Laudato Si’ – Becoming Painfully Aware

This is the first in a multi-part series exploring the Laudato Si’ Encyclical Letter on the environment by Pope Francis.

Our goal is not to amass information or to satisfy curiosity, but rather to become painfully aware, to dare to turn what is happening to the world into our own personal suffering and thus to discover what each of us can do about it.” – Pope Francis

On Thursday June 18th, Pope Francis released his much-anticipated Encyclical Letter on the environment, Laudato Si’. The Encyclical began making headlines months ago as the deadline for its release approached, with commentators on all sides of the political and religious aisle eagerly awaiting its release. The encyclical’s six chapters each deal with different themes, but all lead to the same conclusion—mankind is sinking deeper into sin and ecological destruction, we need to change our ways drastically, and the climate clock is running out of time.

There are a number of big themes that Francis is trying to tackle in this Encyclical, among them:

  • the intimate relationship between the poor and the fragility of the planet
  • the conviction that everything in the world is connected
  • the critique of new paradigms and forms of power derived from technology
  • the call to seek other ways of understanding the economy and progress
  • the value proper to each creature
  • the serious responsibility of international and local policy

One of the things that immediately stood out for me fairly early in the letter was the way Francis frames the age-old science vs religion question. Although he is clear that ultimately climate change is a theological issue for the Church, it struck me as noteworthy how much weight he gives to the science as theological justification.

“I will begin by briefly reviewing several aspects of the present ecological crisis, with the aim of drawing on the results of the best scientific research available today, letting them touch us deeply and provide a concrete foundation for the ethical and spiritual itinerary that follows.” (15)

Francis sees scientific, ethical and spiritual concerns as equally important, but I suspect some of his audience was surprised by his suggestion that the ethics and spirituality of climate change should be built on the “concrete foundation” of science. Francis, unlike some of his predecessors, seems to be more inclined to view science and religion as co-equals. This is encouraging for the success of ecotheology, and for Catholics hoping Rome will provide moral leadership on environmental issues.

As someone coming from an animist worldview, it was hard not to feel at times that the Pope had been drinking from the chalice of nature religion, especially when he talks about hearing the cry of our sister, Mother Earth. Even accounting for the St. Francis of Assisi influences on the language, I think this is more than flowery Franciscan poetics.

St. Francis of Assisi
St. Francis of Assisi surrounded by nature. Source: Andy Blackledge (CC BY 2.0 Attribution via Flickr.com)

This view of the Earth as alive, or something close to it, can be traced to the growing influence of Earth System science and integral ecology. It’s clear in the first chapter that Francis, or his scientific advisers, have integrated the view of the Earth as an interconnected and dynamic system derived from this synthesis.

“Still, we can see signs that things are now reaching a breaking point, due to the rapid pace of change and degradation; these are evident in large-scale natural disasters as well as social and even financial crises, for the world’s problems cannot be analyzed or explained in isolation. There are regions now at high risk and, aside from all doomsday predictions, the present world system is certainly unsustainable from a number of points of view, for we have stopped thinking about the goals of human activity.” (61)

This more holistic approach makes this Encyclical extremely powerful, setting it apart from most environmental statements released by mainstream religious organizations. Instead of appeals for a greener economy and sustainable development, which often amount to little more than utopian calls for “green capitalism,” Francis questions the logic of neoliberal globalization and high-tech development, which he calls the “techno-economic paradigm.” It is precisely this paradigm that we need to be concerned with, Francis warns, because it is a root cause of our modern ecological crisis and the rise of “throwaway culture.”

Many religious critiques stop there, suggesting a mix of sustainability and renewables as the fix. Francis goes one step deeper. Throwaway culture, he suggests, has a darker shadow: Our ability to care for the world, both human and more-than-human, is vanishing. This lack of compassion manifests in a world that calls destruction progress, one that has become indifferent to life. One inevitable outcome is a human-driven unprecedented Sixth Extinction occurring on this planet.

Another outcome is the growing number of environmental refugees. Impoverished migrants fleeing the effects of climate change is a worrying new trend, as noted in recent reports. As Francis argues:

“They are not recognized by international conventions as refugees; they bear the loss of the lives they have left behind, without enjoying any legal protection whatsoever. Sadly, there is widespread indifference to such suffering, which is even now taking place throughout our world. Our lack of response to these tragedies involving our brothers and sisters points to the loss of that sense of responsibility for our fellow men and women upon which all civil society is founded.” (25)

climate refugees
Climate Refugee Camp in the UK. Source: Plane Stupid (CC BY 2.0 Attribution via Flickr.com)

That last sentence is the crux. In order to be able to respond, that is, to be “responsible,” we need a framework to assign value or meaning. Those meanings in turn produce obligations, which we translate in ethical arguments about responsibility. But as Francis notes, we have lost this “sense of responsibility” for our fellow humans and the more-than-human world.

“It is not enough, however, to think of different species merely as potential “resources” to be exploited, while overlooking the fact that they have value in themselves. Each year sees the disappearance of thousands of plant and animal species which we will never know… Because of us, thousands of species will no longer give glory to God by their very existence, nor convey their message to us. We have no such right.” (33)

Theologically speaking, humans have given up the responsibility of stewardship but not the right of dominion. Francis suggests it is this willful turning away from our responsibilities that is the true evil we must face.

“As often occurs in periods of deep crisis which require bold decisions, we are tempted to think that what is happening is not entirely clear. Superficially, apart from a few obvious signs of pollution and deterioration, things do not look that serious, and the planet could continue as it is for some time. Such evasiveness serves as a license to carrying on with our present lifestyles and models of production and consumption. This is the way human beings contrive to feed their self-destructive vices: trying not to see them, trying not to acknowledge them, delaying the important decisions and pretending that nothing will happen.” (59)

Francis is challenging us to rethink individual and social responsibility, ultimately all the way to the highest level of international climate politics. We need a global revolution in our relationship with the Earth. As the Encyclical subtitle suggests, we must care for our common home. Hopefully the message of Laudato Si’ will play some small role in achieving that outcome.

*All quote references in () are to the paragraph numbers in the the Encyclical.

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