Laudato Si’: A Call to Right Relationship
Dated May 24 and officially published June 18, Pope Francis’ new encyclical letter titled Laudato Si’ (“Praise Be to You”) has already been interpreted in varied and conflicting ways. With many voices saying many things, it is a challenge to understand the wide-ranging reflection that Pope Francis presents in the document.
As with any document, we should begin by listening to the author himself. Pope Francis writes, “In this Encyclical, I would like to enter into dialogue with all people about our common home” (3).
The encyclical, which takes its name from the first words of St. Francis of Assisi’s famous hymn celebrating God’s creation, is above all an invitation to everyone to an honest conversation. Given the complexities and disagreements about issues that the pope raises, it is important to keep this desire for conversation in mind.
The question, then, is what exactly Pope Francis wants us to discuss. At the heart of the encyclical is a vision of what the pope repeatedly calls “integral ecology.” Building on the work of his predecessors, in particular St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, Francis teaches that we are all interconnected: “Disregard for the duty to cultivate and maintain a proper relationship with my neighbor ... ruins my relationship with my own self, with others, with God and with the earth” (70).
‘EVERYTHING IS CONNECTED’
Pope Francis grounds Laudato Si’ in the classical understanding of justice: a state of affairs in which we relate to God, others and the natural world in a proper way. We are all called to relate to God as beloved sons or daughters, offering praise in love to our Creator; to others as to Christ, seeing in them the face of our Lord; and to the natural world as God would have us act in his place, that is, as stewards caring for a created universe that testifies to the Creator’s majesty by virtue of its very being (cf. Gen. 2:15).
As to our call to be caring stewards, Pope Francis draws our attention to the link between the Creator and his creation. “Every creature is the object of the Father’s tenderness, who gives it its place in the world,” the pope writes. “Even the fleeting life of the least of beings is the object of his love, and in its few seconds of existence, God enfolds it with his affection.”
He then concludes, “Consequently, we can ascend from created things ‘to the greatness of God and to his loving mercy’” (77).
True justice, then, respects the natural world as a gift of the eternal, all-powerful God. Conversely, injustice can be seen as the rupture of right relationships, reflected in an individualistic, consumption-driven culture that increasingly discards both human beings and the good things of the earth.
“There can be no renewal of our relationship with nature,” the Holy Father writes, “without a renewal of humanity itself. There can be no ecology without an adequate anthropology” (118).
He then goes on to explain, “We are faced not with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather with one complex crisis which is both social and environmental. Strategies for a solution demand an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature” (139).
To Pope Francis, human trafficking, abortion, the destruction of human embryos and disregard for the plight of the poor are all evidence of deep, interrelated impediments to communion — obstacles we must remove if we ever hope to “hear the cry of nature itself; everything is connected” (117). Real justice requires that we heal our relationships. All of them.
MORE THAN JUST POLITICS
In order to begin this healing process, the pope calls us to a “new and universal solidarity,” which recognizes that we are a single human family in need of right relationships with one another, our Lord and our natural world (14). To understand this fundamental truth is to make sense of the many other themes and recommendations in the encyclical.
For example, Pope Francis considers scientific information in a very deliberate way, recognizing that the Church has long discussed such matters even while not claiming specific technical expertise (cf. 61).
Despite a history of openness by the Church to science and significant scientific contributions by many of her faithful, it has become a popular myth that the Church and science are somehow incompatible. As Christians we cannot accept such a false opposition. To do so is to surrender to others fertile ground for helping humanity understand God and his marvelous design.
Pope Francis takes on this challenge directly, urging that “science and religion, with their distinctive approaches to understanding reality, can enter into an intense dialogue fruitful for both” (62).
“THERE CAN BE NO RENEWAL OF OUR RELATIONSHIP WITH NATURE,” THE HOLY FATHER WRITES, “WITHOUT A RENEWAL OF HUMANITY ITSELF.”
However, he also warns about reliance on purely technological solutions. Just because humankind becomes capable of doing something, does not mean that we ought to do it. If, though, “we acknowledge the value and the fragility of nature and, at the same time, our God-given abilities, we can finally leave behind the modern myth of unlimited material progress. A fragile world, entrusted by God to human care, challenges us to devise intelligent ways of directing, developing and limiting our power” (78).
The pope similarly asks us to critically reflect upon the dominant “technocratic paradigm and the cult of unlimited human power” (122).
Pope Francis is a pastor, not a politician. He hopes we will lay aside partisanship and come together to solve real crises facing the human family. He urges us to humanize the systems we rely on to meet our material needs, ensuring that they are at the service of all people. We ought to incorporate strong ethical criteria within economic and political decision-making, which all too often reduces people to mere data.
The pope writes extensively about approaching development in a manner that honors cultural heritage, takes stock of the human toll of our economic decisions and refuses to link unacceptable reproductive health requirements to assistance in poorer nations. He directly rejects population growth as a problem, calling population control programs “one way of refusing to face the issues” (50).
A key and recurring theme is solidarity with the poor — that is, those who suffer the most, contribute the least to ecological problems, and yet have the greatest difficulty adapting. Pope Francis calls on wealthy nations to assist poorer countries in developing sustainable technology and “to 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” (49).
WONDER, LOVE AND PRAISE
Much of the media coverage of the new encyclical has focused entirely on climate change. While discussing this topic and other ecological crises head-on, Pope Francis is hardly breaking new ground. There is a real sense of urgency in Laudato Si’ to dialogue honestly toward prudent action on environmental difficulties, but Francis isn’t the first pope to assert this.
We are reminded, for instance, of the messages of St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI for the World Day of Peace in 1990 and 2010, respectively. Here and elsewhere, Pope Francis’ predecessors discussed environmental crises such as the depletion of the ozone layer, climate change, pollution and the deforestation of equatorial and tropical regions.
In addition to practical considerations and theological reflection about environmental issues, Pope Francis also offers pastoral promptings toward prayer, hope and joy. He connects the sacramental life of the Church, particularly in the Eucharist, to care for creation: “It is in the Eucharist that all that has been created finds its greatest exaltation. Grace, which tends to manifest itself tangibly, found unsurpassable expression when God himself became man and gave himself as food for his creatures” (236).
At the heart of this message is a summons toward a simpler way of life. Inviting individuals and communities alike to an “ecological conversion,” Pope Francis quotes these words from Pope Benedict XVI’s inaugural homily: “The external deserts in the world are growing because the internal deserts have become so vast” (cf. 217).
Pope Francis challenges us to shed those things that make us insensitive to our brothers and sisters in need, cause us to fill our lives with superficial novelties and activity, or crowd out our ability to gaze upon the created universe with a sense of wonder (cf. 113, 204, 206, 209).
In short, Pope Francis presents us with an integrated teaching, inviting us to enhance our conversations about care of our common home, whether at the kitchen table or the negotiating table. The encyclical Laudato Si’ ultimately calls us to prayerfully grow in our love of God, one another, and the world that the Creator has given us to till and keep. If we are open to Pope Francis’ message, we will soon become better instruments of God’s love, expressing it more profoundly in right relationship with him and all of his creatures.
JONATHAN J. REYES, Ph.D., is executive director of the Department of Justice, Peace and Human Development of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. He is a member of George Brent Council 5332 in Manassas, Va.