The release of the encyclical Laudato Si by Pope Francis has stirred much political debate, news clips and sound bites making all kinds of claims about what it does and does not say or what the Pope does and does not support. Yet, most of the comments seem to be disconnected from what he actually stated. Since the beginning of his pontificate his statements and interviews have been scrutinized in a manner that, at times, makes him appear as an “ink blot” psychological test with media commentators and reviewers reading into his views and quotes what they what to express.
Recently I was asked to express my opinion of the encyclical from a “Catholic” perspective to a local philosophical/theological club that consisted mostly of retired academics who tended to have a secular view of the world and seemed to view religion as an academic exercise. In turn, they demonstrated many pre-conceived notions about Pope Francis based on “others” or media opinions as noted above. For example, rather than discuss specific elements of Laudato Si many presented media reviewers’ articles of the encyclical and then debated the reviewers’ opinions.
Not being a philosopher or theologian or academic I approached the meeting with some trepidation. However, as it turned out it was a cordial affair but one riddled with many false perceptions of Pope Francis and the encyclical. The learning from that experience was that it is important to try to “unpack” what can be viewed as the core of Pope Francis’s intent and underlying world view that is expressed in the encyclical in order to better understand the various themes presented in it. I was forced to draw such inferences (in the moment) during the discussions in that meeting and want to share what I ended up concluding.
First, I must humbly admit I certainly cannot speak for the Pope but I do have an opinion. First and foremost, in my estimation, I believe he sees himself as an evangelist. His many papal addresses and interviews often expresses that theme in that he wants to reflect the “new evangelism” and open the door for all to know and experience Christ. Because of the evangelist theme he is very big on dialogue and is open to discussion with those of differencing viewpoints. This is reflected in the encyclical’s Introduction. His evangelical emphasis appears to be on Catholic social doctrine that is defined in Section III of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) “Life in Christ”. Major themes from the CCC he often restates are: priority for the poor, the virtue of work, the problem of greed, and having a responsible free market.
Contrary to many media interpretations about Pope Francis I do not think he is a revolutionary but has demonstrated over the years he is faithful to the Magisterium of the Church as reflected in the CCC and comments from previous Popes. However, to be objective he does not appear always clear in some of his communications. Consequently, I do believe in order to get clarity requires reflecting on what he is conveying within the context of what the CCC and the Church actually teaches.
I do think Pope Francis has a view of world problems and issues within a “Reconciliation Theology” framework which is interwoven throughput the encyclical. Major themes of that theology is that sin causes four levels of rupture – between man and God, man and his true self, man and his fellow man and with man and creation (nature). Consequently, everything is connected – ecology of nature and human ecology. Thus his comments throughout the encyclical on issues affecting the dignity of the human person. Harming creation is a sin, thus it is a moral issue requiring repentance and reconciliation. In turn, there are three levels of effort to foster reconciliation – use of our mind, our hearts and our actions.
Finally, I think he has a sacramental view of the world at many levels expressed in the sixth section of the encyclical. The Trinity serves as an example of interconnectiveness. The Eucharist provides us with the “soul food” to sustain us in our efforts in an often “hostile” social and political environment. Holy Mother Mary provides us with the model of hope and faith to deal with all problems not just those affecting creation.
I believe that Pope Francis has accomplished the goal of the encyclical to raise awareness and stimulate dialogue regarding the connection between our environment and ourselves. He rightly interjects “human ecology” into the environmental debate over what to do about “nature’s” ecology. I think he is asking for a faith based response that entails developing a stewardship lifestyle to care for creation and to provide assistance for the least among us – the poor. The “integral” ecology he highlights is a “big picture” that reflects a faith based commitment to all of God’s creation. There is no question he presents his views within a faith based context of reconciliation, yet in a manner that attempts to facilitate dialogue.
In many respects he uses the issue of climate change as a teaching realm for evangelization. He is calling for reconciliation between humans and creation that involves a change of mind, hearts and lifestyle that is reflected, in many respects, in the practice of the cardinal virtues of Prudence, Justice, Fortitude and Temperance. The controversy and misinterpretation over his acceptance of certain climate change views and his critiques of the “free market” will, however, cause some to be distracted from or disregard the encyclical and his main message.