Laudato Si: Appealing to Our Better Natures – Daniel P. Scheid

Catholic Social Ethics

Already there are a multitude of excellent summaries of Pope Francis’s new encyclical Laudato Si, highlighting how he understands our need for a “bold cultural revolution,” explains integral ecology, configures climate as a common good, and many others. Yet in releasing Laudato Si, Pope Francis intends not only to provide the most authoritative and comprehensive statement for Catholic teaching on ecology, but he also has a specific political goal: to influence global leaders at the Paris climate talks in November-December. In general, Francis defies easy political categorization and he intends to induce politicians to act. What is his method in accomplishing this?

Laudato Si is a remarkable document, and I think one of its great strengths is that it contains something for everyone. It is the first, to my knowledge, to appeal directly to everyone, “to enter into dialogue with all people about our common home” (3). But Francis does not, as some political realists would require, simply employ a utilitarian logic and appeal to individual or national self-interest; such an approach is not only theologically suspect (122-23), but it also hasn’t worked.

While not shying away from the harsh realities of ecological degradation and the disappointing failure of our international politics, Francis nevertheless invokes the language of hope (214). Rather than using the language of self-interest, Pope Francis incorporates theological and ethical themes in order to draw in various kinds of constituencies in different ways, such that each person might feel herself addressed and engaged, and then feel empowered to act. I want to note three ways in which Francis empowers different kinds of groups.

First, there is clearly a wealth of profound theological material to meditate on, not only for Christians, but also for all people of faith. For Christians, creation directs them to the triune God: “The Father is the ultimate source of everything, the loving and self-communicating foundation of everything that exists. The Son, his reflection, through whom all things were created, united himself to this earth when he was formed in the womb of Mary. The Spirit, infinite bond of love, is intimately present at the very heart of the universe, inspiring and binging new pathways” (238). Francis indicates the myriad ways in which the Earth was central to Jesus and to understanding the incarnation. Jesus taught his disciples to discern the presence of the Creator in creation (97), he “lived in full harmony with creation” (98), and the resurrected Christ incorporates and draws all creatures into their final consummation in Him (100).

For those of any faith who believe in a Creator, Francis waxes poetically about the way in which God enwraps even the tiniest creature in love: “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” (77). Again: “The entire material universe speaks of God’s love, his boundless affection for us. Soil, water, mountains: everything is, as it were, a caress of God” (84). Indeed, “creation is the order of love” (77), and we mirror that love when we love Earth’s creatures. In this way, Francis appeals to the deepest convictions of Jews, Muslims, many Hindus, and indigenous groups. There is a “universal communion” of creation (92), in which all may find themselves at home.

This sense of cosmic belonging and communion can extend even further, to non-theistic traditions like Buddhism and other indigenous groups, for whom the emphasis on communion is not aimed towards a Creator but simply directs humans to relate to the world around us, “of which we are a part” (17). The universal communion, or what I have argued is a cosmic common good, presents a positive, hopeful ground for encouraging people of faith to make the personal sacrifices that an “ecological culture” (111) requires. Moreover, it provides the deeper rationale and the hopeful vision for political leaders to make commitments not for national self-interest, but for the common good.

Second, Francis also questions the very dynamism of market economies and the impulse to produce, consume, repeat. For those of no faith or even hostile to faith, Francis poses ultimate questions that may yet resonate with all: “What is the purpose of our life in this world? Why are we here? What is the goal of our work and all our efforts? What need does the earth have of us?” (160). Acting for future generations, after all, is also a statement about our own human dignity: “We need to see that what is at stake is our own dignity. Leaving an inhabitable planet to future generations is, first and foremost, up to us. The issue is one which dramatically affects us, for it has to do with the ultimate meaning of our earthly sojourn” (160). The desire to consume, and I would include the drive to produce and “be productive,” are rooted in emptiness, an impulse to feed a hunger that can only be satisfied by relationships (204). Such a life is not only more ecologically sustainable, but indeed a happier one, and indeed the right form of progress (191). For people of faith or no faith in the developed and overconsuming world, this message fits well with the communion of creatures, who beg us to be with them and less with our iPhones, tablets, iPads, social media, and computers.

Third, to political leaders, Francis certainly levels harsh and well-deserved criticism. They have, by and large, selected immediate and self-serving interests, rather than the common good: “It is remarkable how weak international political responses have been. The failure of global summits on the environment make plain that our politics are subject to technology and finance. There are too many special interests, and economic interests easily end up trumping the common good and manipulating information so that their own plans will not be affected” (54). Francis does not call political leaders “cowards”, but I think it’s an apt description. Instead, a better man than I, Francis also offers words of hope: act like the kind of leaders you want to be, in ways that you wish future generations to judge you. In this way, you will enact your own humanity: “To take up these responsibilities and the costs they entail, politicians will inevitably clash with the mindset of short-term gain and results which dominates present-day economics and politics. But if they are courageous, they will attest to their God-given dignity and leave behind a testimony of selfless responsibility” (181).

Laudato Si is Francis’ attempt to move humanity, in different ways, to protect our common home. God knows we need it. Let’s work and speak up to make sure our political leaders, meeting at the Paris climate talks in a few months, are listening.

Daniel P. Scheid is Assistant Professor of Theology at Duquesne University, Pittsburgh, PA. His work focuses on interreligious ecological ethics and has appeared in Worldviews and the Annual Volume of the College Theology Society. His forthcoming book, The Cosmic Common Good: Religious Grounds for Ecological Ethics (Oxford 2015) explores ecologically oriented principles of Catholic social thought in dialogue with other religious traditions.

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