Most whose impression from reading the media – and that unfortunately is most people – of what Pope Francis actually said in his recent, controversial encyclical Laudato Si, subtitled “Care for Our Common Home”, will naturally take it as something akin to the following. “The Holy Father came down decisively on the side of the politics of the global green movement, while rebuking the climate skeptics.”
Such exegesis, of course, is about as far from the substance of the encyclical as saying Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina is all about the shocking suicide of a distraught Russian noblewoman. The popular takeaway from the Encyclical, which few secular media commentators have actually read, or would be intellectually capable of seriously reading anyway, has little to do with the intricate and provocative meaning of the document itself and only demonstrates how in our present day, digital media-crazed transnational civilization any major news event that takes place will be instantly coded by competing ideological interests into whatever insipid thought-byte they fanatically cling to.
It is true that the encyclical does in fact go along with the scientific “consensus” on climate change, and at times he does sound like, in framing the issue, he is siding with the so-called “alarmists” over the “deniers” (which are themselves ideologically saturated terms that we have come to take for granted as descriptors rather than terms of derision by the opposite faction).
But Francis only invokes the threat of climate change as a way of leveraging what is the real and overriding theme of the encyclical – global economic imbalances and the mindless consumerism which contributes to them, ravaging the environment in the process. In other words, Laudato Si focuses on worldwide environmental degradation and destruction, something which has been on our radar for over four decades now and about which can all easily get aroused about, as the symptomatology of a profounder pathology that we are more reluctant to confront – our systematic abuse of each other as human beings, especially when we do so for the best of reasons which have high “moral” or even sophisticated economic justifications.
It is like a long-time veteran of sobriety in an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting reminding a passionate newbie that the seventh DWI that recently put them in jail is not about irresponsible driving, but about their love of drink and the “character defects” that go along with it.
Encyclical Confounds Routine Environmental Politics
Thus the recent papal encyclical is not in any remote sense some new Christian “green” manifesto on the part of the Catholic church that will warm the cockles of the hearts of “earth first” sorts of environmentalists and other members the secular left coalitions that dominate current ecopolitics, especially in the affluent West. The Pope is even harder on abortion rights, birth control, and population reduction advocates (which he sees as predatory in their own way) than he is on global warming skeptics.
The encyclical does not see human beings as the problem in the way many radical environmentalists do. In fact, he takes the Biblical notion of “human dominion” over nature quite seriously, insisting that what we would call “deep ecologists”, who looked to a significantly diminished human footprint on the planet, misunderstand its meaning and importance.
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”…[Sec. 118]
The problem, according to the encyclical, is the modern attitude of individualism and the pursuit of private wish-fulfillments which create a cultural mindset where living things from endangered species such as the sage grouse to trafficked women to human fetuses themselves are treated as commodities in our “throwaway culture.” Green, therefore, means lean when it comes to personal lifestyles.
Francis invokes the life and example of his own saintly namesake to illustrate what he is ultimately driving at. The encyclical is therefore, in effect, a plea for the emulation of Saint Francis’ voluntary asceticism for the sake of a radical new form of stewardship of creation.
If we approach nature and the environment without this openness to awe and wonder, if we no longer speak the language of fraternity and beauty in our relationship with the world, our attitude will be that of masters, consumers, ruthless exploiters, unable to set limits on their immediate needs. By contrast, if we feel intimately united with all that exists, then sobriety and care will well up spontaneously. The poverty and austerity of Saint Francis were no mere veneer of asceticism, but something much more radical: a refusal to turn reality into an object simply to be used and controlled. [Sec. 11]
The British newspaper The Telegraph has mocked Francis’ ideas, accusing him of living in a “sad world of make-believe.” From the standpoint of modern political economy, whether it be Marxist or neoliberal, the criticism rings true in a certain measure. The encyclical is at one level unabashedly anti-modernist, especially with its jeremiad against technology and “instrumental” methods of solving social problems, rendering it perhaps even more disquieting for social progressives who do not demand limits to economic growth as much as a “fairer” distribution of the benefits of that growth.
One of the lightning rods for some media scorn from the right is the encyclical’s mention of “air conditioning” as an ever popular convenience a society based on ecojustice would have to eliminate. Of course, it is the lack of air conditioning in many cities in the Northern Hemisphere during routine heat waves, which is largely responsible for untimely and unnecessary deaths among the urban poor.
At the same time, the encyclical is even highly critical of what one might call the “new urbanism,” so beloved by today’s upscale millennials, which puts a premium on highly refined consumptive lifestyles concentrated in smaller dwellings in the largest of cities. One does at times have the sneaking feeling that the Pope’s vision of how to ensure a “habitable” world implicitly involves a mass return to some semblance of the static, agrarian cultural patterns of the Middle Age, which of course can only be held intact through a kind of paternalistic stratification of social relationships and political loyalties which marked that period.
Laudato Si Is Not Primarily A Political Document
More importantly, despite all the misplaced sympathy as well as opinionated political flak it has already received, Laudato Si is not primarily a political document that serves either to reinforce or challenge prevailing intellectual currents and ideological commitments. There is no “Pope test” for today’s socioeconomic or scientific controversies.
Its stands as one of the grandest contemporary treatises on political theology, insofar as it carefully weaves together the entirety of historic Christian teaching and Biblical understanding with a well-calibrated spiritual and moral critique of what collectively we take to be the norms to which contemporary humanity routinely acquiesces. That the encyclical has something in it to make everyone squirm testifies to its prophetic dimension.
And, like any piece of prophetic literature, it does not pander. For environmentalists, it has the stern message that one cannot go green on a global scale without changing the level of accepted creature comforts. For political progressives it says you cannot treat fetuses differently from other types of “exploited” humanity. For religious conservatives it demands the reverse, that you cannot agitate to save the “unborn” while supporting social systems that marginalize and brutalize those who have already been born into the world.
Laudato Si is not ultimately about the “environment”. It is about the concept of creation and our place in it. Even more significantly, it is about human beings as persons, as the focal point of creation because we are made in the divine image. In short, it is about the sacredness of human life and our obligation to responsibly “tend the garden” of the world, including all plants and animals, in order to manifest God’s purpose for the planet which he set forth in paradise prior to the Fall.
Laudato Si can be thus be considered a “personalist” manifesto in the time-honored Catholic tradition. Further, this particular document consists in a very “personalized” iteration in our immediate, historical Sitz im Leben of the pragmatic implications of what such a political theological stance might look like. There is, of course, wide room for other iterations, not just among Catholics but also Protestants and Jews as well.
Finally, it is up to all who profess to be Christians, or even amenable to the Christian view of things, to use responsibly that kind of “deep theology” in the formation of our own political commitments and the nurturing of our lifestyle choices.
As the encyclical reminds us, “a spirituality which forgets God as all-powerful and Creator is not acceptable.” [Sec. 75] That is the not a formula for political partisanship, but for a true metanoia, or conversion, of political mindedness for everyone concerned.