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Laudato Si’: Three commendations and a criticism

Laudato Si’: Three commendations and a criticism

Laudato Si’ has been heralded as the Pope’s – and indeed the Vatican’s – first encyclical on the environment. It isn’t. Although the word environment (or environmental) is used well over a hundred times, the encyclical is, properly speaking, about ecology not environment. The distinction is a fine, but significant, one and constitutes the first of my commendations: Laudato Si’ subtly shifts the usual terms of the debate by means of his categories.

The ‘environment’ is about your surroundings or the conditions in which you live. The environmental movement has been bedevilled by this fact because it relates our concern for creation to a concern for something else. Sure: it’s admirable to care about your surroundings but if you can insulate yourself from their degradation (as so many of us in the West can), ‘admirable’ never becomes ‘imperative’.

Ecology, on the other hand is about the relationships and networks between living things. There is no us-and-them here. It’s all us. Laudato Si’’s great strength is its integration of ‘human’ and ‘environmental’ concerns into an “integral ecology” (#10). What we do to creation, we do to ourselves. The sooner we realise this, the quicker and easier it’ll be to do something about it.

Commendation two is linked to this point. Papal encyclicals are the heavy artillery of Roman Catholicism: the big guns that reach further and make more noise and a bigger impact than any other documents. And they have each particular pope’s fingerprints all over them.

Every encyclical quotes widely from its predecessors and other relevant papal statements but what is striking about Laudato Si’ is how many Bishops’ Conferences Francis quotes, and how widely spread they are. I noticed quotes and references from the Conferences of Southern Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, the Philippines, Bolivia, Germany, the Patagonia-Comahue Region, the United States, Canada, Japan, Brazil, Dominica, Paraguay, New Zealand, Asia, Argentina, Portugal, Mexico, and Australia. It’s an impressive list which not only (obviously) underlines the global nature of the problem but practices a kind of ecology of its own: this is an encyclical letter but it’s not simply one man talking to the rest, but a global community talking to a global community.

Commendation three pertains to the subtitle. The Common Good is a phrase whose popularity is only matched by the vagueness of its usage. Many can and do use it precisely and carefully, having a clear idea of what it means and what it doesn’t, but many do not. There is – shall we say – a certain elasticity in popular understanding and usage.

“Common Home”, as deployed in the encyclical’s title (‘On care for our common home”) helps ground that key concept. Homes need not be common, of course, and the Common Good pertains to far more than where we live, but describing the basic category of ‘environmental’ debate in this way does much the same thing as shifting that category to ‘ecology’: it reframes the question, in this instance earthing it in a reality that we can grasp and are less likely to twist to our own political agendas. Caring for nature is nice. Caring for our common resources is sensible. Caring for our common home is vital.

So much for the commendations; here is the criticism. The Pope’s concept of nature is unduly benign, verging at times on the Disney. “Soil, water, mountains: everything is, as it were, a caress from God.” (#84) All creatures are “linked by unseen bonds and form a kind of universal family.” (#89) “Creation is of the order of love.” (#77)

This is all very authentically Franciscan and arguably true, but a very long way from the whole truth. If mountains can caress, they can also crush. If all creatures form some kind of universal family, it’s a pretty dysfunctional one. And I wonder how the Ichneumonoidea wasp, which so horrified Darwin, is of the order of love.

Francis was not writing a theodicy in Laudato Si’, and it would perhaps be unfair therefore to dwell on this criticism. Emphasising the beauty and value of creation is more important for his purposes than recognising its brutality and amorality. But there is an authentic strand of theological reflection which sees creation, and not just human nature, as fallen – pained, disordered, groaning, in need of redemption – and failing to recognise that (and the profound theological challenge it poses) risks not only intellectual faint-heartedness but also blunting the sharpness and significance of the Pope’s message.


Nick Spencer is Director of Research at Theos | @TheosNick

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