A Deceptively Simple Papal Document

One of the important things to keep in mind about Laudato si’ during this week dedicated to discussing it is that it is a document written by the pope, not just for Catholics, but for the global community. It is an essential part of the pope's approach to the environmental issues to say, that these are issues on which all human beings must work together or else we will not have a future together—our common home is in our hands. It is fundamental to our understanding of the encyclical to recall that Pope Francis’s audience is all of us. The pope has much to say, and he contributes to the debate about climate change with particular insights that are shaped by Catholic Social Teaching and the Judeo-Christian approach to ethics. But he affirms that more is needed. We require the insights and alternative perspectives of people from different religious traditions or none so that we can work together to find solutions to problems that we all have to confront.

When I seek to present an overview of Laudato si’, I feel obliged to point out that it is a deceptively simple document. It is a document that speaks clearly using direct and accessible language, but it is continually opening deeper issues and challenges. Its mode of argumentation is complex and cumulative rather than simply linear. For me, it is helpful to frame it in terms of the medical analogy. When I have a medical problem, I go to a doctor and—if my doctor is a good doctor—he or she listens to me and looks at the presenting symptoms. But he or she will be attentive to the underlying causes to draw me into a recognition of where the real or deeper problems may be rooted. The doctor will seek to effect a full diagnosis and offer me an objective analysis of my situation. The doctor may prescribe immediate treatments and medication to address my symptoms but he or she will usually want to address the underlying causes and indicate preventive measures and necessary lifestyle changes.

This is part of what the pope is doing in Laudato si’. He looks at the presenting symptoms, at some of the sicknesses of the environment. He outlines the most obvious and immediate symptoms of environmental degradation—the negative impact on water quality, the loss of biodiversity, problems of desertification etc. He is particularly interested in the impact of these changes on the poor, who he insists are suffering disproportionately. This is typical of Pope Francis’s approach to social issues and his understanding that realities are more important than ideas (Evangelii Gaudium).

He is also looking at the underlying causes. The pope is very quick to put his finger on the risks created by the “myths” of a modernity grounded in a “utilitarian mindset (individualism, unlimited progress, competition, consumerism, the unregulated market).” He is particularly alert to the problems associated with consumerism, in particular a type of consumerism that does not seem to recognize any limits—a consumerism he characterizes in different moments as “compulsive,” “unethical,” and “aggressive.” There is a form of consumerism that, as he says, wants everything. This is a consumerism that is promoted by many of the commercial companies we deal with. So, it is not simply that we have these needs; these needs are to some extent invented for us and made for us. The ultimate danger is that unlimited consumerism becomes so ingrained and habitual that it induces a denial of reality and that it fractures any form of human solidarity or of the common good.

Consumerism, in this sense, is closely bound to individualism, everybody thinking of his or her own needs and desires. This is not just a matter for individual citizens, but it becomes more generalized in terms of nations, societies, and sections within societies thinking only of their own immediate and strategic interests. The pope highlights the fact that the pursuit of the politics of self-interest has bedeviled attempts to confront climate change.

There is also an associated failure on behalf of humans to recognize that the earth is our common home and that we are part of a created reality. The earth comes to be seen as something external to us, as an infinite source of raw material that we use for our own satisfaction. One of the recurring motifs of Laudato si’ is that “everything is (inter)connected and (inter)related.”

In this regard, it is important to note how the pope revisits the Judeo-Christian understanding of creation and the insight that human beings have been entrusted with the stewardship of this world. This not simply a blind mastery, but a stewardship to care and look after this world, a world in which we are at home and a world upon which we depend. This is a key insight from our theology of creation, “the Father is the ultimate source of everything, the loving and self-communicating foundation of all that exists.” The pope is also very clear that in this matter we can learn from non-scientific and non-Western traditions. We must be open to that understanding of the world as something sacred as something to be viewed as having its own intrinsic value, its own purpose. “For them, land is not a commodity but rather a gift from God and from their ancestors who rest there, a sacred space with which they need to interact if they are to maintain their identity and values.”

The pope recognizes that we have in many ways been willfully blind to the problems we are confronting. It is too easy to be distracted, too easy to create divisions, too easy to manipulate information. Like a good doctor, he is calling us to confront honestly the realities that are shaping our situation. He is requiring us to recognize that consumerism is not just damaging the earth, but consumerism is a way of human living that is destroying human beings. It is fracturing the solidarity that should be part of our relationship with each other. It is almost as if he is staging an intervention and obliging us to confront an addiction: “Our goal is not to amass information or to satisfy curiosity, but rather 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.”

Moving onto a more prescriptive note, we can see what Francis feels must be done immediately and the approaches that are required. I think the pope is clear that we need the contribution of scientists, of economists and of politicians. We cannot manage, however, without the contribution of each and every section of society. We need to work together to be honest about the difficulties we confront in order to work together in ways that think about the needs, not just of ourselves, but of our broader community. And I think it is particularly interesting, that the word that is repeated consistently in the document, is dialogue. The pope sees the need for a dialogue between the different sections in society, so that we are open and honest with each other. I think this is something that probably emerges even more strongly in his encyclical Fratelli Tutti, it is very clear that the fact of being brothers and sisters in this world is not just an accident. It is not just something we have to accept or tolerate; it is our destiny. We were created in the image and likeness of God; we were made for community. We either resolve our problems together—appreciating the diversity that we have as a richness—or else we are going to run into deeper problems.

The final thing the pope does, like a good doctor, is to move beyond the medications that are required or the surgery that might be needed. He asks us to reform our lifestyles. Particularly, he highlights the importance of developing a simpler way of living. To live with less. To recognize that consumerism seems attractive in many ways, but it is destroying us, destroying us as individuals and societally. There is something that some commentators call a sweet spot, where we can find a less consumeristic way of living that will ultimately be more rewarding.

Recently, I have been reading some advance reviews of Jason Hickel’s forthcoming publication Less Is More, where he talks about the need for sacrifice, for people to be willing to let go of some of the advantages they have in this world, especially people in the Western and more developed parts of the world. The word sacrifice is important here. It is a word that people from religious traditions will typically associate with the need for conversion. That is a type of ecological conversion that should transform our lives. A way of reflecting more intentionally on how our choices are impacting the earth and impacting other people. But we must endeavor to live that sacrifice with hope. As W.B. Yeats said, “too long a sacrifice / Can make a stone of the heart.” When we speak of sacrifice, we need to offer hope, a vision, a way of living, that people can see as attractive, as offering a better way of life, a more sustainable approach to living.

I would like to conclude by briefly noting two less obvious dimensions of this ecological conversion. The pope insists on the importance of beauty. We need to learn to appreciate beauty. If we do not, he says we will appreciate nothing. There is the need to reflect on how we get people to understand beauty that is not based on utility or on what we can produce. Beauty is something that is gratuitous, that is gracious, that is given to us:

If we approach nature and the environment without this openness to awe and wonder, if we no longer speak the language of fraternity and beauty in our relationship with the world, our attitude will be that of masters, consumers, ruthless exploiters, unable to set limits on their immediate needs.

It is important that we cultivate a sense of thankfulness, a practice of counting our blessings. As simple a gesture of giving thanks before eating reminds us of our dependence on God for life, “it strengthens our feeling of gratitude for the gifts of creation; it acknowledges those who by their labors provide us with these goods; and it reaffirms our solidarity with those in greatest need.”

And then finally, I want to talk about a spirituality and approach to living that is simpler, that is intentionally more simple. This is a spirituality that tries to see creation as a God-given good, as something to which we are related and connected. It is a spirituality that deliberately seeks to deepen these bonds of connectivity and relatedness—that seeks to understand the bonds not just intellectually but viscerally and imaginatively. Saint Francis’s presence throughout the encyclical is not just a rhetorical flourish but an invitation to embrace his spirituality.

Saint Francis of Assisi reminds us that our common home is like a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us. “Praise be to you, my Lord, through our Sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us, and who produces various fruit with colored flowers and herbs”.

We are being invited to a more contemplative way of living, to discover the ultimate ground of our being in the beauty of creation. This is a spirituality not just for believers, “Francis helps us to see that an integral ecology calls for openness to categories which transcend the language of mathematics and biology and take us to the heart of what it is to be human.”

EDITORIAL NOTE: This essay was a contribution to the panel "Laudato Si at 5 Years: Towards an Ecology of Culture," which took place on January 11, 2021, and was co-hosted by the Collegium Institute and the Pontifical Council for Culture.

Featured Image: Taken by Jebulon, "Christ in the winepress", detail of a Pope, stained glass windows, early 17th century, Church Saint Etienne du Mont in Paris; Source: Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain.


Paul Tighe

Bishop Paul Tighe is the Secretary of the Pontifical Council for Culture

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