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Around the Network, Essays, The Politics of Scripture, Traditions

PT 16.5 Guest Editorial: Laudato Si’: Rethinking Politics (Anna Rowlands)

“Climate scientists do not appreciate that their science represents a politics. They are surprised to be called lobbyists by climate denialists when they are simply reporting on climate models and data. They believe that their climate change theory, observations, and data are unmediated by social or political worldviews or belief systems; for them climate change is physics and not politics,” writes British political theologian Michael Northcott. One of the many remarkable achievements of Laudato si’ is to expose the layers of cognitive dissonance involved in this view. As Northcott rightly argues, data for or against climate change is always both science and politics: to explore this ‘data’ is to enter into deep questions about human and ecological purpose: to enter deep anthropological and theological terrain.

Laudato si’ is able to show that any science that gets close to acknowledging our radical interdependence and thus challenges the dominant ideas of competitive individualism is already uttering a kind of politics and a kind of theology, even if it can’t itself recognise this. And thus it challenges powerful interests. The encyclical pulls no punches in making explicit the ways in which vested interests prevent progress towards a hoped for ‘global ecological conversion’. Francis is frankly excoriating about the state of contemporary political life.

Some have suggested that this social encyclical represents a turn away from Augustine and towards Eastern Orthodoxy. I suspect this concerns the portrayal of sin, because Augustinian thought is traceable right the way through the document. Its most profound presence is in the fundamental insight that the root of the ecological crisis lies in the failure to accept the idea of limits, and the truth of a Creator-creature relation. Unless and until we can accept the notion of a politics and economics marked by an acceptance of limits – understood as a substantive practice of love rather than just a logic of deprivation – then it will be difficult to turn away from our current course of ecological travel. But privation in the truly Augustinian sense does also figure in this document: the writing is shot through with the insights of the privatio boni tradition. The evil at the root of the ecological crisis is based on a refusal of the substantive good, a turning towards a politics and economics rooted in lack and a consequent libido dominandi. Francis seems to have high on his agenda the desire to bring a pastoral and political theodicy back into the heart of Catholic Social Teaching (CST). His intervention on migrants has been the most striking example of this prior to Laudato si’. In so doing his political theology also challenges the dominant cultural assumption that suffering is evil: simply coterminous with evil. Francis pleads for a more mystical political theology in which ‘Our goal is … to become painfully aware, to dare to turn what is happening to the world into our own personal suffering and thus to discover what each of us can do about it’. In this regard it is perhaps a little surprising that the authors of the encyclical did not make such a connection in their deployment of St Francis of Assisi’s Canticle of the Sun, itself a hymn of joy to nature composed in intense suffering.

Much pre- and post- encyclical critique has come from conservative, neoliberal and libertarian Catholics who feel that Francis is variously too optimistic about the human capacity for politics to express caritas, too naïve in channelling rather than challenging the tendency towards apocalyptic anxiety that marks the age, and too pessimistic about technology and markets as mechanisms for poverty alleviation. However, and perhaps more surprisingly given their embrace of CST to date, this document is not an entirely straightforward read for post-liberals either. On the one hand, political post-liberals will be delighted that the document does appear to argue that the ecological crisis is a crisis of liberalism itself, stemming from its underlying dualisms of nature and culture and consequent refusal to accept the notion of political and economic limits. However, Laudato si’ continues to talk in relatively expansive terms about the role of the state as a positive agent for facilitating ecological change. The document focuses repeatedly on the relation of doctrine and law, calling for a renewal of jurisprudence in conversation with Christian theology. And in relation to the tendency to reintroduce categories of contributive justice and reciprocity into debates about welfare and the social contract, Laudato si’ makes clear that a Christian account of reciprocity is rooted in unscripted and non-controlling forms of reciprocity between citizens and between rich and poor. The encyclical also has some relatively sharp words for forms of ‘green’ politics which fail to see the relation between ecology and forms of political and economic exclusion: ‘tranquil’ gated green spaces in cities which exclude rather than embrace; green campaigning that forms no inherent connection with issues of poverty, justice, power and peace. The observations on human ecology – as much as climate – should give pause for thought to all major forms of contemporary organised politics. This encyclical baptises no form of politics we currently see on offer.

Above all Francis seems to envisage this document as an urgent and universal call to dialogue. He draws widely from Eastern Orthodox sources, some secular philosophy as well as regional bishops conference documents. And for the first time we have a document that seeks to use inclusive language. Cardinal Turkson trialled some of the encyclical’s key ideas through public speeches before its publication, and the Vatican seemed to be genuinely fishing for engagement and feedback to help them finesse the final document. Since its publication there has been criticism of the failure to deal adequately with the agency and subjectivity of women and children – a long-term failure in CST. Remarkably the Vatican have responded by suggesting that they will consider amending the document in this light. Whilst many will also want to raise more challenging questions about the theologising of sexuality and gender in the document, nonetheless it does feel that in tentative ways we see not just a call for dialogue but something of a fragile new theopolitical practice of dialogue emerging from the Vatican with regards the construction of its social teaching.

In this light and given Laudato si’s uncompromising call for political renewal rooted in a Christian theological account of creaturely relations it is essential that political theologians from all backgrounds and traditions are involved in this dialogue. Francis says of his authorial intention:

I will point to the intimate relationship between the poor and the fragility of the planet, the conviction that everything in the world is connected, the critique of new paradigms and forms of power derived from technology, the call to seek other ways of understanding the economy and progress, the value proper to each creature, the human meaning of ecology, the need for forthright and honest debate, the serious responsibility of international and local policy, the throwaway culture and the proposal of a new lifestyle.”

Laudato si’ presents the political theologian with a dazzling, trenchant and urgent invitation to dialogue in the interests of a transformed ecological praxis.


Anna Rowlands is Lecturer in Contemporary Catholic Theology and Deputy Director of the Centre for Catholic Studies in the Department of Theology and Religion, Durham University, UK. She is the founding Chair of the Centre for Catholic Social Thought and Practice and the author of the forthcoming book Catholic Social Teaching: A Guide for the Perplexed (Bloomsbury, 2016).

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