If you want to make sense of the often coded and conflicting language of Laudato Si, Pope Francis’s recent encyclical on the environment, the place to start is not to compare it with the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report or the United Nations Convention on Biodiversity, but rather to understand it in the context of the tradition known as Catholic Social Teaching.
For Laudato Si, the critically important preceding texts are Pacem in Terris (1963), Gaudium et spes (1965), and Populorum Progressio (1967). Pacem in Terris, written by Pope John XXIII, is an encyclical, like Laudato Si. Peace on Earth, its English name, is the first papal text that was addressed to “all people of good will” in addition to the Catholic community.
Gaudium et spes (The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World) emerged during the Second Vatican Council in 1965 and is a revolutionary document, marking a fundamental shift in methodology for magisterial texts, abjuring fundamental truth claims and “natural law,” and establishing that the purpose of “the Church in the modern world” is to “render service” to the human community.
Pope Paul VI’s Popolorum Progessio (On the Development of Peoples) (1967) is a masterpiece of reading the actual human global situation with an eye to how the Catholic Church might promote human development in a manner that uplifted human dignity and advanced the common good.
Like its predecessors, Laudato Si has internal contradictions and, in some cases, outright errors. But the particulars of the Pope’s environmental vision are not where the significance of the document lies. Rather, it can only be understood in the context of Francis’s broader effort to drag the Church, once and for all, out of its feudal traditions, authoritarian hierarchy, and hostility toward the modern world and into dialogue with the broader human community. The ways in which Pope Francis has addressed his papacy and Church teachings toward the environment, both the importance of the document and its failings and limitations, can only be properly appreciated in that context.
During the first thousand years in the life of the Church, the role of the pope was not that of a religious emperor, as it became in the second millennium. The papacy began as a unifying function to create stability among the bishops who were the leaders of local communities. The “pope” was first and foremost the bishop of the most important community, the Roman community. Only secondarily would he function as the bridge-builder, the pontiff. That function was only used when it was necessary because of some specific challenge to unity. Otherwise the pope was just one of the bishops. The office was functional.
The medieval period brought with it the monarchical papacy. Encyclicals were historically addressed to the worldwide bishops in order to clarify or stabilize the teaching of a very centralized but global bureaucracy and emphasized a highly deductive method. The form of the teaching fit the form of the institution.
For many of the authors, the local bishops were not viewed as teachers in their own right but rather as clerks of the central bureaucracy who were in charge of “the brand,” so to speak. When McDonald’s sends a directive to its local franchises, it is not looking for “dialogue.” The purpose of most texts prior to Pacem in Terris was to outline the principles that the Roman Church expected the local church to implement.
Popes John XXIII and Paul VI were actively trying to shed those regal features and to reinvigorate the original purpose of the office: helping unity to endure within a global institution in a pluralistic, and religiously diverse, world. By contrast, Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI were quite comfortable with and, indeed, deeply committed to the categories of the previous era. In many regards, the papacies of John Paul and Benedict were a reaction to the opening of the Church, an attempt to reestablish the old hierarchies and the old traditions, and they very nearly destroyed the Church, saddling it with corruption, scandal, and diminishing numbers in many parts of the world.
Pope Francis is an heir to Pope John XXIII, who broadened his audience to “all people of good will.” By directly engaging the entire human community, Pope John began the process of shedding the Western, Roman, and feudal framework that had provided the superstructure of the institution for more than a millennium. One homily, one interview, one new appointment, and one request for retirement or transfer at a time, Pope Francis continues that process and discloses that he is both listening and learning as well as making decisions and exercising executive judgment.
His is the style and manner of dialogue. The audience is no longer primarily the bishops as leaders of local churches, but rather all members of the Church as well as the entire human community. Robust commitment to dialogue rather than pronouncement has been evident from the very first moments of his pontificate.
When it comes to being the pope, one’s predecessors are more robustly present than, say, Washington and Lincoln are to any US President. In the Vatican, a new broom rarely sweeps clean; in the exercise of papacy, the stances of previous office holders are actively engaged and give shape to the current pontificate.
As a result, Catholic teaching texts are very often internally inconsistent. This is not because the popes have been weak thinkers but is instead an instantiation of the Catholic desire to include previously described concepts and ideas about the chosen topic, even ideas that the present author intends to supersede. This can at times look like doublespeak.
Take, for example, the Church’s teaching on religious freedom. Dignitatis humanae (The Declaration on Religious Freedom) reversed centuries of official teaching in 1965. Prior to Dignitatis humanae, official teaching held that only Catholics should be protected in their religious practice because they were the only ones whose beliefs were “true.” Other Christian communities and other religious traditions were “in error”about religion, so they had no rights.
But note how Dignitatis humanae does so: “Although, through the vicissitudes of human history, there have at times appeared patterns of behavior which was not in keeping with the spirit of the Gospel and were even opposed to it, it has always remained the teaching of the church that no one is to be coerced into believing.”
The text rejects the claim that Church teachings ever encouraged religious intolerance, even as it acknowledges that for many centuries, it was the doctrine and practice of the Church to coerce belief. This is a common pattern in Catholic teaching: find the thread of Gospel, even in doctrines that seem to undermine it, and pull the Gospel forward leaving the desiccated or worn-out concept behind.
Old paradigms die hard. Both Pope Paul and Pope Francis display unreflective commitment to the previous paradigm in some of their work. Pope Paul is remembered as the author of the birth control document where “artificial” birth control is condemned. Paul was willing to be creative with regard to social issues but not so open when it came to personal, sexual issues. In Pope Francis’s most recent Apostolic Exhortation on family life, Joy of Love, he describes family life as an “inexhaustible mystery” on the one hand, and then goes on to reaffirm the bankrupt notion of “the anthropological basis of the family,” on the other. (Read: body parts determine married life and parenthood.) So goes the internal tension that occurs in the middle of a paradigm shift.
In Laudato Si, Pope Francis is, as with so much else, groping his way, inductively, toward a new understanding of how the Church will engage environmental issues and concerns. On the one hand, his strong affirmation of the severe threats to the environment in an encyclical, exercising the most robust form of teaching that a pope can use, is very positive. On the other hand, there are many things in Laudato Si that are simply wrong.
In Laudauto Si, Francis suggests that human selfishness is the source of a large portion of human suffering. This is a distorted description of reality, of the Judeo-Christian teaching with regard to humanity’s place in the created world, and of the foundational Judeo-Christian theological anthropology which says that the human person is foundationally good. That tradition says further that human persons remain so when they attend to those capacities that build right relationships with God, the created world, and with all human persons.
Tellingly, in these sections, Francis shifts back to the deductive style of his predecessors, citing Benedict explicitly on the parallel between crimes against the natural environment and crimes against “the social environment.” Benedict connects these crimes to the rise of moral relativism and human hubris, a holism that Francis largely affirms. “Both are ultimately due to the same evil,” Benedict claims, “the notion that there are not indisputable truths to guide our lives, and hence human freedom is limitless.”1 Francis continues this emphasis on human moral failing as a foundational source of climate change, describing it as a crime.
The analysis oversimplifies environmental problems in ways that don’t help us navigate them more effectively. It also locates the problem (and thus any solution) primarily in personal moral choices rather than in the complex development of human society and culture.1
While there is no doubt that criminal actions have occurred at various times, the long history of environmental degradation has more often been an unintended consequence of the human impulse to alter the environment in service of improving the human condition, acts which are a fundamental good in the foundational Christian narrative. While self-destruction may now be a feature of our situation, the people who first domesticated animals, built dams to support farming, and reserved seed that they gathered for planting in more fertile places in the next year’s growing season did not do so as acts of greed or self-destruction. They did so expressing their human capacity to analyze their context and to make informed decisions about it.
In this regard, Laudato Si in places falls prey to a kind of remnant theological anthropology, which over-physicalizes the negative features of the human person and over-spiritualizes the positive ones. In so doing, it associates human technology and modernization with our overly-physicalized, selfish human “animal” nature rather than placing modernity and technological activities on the same spectrum as all human acts.
While observing that technology “sometimes solves one problem only to create others,” Francis too often fails to acknowledge the magnitude of the problems that technology has solved. Innovations in modern medicine, hygiene, food production, and safety have mitigated immeasurable amounts of human suffering.
Those technologies have been developed at the behest not only of businesses seeking profit, as Francis suggests, but also by governments, scientists, and humanitarians in the service of reducing human suffering, improving public health, providing economic security, and, yes, preserving the environment.
Francis further suggests that modern consumer societies, lacking proper respect for nature, propose to substitute “an irreplaceable and irretrievable beauty with something which we have created ourselves.” In so doing, Francis fails to recognize the ways in which contemporary environmentalism and appreciation for the natural world is in many ways a product of material abundance and rising living standards.
He also fails to apprehend, in arguing that human intervention has diminished the natural world, how much of what we now think of as natural is in fact an artifact of earlier human interventions, a fact now well established by natural scientists. One wonders, moreover, what we are then to make of the innumerable historical and artistic treasures protected within the Vatican museums. Do these human creations too make “our earth less rich and beautiful”?
The Church’s roots in feudal, agrarian societies also continue to maintain a powerful hold, as evidenced by Francis’s complicated view of cities. Francis describes cities as “unruly,” chaotic, and polluted, and as “huge, inefficient structures, excessively wasteful of energy and water.”
As the first pope from the Southern Hemisphere, Francis is no doubt familiar with the dehumanizing features of many cities in the global south. But he fails to recognize the ways in which cities are also liberatory. And he is simply wrong about the inefficiency of cities, which use energy, water, and natural resources in a reliably more efficient manner than agrarian societies.
Beyond the specific claims about environmental destruction and its solutions, however, there are important insights in Laudato Si which suggest that the ultimate evolution of Catholic social teaching on the environment may be quite promising. Francis explicitly recognizes the benefits of science, technology, and modernity. “We are the beneficiaries of two centuries of enormous waves of change,” he writes in Laudato Si. “It is right to rejoice in these advances and to be excited by the immense possibilities which they continue to open up before us, for science and technology are wonderful products of a God-given human creativity.”
Francis affirms the central Judeo-Christian insights that the human and the divine are united in each individual human person. The human activity of knowing presumes both growth in knowledge and intense attention to experience. And the place where all this happens, the Creation (to use biblical language), is a gift both for its own sake and for our human flourishing, since we are part of the Creation.
Laudato Si rejects the notion that the Genesis account grants humankind “dominion over the earth,” and acknowledges this as a misreading of Genesis that “has encouraged the unbridled exploitation of nature by painting him [sic] as domineering and destructive by nature.” Instead, Francis reads the biblical texts in their context, recognizing that they tell us to “till and keep the garden of the world (cf. Genesis 2:15).” “Tilling” refers to cultivating, plowing, or working, while “keeping” means caring, protecting, overseeing, and preserving. This implies a relationship of mutual responsibility between human beings and nature. Francis contrasts the misinterpreted language of domination with the language that the Jews intended. They were quite trenchantly repudiating adjacent cultural understandings of the relationship between human beings and the earth. “It is good for humanity and the world at large,” Francis writes, “when we believers better recognize the ecological commitments which stem from our convictions.”1
The great insight of Judaism’s Creation Story is that humans experience both harmony with the natural world and alienation. Plants and animals may be wholly at the mercy of natural forces and cycles, but we human persons can read and interpret our own experience and have the capacity to shape, to change, to respond to our own existence. Unlike trilobites or dinosaurs, human beings can transform their environment for the sake of their own future existence. The Judeo-Christian tradition understands this as a blessing. Humans experience God both in the gift that is the natural world and in their own capacity to enjoy and care for it. God asks us to care for the world the way God cares for both the world and us.
In this regard, the Judeo-Christian insight about our place within nature is an explicit rejection of the notions of the natural world in the cultures adjacent to Israel and then later, Christianity. Laudato Si places great weight on “The Story of the Beginnings”(Genesis) in the Hebrew Bible. That story rejects pagan religions’ view of “the gods” as either benign or malicious depending on their capricious character. Instead, that story posits an all-good Creator who is committed to the human community in history and who created the natural world as a gift to that community. Both the natural world and the human community are good, not neutral or negative; both are worthy of love and care for their own sake.
There are Judeo-Christian interpretations that do imagine that in falling from nature in the Genesis story, humans have fallen out of harmony with nature. But
these notions of returning to harmony with nature or the obverse, explanations of the “environmental crisis” as primarily a result of human hubris and sin have more in common with the Western Rousseauian tradition than with the Judeo-Christian narrative and the truth claims that flow from it.
In the Judeo-Christian tradition, from Genesis onward, human self-consciousness is, as ever, double edged, opening the space for technological development and artistic expression and also egoism and self-indulgence, for tribalism and alienation but also for community and intimacy. Humans are both part of nature and alienated from it, immanent and transcendent, material and scientific as well as tactile and spiritual.
The internal strife and struggle within the Church, beginning with the Second Vatican Council, continuing through the retrenchment of Popes John Paul and Benedict, and onward today in the reforms of Pope Francis, are all reflections of the Church’s efforts to find its way in a global postcolonial and ultimately post-Christian world. We no longer inhabit a conceptual space where the overarching narrative of Christianity is presumed.
The monarchical papacy and its frequent distortions of the Gospel were a reflection of Christian hegemony throughout medieval Europe and later its colonial holdings. As the Church grew in power, reach, wealth, and influence, the Gospel increasingly served the institutional Church, and not the other way around.
Theologian David Tracy argues that the Church, having been stripped of this hegemonic position in the world, is still in the midst of “naming the present” as we navigate globalization, secularization, and rapid changes in technology and communication. Pope Francis’s return to the style of Popes John and Paul is a move toward not only a more decentralized and less authoritarian church hierarchy but also toward dialogue with the secular and non-Christian worlds.
The effort to “name the present” is an invitation not only to Christians and Catholics but also to all of us. As Tracy points out, this new “present” must continue to re-assess early modernity’s uncritical trust in technology, which led to eugenics; nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons; and environmental damage occurring not as an intentional result of human development but by way of failure to predict and protect against many forms of pollution and waste.1
Flawed as it is, Laudato Si is an invitation to examine the world, what Jesus of Nazareth called “The Kingdom of God,” that is, and consider what the world and the human community ought to look like, how they ought to function, how the world would function if all persons were allowed to flourish as free, intentional people. That commitment to the human community is the guiding purpose of the Catholic tradition.
Pope Francis uses the post-Vatican II historical-critical method, seeking to uncover the original intention of the authors of biblical texts and then trace the arc of the way the living community made use of those texts. By returning to the ancient narratives in Jewish and Christian Scriptures and reading them anew, in light of present circumstances, Francis is constructing a “name” for the present situation, one that honors both the intentions of the communities that crafted those texts originally and the realities of the communities that must apply them today.
The problems with Laudato Si are not a function of applying outmoded or inappropriate principles deductively, but rather display a failure to inductively apprehend the correct facts about the present environmental situation. Pope Francis’s markedly inductive approach, for this reason, in contrast to the prevailing deductive method of Catholic teaching, is imminently correctable were Pope Francis to apprehend the facts that contradict sections of the encyclical.
Francis is going about the business of reconstructing a language that the entire human community can understand. His foundation is a return to the formative stories, the enduring way that most human cultures across time and space have “named” their own present times.
By inviting dialogue with actual practitioners working for the sake of the natural world and with equal energy for human development, he has begun an effort to bring more people into the circle of care for our sister, Mother Earth, and for our brothers and sisters who live in dehumanizing conditions. In places, his analysis misses the mark. But it is the broader effort, to bring the Church fully into the modern world, to begin to think about how the Genesis story might help us improve our relationship with the natural world in the Anthropocene, and most importantly, to begin a dialogue within the Church and beyond, that is the most important feature of Laudato Si.
1. David Tracy, On Naming the Present (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1994).
2. Pope Benedict XVI Caritas in Veritate (12 June 2009), 51.
3. Benedict and John Paul II over-play the role of hubris and greed as central causes of the problem.