By Daniel Cosacchi
With the promulgation of Pope Francis’s encyclical Laudato Si’: On Care for our Common Home, there is a resounding addition to the corpus of Roman Catholic social teaching. Here, for the first time in the history of papal encyclicals, we find an entire letter which has as its major focus God’s creation. While Francis’s predecessors over the last fifty years have touched on the environment briefly, Francis ups the ante in this (exceptionally long) document and makes “our common home” the primary focus. There is no doubt that many commentators will choose various aspects on which to focus in the 246 paragraphs of the latest social encyclical, but I believe that a profitable starting point is to consider three major areas as a frame of reference for future discussion on Francis’s thought: ecological conversion; relationships; and, “everything is interrelated.”
The first topic of these topics from the encyclical is conversion. More precisely, I find that Pope Francis is calling for each of us as individuals, local groups, nations, and the universal community to undergo a series of conversions. Of course, the most important of the conversions that Francis is calling us to is an “ecological conversion” (see nos. 5; 216-221). The term was first introduced by Pope Saint John Paul II during his Catechesis of 17 January 2001 (see no. 5, note 5). Here, though, Francis elaborates on the topic with some further clarity. First of all, from what are human beings actually called to convert? A conversion begins with something about our way of life that has been missing the mark. Francis is very clear on this point: humanity today needs to convert from its habits of consumerism. Over and again in the text, Francis decries this force that has overcome human beings in today’s world. In particular, he notes that one result of consumerism is that it pulls human beings out of community and forces them inward: “Isolated individuals can lose their ability and freedom to escape the utilitarian mindset, and end up prey to an unethical consumerism bereft of social or ecological awareness” (no. 219). It should come as no surprise when Francis undoubtedly will utter words very much like these during his pastoral visit to the United States in September. During that trip, he is likely to call many of the politicians he addresses to a particular type of conversion away from the power that they try to wield. As Francis writes, “The technocratic paradigm also tends to dominate economics and political life. The economy accepts every advance in technology with a view to profit, without concern for its potential negative impact on human beings. Finance overwhelms the real economy. The lessons of the global financial crisis have not been assimilated, and we are learning all too slowly the lessons of environmental deterioration” (no. 109). Surely, there is no politician in the United States who wouldn’t think twice after reading these words. Pope’s Views on Climate Change Add Pressure to Catholic Candidates.
Second, Pope Francis makes it clear that human life really revolves around relationships. In particular, he is concerned with rightly ordered relationships in three key areas: with God, with fellow human beings, and with the earth (no. 66). Then Francis bluntly explains that these relationships have gone horribly wrong: “According to the Bible, these three vital relationships have been broken, both outwardly and within us. This rupture is sin. The harmony between the Creator, humanity and creation as a whole was disrupted by our presuming to take the place of God and refusing to acknowledge our creaturely limitations (no. 66). We should all note the strong language the pope uses here: it is sinful any time we disregard any one of these relationships. It takes away from our divine call to embrace all of creation. In fact, as Francis later states, the idea of “dominion” has been so skewed by human tyranny that in order for human beings to live truly joyful lives, we must avoid “the dynamic of dominion and the mere accumulation of pleasures” (no. 222). Since Francis is clear throughout the text that human beings have been guilty of “absolute” or “irresponsible” dominion over the earth (which manifests itself in pollution, mistreatment of animals and plants, and in many other ways), it should be obvious that we have often ignored our relationship with the earth. The result of much of this human failure is the further oppression of the poorest among us. As Francis explains, “The human environment and the natural environment deteriorate together; we cannot adequately combat environmental degradation unless we attend to causes related to human and social degradation” (no. 48). This clear link brings me to the third and final point.
While it would be impossible to reduce any papal document to three words, the phrase “everything is interrelated” seems a fair candidate for attempting to explain this text pithily. Francis first uses these words to highlight the clear link between the three relationships I note above (no. 70). As one continues reading the document, however, Francis spells out the clear links in his argument even more explicitly. He believes, “[w]hen we fail to acknowledge as part of reality the worth of a poor person, a human embryo, a person with disabilities – to offer just a few examples – it becomes difficult to hear the cry of nature itself. Everything is connected” (no. 117). More than any of the other new terminology available in this text, the term “integral ecology” (the topic of chapter four, nos. 137-162) encapsulates the link between these many moral questions Pope Francis raises in the encyclical. Part of the integral ecology is a promotion of the common good. While Francis is clearly in continuity with the Catholic social tradition of the last half century, he makes it clear that “the common good calls for social peace, the stability and security provided by a certain order which cannot be achieved without particular concern for distributive justice; whenever this is violated, violence always ensues. Society as a whole, and the state in particular, are obliged to defend and promote the common good” (no. 157). At the very beginning of his explanation of global warming, Francis makes a bold claim: “The climate is a common good, belonging to all and meant for all” (no. 23).
This encyclical, like all others before it, does not touch on every issue or solve every problem. For instance, there is scant attention paid to the relationship between war and environment (see nos. 57 and 200) and there is little development on gender complementarity (see no. 155). These points notwithstanding, we have substantial fare in Laudato Si’ and we see significant development in Catholic social teaching. Now, we have only to carry it out.
Daniel Cosacchi is a Doctoral Student in Christian Ethics at Loyola University, Chicago. He is writing his dissertation on the environmental effects of warfare in Catholic social thought.