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Why Pope Francis' new encyclical is so radical


Laudato Si Italian edition cover

Most of the early comment on the Laudato Si, Pope Francis’ Encyclical on the environment, has rightly focused on its political impact. But to appreciate its reach it is helpful also to read it within the context of Catholic reflection on ethical issues.

The distinctive contribution of the Encyclical is to make respect for the environment a priority in Catholic life, and to justify that place by making it centrally in Catholic reflection on the human condition.

Encyclicals, which are addressed directly to the Catholic Bishops, always set their themes within the Catholic tradition, and particularly within the context of recent Papal teaching.

So Laudato Si summarises the reflection of Popes John XXIII, Paul VI, John-Paul II and Benedict XVI on the environment. Pope Francis quotes Benedict frequently throughout the document, thus incidentally forestalling any attempt to put a wedge between the two men.

His immediate argument for giving a central place to ecology in Catholic life rests on the conviction that the world faces a crisis caused by global warming and the dire consequences that will follow if it is not addressed by concerted action. The evidence he offers reflects the general consensus of scientists who have studied the matter carefully. Not all Catholics will agree with him, but this has now become the Catholic default position.

In giving ecology a central place within Christian faith, his critical move is to emphasise the interdependence of human beings with one another and with the natural world. We do not have an environment but are part of the environment.

This approach differs from the conventional Catholic approach to moral issues, which begins with individuals and their unique dignity, moves to personal relationships, their relationships to society, and then to the natural world as an outrider.

Pope Francis considers human beings in the network of relationships that constitute human life. These relationships include centrally the non-human world. Because of this interdependence we cannot speak adequately of any dimension of human life without considering our relationships with all other beings. We must treat them with a respect analogous to that we owe to other human beings. St Francis of Assisi, much referred to in the Encyclical, could speak of Brother Sun and Sister Moon.

Of course the Encyclical addresses the environment from the human perspective – he is writing to change human attitudes – but the corollary of his approach is that all ethical reflection must consider the environmental aspects.

The interdependence of human beings on one another underlies the Catholic insistence that in society the dignity of all human beings must be respected, so that the test of any society is how it treats its most vulnerable members. The Encyclical extends that solidarity to the non-human world. We are not masters but fellow servants of our world, and our care must look to the future as well as to the present day.

From this perspective Pope Francis reflects on the causes of the ecological crisis and why the response to it has been so inadequate. He sees its roots to lie in the widespread view that the only important questions to ask have to do with how to achieve our immediate goals, without asking whether the means we use, the goals we set, and the consequences of our actions respect our interdependence with one another and the non-human world. When this narrow view is joined to the assumption that the production of wealth trumps all other values, the inevitable consequences are the exploitation both of people and of the non-human world, gross inequality between societies, and the trashing of the environment.

In the Encyclical the underlying conflict about ecology lies between the Christian view of people as interdependent with one another and with the world of which they are part, and a view of human beings as separate individuals who form themselves by their individual choices. The relationship of atomised human beings with one another is necessarily competitive in exploiting the world outside them for material gain. This view expresses itself in the self-interest evident in national politics and in business. Australians will resonate with his tart account of the current state of affairs:

A politics concerned with immediate results, supported by consumerist sectors of the population, is driven to produce short-term growth. In response to electoral interests, governments are reluctant to upset the public with measures which could affect the level of consumption or create risks for foreign investment. The myopia of power politics delays the inclusion of a far-sighted environmental agenda within the overall agenda of governments. Thus we forget that 'time is greater than space', that we are always more effective when we generate processes rather than holding on to positions of power. True statecraft is manifest when, in difficult times, we uphold high principles and think of the long-term common good. Political powers do not find it easy to assume this duty in the work of nation-building. (178)

Understandably Pope Francis does not place his trust in politics or business as usual to address the ecological crisis. He calls for a conversion that sees people and the world as interdependent, inspired by a vision of the beauty and dignity of both each human being and of each non-human being, leading to a special care for the most fragile. Ultimately it is a conversion from exploitation to love.  

The Encyclical also signals a natural convergence of religion and science. Scientists demonstrate what will happen in the world if it is allowed to go as it is, and also speak of the scale of what must be done to address it. But they cannot easily motivate people to action. Religions are in the business of conversion, and their beliefs and symbols can underpin the change of heart necessary for concerted action.

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.


Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Pope Francis, Laudato Si, environment, ecology



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Existing comments

"A conversion from exploitation to love." It's little wonder that environmentalists find it a hard slog to convert politicians' thinking about the primacy of our environment. Religions are in the business of converting hearts and minds to a realisation of God's plan for creation. In reading of our Lord's agony in the garden of Gethsemane, we cannot fail to see that his disciples fell asleep at this anguished time. The environment and mankind are inextricably linked - so let's take care.

Pam | 19 June 2015  

There was surely something better to do on a Friday evening than read that, still it was nice to see that the Pope is on his way to becoming a hippie. Also nice to see Greenpeace thanked - well, along with the other organisations working for environmental protection. I did wonder at this: " the moral imperative of assessing the impact of our every action and personal decision on the world around us". Um, how far does the Pope fly each year ... just how much carbon pollution does that represent?

Russell | 19 June 2015  

Scripturally grounded and incumbent on us as environmental stewardship is, its status as the Catholic default position needs, it seems to me, to be complemented with Hopkins's theologically hopeful affirmation in the face of the Industrial Revolution's environmental vandalism and social destructiveness: " . . . for all this, nature is never spent/There lives the dearest freshness deep down things/ Because the Holy Ghost over the bent world broods/With warm breast;and with, Ah!, bright wings."

John Kelly | 19 June 2015  

A]The encyclical belies corroborating as infallible particular schools of climate science. B]]He states,"Here I would state once more that the Church does not presume to settle scientific questions or to replace politics. But I am concerned to encourage an honest and open debate so that particular interests or ideologies will not prejudice the common good." C]Media gloss over key bioethical content of LI: i]Do not overlook his condemnation of abortion'; gender theory, embryo experimentatiom, disposing of the elderly[euthanasia] ii]In paragraph 50, he derides those who “can only propose a reduction in the birth rate” as the solution to climate issues. iii]He laments international pressure on developing countries making “economic assistance contingent on certain policies of ‘reproductive health. iv]Nor overlook his condemnation of abortion'; gender theory, & embryo experimentatiom.

Father John George | 20 June 2015  

This is a ground breaking piece of contemporary theology that engages with our dreams and hopes for the global village. The last papal encyclical that really got Catholics jumping and twirling hoops was Humanae Vitae back in 1968. This one will also drive the Abbott of Canberra and his cabinet into a frenzy of dissidence. Can't wait to where George the Great Skeptic lines this piece up on his shelf of readings. May the cry "Laudato Si" rise from our lips and may our hearts be warmed by this call to relationship with our Mother Earth. May we who in the Land Downunder recognize this call as the ancient life blood of the First People of this land. May we begin our journey of healing of the earth with Dadirri, Dadirri means inner, deep listening and quiet, still awareness. It is a 'tuning in' experience with the specific aim to come to a deeper understanding of the beauty of nature. Dadirri recognises the inner spirit that calls us to reflection and contemplation of the wonders of all God's creation.

Tony Robertson | 20 June 2015  

Thank you Andrew. I especially appreciated your last comments about our, and the Pope's responsibility to address the necessary conversion to moral principles and an ethical vision.

Bernadette Keating | 22 June 2015  

I like the Dadirr bit (from Daly River): deep listening and quiet, still awareness. But we also need the energy of a faith (rather than religion) in action, faith as a calculus of values which are aimed at promoting our being human, in the world, before God.

Noel McMaster | 22 June 2015  

Wouldn't it be a real demonstration of the Church's commitment to take concrete action to implement the message of the Encyclical if it undertook a National audit of its infrastructure of the use of solar panels? Following that up with a policy to install Solar panels on every school,hospital,church,convent, monastery etc within say 5 years and do it!!! What a marked stimulus it would give to demonstrating that despite the Church's sinfulness it can and does act out for the welfare of the Earth and humanity. Let us, the Church demonstrate it is the Way, the Light and the Truth.

Graham Holmes | 22 June 2015  

radical? church catches up to something known all along and everywhere...and an idea it has deliberately, deliberately denied for 2000 years... here in these pages of Eureka Street we often read criticism of how our government ignores evidence.... surely the church has proven itself the expert in such ignorance and arrogance in preaching the separateness of humans now let's see how this revelation about our interconnectedness translates into church policy, into which political parties it supports (sorry Pope Francis and Andrew, everything is political....you both know and use that understanding brilliantly; turning your backs on the political processes and parties in this country is a formula for inaction), into the practices it promotes to its congregations, and into the training it gives to teachers and others

p31 | 23 June 2015  

And the elephant in the room that needs to be recognized and controlled is human population growth. Asking for a paradigm shift in human values without also addressing human population size and growth is futile. The root cause of environmental destruction is the sheer number of people on the planet. Yes attitudes towards justice, consumerism, pollution are all critical but the root cause is unsustainable human population growth. The church needs to address this and all the associated issues around birth control. It can then be taken seriously and play a serious moral leadership role on the world stage.

Pete | 26 June 2015  

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