Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Thursday, June 18, 2015

first thoughts on Laudato Si'

1) The encyclical is noteworthy for its dialogical character. The word “dialogue” appears repeatedly, and Francis begins by situating his thoughts in conversation with (a) recent popes, (b) Patriarch Bartholomew, and (c) St. Francis of Assisi. Throughout the encyclical he cites several national conferences of bishops.

2) A key passage comes early (pp. 16-17): “Technology, which, linked to business interests, is presented as the only way of solving these problems, in fact proves incapable of seeing the mysterious network of relations between things and so sometimes solves one problem only to create others.” (My emphasis.) That there is such a mysterious network of relations is central to Franciscan spirituality, and this concept points to a wholly different understanding of “network” than our technocracy offers.

3) “The climate is a common good, belonging to all and meant for all.” It is therefore simply immoral to act in such a way as to generate changes in the climate that affect others — especially those who because of poverty cannot adjust or adapt. “Many of the poor live in areas particularly affected by phenomena related to warming, and their means of subsistence are largely dependent on natural reserves and ecosystemic services such as agriculture, fishing and forestry. They have no other financial activities or resources which can enable them to adapt to climate change or to face natural disasters, and their access to social services and protection is very limited” (p. 20).

4) There are few italicized phrases in the encyclical, but these are the ones I noticed — and they seem to me key to grasping the whole argument:

  • access to safe drinkable water is a basic and universal human right, since it is essential to human survival and, as such, is a condition for the exercise of other human rights” (p. 23)
  • they [the poor] are denied the right to a life consistent with their inalienable dignity” (p. 24)
  • “a true ecological approach always becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor” (p. 35)
  • “We must continue to be aware that, regarding climate change, there are differentiated responsibilities” (p. 38)
  • Quoting John Paul II: ““God gave the earth to the whole human race for the sustenance of all its members, without excluding or favouring anyone” (p. 69)
  • “The basic problem goes even deeper: it is the way that humanity has taken up technology and its development according to an undifferentiated and one-dimensional paradigm” (p. 79)
  • “I suggest that we now consider some elements of an integral ecology, one which clearly respects its human and social dimensions” (p. 103)
  • “the development of a social group presupposes an historical process which takes place within a cultural context and demands the constant and active involvement of local people from within their proper culture” (p. 109)
  • “Interdependence obliges us to think of one world with a common plan” (p. 122)
  • St. Bonaventure “teaches us that each creature bears in itself a specifically Trinitarian structure, so real that it could be readily contemplated if only the human gaze were not so partial, dark and fragile” (p. 174)

5) Most of the early sections of the encyclical are not theological in their rhetoric or their orientation to the problems they address. In those sections, even when Francis is making points that seem to cry out for theological elaboration, he declines to do so. For example:

At the same time we can note the rise of a false or superficial ecology which bolsters complacency and a cheerful recklessness. 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 licence 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. (p.43)

Christians have some distinctive and detailed explanations for why human beings act this way, but Francis saves reflection on those explanations for later. I understand why he does this: he is trying to establish grounds for dialogue. But I fear that these passages will be quoted and used without reference to the theological context provided later in the encyclical.

6) This is an especially beautiful and powerful passage, in which Francis tries to steer between the Scylla of “anthropocentrism” and the Charybdis of “biocentrism”:

This situation has led to a constant schizophrenia, wherein a technocracy which sees no intrinsic value in lesser beings coexists with the other extreme, which sees no special value in human beings. But one cannot prescind from humanity. There can be no renewal of our relationship with nature without a renewal of humanity itself. There can be no ecology without an adequate anthropology. When the human person is considered as simply one being among others, the product of chance or physical determinism, then “our overall sense of responsibility wanes”. A misguided anthropocentrism need not necessarily yield to “biocentrism”, for that would entail adding yet another imbalance, failing to solve present problems and adding new ones. Human beings cannot be expected to feel responsibility for the world unless, at the same time, their unique capacities of knowledge, will, freedom and responsibility are recognized and valued. (p. 88)

7) For those of us who hold to the “seamless garment” or “consistent life ethic,” it’s interesting to see an early quotation from Patriarch Bartholomew: “It is our humble conviction that the divine and the human meet in the slightest detail in the seamless garment of God’s creation, in the last speck of dust of our planet”. Though the phrase “seamless garment” does not appear again, the concept governs much of the encyclical. For instance:

Since everything is interrelated, concern for the protection of nature is also incompatible with the justification of abortion. How can we genuinely teach the importance of concern for other vulnerable beings, however troublesome or inconvenient they may be, if we fail to protect a human embryo, even when its presence is uncomfortable and creates difficulties? “If personal and social sensitivity towards the acceptance of the new life is lost, then other forms of acceptance that are valuable for society also wither away”. (pp. 89-90, quoting Benedict XVI)

The phrase “throwaway culture” appears five times in the encyclical, and Francis clearly means to indicate by that our habit of discarding anything — including other human beings — that does not seem to contribute to our happiness-of-the-moment.

8) The notion of “integral ecology” pays tribute to Jacques Maritain’s notion of “integral humanism”. For Maritain, any true humanism must incorporate the “vertical dimension” of our relationship with God; Francis is clearly saying, with a similar logic, that any valid (any whole and healthy) ecology or model of “creation care” must incorporate our relationships with one another and with God. Thus one cannot think of what’s good for the environment without also thinking of what’s good for human culture. Integral ecology is cultural as well as natural:

It is not a matter of tearing down and building new cities, supposedly more respectful of the environment yet not always more attractive to live in. Rather, there is a need to incorporate the history, culture and architecture of each place, thus preserving its original identity. Ecology, then, also involves protecting the cultural treasures of humanity in the broadest sense. More specifically, it calls for greater attention to local cultures when studying environmental problems, favouring a dialogue between scientific-technical language and the language of the people. Culture is more than what we have inherited from the past; it is also, and above all, a living, dynamic and participatory present reality, which cannot be excluded as we rethink the relationship between human beings and the environment.

9) A book frequently quoted in this encyclical is Romano Guardini’s The End of the Modern World. Pope Francis has long been interested in and influenced by Guardini, who was also a major influence on Benedict XVI. If I had my way, I’d spend the next couple of months preparing to teach a class in which this encyclical — a far richer work than I had expected it to be, and one that I hope will have lasting power — would be read alongside Guardini’s book, with both accompanied by repeated viewings of Mad Max: Fury Road. The class would be called “Who Killed the World?”


  • A comment from David Wilson (who seems unable to post on our system; sorry if anyone else is having problems):

    You say, "If I had my way," well, don't you? If not, why not? It seems to me that beyond studying and learning from this remarkable document the best thing we can do is to keep it in the public eye and a class called 'Who Killed the World' would help to do that.

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