18 June 2015

Some thoughts on the new Encyclical

Below are some initial reactions to the Pope’s newEncyclical.  They’re perhaps a bit disjointed, and certainly do not cover everything.  But they are some of my initial impressions on reading the document, and a few points I took away as most important.  I do encourage everyone to read it.  It is a fairly simple style to read, and easily comprehensible.  It is also the best way to steer clear of the overly-ideological spin that the members of the media seem determined to give to it.

Climate Change

Before getting to the actual encyclical, I want to mention some of the reporting.  Reading the press accounts, many have discussed the encyclical as if it were the Climate Change Encyclical.  To just take one typical example, a New York Times’s headline puts it, somewhat predictably, this way: “Pope Francis in Sweeping Encyclical Calls for Swift Action on Climate Change”.  As is typical for the religion reporting at that newspaper, it reflects more the ideological hopes of the author and editors than it does what the Pope actually said. In fact, the notion of Climate Change makes up a rather small part of the Encyclical.  It is certainly addressed, and the Pope sees it as important, but to identify it as the main thrust of this Encyclical, as the New York Times and others do, is very misleading.

Also, the Pope is very clear that the reality of Climate Change is not something on which he speaks with magisterial authority.  He speaks in terms of  “scientific consensus”, and defers to the scientific community.  He says, quite bluntly: “I would state once more that the Church does not presume to settle scientific questions or to replace politics.”

In other words, the Encyclical is much broader than just an affirmation of the scientific consensus on climate change.  Any news outlet you read or hear that pitches it that way is being deceptive—don’t listen to them.  Rather, this Encyclical is a far-reaching reflection on creation itself, and especially man’s place within it.  Moreover, it is meant to reflect specifically on the modern world, and specifically role and place of modern technology in the life of man and with respect to the environment.

Laudato si’

As most people have commended, the title is taken from the first words of the Encyclical.  Usually this is in Latin, but this time Pope Francis chose to use the 13th century Umbrian Italian of St. Francis of Assisi.  Those Italian words are “Laudato si’, mi’ Signore” (or, in modern Italian: “Laudato sii, mio Signore”).  Most media outlets are reporting only the first two words, which are the title: “Praised be to you”.  But it is important to understand all of St. Francis’s words: “Praised be to you, my Lord.”  For St. Francis especially, everything is directed to God.  St. Francis did not talk about himself, he talked about God. 

In many ways, this is the key to understanding the whole Encyclical.  The Pope wants to reject two extremes.  On the one hand, he wants to reject a distorted anthropomorphism that exaggerates man’s role in the world.  On the other hand, he wants to reject a neo-pantheism that would worship creation and make man utterly subject to it. 

Some of those in the environmental movement have criticized the Judeo-Christian tradition as one of the sources of the problem of economic degradation.  The Biblical language asserting man’s Dominion of the world, some argue, has become the excuse by which man ravages the land for his own use.  Moreover, the extend that criticism to the medieval philosophers and the hierarchy of being, which places man at the top of the material world, and the rest of the created order—animals, plants, the earth itself—underneath him. 

Pope Francis wisely corrects this false view.  It is true that the Christian understanding of creation posits in man a greater dignity, for human beings are the only ones in the material world created in God’s image and likeness.  And God’s words to Adam after he’s been expelled from the Garden are to till the land – but he also tells him to “keep it”, in the sense of protect and preserve it.  It is true that man is given governance over creation, but even that remains subject to the Providence of God.  Man’s governance of creation is itself subject to God’s plan, in which all things find their end in God.  So, far from man having absolute dominion over the earth, the Christian tradition sees man as its caretaker, its steward.  This sums it up well: “Our relationship with the environment can never be isolated from our relationship with others and with God. Otherwise, it would be nothing more than romantic individualism dressed up in ecological garb, locking us into a stifling immanence.” (LS 119)  And this notion of stewardship means especially recognizing that we protect the world for future generations.  In what will likely become one of the more quoted lines of the Encyclical: “What kind of world do we want to leave to those who come after us, to children who are now growing up?” (LS 160)

At the same time, we must avoid the temptation to equate the value of man and the rest of the created order.  Pope Francis is very clear on this.  He says: “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’.” (LS 118)  He emphasizes this hierarchy especially in an example about water.  As the Pope explains, access to fresh water is a vital natural resource because it is an absolute necessity for human life.  So, when assessing the environmental effects of given projects, we need to take into account the effects on access to water: “For example, we know that water is a scarce and indispensable resource and a fundamental right which conditions the exercise of other human rights. This indisputable fact overrides any other assessment of environmental impact on a region.” (LS 185)  This means not only the manufacturer whose product despoils the water table, but the subspecies of fish who that may have to be sacrificed to permit access to water in a drought.  The environment is not to be preserved in some sort of permanent stasis, like a scene in a snow globe.  It is not some idol of the present, to be worshipped in itself. 

An Integral Ecology

The primary focus of the Pope’s Encyclical is to prompt a change in attitude regarding man’s place in the environment.  He deliberately speaks in terms of an “ecological conversion” (LS 5) rather than a merely environmental one.  The reason for this is to emphasize the interdependence of the created world.  An ecology is more than just a few plants and some animals thrown together.  An ecology is a system – a system of interdependence between the various elements of the environment, which sustains them and allows them to continue.  So, too, man is not cut off from the environment around him.  Rather, he must be aware that he is a part of the ecological system – a system he needs and that he in turn effect.  Moreover, there is an ecology to human society as well – that the social dimensions of human life are related to the way in which we approach creation around us.  Therefore, Pope Francis prompts us to an “integral ecology” which recognizes the “interrelation between ecosystems and between the various spheres of social interaction”.  (LS 141)  In other words, we need to broaden our view to better recognize how our life, in all its dimensions, is part of our natural environment. 

Conversion of Life

More than anything, the Pope calls us to a conversion of life.  Man lives in a world marred by sin, and this disorder within us effects our relationship with creation, too.  “The harmony between the Creator, humanity and creation as a whole was disrupted by our presuming to take the place of God and refusing to acknowledge our creaturely limitations.”  Man’s selfishness looks to his own gratification first, regardless of the consequences.  The Pope calls us to live a simpler life, casting aside the modern temptations of consumerism and individualism, to live in a more harmonious relationship with God’s creation.  This is more than international agreements, political campaigns, or green technology.  It is first and foremost a recognition that our encounter with Jesus Christ must also be manifest in our relationship with the world around us.  As the Pope emphasizes: “a healthy relationship with creation is one dimension of overall personal conversion, which entails the recognition of our errors, sins, faults and failures, and leads to heartfelt repentance and desire to change.”  This call to conversion is addressed to all levels of society – the individual family, neighborhoods and communities, local and national governments, leaders of business and industry, and multinational organizations. 

One Critique

As much good as there is in this Encyclical, there are some problems. The biggest problem, to put it quite bluntly, is the Pope’s insufficient understanding of economics.  The Pope constantly sees economic growth in merely static terms.  For him, it seems, the economic life is like a big pie, and if one person takes a piece, then he is denying it to someone else.  But the reality of market-based systems is that they can grow the pie.  When resources are given to those who use them most efficiently for the greatest good, everyone benefits.  And it is precisely the mechanism of price that allows those goods to transfer most efficiently.  Is a market-based system perfect?  Of course not, society needs political mechanisms to provide for justice – something markets do not do very well.  But it is undeniable that private property and free and open markets are the two greatest forces for eliminating material poverty that the world has ever known.