A strong and moving word that encourages us to act together

By Jacques Haers SJ

One may sigh: ‘Finally…., finally the Pope speaks clear language about the environment. Why did he wait so long?’ Others will complain that the pope should stick to theology and avoid making economic or political claims. Whatever one may think of it, “Laudato Si” is a remarkable and strong official document, in line with the ecologically conscious attitude of the previous popes. It is a text that will stimulate and support the worldwide engagement of the international network that is the Roman Catholic Church. Moreover, the encyclical is not only addressed to Catholics, but to all human beings, worldwide.

This encyclical (1) offers a realistic perspective on reality, and (2) is carried and enlightened by a dynamics of hope and (3) a sense of engagement.

A realistic perspective on reality

In many ways, the encyclical reflects a sharp sense of critical realism, in which the ecological and human crises are tightly intertwined. The care for our common home that is the planet earth confronts us with a complex and threatening crisis in which ecological degradation and human injustices are interconnected: pollution of the environment and our disposable culture; climate changes and important social, economic and  political consequences for our living together; exploitation of nature and more, in particular scarcity of water; loss of biodiversity; decrease of human quality of life and social coherence; worldwide inequalities; poverty, war and violence. This crisis needs to be taken seriously. “Doomsday predictions can no longer be met with irony or disdain,” writes the Pope (LS 161). The causes of this crisis can be found to a large extent in human behavior (individual, conceptual and structural), thoughts and attitudes. In this context, Pope Francis refers to a venturesome trust in a technocratic, global society that believes in a myth of unlimited growth and is based on market mechanisms in favor of profit and self-interest. This crisis will not be solved without taking into account human reality and more in particular an unrestrained anthropocentrism and for which exploitation of nature is a normality, that leads to a factual relativism in which fellow human beings are treated as objects, and that starts from a master discourse of that becomes visible in new genetic technology and the sciences.

Ecoscepticism and the refusal to name the human responsibilities of this crisis are unknown to this encyclical. (Demonstrated for example by the fact that the president of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research participated in the press conference of the Vatican.) Notwithstanding hopeful initiatives and ‘good practices’ on an individual and local scale, and despite efforts on the level of international networks and civil initiatives, the political and institutional response to the crisis remains underdeveloped, because a lot of interests are at stake that lead to short term political maneuvers.

A dynamics of hope

The encyclical is carried by a dynamics of hope that is directed at all human beings and that finds its inspiration in the Christian tradition of creation. The importance of an integral ecology as a fundamental vision and framework of thought is strongly put forward. This stresses the multi-dimensional character of ecological thought: it impacts the environment (solidarity of nature as a whole and ecosystems), economics, social reality, cultural diversity that takes into account nature and environment (care for indigenous cultures), the daily ecology that expresses itself for example in  transport and housing or in the moral beliefs and moral behavior. Two big principles are central here: the common good and care for future generations.

The Christian creational perspective, as put forward in the encyclical and based on creation stories in Genesis and St. Francis of Assisi’s spirituality, emphasizes a moderate anthropocentrism in which human beings, as a special creation of God (image of God) remain interwoven with and connected to the whole of nature, and are seen as protectors (defenders, preservers, lawyers)  of this nature. There is strong opposition against exaggerated anthropocentrism that allows human beings to exploit nature and fellow human beings. Nature is considered our common home. This creational perspective also takes an option for the poor in which the exploited nature is also counted as ‘poor’ and entails solidarity among the whole of creation as communion. It also takes a Christological incarnational perspective in which great admiration for the creation as revelation of God is shown. The perspective of the future invites to creative thinking.

The encyclical encourages engagement

Throughout the encyclical, readers are encouraged to act on a personal level, on the level of the local and through societal structures on the national and international political level. Pope Francis invites us to embark on a dialogue on the environment within the international community, a dialogue at the service of human flourishing, and a dialogue between religions and science. The importance of dialogue is also emphasized between different ecclesial regions, between different Christian denominations and between religions – this is demonstrated by the large diversity in the Pope’s references. The emphasis on ‘dialogue’ points to the desire to start a broad societal process of discernment, in which Christians can offer their contribution and to which each creature as reflection of God contributes.

The encyclical highlights ecological education and ecological spirituality. In this respect, the Earth Charter (www.earthcharterinaction.org) offers interesting paths for this and suggests ways to alter our lifestyles, so that a new covenant between human being and environment can emerge, leading to ecological citizenship and to conversion that finds its inspiration in Jesus and in the consciousness that each creature is a reflection of God. Several spiritual attitudes are stressed by the Pope: joy, peace, sobriety, humility, love for citizens and politics that is realized in political structures and social organizations, sacramental sensibility (in particular in the Eucharist) and the celebrating of the quiet peace that allows us to deepen our relation with God. This spiritual attitude comes to the fore in the encyclical in the form of two prayers at the end of the text. Moreover, throughout the whole of the encyclical, the Pope gives examples of ‘good practices’ on individual and social levels, such as the practice of praying before and after a meal (LS 227;211;230).

This encyclical is not a doctrinal document and definitely doesn’t want to offer a definitive new theology. Here, there seems to lie a big task for theologians. Whatever one might say about the long length of the encyclical, or about the Pope taking irrelevant tangents in this text, or the lack of theological elaboration in this encyclical, the reader of this encyclical grows while reading this text, and continues growing when reading it a second or third time.

This blog was first published as part of the CLT Newsletter