The Theological Heart of Laudato Si'

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The overwhelming immediate importance of Laudato Si’ is to call both church and world to respond to the “urgent challenge to protect our common home” (13). As Tony Annett has already ably pointed out, Francis is not mincing words here, even if he is careful. Above all, the encyclical suggests we are home-wreckers, yet we also have a chance for a deeper conversion from our “internal deserts,” (217; one of the many quotes from Benedict XVI) to a more joyful and more challenging way of life: “Human beings, while capable of the worst, are also capable of rising above themselves, choosing again what is good, and making a new start, despite their mental and social conditioning. We are able to take an honest look at ourselves, to acknowledge our deep dissatisfaction, and to embark on new paths to authentic freedom” (205). Such a response, the pope makes clear in chapters 1 & 5, requires international cooperation because of the nature of the problems. That Francis chose to highlight the atmosphere, water, and the diversity of species is telling – these are all problems where global cooperation is absolutely necessary. Your car, lawn, and hardwood flooring may very well be implicated, but “nevertheless, self-improvement on the part of individuals will not by itself remedy the extremely complex situation facing our world today” (219).

Chapters 1 & 5 contain a lot of the material that will grab attention in the larger media. But the heart of the encyclical theologically and spiritually is chapters 2-4. It is important to highlight that this document is firmly and clearly theological. If we contemplate the broad structure of these chapters, we can see an elegant scheme of creation, fall, and redemption. This fundamental pattern of the Christian narrative is so easy to forget – to sing “Canticle of the Sun” while forgetting the cross, or to offer the cross as an escape hatch from creation, rather than a tree of life that makes way for the Spirit’s renewal of creation. To read the encyclical as a whole – not always easy given its length and its incredible detail! – is to be reminded of this basic pattern: God’s gift, our human sinfulness, and the everlasting covenant sealed by the Spirit, promising a vision of renewal to the ends of the earth.

Chapter 2 offers a theology of creation, in which “each creature has its own purpose. None is superflouous” (84). The image of all creation oriented to the praise of God may be one of the most spiritually revelatory for many readers; while it pours out of the psalmody, it isn’t always a functioning part of the Catholic spiritual repertoire. Francis is careful to point out how Christianity properly demythologizes nature (78), but at the same time, can be seen as elevating its importance, especially by reminding us that “we are not God” (67). Certainly the chapter is a jarring contrast with any kind of a social Darwinist picture of nature as “red in tooth and claw,” and its robust conviction that creatures bear inherent purposes is a challenge to ideologies of science that see nature as blind.

Chapter 3 then goes on to diagnose the sinfulness of the current situation. It is no surprise that Francis has harsh words for the current world order; what is a bit more innovative is the weaving together of a set of diseases that combine to create this problem. The order here is important: the pope starts with technology. While he recognizes all the good that has happened over the last two centuries, Francis here starts his critique by borrowing quotes from Romano Guardini’s ominously-titled The End of the Modern World: “There is a tendency to believe that every increase in power means “an increase of ‘progress’ itself”, an advance in “security, usefulness, welfare and vigour; …an assimilation of new values into the stream of culture”, as if reality, goodness and truth automatically flow from technological and economic power as such” (105). Papal biographer Austin Ivereigh has already noted that Francis’s encyclical is particularly a challenge to the mindset of inevitable progress; in this way, it forms a remarkable pairing with Benedict’s overlooked Spe Salvi, whose extended treatment of communitarian Christian hope is juxtaposed with false ideologies of progress, particularly those of libertarian individualism and fascist totalitarianism. Francis moves to lengthy criticisms of consumerism and globalization, and most strikingly, then roots the entire edifice in a “practical relativism” which, even more dangerous than “doctrinal relativism,” involves “the rise of a relativism which sees everything as irrelevant unless it serves one’s own immediate interests” (122). Here, as in a number of other places, the pope makes the same connection Benedict made in Caritas in Veritate, paragraph 51, in which distortions of human sexuality and human life itself are manifestations of the same mindset as exploitation of the planet. Overall, this chapter’s litany of the sins of our age should generate a lot of discussion in the church. Most important, I think, is the final extensive discussion of John Paul II’s theology of work in Laborem Exercens. In that overlooked document, John Paul II offers an interpretation of Genesis 1 at least as important as his “theology of the body.” Francis affirms that “if we reflect on the proper relationship between human beings and the world around us, we see the need for a correct understanding of work; …. Underlying every form of work is a concept of the relationship which we can and must have with what is other than ourselves” (125). Francis echoes Wendell Berry’s classic essay “Conservation is Good Work,” which argues that “work” is simply what names our relationship to the environment, and work can be either good or bad – for the planet, for our relations with others, and for ourselves.

Finally, chapter 4 lays out “integral ecology” in more detail than any prior papal document. This is a vision of a redeemed society, in which individual consumption is replaced by well-planned urban environments in which actions are directed toward the common good. The pope has provided the first extensive papal teaching on urban planning, noting for example the need to “protect those common areas, visual landmarks and urban landscapes which increase our sense of belonging, of rootedness, of “feeling at home” within a city which includes us and brings us together. It is important that the different parts of a city be well integrated and that those who live there have a sense of the whole, rather than being confined to one neighbourhood and failing to see the larger city as space which they share with others” (151). In essence, the pope is asking us to share space, not simply redistribute resources. He is asking us to consider the real importance of a town square or classic city parks.  It is also striking that he puts a great emphasis on what we pass on to future generations. In describing the importance of the common good, Francis emphasizes “the notion of the common good also extends to future generations. The global economic crises have made painfully obvious the detrimental effects of disregarding our common destiny, which cannot exclude those who come after us. We can no longer speak of sustainable development apart from intergenerational solidarity” (159). Perhaps the single most appalling feature of those who ignore environmental problems is how sentimental the same people sometimes can get about “protecting our children.” The idea that the form of life we currently have is barely two generations old for the majority of Americans (and non-existent for the majority of the globe), and is clearly unsustainable for 2-3 more generations, and yet we act as if it can simply go on forever. It is incredible. And, as with his title image of the Earth as our common home, the pope is wisely appealing to the importance of a sense of family in bringing about real conversion. The pope’s final appeal to the importance of the sacraments in showing us this renewal, key to his final chapter, is a manifestation of how seriously he takes environmental commitment as essential to Catholic identity.

Due to the encyclical’s length, it will be easy for people to cherry-pick quotations. After all, Francis has been quite careful throughout in recognizing the limitations of his claims. This is very appropriate in a document whose final chapter lauds the spiritual importance of sobriety and humility (which the pope notes wryly “were not favourably regarded in the last century” (224)!). Yet the overall effect o the encyclical is undeniable: this is a sweeping call for change, deeply rooted in a Catholic worldview, one that burrows into every facet of our lives and deeply into the human heart, as well. Francis is here confirming what many have said: the environmental crisis is really the key to economic questions, sexual questions, spiritual questions. It is the key to everything, because the message of environmentalism is, as Francis repeats many times in the document, “everything is connected.” It is extremely telling that the “official” date of the document is Pentecost. This “birthday of the Church” is importantly about what the Church is for: not itself, but for the redemptions and renewal of all of God’s creation.


David Cloutier is an associate professor of theology at the Catholic University of America and the author of Walking God’s Earth: The Environment and Catholic Faith.

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