a theologian, a pope, or indeed a church, to be. If we can lift our heads from the trenches of contemporary media-driven controversy, what we are being offered in this encyclical is, in the very fullest sense, a theology of liberation, drawing our minds and hearts toward a converted culture that is neither what T. S. Eliot called “ringing the bell backwards,” pining for a lost social order and a lost form or style of authority, nor a religiously inflected liberalism, but a genuinely ecclesial vision. The pope’s cultural revolution is about restored relationship with the creation we belong with and the creator who made us to share his bliss in communion; it is about the unbreakable links between contemplation, eucharist, justice, and social transformation. It constitutes a major contribution to the ongoing unfolding of a body of coherent social teaching, and a worthy expansion and application of the deeply impressive doctrinal syntheses of Pope Benedict’s major encyclicals.

Published in the October 9, 2015 issue: 

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian, and poet. He is master of Magdalene College, Cambridge, and was archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012.

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