Pope Francis’s comprehensive and beautifully-written encyclical on ecology is out and is entitled Laudato si’. Its title is from the first line of a prayer of St. Francis: “May you be praised, my Lord.” From beginning to end, the encyclical indeed, is an act of praise to God.
For my part, I would praise it for having foiled both the “conservative right” and the “progressive left” in their assumptions about both the encyclical and Pope Francis.
In the time leading to the publication of the encyclical, the former had expressed consternation that the Pope was writing on something “out of his reach.” The latter, for their part, had expected his radical, revolutionary side to finally appear. Well, Pope Francis was quite radical, all right, and the encyclical some sort of a “green revolution”, but not the sort that they were expecting.
As an article in The Atlantic (an American magazine) succinctly summarized it, “what this encyclical is not is a love letter to Greenpeace – Francis is embracing environmental stewardship as a Catholic theologian, not a liberal activist.” He does so by contextualizing the topic squarely within his proper ambit: care for humanity in general, but especially the poor. Indeed, his “environmental theology” here is a manifestation of the Church’s preferential option for the poor. It’s also a continuation and development of his predecessors’ treatment of this subject – from St. John XXIII to Benedict XVI – whom he quotes a lot in the document.
Yet, the encyclical is revolutionary. It is the first that ever had ecology as its main theme. It is radical in a way unlike any other document on the environment because it gets to the real root of the problem – he mentions sin early on – and its solution.
In the first part the Pope discusses pollution, climate change, water shortage, and the loss of biodiversity. But he does so not for their sake, but to highlight the ultimately more important consequences of dodging them: the suffering of human beings. It is they who are truly important. No wonder Pope Francis moves on swiftly from environmental to economic, social, and cultural ecology.
Yet he goes further, to the “ecology of everyday life.” Here the Pope anchors ecology to its most central purpose and its most radical source: the human person and his immediate community. Logically, in this very section of his encyclical, Francis recalls Benedict XVI’s affirmation “that there exists an ‘ecology of man…Man also has a nature that he must respect and which he cannot manipulate at his own pleasure.’”
He echoes that statement in probably the one statement that could summarize his entire encyclical. “The integral ecology requires openness to categories that transcend the language of the exact sciences or biology and are tied to the essence of the human being.”
In other words, the radical answer to the problems of the environment goes beyond considerations of biodiversity and water shortage. It requires a return to acknowledging and respecting human nature. Only then can environmental problems be seriously addressed; without this, everything would be cosmetic and ineffective. Now there’s a radical solution, if I’ve ever seen one.
Unfortunately, recent events have shown that society is going the opposite direction.
For example, instead of acknowledging and respecting the original design of human beings, assisting it where it needs support, it has hailed as “brave” and “honest” decisions that attempt to minimize, short-circuit, or even totally eradicate the reality of human nature. I refer specifically to Bruce Jenner’s celebrated transgender surgery and the big Irish mistake in the last referendum.
To these, Pope Francis does not say in this encyclical, “Who am I to judge?” Rather quite plainly, he says, “It is not a healthy attitude that claims to delete the sexual difference because he cannot deal with it more.” And rightly so, because these trends reduce man to his feelings, willing, or mere body.
In an era where there’s such a vehement demand for the re-construction of man’s environment it is incomprehensible that anyone would encourage this destruction of the human being.
In this confusion, the appeal Pope Francis makes in this encyclical is clear: promote life, respect the human person, preserve the family. “But I desire to underline the central importance of the family… Against the so-called culture of death, the family constitutes the seat of the culture of life.” By speaking only about the family for months in his past Wednesday audiences, he has made the message here unmistakable.
This encyclical on the environment, then, is very timely. It has come not only when the physical world is suffering from the effects of human abuse, but also when the moral and spiritual realm of man is reeling from the effects of human hubris. It has come to remind governments, international bodies, and scientific organizations of their real raison d’etre – the human person – and to be sincere in their efforts of developing a truly human society.
But above all, it has come to tell each one that the real solution begins with the individual. “The ecological crisis is an appeal to a profound interior conversion.” Highlight that word: individual. Because it is as individuals that we make decisions – whether alone or in a group – for better or for worse for the environment.
In this sense, Pope Francis is a genuine radical, seriously promoting his version of a “Green Revolution.” But it isn’t as green as it is human.
Robert Z. Cortes is a PhD student in Social Institutional Communication at the Pontifical University of Santa Croce, Rome. He has an M.A. in Ed. Leadership from Columbia University, N.Y.