The Real Legacy of Laudato Si

The Real Legacy of Laudato Si
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In a sensationalized new encyclical, Laudato Si, Pope Francis expounds Catholic moral teaching on the environment and our place within it, with special attention given to the poor and the controversial issue of climate change.

It is ironic that a document designed to provide a moral framework for reasonable debate and prudential behavior has been met with neither.

The reaction to a leaked Italian language draft of the encyclical earlier this week, proves the point: The pope, we were told, "goes off the rails," with an "explosive intervention" calling for an "anticapitalist revolution." The forest of morality, so to speak, has already been lost to a thicket of inflammatory policy points -- along with the deep theological continuity between Francis, his predecessors, and the ancient teachings of the Church.

An encyclical, literally a "circular letter" addressed to a specific group of people, e.g., Roman Catholic bishops, concerns issues of faith or morals. Typically these involve "matters which affect the welfare of the Church at large [and] condemn some prevalent form of error, point out dangers which threaten faith or morals, exhort the faithful to constancy, or prescribe remedies for evils foreseen or already existent."

In the present case, the matters at hand are our obligations toward the rest of creation. The relevant evil? The abrogation of those obligations, derived from the moral principles long propounded by the church, namely, solidarity, subsidiarity, the common good, and human dignity.

Obviously an official pronouncement by the pontiff on matters of faith and morals should not be taken lightly (if you are Catholic); rarely, however, does a papal letter assume the infallibility characteristic of those pronouncements made ex cathedra on matters of dogma. An encyclical is a teaching document in which the Church lays out a moral framework through which to address a particular issue the Church deems urgent. The poor being always with us, that particular issue is ever urgent.

As for the environment, Pope Francis is not the first pope to afford the topic sustained reflection. In fact, Pope Benedict XVI, the "green pope," spoke at length about environmental degradation, the culture of materialism, climate change, and even installed photovoltaic cells in the Vatican to offset its "carbon footprint."

Yet we are told, the current pope takes matters further, calling for wholesale changes of lifestyle; placing undue burden on the wealthy to redress the ills of climate change; entertaining fanciful notions of a green economy; and demanding an end to our reliance on fossil fuels.

Only an anti-capitalist "Marxist," we are told, could argue that "grave imbalances are produced when economic action, conceived merely as an engine for wealth creation, is detached from political action, conceived as a means for pursuing justice through redistribution." Alas, that was Benedict, not Francis.

It was Benedict, not Francis, who first used the office of the pope to point out "the immense potential of solar energy" for combating climate change and to defend an "integral human development...marked by solidarity and inter-generational justice." He even proposed "a kind of super-UN to deal with the world's economic problems and injustices," as The Guardian put it.

Where were the free-marketers when Benedict XVI claimed that "environmental degradation challenges us to examine our life-style and the prevailing models of consumption and production"? Or that "we can no longer do without a real change of outlook which will result in new life-styles"?

When it comes to the environment, Pope Francis's encyclical breaks new ground only in emphasis and length. Indeed, the vast majority of the papal document does not concern climate change so much as elaborate on the theological approach to creation that Pope Benedict XVI laid out in his encyclical, Caritas in veritate. This "human ecology," maintains that the "the book of nature is one and indivisible" and that it is "at our disposal not as 'a heap of scattered refuse,' but as a gift of the Creator who has given it an inbuilt order, enabling man to draw from it the principles needed in order 'to till it and keep it' (Gen 2:15)."

Naturally both popes emphasize that nature cannot be placed above man. As Francis puts it, we cannot "put all living beings on the same level," nor "deprive human beings of their unique worth,' nor "diviniz[e]...the earth" for that would be to violate the "personalist principle." This principle, derived from the imago dei, demands respect for the dignity of the human person, and is the foundation for all moral principles in the Church's social teaching. For "all of social life is an expression of its unmistakable protagonist: the human person."

It is from this human principle that mankind's responsibility toward the rest of creation is derived -- rather than vice versa. For, as Pope Francis puts it: "a sense of deep communion with the rest of nature cannot be real if our hearts lack tenderness, compassion and concern for our fellow human beings." But coercive population control methods, artificial family planning, and certain lines of biological research are also deemed morally wrong on this basis.

Thus, Francis denounces those "who view men and women...as no more than a threat, jeopardizing the global ecosystem." Similarly, says Francis, "concern for the protection of nature is...incompatible with the justification of abortion" and "fail[ure] to protect a human embryo." That simply reiterates the central proposition of the human ecology articulated by Pope Benedict, according to which "nature is one and indivisible" -- or, as Francis puts it, that "the analysis of environmental problems cannot be separated from the analysis" of the human and family "contexts."

Human dignity is not the only principle of Catholic social teaching. Also indispensable are solidarity, the "common good," along with the "preferential option for the poor." These demand "appropriate modification of laws, market regulations, and juridical systems" along with an individual "commitment to the good of one's neighbour ... instead of exploiting him, and to 'serve him' instead of oppressing him for one's own advantage." Franciscan? Yes. Francis? No, Catholicism.

Some on the left will doubtless find insupportable Francis's emphasis on the ethics of "human life," as the libertarian right will find much that is downright objectionable in Francis' skeptical remarks on capitalism and technological innovations (including air-conditioning!) as well as his calls for international regulation and redistribution. And there is the endorsement of anthropogenic climate change. Pope Francis even argues that "there is an urgent need to develop policies so that, in the next few years, the emission of carbon dioxide and other highly polluting gases can be drastically reduced." Wrong-headed or not, that is hardly a call to political revolution.

Yet, sure to be ignored by pundits -- conservative and liberal alike -- are the long passages in which Francis, echoing the writings of St. John Paul II, exhorts the "need to protect employment," and "the value of labor," and the "provisional" nature of welfare assistance. Francis even goes so far as to call "business" a "noble vocation," especially when "it sees the creation of jobs as an essential part of its service." Similarly eclipsed will be the pontiff's unassailable invitation for "honest and open debate" on environmental issues. Indeed, Francis repeatedly emphasizes that it is "not easy to achieve a broad consensus" on many matters; thus the Church offers no "definitive opinion" and "does not presume to settle scientific questions," but rather "encourages debate among experts, while respecting divergent views."

Ultimately, this encyclical is valuable not so much for its specific policy recommendations, which recapitulate the tired sentimentality of liberal environmentalism, but for its moral theology. Francis, for instance, draws a sharp contrast between the Church's human-centered ecology and the twin evils of "practical relativism" and "doctrinal relativism," which make man the measure of all things. The latter stems from philosophical principles (or lack thereof); the former, from indifference -- perhaps more pernicious.

The pope will have accomplished something of enduring value if this moral framework finds a place in contemporary public discourse. Caught between value-neutral technological libertarianism and the neo-paganism of contemporary environmentalism, we lack a properly human-centric moral vocabulary with which to engage economic and ecological problems. This Francis provides when, echoing Aristotle, he reminds us that if our "laws are to bring about significant, long-lasting effects, the majority of the members of society must be adequately motivated to accept them." This requires "cultivating sound virtues."

To the claim that such a morality can have no import beyond ancient traditions or doctrinal religions, increasingly marginalized in our culture, Francis offers a remarkable rebuke:

It would be quite simplistic to think that ethical principles present themselves purely in the abstract, detached from any context. Nor does the fact that they may be couched in religious language detract from their value in public debate. The ethical principles capable of being apprehended by reason can always...find expression in a variety of languages, including religious language.

May that be the legacy of Laudato Si.

M. Anthony Mills is a PhD candidate in philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, specializing in philosophy of science.

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