Laudato Si (The Care for Our Common Home) is more than an ecological encyclical. Pope Francis has given the Church and the world a document that addresses the full range of Catholic social teaching on economics, politics, culture, employment, technology, migration, poverty, peace, architecture, urban planning, education, human rights and the environment.
The secular headline will be that the Holy Father accepts that a “very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climatic system” (23). This conforms to his explicit hope for Laudato Si, which is to support the establishment of “enforceable international agreements [that] are urgently needed” (173).
Specifically, the Holy Father laments that “with regard to climate change, the advances have been regrettably few,” noting that “reducing greenhouse gases requires honesty, courage and responsibility, above all on the part of those countries which are more powerful and pollute the most” (169). In regard to the United Nations conference on climate change later this year, Francis writes that “we believers cannot fail to ask God for a positive outcome to the present discussions, so that future generations will not have to suffer the effects of our ill-advised delays” (169).
Laudato Si, therefore, explicitly is aimed at a comprehensive, global climate-change treaty. That’s very significant, as its endorsement of climate policies meshes with the priorities of the global progressive elite. This means that when Pope Francis arrives in Washington, President Barack Obama will claim that no recent U.S. administration has had policies more in line with the priorities of the Holy See. To be sure, the Holy Father notes that natural ecology cannot be separated from human ecology, and therefore authentic care for the environment is incompatible with abortion (120) or approval of homosexual unions (155).
A Franciscan Approach
Nearly 200 pages, Laudato Si takes its name from the opening lines of the “Canticle of the Creatures” of St. Francis of Assisi. The song begins, “Praised be my Lord” and goes on to hymn the glory of God revealed in the work of his creation. It’s a green Christianity that reaches back to the first pages of Genesis, in a manner than is distinctively Franciscan — meaning both the saint and the Pope. The environment has to be understood above all in terms of the “intimate relation between the poor and the fragility of the planet” and “the conviction that the whole world is intimately connected” (16).
The intimate connection at the heart of the draft is that offered by the biblical wisdom open to Jews, Christians and Muslims — namely, that there is threefold harmony that includes God, mankind and the natural world. Notes of “disharmony” in one relationship bring disharmony in others. Thus, a world that forgets God is soon to degrade nature; a degraded nature disrupts the relationships between people.
It is these broken relationships that drive the analysis in Francis’ encyclical. Since the beginning of his pontificate, Francis has denounced what he calls a “throwaway culture,” where the poor, the elderly, the unborn, the unemployed, the migrant and the disabled are cast to the margins because they lack economic utility. Two examples indicate how Francis’ environmentalism is as much about preference for the poor as it is about protection of nature.
Francis speaks of access to potable water as an issue of “primary” importance, though it is one rarely thought about in rich countries (28). If the political impact of Laudato Si concerns climate treaties for 2030 and not clean water for next year, it will not reflect the Pope’s priorities.
A second illuminating example is that of urban living. Many sprawling cities, surrounded by slums in the poor world, have become nearly unlivable, as residents literally choke on pollution. The poor are often excluded from green spaces that have been privatized by the wealthy (45). That’s a different way to think about the harmony between nature and human relationships — and leads to surprising conclusions.
For example, the poor in the world’s financial centers, New York and London, have ready access to vast parks on an equal basis with the rich, while in Beijing the rich pay to breathe different air than the poor do.
Structure and Scope
Laudato Si begins with an unusual indication that it was drafted so that “each chapter will have its own subject and specific approach” (16). The six chapters are quite different — possibly drafted by different teams — and may be addressed to different audiences. There is a serious treatment of theological (Chapter 2) and spiritual themes (Chapter 6) after beginning with a survey of the current situation (Chapter 1). Chapters 3 and 4 outline the human causes of environmental degradation and the need to build human ecology — the right to life, health of the family and access to education — with natural ecology.
Chapter 5, on practical policy choices, will likely engender the greatest debate. While Francis writes that “there are certain environmental issues where it is not easy to achieve a broad consensus” and that “I would state once more that the Church does not presume to settle scientific questions or to replace politics” (188), he does for example, come out against carbon trading schemes (171), which is a rather specific political position.
Even more boldly, the Holy Father writes, “The time has come to accept decreased growth in some parts of the world, in order to provide resources for other places to experience healthy growth” (193). The number of political voices that share that view is, to be generous, miniscule, which is why Francis insists that “a strategy for real change calls for rethinking processes in their entirety, for it is not enough to include a few superficial ecological considerations while failing to question the logic which underlies present-day culture” (197).
Rethinking the necessity of economic growth, or that economic growth in one part of the world constrains economic growth elsewhere, allies the Holy Father with a tiny minority of specialists in economic development.
The Impact of Laudato Si
The encyclical, already the subject of fevered interest before its release, will generate immense attention. There are those who will cheer and those who will be challenged. A quick survey of how that might look:
At least four groups will most heartily cheer Laudato Si.
- International climate-change activists will be giddy. They have the support of an immensely popular pope for a climate-change treaty to be concluded his year. When the Holy Father reiterates that appeal at the U.N. in New York this September, it will represent a clear victory for the international environmental movement, heretofore always received coolly by the Vatican, given its preference for population control and socially libertine policies.
- Critics of the market economy will be heartened. When the apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel) was released in November 2013, the trenchant critiques of the free-market economy garnered the most attention. Pope Francis takes nothing of that back here, in a document of greater magisterial authority. In fact, against those who complained that no one actually supported the unfettered free market Francis criticized, the Holy Father responds directly: “They may not affirm such theories with words, but nonetheless support them with their deeds by showing no interest in more balanced levels of production, a better distribution of wealth, concern for the environment and the rights of future generations. Their behavior shows that, for them, maximizing profits is enough. Yet by itself the market cannot guarantee integral human development and social inclusion” (109). It is as fulsome an attack on the free economy in papal social teaching since Pope Pius XI. In its more passionate passages, Laudato Si sometimes seems an anti-market economic encyclical delivered in environmental rhetoric. Indeed, if the priority was solely on environmental matters, Laudato Si would note that state-directed economies (Soviet Union, China) have far worse environmental records than liberal democratic market economies.
- Also cheered will be those who think that effective evangelization begins with highlighting areas of common concern, rather than areas of conflict, with the ambient culture. Benedict XVI advanced a similar argument in his 2011 address in the German federal parliament, where he spoke approvingly of ecological awareness as an invitation to consider human ecology.
- Theologians will welcome a deeper and richer account of the environment in Catholic thinking. The encyclical does not limit itself to Genesis and the command to steward the Earth; it speaks of all creation anticipating its definitive Sabbath rest in the Eucharist.
Likewise, there are four groups that will be challenged by Laudato Si.
- Those who have policy disagreements with the many specific proposals contained in the encyclical. For example, there may be Catholic politicians of a green bent who favor carbon trading as a way to reduce greenhouse gases. They will now have to explain why they oppose the Pope. So, too, will political leaders who have different climate-change policies. In the United States, Laudato Si constitutes a significant realignment of the Holy See with Democratic Party priorities.
- International progressive elites tend to favor a sort of “rich-country environmentalism,” which is preoccupied with state regulation of the economy and alternative-energy schemes. Francis’ call for humbler lifestyles, lower economic growth and a preferential option for the poor will not sit well with the global jet set.
- For generations, the consensus in economic development thinking has been that global economic growth is the only path to real development for the poor countries, which, by international trade, benefit from global growth. The Holy Father’s idea that lower economic growth in rich countries will favor development in poor ones is against the scientific consensus in that field. It would be hard to find a political leader, Catholic or otherwise, anywhere in the world who would advocate lower economic growth for his country as part of his platform.
- Theologians will have some work to do in reconciling Laudato Si with St. John Paul II’s Centesimus Annus. That difficulty should not be exaggerated, as social encyclicals can seem at odds with preceding ones, as for example the differences between Leo XIII and Pius XI. There are points of overlap too, as John Paul wrote that “worrying is the ecological question which accompanies the problem of consumerism and which is closely connected to it. In his desire to have and to enjoy rather than to be and to grow, man consumes the resources of the Earth and his own life in an excessive and disordered way” (Centesimus Annus, 37). Yet it is true that John Paul had a significantly different assessment of the market, or what he preferred to call “human freedom in the economic sphere.” At first glance, John Paul’s assessment that “on the level of individual nations and of international relations, the free market is the most efficient instrument for utilizing resources and effectively responding to needs” (34) is difficult to reconcile with Francis writing that “we need to reject a magical conception of the market, which would suggest that problems can be solved simply by an increase in the profits of companies or individuals. Is it realistic to hope that those who are obsessed with maximizing profits will stop to reflect on the environmental damage that they will leave behind for future generations?” (Laudato Si, 190). This reconciliation can be done, but it remains a theological task to classify these statements of the magisterium.
That, among many other discussions, will occupy the Church as she receives a major contribution to her social doctrine.
He was the Register’s Rome correspondent from 1998-2003.