Laudato Si – Pope Francis’ encyclical for all people…

“Laudato Si” , Praised Be the Lord… for this much awaited encyclical. Creatio has been working for over a decade now to promote a truly Catholic environmental vision and practice. It is a message we have been trying to live and expecting to hear… Laudato si… Thank you Pope Francis. Read the full encyclical here.

I will follow this post with 3 other articles on: 1. The theology, structure and style of Laudato si’  2. Laudato si’ on climate change and 3. environment and evangelization in Laudato si’.

Below, my initial reflections on the encyclical:

1. A Prophetic Call to “Wake up the world”

You can’t judge a book by its cover but you can learn a lot about an encyclical from its title. Laduato si’ means “Praised be” in… Umbrian. Encyclical’s are usually written and entitled in latin and there are very few exceptions in the two millennial history of the Catholic Church.  One of the most recent exceptions was Pope Pius XI’s prophetic ‘Mit brennender Sorge’ (With Burning Anxiety), ” a denunciation of the ideas of the Third Reich… smuggled into Germany and read out from the pulpits of Catholic churches on Palm Sunday 1937.”1 If a Pope choses a non-Latin title he is making a point. At first there was some confusion whether the title of Pope Francis first ‘solo’ encyclical was to be Laudato sii (latin), but the Pope explicitly chose “Laudato si’in the original Umbrian of St. Francis of Assisi. What is the point Pope Francis is trying to make?

Laudato si’ is intended to be read and understood by everyone: “I would like to enter into dialogue with all people” said the Pope. Just like Francis of Assisi’s Canticle of the Sun, Laudato si is filled with passages of lyrical and poetic beauty. This is unusual language compared to Pope Francis’ predecessors, and his style is distinctly colloquial, accessible and down to earth. He uses phrases like “The earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth (porqueria)” (161) and “there is a mystical meaning to be found in a leaf, in a mountain trail, in a dewdrop, in a poor person’s face” (233). Laudato si’ is something that anyone can read.

And indeed it almost seems that everyone has read it.  This is only day one of the encyclical’s publication but the news cycle has been booming for weeks already. The encyclical was highly anticipated, praised and criticized before it was even published. Today, there is so much out there: an official press statement and excellent summary by Cardinal Turkson, there are a few good articlesone very insightful article I disagree with and a lot of porqueria: parse through and come to your own conclusions within this ample selection of the good, the bad and the ugly. Even President Obama had a comment. Regardless of the content, I can’t remember a time when a Papal encyclical received so much attention. Rewind back to Spe Salve or Caritas in veritate, fantastic documents written in ‘Doctor of the Church’ style and filled with environmental insights; do you remember anyone, beyond the intellectual elite, caring? (Note: 3 days after the publication of Laudato si, The Economist has a major article, and the Financial Times and Wall Street Journal have 3 each and I lost count in the New York Times). The world is now listening to the Church and reading the Pope!

We must also admit that not everyone is happy with Laudato si, as the multiple references above can testify. Many people are inspired, quite a few people are perplexed and a some are really pissed off. Why? One key misunderstanding comes from the expectations about the encyclical’s genre. If I read Habermas looking for lyrical inspiration or listened to Bob Marley seeking theological precision I would be disappointed. It seems that many Catholics were expecting an air tight doctrinal treatise on creation while others thought of it as a political manifesto or climate policy white paper. It is none of these. If anything, Laudato si is a spiritual wake-up call – known in theological language as “prophetic”. Context matters. Furthermore, before reading Laudato si’ we should remember we are living the “Year of Consecrated Life” in which Pope Francis (who is a consecrated priest) demanded the following of his fellow religious brothers and sisters:

“I am counting on you “to wake up the world”, since the distinctive sign of consecrated life is prophecy. As I told the Superiors General: “Radical evangelical living is not only for religious: it is demanded of everyone. But religious follow the Lord in a special way, in a prophetic way.” This is the priority that is needed right now: “to be prophets who witness to how Jesus lived on this earth… a religious must never abandon prophecy” (29 November 2013). 

Prophets receive from God the ability to scrutinize the times in which they live and to interpret events: they are like sentinels who keep watch in the night and sense the coming of the dawn (cf. Is 21:11-12). Prophets know God and they know the men and women who are their brothers and sisters. They are able to discern and denounce the evil of sin and injustice. Because they are free, they are beholden to no one but God, and they have no interest other than God. Prophets tend to be on the side of the poor and the powerless, for they know that God himself is on their side.”

Laudato si’ is Francis example of a prophetic “wake up” call in which he takes the side of “the poor and the powerless”. Read outside of this context, the encyclical is likely to be misunderstood. One commentator picked up on the prophetic genre: “Francis has penned a cri de coeur… Like the prophet Ezekiel, Pope Francis sees perversion and decadence in a global system dominated by those who consume and destroy….” We must recognize the novelty of the style of this encyclical – it is not an “application of Catholic social doctrine to help us think in a disciplined way about how to respond to environmental threats”, but rather a prophetic and poetic appeal: beautiful, emotive and real. What does this prophecy of Laudato si’ achieve? Austin Iveriegh, a Francis biographer familiar with the Pope’s language and style, came to the following conclusion, “The pope is almost saying: ‘You may not believe in God, but if you believe in ecology, you can’t ignore this.’” Laudato si invites people of all beliefs to stop, reflect and pay attention.

2. The heart of the matter

A prophetic hermeneutic helps us come closer to the heart of Laudato si’. Every Old Testament prophet, in some form or another, made an appeal for transformation and inner conversion while deploring certain aspects of personal and societal life. This is no different in Pope Francis’ encyclical. There are several calls for “conversion” and a “bold cultural revolution”. But no prophet is the same, each has a message related to their specific time and place. The words of Jeremiah are different to Ezekiel as they are different to John the Baptist. ‘Prophet Francisco’ has a distinct kind of conversion and revolution in mind.

In prophecy, we must open ourselves to the full impact of the lyrical, poetic, symbolic and emotive language that includes the words themselves but also transcends them. Like Archbishop Chaput we must ask ourselves, “what is essential” in Laudato si’. We must try to listen to what the Pope wants to communicate, rather than communicating our pre-conceived notions and pragmatically driven preoccupations while using the Pope’s words. For example, climate change is mentioned 7 times in 6 paragraphs in Laudato si’ (which is 187 pages long). To center the encyclical on climate change, as well as to ignore climate change, is to miss the point of the message. If the heart of Laudato si’ is not climate change, what is the essence of this complex, rich and unprecedented Papal document?

The villain in Laudato si  is a “misguided anthropocentrism”, the hallmark of modernity (116), which means that the “human being declares independence from reality and behaves with absolute dominion, the very foundations of our life begin to crumble, for “instead of carrying out his role as a cooperator with God in the work of creation, man sets himself up in place of God and thus ends up provoking a rebellion on the part of nature”. When we forget God and think of ourselves as masters, that leads to a misguided lifestyle, filled with unbridled consumption, technocratic manipulation, practical relativism, the throwaway culture and so many other ills. The culture of consumption and misguided technology take an especially serious beating. For Pope Francis “the present ecological crisis is one small sign of the ethical, cultural and spiritual crisis of modernity…” What we need is an ecological conversion… whereby the effects of their encounter with Jesus Christ become evident in their relationship with the world around them” (218). What is important about this kind of conversion is that it is seen in reality, in concreteness and it is visible. We need to be more converted, and preach when we have actions to back up our words… Even creation is waiting to see the concreteness of our witness. Conversion is the heart of the message of Laudato si’. If we don’t change, nothing will change.

3. The Mind that Guides the Heart

I think at this point I would be short-changing Laudato si’ by defending it from critics and subtly mischaracterizing Pope Francis as an inspired prophet whose reasoning falls a little short. The encyclical is full of heart and poetry, but there is a brilliant logic that inspires it’s fiery passion. The reason the environment needs our conversion is because “everything is connected”, an oft-repeated phrase that weaves the encyclical together.

“Everything is connected” points to conversion but finds its root and source in a very important theological concept: the Holy Trinity.  The Trinitarian mystery is the “central mystery of the Christian faith and of Christian life” (CCC 261) and it indeed connects everything together. “Everything is connected” is a simple way of explaining the relevance of Trinity to all levels of reality including the environment. The Trinity impresses upon all reality the dimension of relationship and describes the most intimate dimension of all beings, including human beings: we are made for relationship. Pope Benedict XVI highlighted this aspect in  Caritas in veritate  asking for “a deeper critical evaluation of the category of relation… [which] cannot be undertaken by the social sciences alone, insofar as the contribution of disciplines such as metaphysics and theology is needed if man’s transcendent dignity is to be properly understood (emphasis not my own but from the Pope Emeritus)”. Throughout Laudato si’ Pope Francis has reminded us of the category of relation by repeating the fourfold levels of relationship and reconciliation: “relationships with God, with ourselves, with others and with the world” (237; see 119, 70, 66, 155, 218, 237, 240). Reconciliation theology, which was recently categorized by Saint John Paul II and rests on trinitarian relationality3, is the theological backbone that holds Laudato si’ together. In the Pope’s own words: “It cannot be emphasized enough how everything is interconnected” (138).

Conclusion

Laudato si’ is directed to the “whole world” and its cares about the environment, climate change, pollution, biodiversity, etc. Pope Francis is aware that its message “must be understood within the world of symbols and customs proper to each human group” (144). The world of ‘symbols and customs’ of the broad human family is a complex one, yet in Laudato si’ and its prophetic language Francis has shown the beauty of Christ and the Catholic faith in its commitment to the care of creation.

I don’t think it is possible to speak with crystalline theological and intellectual precision and appeal to “the whole world” at the same time (at least not the relativistic and millennial world we live in today). In a pastoral language, Pope Francis has demonstrated how the reality of the Trinity expressed through reconciliation theology and lived out in Christian life and values offers deep answers to the worlds problems… in an accessible, compelling and incarnate way.  This is a great accomplishment in my opinion – I don’t often find New York Times op-eds. or crowds flocking to attend lectures, on the topic of the central mystery of the Christian faith.  As far as I know Pope Francis has not said anything incorrect or changed doctrine by an iota, but he has broken some protocols: there are imprecisions and ‘unusual’ prescriptions, Umbrian titles and prophetic condemnations, colloquialisms and expressions like ‘porqueria’. But if the whole world is learning that “each creature bears in itself a specifically Trinitarian structure” (239), “since everything is interrelated, concern for the protection of nature is also incompatible with the justification of abortion” (120) and “invites us to develop a spirituality of that global solidarity which flows from the mystery of the Trinity” (240), aren’t these other concerns “sweating the small stuff”? Pope Francis just gave the world a magisterial lecture on the Holy Trinity and Christians should be overjoyed.

Furthermore, the Pope is ‘in the business’ of reaching  the existential peripheries (see Evangelii gaudium), and there is a certain ‘cost of doing business’: some people will be upset. This may remind us of Jesus, who walked around Palestine breaking many protocols to share the Good News: speaking to Samaritan women, healing on Sabbath, eating with prostitutes and dining with publicans – and he made a lot of people upset. Disciplined treatises by Pope’s are a great gift, and we should be ever grateful for the treasures John Paul II and pope sheepBenedict XVI have left us – which I believe will bear much fruit for decades if not centuries to come. But there is no reason we should expect every Pope to be a philosophical or theological genius. Pope Francis is a pastoral genius, who “smells like sheep”, speaks to the people and has gathered deep respect from the secularized masses.

In this vein, perhaps the greatest joy of Laudato si’ is not to be found in its environmental but rather ecumenical and unifying message. The most significant gesture of all seems to be the inclusion of Patriarch Bartholomew of the Orthodox Church among the Tradition of magisterial authors4 and to boldly claim that “we share the hope of full ecclesial communion” (7). A sign of the Trinity is unity. The face of the Trinity is Jesus Christ, “he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility” (Eph 2, 15).  Laudato si’ is a witness to unity that can bring distant people together. Environmentalists who never seriously considered a reasonable argument against abortion may have found one for the first time and pro lifers who denied climate change may have discovered the possibility of a nuanced acceptance. Let us work for unity, for a global solidarity and a cultural revolution which flows from the Trinity. “Ears that hear and eyes that see– the LORD has made them both.” (Prov. 20, 12)

Footnotes:

1. See John Hooper’s Q&A in The Guardian.

2. CV 53, “Pope Paul VI noted that “the world is in trouble because of the lack of thinking”.128 He was making an observation, but also expressing a wish: a new trajectory of thinking is needed in order to arrive at a better understanding of the implications of our being one family; interaction among the peoples of the world calls us to embark upon this new trajectory, so that integration can signify solidarity129 rather than marginalization. Thinking of this kind requires a deeper critical evaluation of the category of relation. This is a task that cannot be undertaken by the social sciences alone, insofar as the contribution of disciplines such as metaphysics and theology is needed if man’s transcendent dignity is to be properly understood.” Let me add: Is Laudato si not an expression of Paul VI’s and Benedict XVI’s wish for a new trajectory of thinking and the contribution of theology to the understanding of man’s transcendent dignity? Does not the category of relation find its root and meaning in the Trinity itself and a digestible articulation in integral ecology where “everything is connected”?

3. John Paul II explained that it is legitimate to relate the “whole mission of Christ… as the one who reconciles” and that the “four reconciliations which repair the four fundamental rifts; reconciliation of man with God, with self, with the brethren and with the whole of creation,” must be a stimulus “which ideally might become the lever for a true transformation of society.”“John Paul II, Reconciliatio et paenitentia, 7; 26; 3

4. Not to mention the quote of a Muslim Sufi mystic to exemplify creation mysticism. (233)

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