Augustine and Francis: The Saints of Laudato Si'

Who are the “holy influences” behind Pope Francis’s encyclical letter Laudato Si’? The first words of the text, taken as its title, reveal one of them very clearly, for it is a quote from St. Francis’s Canticle of Brother Sun, Laudato si’ mi’ Signore, Praise be to you, my Lord,” the refrain which introduces the poem and each subsequent verse. Pope Francis manages to quote most of the text at one point or another throughout the encyclical (see also: §LS 87; 91). The second “holy influence” is harder to detect, since he is never mentioned by name, and yet his influence is as unmistakable as it is constitutive of the theology throughout, and that is St. Augustine.

The contrast between these two saintly sources could not, in one way, be greater. St. Francis was not a lettered man and left behind no appreciable body of writings and no theology at all, while it has, on the other hand, been famously stated both that anyone who claims to have read all of the works of St. Augustine is a liar and that all of Western theology is but a series of footnotes to the writings of St. Augustine. Still, this pair has often appeared joined together in the history of theology, as though St. Francis, who wrote nearly nothing, had, by his life, shed light on the heart of Augustinian thought, or as though in St. Augustine’s theology, writers as different as Thomas of Celano, who wrote the first “life” of St. Francis in 1229, and St. Bonaventure, seventh minister general of the Franciscan order and professor at the University of Paris, find in St. Augustine a key to understanding the significance and implications of Francis’s way of life.

In any event, my argument is that in Laudato Si’ we find them both alive and well, St. Francis’s spiritual influence throughout, and St. Augustine’s conceptual, theological analysis giving that spirit a purchase in the world of analysis and ideas.

To begin with St. Francis, Pope Francis sets the tone of his encyclical with a full citation of the original last line of Canticle of Brother Sun: “’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’” (LS §1). Then, in a stunning and creative image, he takes St. Francis’s evocation of Sister Mother Earth one step further: “This sister now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her . . . The earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor; she ‘groans in travail,” a phrase borrowed from Rom. 8.22.

The Franciscan flair of the passage should not go unnoticed. It catches the social dimension of Francis’s personification of the creatures of the natural world, by integrating Francis’s love of the natural world with a theme equally important to St. Francis, namely his dedication to poverty and to the poor. Pope Francis repeatedly emphasizes that the crisis over the environment and the crisis of global poverty and marginalization of peoples are intimately related. In his words,

We are faced not with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather with one complex crisis which is both social and environmental. Strategies for a solution demand an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature (LS §139), for, ironically, our “Sister,” “Mother Earth,” is among the poorest of the poor whose dignity has literally been “trashed” by a “throwaway culture” (LS §22) by which she has been “burdened and laid waste.”

In another section, Pope Francis states less poetically but more explicitly the debt that his integration of social and ecological concerns has to St. Francis: “He was particularly concerned for God’s creation and for the poor and the outcast . . . He shows us just how inseparable the bond is between concern for nature, justice for the poor, commitment to society and interior peace” (LS §11). He quotes Thomas of Celano’s Life, where Thomas mentions how he even preached to the flowers, “inviting them ‘to praise the Lord, just as if they were endowed with reason’” (LS §11, citing Life I.29.81). He cites St. Bonaventure’s recalling how Francis “would call creatures, no matter how small, the name of ‘brother’ or ‘sister’” (ibid., citing Major Legend VIII, 6) and commenting how this approach challenges an attitude of “mastery” over nature leading to exploitation, and how connected it was to his ascetic practice, meaning his dedication to poverty. Pope Francis comments that, “The poverty and austerity of Saint Francis were no mere veneer or asceticism, but something much more radical: a refusal to turn reality into an object simply to be used and controlled” (ibid.), and by “reality” the Pope means natural and social realities, both.

I think that if we follow these leads, we can considerably deepen our appreciation of St. Francis’s contribution to Laudato Si’ as well as our understanding of the doctrine of creation as a mystery of the Christian faith. In case you have not listened to anyone preaching to the birds lately, we might as well treat ourselves and start there. Thomas recounts how Francis, traveling though the Spoleto valley, came upon a great gathering of birds of different, though all common, varieties.

When Francis, the most blessed servant of God, saw them, he ran swiftly toward them, leaving his companions on the road. He was a man of great fervor, feeling much sweetness and tenderness even toward lesser, irrational creatures. When he was already very close, seeing that they awaited him, he greeted them in his usual way (if there is a usual way of greeting birds). He was quite surprised, however, because the birds did not take flight, as they usually do. Filled with great joy, he humbly requested that they listen to the word of God. Among many other things, he said to them,

My brother birds, you should greatly praise your Creator, and love Him always. He gave you feathers to wear, wings to fly, and whatever you need. God made you noble among His creatures and gave you a home in the purity of the air, so that, though you neither sow nor reap (Luke 12.24), He nevertheless protects and governs you without your least care (Vita I.21.58).

Though we are not told about how the companions left behind so suddenly on the road felt about this, Thomas tells us that, since he had been so well received by the birds, he felt compunction for never having preached to them before, and he began to make a regular practice of it, but including also not only all birds, but “all animals, all reptiles, and also insensible creatures,” exhorting them “to praise and love the Creator,” and we hear of another sermon, aimed at a human audience but overheard by “my sisters, the swallows” (ibid.).

In another passage, Thomas clearly alludes to the same Francis recognizable from the Canticle of Brother Sun when he says, almost ecstatically,

Who could ever express the deep affection he bore for all things that belong to God (Matt 22.21)? Or who would be able to tell (Sirach 18.2) of the sweet tenderness he enjoyed while contemplating in creatures the wisdom, power, and goodness of the Creator? From this reflection he often overflowed with amazing, unspeakable joy as he looked at the sun, gazed at the moon, or observed the stars in the sky (Vita I.29.80).

Furthermore, Thomas continues, “even for worms he had a warm love, since he had read this text about the Savior: I am a worm and no man (Psalm 22.7). That is why he used to pick them up from the road and put them in a safe place so that they would not be crushed by the footsteps of passersby” (ibid.). Wait, did he say worms? That he spent time moving worms out of the road? One can maybe understand why Francis was said “in the winter” to have “honey or the best wine put out for the bees so that they would not perish from the cold,” and why “he used to extol the artistry of their work and their remarkable ingenuity, giving glory to the Lord”—since bees are useful. But worms?!

Worms are among the most useless of all creatures and in fact to be compared to a worm, to be called “a worm and no man” as the Psalmist says, is to be stripped, seemingly, of dignity and reduced to the lowest of the low. But this is why he loved them in particular, because he saw in them an image of the Savior’s stripping himself of the dignity fit only for the divine and to come among us as, in effect, a “worm,” a person stripped even of human pretention, status and seeming usefulness.

This interesting and rather pointed connection to the self-emptying of the Word made flesh and the renunciation of status involved is more directly raised in another passage. It is located in chapter 28 of Book I, which Thomas entitles, “The Spirit of Charity and the Feeling of Compassion for the Poor that Glowed in Him,” Thomas notes that,

The father of the poor (Job 29.16), the poor Francis, conforming himself to the poor in all things, was distressed to see anyone poorer than himself . . . from a feeling of simple compassion. Though he was content with a ragged and rough tunic, he often wished to divide it with some poor person” (Vita I.28.76).

After explaining how Francis went around persuading the rich to part with their warm cloaks or furs, Thomas goes on to explain,

He was deeply troubled whenever he saw one of the poor insulted or heard a curse (Jos. 8.34) hurled at any creature. It happened that a certain brother insulted a poor man begging alms, saying: “Are you sure that you are not really rich and just pretending to be poor?” When Saint Francis, the father of the poor (Job 29.16), heard this, he was deeply hurt and he severely rebuked the brother who had said these things. Then he ordered the brother to strip naked in front of the poor man and to kiss his feet, to beg his forgiveness.

Francis orders the man to strip as naked as the Poor Crucified hanging on the Cross, and then, Thomas tells us, “He used to say: ‘Anyone who curses the poor insults Christ whose noble banner the poor carry, since Christ made himself poor for us in this world.’ That is also why, when he met poor people burdened with wood or other heavy loads, he would offer his own weak shoulders to help them” (I.28.76), presumably imitating Simon of Cyrene who helped Jesus to carry His cross. This is the same “spirit of charity,” Thomas further observes, that caused Francis to have a deep concern not only towards other human beings in need, “but also toward mute, brute animals: reptiles, birds and all other creatures whether sensate or not” (1.28.77), since the self-emptying love of the Word of God, no less than God from God, Light from Light, True God from True God, in embracing the poverty of our human condition as his own, includes and touches the whole of the world of which human nature is a part.

This means that Pope Francis’s invocation of the degraded and insulted “Sister Mother Earth” as one of the poorest of the poor has more Franciscan street-cred than the Encyclical itself discloses to us. The connection between St. Francis’s charity towards the poor and towards other creatures alike, and its connection to Francis’s devotion to the poverty of the Incarnate Word, extended especially, as we have seen, to the insulted poor but also especially, to creatures in distress.

Thomas relates the story of a rabbit who had been caught in a trap but was still alive. It was brought to him by “a certain brother.” Thomas relates that upon seeing it,

The most blessed man was moved with tenderness. “Brother rabbit,” he said, “come to me. Why did you let yourself get caught?” As soon as the brother holding it let go, the rabbit, without any prompting, took shelter with the holy man, as in a most secure place, resting in his bosom (2 Sam. 12.3; Lk 16.23) . . . The holy father, caressing it with motherly affection, let it go (Vita 21.60).

Francis was especially solicitous for lambs and would even ransom them from market in exchange for his own clothes—especially if they had been given to him by someone whose cast-off’s were worth money. Lambs reminded him of the Lamb of God and also of those little sheep that he became like unto a lamb to serve and to save (see Vita I.28.77-78).

One more story: Thomas tells us that, Francis, “When he had the chance . . . would throw back into the water live fish that had been caught, and he warned them to be careful not to be caught again.” To illustrate, Thomas relates this story:

One time while he was sitting in a little boat at the port on the Lake of Rieti, a fisherman caught a large fish, commonly called a “tinca,” and reverently offered it to him. He accepted it gladly and gratefully, calling it “brother.” He put it back in the water next to the little boat, and with devotion blessed the name of the Lord (Psalm 113.2). For some time that fish did not leave the spot but stayed next to the boat, playing in the water where he put it until, at the end of his prayer, the holy man of God gave it permission to leave (Vita I.21.61).

OK, fair enough, rabbits are furry and kind of cuddly, and even lambs are cute if small. So perhaps all this is perfectly plausible on a purely natural level, until you think . . . Fish?! What’s your problem? There is a reason we have the expression, “cold fish!”—well, fish are a different matter. I guess we have all heard the expression “cold fish” with its negative connotations, but Thomas tells us that Francis in fact “had the same tender feeling toward fish” that he had towards rabbits and the rest of the company of more cuddly creatures.

We can pause to notice that in each case where Francis calls one of these creatures “Brother” or “Sister,” he is making a sacrifice. The people giving him rabbits and fish and selling him lambs certainly were not doing it as surrogate pet brokers. Especially the fish, which they expected him to fry up for the friary. As for the lambs, their would-be fate was announced prosaically enough when Francis asked those who were bringing them to market what would happen to them: “Those who buy them will kill them and eat them,” he was told (Vita I.28.79). Francis could have put the lamb to similar or other use, but instead, after he bought it with his cloak, he gave it back to the seller extracting a promise that he would never sell it again. Francis refuses to reduce the value of these non-human creatures to their use-value, and as for the poor, since they have no use-value, it requires the same kind of sacrifice to attend to them. It is as much a waste of time to care for them as it is to move worms out of the road.

One last passage from St. Francis before moving on, found in the text known as the Earlier Rule. As is well known, perhaps, the Rule prescribes that those who would style themselves “friars minor,” who were to be everyone’s “little brother,” were forbidden to own anything besides their habit, and, as we have seen, even that was not very securely possessed. But the Rule also forbids that the brothers renounce the use of money completely even if it is not theirs. They are not even supposed to touch money (ER 8.3.8-11) except to provide assistance to lepers. They are supposed to distance themselves from this system of value and valuation, predicated on ownership, in favor of a new one. In exchange for labor, they may receive food and lodging, but not money. And when there is no work, they are instructed to beg: “When it is necessary, they may go for alms. Let them not be ashamed and remember, moreover, that our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of the all-powerful living God, set His face like flint and was not ashamed. He was poor and an alien and lived on alms—He, the Blessed Virgin, and His disciples” (ER 9.3-5). He sums up: “They must rejoice when they live among people considered worthless and looked down upon, among the poor and the powerless, the sick and the lepers, and the beggars by the wayside” (Vita 9.2).

What is there to rejoice among the worthless but necessarily to see worth there, but a different worth and a different value than the cash value, the value related to ownership and use. It is to see in each of them reflected and refracted back the poverty of the “all powerful” who can dispose of anything in whatever way he wills but actually willed to come among us in our flesh, in the of a poor man, an alien dependent on the good will of others, and surrounded by other poor persons, he and the Blessed Mother and the apostles, insulted, cursed, dispossessed to the point of nakedness on the Cross, the Lamb of sacrifice, indeed, a worm and no man. God almighty become a worm.

So, we can see the worth of worms. We can see that worth on the Cross, and with it the worth of the whole world in which the worms and their likenesses exist, the price paid for the world out of burning charity, God’s own self, holding back nothing as “owned” and therefore off limits. None of creation is of any use to God, but its usefulness is not the source of its worth. Even the seemingly mighty reaches of space that are said to dwarf human beings—these are in their innocence and purity, as it were, among the vulnerable poor, subject to the exploitation of those who see the only value of things in the potential for ownership and use.

Laudato si’, mi’ Signore, Praised be You, my Lord, with all your creatures, especially Sir Brother Sun, Who is the day and through whom You give us light. And he is beautiful and radiant with great splendor; and bears a likeness of You, Most High One. Praised by You, my Lord, through Sister Moon and the stars, in heaven You formed them clear and precious and beautiful . . . Praised by You, my Lord, through Sister Water, who is very useful and humble and precious and chaste.

Yes, water is “useful,” but beyond that Sister Water has a value and a beauty that defies reduction to use, for she is “humble and precious and chaste ” and Brother Sun, though the source of light, is beautiful and radiant with splendor. To call them, and see them as, “Brother” or “Sister” is not just a romantic and saccharine sentimentalism but a refusal to reduce their value to their usefulness to us. To say “Brother Fish” means a sacrifice of its use, and requires a vision attuned to the sacrifice which revealed the worth of them all, the price paid for them by the Creator, the love from which they emerged out of nothing. It means to see them as creatures, as creation, and not just as nature.

Perhaps we could even update this a little. We are often reminded by the so-called scientific atheists that we are not the center of the universe, and, so far, so good, we are not. But then we encounter what amounts to an overreach. For example, Stephen Barr has recently reminded us that Stephen Weinberg famously noted, “It is very hard for us to realize that [the entire earth] is just a tiny part of an overwhelmingly hostile universe . . . The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.” Or, to use the expression of Richard Dawkins, “nature’s relation to us is one of ‘pitiless indifference.” But whose indifference is it that we are seeing when we look out at the vast expanses of an expanding universe? And from what point of view are we judging that it is “pointless?” These vast reaches of space and their great age are innocent of such charges, very much like Sister Water—humble and precious and chaste. What if we were to try out a different characterization of them?

We could say, “Praised be you, my Lord, through Brother Strong Force and Brother Weak Force, through Sister Gravity and Sister Electromagnetism, and Brother Higgs Force, through whom you secretly hold us all together without calling attention to yourself!” Or, we could try, “Praised by you, my Lord, through Sister Supernovas and Brother Black Hole, who are beautiful and playful and robust and strong, and through whom you enlighten us that we are not the center and remind us of your own Humility, Most High One!”

Perhaps it is our own indifference and pitilessness that we see reflected back to us when we regard the universe as pointless because it seems to be not focused on our utility? Picture instead the universe as an extension of “Sister Mother Earth,” vulnerable to trashing and degradation, in fact, already being trashed. Can we thereby begin to see it, or her, as not merely “nature” but as “creation?”

Which returns us to Pope Francis, who, drawing deeply from the Franciscan well, points out that, “in the Judeo-Christian tradition, the word ‘creation’ has a broader meaning than ‘nature,’ for it has to do with God’s loving plan in which every creature has its own value and significance” (LS §76). “Nature,” Pope Francis reminds us, is “usually seen as a system which can be studied, understood and controlled, whereas,” he continues, “creation can only be understood as a gift” (ibid.). Further, as creation, “the universe did not emerge as the result of arbitrary omnipotence, a show of force or a desire for self-assertion. Creation is of the order of love” (ibid. §77).

Pope Francis goes on to diagnose what he believes to be the root cause that renders this order of love, and especially the “value and significance” it imparts to each creature, invisible to us. He diagnoses the problem under the designation “anthropocentrism,” which, fundamentally, is the tendency of fallen human beings to value the things in the world as though we were the center of the world, as though the usefulness of things to us were an indication of their true value. This tendency is very emphatically emphasized in the text. “Modernity,” he says, “has been marked by an excessive anthropocentrism,” which, he says, is “when . . . the human being declares independence from reality and behaves with absolute dominion,” which, he continues, is a distortion of the biblical idea of dominion of stewardship.

Using the most emphatic expressions, Francis refers to this phenomenon as a “tyrannical anthropocentrism unconcerned for other creatures” (§68). It acts as though “other creatures are completely subordinated to the good of human beings, as if they have no worth in themselves and can be treated as we wish” (§69). We forget, he says, the “priority of being over that of being useful” and adds that “The Catechism clearly and forcefully criticizes a distorted anthropocentrism, proclaiming that ‘Each creature possesses its own particular goodness and perfection . . . Each of the various creatures, willed in its own being, reflects in its own way a ray of God’s infinite wisdom and goodness. The human being must therefore respect the particular goodness of every creature, to avoid any disordered use’” of them (§69).

One expression of modern anthropocentrism, he says, and here he cites Romano Guardini, is a certain technological mindset that “sees nature as an insensate order, as a cold body of facts, as a mere ‘given,’ [and not a ‘gift’], as an object of utility, as raw material to be hammered into useful shape; it views the cosmos similarly as a mere “space” into which objects can be thrown with complete indifference’” (§115, citing The End of the Modern World, 55). In this way, Francis comments, “the intrinsic dignity of the world is thus compromised” (ibid.). Everything is affected, but the most vulnerable and dependent, who have no evident use to us, are the most affected, and this includes human persons and nature alike: “a poor person, a human embryo, a person with disabilities—to offer a few examples” he notes (§117), as well as, in a passage already cited, “the earth herself,” who has no voice or agency and cannot resist actions that render her ‘burdened and laid waste . . . among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor” (§1).

We forget, Francis laconically notes, that “We are not God” (§67). But ironically, “when human beings place themselves at the center, they give absolute priority to immediate convenience and all else becomes relative” (§122)—and this means that there is really no center. Even human beings are “considered as simply one being among others, the product of chance or physical determinism” such that “our overall sense of responsibility wanes” (§118) and “our freedom fades when it is handed over to the blind forces of the unconscious, of immediate needs, of self-interest, and of violence. In this sense, we stand naked and exposed in the face of our ever-increasing power; lacking the wherewithal to control it” (§105).

Insistently driving the point home, Pope Francis notes that an excessive anthropocentrism forgets that “the ultimate purpose of other creatures is not to be found in us. Rather, all creatures are moving forward with us and through us towards a common point of arrival, which is God . . . their Creator” (§83). We are left with only “might is right” (§82). Excessive anthropocentrism is thus, at bottom, an ideology of power, for it is never all human beings who are imagined to be at the center, but rather, those who have the power, value those useful to their ends, while the rest are discardable.

We can sum up the diagnosis of modern anthropocentrism as a kind of practical nihilism, or, to use Francis’s expression, a culture of relativism “which sees everything as irrelevant unless it serves one’s own immediate interests. There is a logic in all this whereby different attitudes can feed on one another, leading to environmental degradation and social decay” (§122). If there is any fundamental takeaway from this encyclical, it is that these two, as we noted at the beginning, are intrinsically related. The same “use and throw away” logic that generates so much waste, treating the earth and natural objects as though they had no value but that related to our own convenience, also leads, he says, to “sexual exploitation of children and abandonment of the elderly who no longer serve our interests,” who “treat others as mere objects, imposing forced labor on them or enslaving them to pay their debts” (§123).

The same nihilistic or “relativistic logic . . . justifies buying the organs of the poor for resale or use in experimentation, or eliminating children because they are not what their parents wanted” (ibid.). And, although the encyclical very forcefully lobbies for policies and practical strategies to address these issues, in the end, Francis says, observing the deep grip that the culture of practical relativism has on the modern soul,

We should not think that political efforts or the force of law will be sufficient to prevent actions which affect the environment because, when the culture itself is corrupt and objective truth and universally valid principles are no longer upheld, then laws can only be seen as arbitrary impositions or obstacles to be avoided.

Ultimately it is an affair of the heart and not of law. Well, that was not an especially cheery picture! Pope Francis is a realist and believes that if we do not recognize the depth of the problem as ultimately a spiritual problem, we will always underestimate what it takes to work to solve it. And here we are pointed inexorably to our other “holy influence” on this encyclical, and that is to St. Augustine.

It seems impossible not to recognize in Francis’s analysis of excessive or distorted or tyrannical anthropocentrism, and the hold that it has on the human heart, the Augustinian diagnosis of original sin, the sin that is at the origin of sin and which is constitutive of the fallen human condition. Augustine called this “pride” or in Latin, “superbia,” which sounds much more sinister than the relatively innocent sounding English word “pride,” which only offers an approximate translation. When Pope Francis reminded us above, that “we are not God,” it is almost a direct invocation of the Augustinian idea of pride which is, in short, the desire to replace God with oneself. Of course, no one actually wakes up in the morning thinking, “Aha, I’ve found my goal in life. I’m going to rewrite my CV with my new objective—to replace God with myself!” That would be more a mark of derangement than of what Augustine means by pride.

Instead, the pride that is “superbia” is marked, Augustine says, by the desire to have reality on one’s own terms, as though one were God, as though one were the center of the universe and the source of all value. Augustine, in his great work The City of God, describes the tendency of human beings to replace the order of creation, as it is given, with what he calls the order or “hierarchy of utility,” which employs utility as a way of determining what is more, rather than less, valuable. “On this scale,” he says, “we would put some inanimate things above some creatures of sense”—since in Augustine’s understanding of reality, objectively speaking living creatures capable of feeling are “higher,” have a more intense level of being, we could say, than inanimate objects. We do not have to accept this particular way of ordering reality to grasp, nevertheless, what he is getting at:

On this scale of utility we would put some inanimate things above some creatures of sense—so much so that if we had the power, we should be ready to remove these creatures from the world of nature, whether in ignorance of the place they occupy in it, or, though knowing that, still subordinating them to our own convenience. For instance, would not anyone prefer to have food in their house, rather than mice, or money rather than fleas? (City of God, 11.6).

Of course—and he is not imagining we would think otherwise—he is saying that if one accepts this logic absolutely, not only would one be willing to eradicate mice and fleas from the natural world completely if we could, but also, that there are human consequences to this logic. It is not surprising that in this logic, he says, “we find the same criterion operating in the value we place on human beings, for all the undoubted worth of a human creature. A higher price is often paid for a horse than for a slave, for a jewel than for a maidservant” (ibid.). This is the exact juxtaposition of the interconnection between environmental and social pathologies we have seen emphasized in Laudato Si’.

Pride is, in Augustinian terms, the primacy of the hierarchy of utility in one’s heart, such that on the one hand we would be ready to eradicate creatures we find inconvenient from the world of nature, and, on the other, we would be ready to create a hierarchy among the value of human beings such that all can potentially be treated as commodities, and many actually are. The most extreme social manifestation of pride is slavery. In another mood, Augustine will describe pride as the preference for power over justice. Justice would dictate, in this example, that we treat a human being with the objective dignity attaching to him or to her, and not as though they were no more than a stone, to be bought and sold. What we are really preferring in this equation, then, is not only our own convenience or utility, but our own power to determine what is valuable and what is not.

What is needed is a healing of the heart, and it seems to me this diagnosis of the depth of the healing needed, is the Augustinian contribution to Laudato Si’. For Augustine the heart begins to be healed as it contemplates the humility of God in the Incarnation, which, just as we have seen in St. Francis, Augustine emphasizes as a descent from riches to poverty. Citing the Apostle Paul, “Though he was rich he became poor, so that by his poverty we might be enriched” (2 Cor 8:9), Augustine styles the Incarnation as an embrace of the poverty and neediness of our human condition, coming among us as subject to suffering and death and all of the vulnerabilities these entail. He made them his own in a display of love that works its way into our hearts to the point where we might be moved to say, “Thank-you!” and in that gratitude to begin to make his way of loving our own.

Commenting on Psalm 41.1, “Blessed is everyone who understands about the poor and needy man” (Exp. on Ps. 41 sec. 1), Augustine comments that it is in the first instance Christ who is the poor man the Psalm is speaking of: “What does understanding about this needy, poor man imply? Understanding that he emptied Himself and took on the form of a slave, bearing the human likeness, sharing the human lot (Phil 2.7). He was rich in the bosom of the Father, and poor among us; rich in heaven and poor on earth; rich as God, poor as man” (ibid.). But “understanding about the poor man” requires becoming more attentive to the poor. Augustine comments, “Blessed is everyone who understands about the needy and poor man. Keep in mind all the poor, needy, hungry and thirsty people, travelers far from home, the ill-clad, the sick, the prisoners. Try to understand about a poor person of this sort, because if you do, you will understand about Him who said, I was hungry, I was thirsty, naked, a stranger, sick and in prison (Matt 25.35-36).” So we cannot “see” the poverty of Christ if the poor and needy, the alien and the ill and the imprisoned, are invisible to us.

But, on the other hand, if we deeply consider the poverty of Christ, we will begin to lift the poor from their invisibility, because we will come to love the very love that valued not the wealth, the status and the power that we believe makes anyone valuable, but valued us, us ourselves, without any of these things, human nature shorn of all of these things, just itself, just ourselves. We can begin to see that this itself is valuable and lovable, human being itself, and this means that the poor, who have none of the things that pride prefers, rise to visibility for us. Here we see the roots of what we now call “the preferential option for the poor.”

We in our pride prefer all of the things that cause us to scorn the poor. In our gratitude for Christ’s having become poor for us, we begin to see that this scorning of the poor amounts to scorning the Lord Himself. To prefer the poor means to “see” human dignity itself over everything that would subvert and insult it, especially if it is in our own heart. To prefer the poor does not divide us from the love of the rest of humanity, but returns that love to us as we love human beings in their intrinsic dignity shorn of every other false value.

Augustine exhorts us to the conversion of heart contemplating the revelation of God’s own heart to us. Where do we see God’s heart? We already know—by contemplating the self-emptying love which, in taking up our poverty, taking up our agony, taking up our fear and our sorrow, took up all those things which, in our hearts, can tempt us to scorn that which is not prestigious or rich. But now we can feel his heart tugging at ours, pulling at it to make it bigger like his own, tempting us to gratitude for his big-heartedness, roomy enough for all of us, and to allow the riches of our heart to be nothing but him and his love. He tempts us to see all people, and the world in which we live, in and through that love.

Augustine says, “Contemplate his humanity in that deep heart of his; and in that same heart also discern if you can, to the utmost that you can, God Himself” (Exp. of Ps. 63, sec. 14).” If we contemplate the “deep heart,” we might say, “the Sacred Heart,” of Jesus, the Word made flesh, we will grow in the gratitude for its big-hearted depth. And in that gratitude, we will ourselves be able to make the ultimate sacrifice the Psalms demand of us, the sacrifice of praise, the sacrifice of leaving our pride behind, receiving creation, our own selves, as the gift that it is instead of insisting on setting the terms ourselves.

In Laudato Si’, Francis exhorts the faithful to participate, according to their expertise and authority, in advocating for policies which recognize the intrinsic interconnection of ecological and social problems and which work to reverse them. But he also reminds the faithful that purely technical solutions, or solutions on the level of policy alone, do not reveal or address the heart of the problem, which is the heart in need of conversion. We are asked to have skin in the game, to bear witness to our love of the love that became poor for us, and enter into the sacrifices that such witness would enjoin on us, what he calls “real changes in lifestyle” which can be taken in response to the preferential option for the poor, including Sister Mother Earth, to which contemplation of the Incarnation, as both St. Francis and St. Augustine in their own ways, will lead us.

The “preferential option for the poorest of our brothers and sisters” entails, Pope Francis says, “recognizing the implications of the universal destination of the world’s goods, but . . . before all else an appreciation of the immense dignity of the poor in the light of our deepest convictions as believers” (§158). We will begin to resist the consumerist impulses that treat our own convenience, rather than the dignity of all of creation as represented by the poor, as the highest value. “A person who could afford to spend and consume more but regularly uses less heating and wears warmer clothes, shows the kind of convictions and attitudes which . . . care for creation” (§211), which, even more, actually sees creation, sees the world as creation, as having emerged from the love revealed most clearly in the Incarnation and the Cross. “We must not think,” Francis says, that these kinds of efforts, small in themselves, “are not going to change the world. They benefit society, often unbeknown to us, for they call forth a goodness which, albeit unseen, inevitably tends to spread” (§212).

Ultimately the exhortation is to the faithful, to begin to form their lives around practices that represent the sacrifice of the anthropocentrism he describes, drawing on the holy sources we have mentioned. A vigorous commitment to these small practices bear witness to something higher, to the Creator, and to what that word, and the word “creation,” mean. It is this practice and this witness that can change a culture, despite its seeming insignificance. What if we took up the invitation to the small works of mercy extended to the most vulnerable of the vulnerable poor, including “the earth herself, burdened and laid waste . . .  among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor” who “groans in travail”? What if we decided to become living interpretations of what it means to call the earth, and the rest of the cosmos, “creation?”

What if parishes decided to give up the universally present styrofoam coffee cups after Mass, explaining in homilies that, like the human soul, they have a beginning but no end? Pope Francis is telling us that it is communities of “ecological conversion” based on the Catholic faith that can present to our culture an opportunity for dialogue, and within that dialogue, an evangelization, that is credible to people and does not seem like an invitation to an unscientific or outdated worldview, but instead an interpretation of the true faith which becomes an opportunity for healing of the hardness of our hearts.

We end our consideration of the holy influences on Laudato Si’ with a startling conclusion. And that is that, if we want to penetrate to the most ultimate account of the origin of the cosmos, beyond even the truths that science can offer us, it is the practice of the preferential option for the poor that will allow us to penetrate the universe’s deepest mystery, its origin out of nothing in a love that once we see it, might tempt us, even in our pride, to cry out, “Laudato si’, mi’ Signore, Praised be You, my Lord, with all Your creatures!”


John Cavadini

John Cavadini is the McGrath-Cavadini Director of the Institute for Church Life and a professor in the department of theology at the University of Notre Dame. He was appointed by Pope Benedict XVI to a five-year term on the International Theological Commission in 2009. He is the recipient of the Monika Hellwig Award for Outstanding Contributions to Catholic Intellectual Life and is the author of Visioning Augustine.

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