Before engaging in commentary, is worth noting a few features of Pope Francis’ encyclical letter, Laudato sí’.
This is the first time a Pope had discussed ecology as holistic ecology (because it goes beyond the environment) in such a complete form. Great surprise: he develops the theme within a new ecological paradigm, something that no official document of the UN has yet done. He backs up his discourse with the best data from the life and Earth sciences. He reads the data properly (with sensible or cordial intelligence), because he discerns that beneath them lie human dramas and also much suffering on the part of Mother Earth. The present situation is grave, but Pope Francis always finds reasons for hope and a confidence that humans will find viable solutions. He connects with John Paul II and Benedict XVI, the Popes who preceded him, quoting them frequently. And there is something absolutely new: his text is written collegially, because it values the contributions of scores of Episcopal Conferences from around the world, from the Episcopal Conference of the United States to the those of Germany, Brazil, Patagonia-Comahue, and Paraguay. He also welcomes the contributions of other thinkers, such as the Catholics Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Romano Guardini, Dante Alighieri, his Argentinean teacher Juan Carlos Scannone, the Protestant Paul Ricoeur and the Moslem Sufi Ali Al-Khawwas. It is addressed to all of humanity, because we all inhabit the same Common Home (a term the Pope often uses), and we all endure the same threats.
Pope Francis writes not as a Teacher and Doctor of the faith, but as a zealous Pastor who cares for the Common Home and for all the beings, not just the human ones, that inhabit her.
One aspect is worth noting, in that it reveals Pope Francis’ forma mentis (the way he organizes his thinking). It derives from the pastoral and theological experience of the Latin American churches, that in light of the documents of the Latin American Bishops (CELAM) of Medellín (1968), Puebla (1979) and Aparecida (2007), undertook an option for the poor; against poverty and for liberation.
The text and tone of the encyclical are typical of Pope Francis and the accumulated ecological culture, but I notice also that many expressions and forms of speech belong to the thinking and writings principally found in Latin America. The «Common Home», «Mother Earth», the «cry of the Earth and the cry of the poor», «caring», the «interdependence among all beings», the «poor and vulnerable», the «change of paradigm», the «human being as Earth» who feels, thinks, loves and venerates, of the «holistic ecology» and others, are recurrent themes among us.
The structure of the encyclical follows the methodology used by our churches and the theological reflection linked to the practice of liberation, now assumed and consecrated by the Pope: see, judge, act and celebrate.
The Pope starts by revealing his primary inspiration: Saint Francis of Assisi, whom he calls an «example par excellence of caring and of holistic ecology, and who gave special attention to the poorest and abandoned.» (nº 10 y 66).
And then he starts with seeing: «What is happening in our home» (17-61). The Pope says: «it is enough to view reality with sincerity to see that there is great damage to our Common Home» (61). In this section he incorporates the most reliable data related to climate change (20-22), the issue of water (27-31), the erosion of biodiversity (32-42), the deterioration of the quality of human life and degradation of social life (43-47). He denounces the extreme global inequality, that affects all aspects of life (48-52), the poor being the principal victims (48).
In this part there is a phrase that refers us to a reflection done in Latin America: «But now we cannot help but recognize that a true ecological plan always becomes a social plan that must incorporate justice into debates about the environment so as to hear the cry of the Earth as well as the cry of the poor» (49). Then he adds: «the moan of sister Earth joins the wail of the abandoned of the world» (53). This is absolutely coherent, because at the beginning he said that «we are Earth» (2; cf. Gn 2,7), very much in line with the great Indigenous Argentinean singer and poet Atahualpa Yupanqui: «the human being is Earth that walks, feels, thinks and loves».
He condemns the proposal to internationalize the Amazon because it «would only serve multinational economic interests» (38). He makes a proclamation of great ethical value: «it is a very grave inequity to obtain important benefits by forcing the rest of humanity, present and future, to bear the cost, through the extremely high level of environmental degradation» (36).
With sadness he recognizes that: «never before had we mistreated and damaged our Common Home as we have done in the last two centuries» (53). In the face of this human offensive against Mother Earth that many scientists have denounced as inaugurating a new geological era –the antrophocene– he laments the weakness of the powers of this world that, mistakenly, «think that everything can continue as it is» as an excise to «maintain their self-destructive habits» (59) with «behavior that appears suicidal» (55).
Prudently, Pope Francis recognizes the diversity of opinions (nn 60-61) and that «there is not just one unique solution» (60). Even so «it is true that the world system is unsustainable from diverse points of view because we no longer think of the consequences of human action» (61) and we get lost in the construction of means directed at unlimited accumulation at the price of ecological injustice (degradation of the ecosystems) and of social injustice (impoverishment of the populations). Humanity, simply, «has betrayed divine expectations» (61).
The urgent challenge, then, consists of «protecting our Common Home» (13); And to that end we need, quoting Pope John Paul II: «a global ecological conversion» (5); «a culture of caring that pervades the whole society» (231).
Having considered the dimension of seeing, is important now to examine the dimension of judging. Judging is addressed from two viewpoints, scientific and theological.
Let’s examine the scientific. The encyclical devotes the entire third chapter to analyzing «the human roots of the ecological crisis» (101-136). Here the Pope proposes to analyze techno-science without prejudice, acknowledging that it has brought «really valuable things to improve humanity’s quality of life» (103). But this is not the problem. Rather, it became independent, subjugating the economy, politics and nature to the accumulation of material goods (cf. 109). Techno-science begins from a mistaken assumption about the «infinite availability of the planet’s resources» (106), when we know that we have already reached the physical limits of the Earth and that a great part of its goods and services are not renewable. Techno-science has become technocracy, a true dictatorship with its iron logic of domination over everything and everyone (108).
The great illusion, now prevalent, lies in believing that with technocracy all the ecological problems can be solved. This is a misleading idea because it «implies isolating things that are always connected» (111). In reality, «all is related» (117) «all is in relationship» (120), an affirmation that runs throughout the text of the encyclical as a ritornello, for it is a key concept of the new contemporary paradigm. The great limit of technocracy lies in the fact that it «fragments knowledge and loses the meaning of the whole» (110). Worse still is «not recognizing the proper value of each being and even denying the special value of the human being» (n.118).
The intrinsic value of each being, no matter how minuscule, is permanently enshrined in the encyclical (69), as in the Earthcharter. Denying that intrinsic value denies the opportunity for «each being to communicate its message and give glory to God» (33).
The main deviation produced by technocracy is anthropocentrism. It falsely supposes that things have value only to the degree that they are useful to humans, forgetting that their existence has value in and of itself (33). If it is true that everything is related, then «we human beings are together as brothers and sisters and are united with tender affection to brother Sun, sister Moon, brother River and Mother Earth» (92). How can we strive to dominate them, and view them through the narrow scope of domination?
All the «ecological virtues» (88) are lost by the desire for power, seen as the domination of the others and of nature. We are experiencing a painful «loss of the meaning of life and the will to live together» (110). He quotes several times Italo-German theologian Romano Guardini (1885-1968), one of the most read thinkers of the mid XX century, who wrote a book critical of the pretensions of modernity (105 note 83: Das Ende der Neuzeit, The End of the Modern World, 1958).
The other type of judging is theological. The encyclical devotes much space to the «Gospel of Creation» (62-100). In part justifying the contribution of the religions and of Christianity, because since the crisis is global, each one, with its religious capital, must contribute to caring for the Earth, (62). He does not concentrate on doctrine, but on the wisdom present in the different spiritual paths. Christianity prefers to talk of creation rather than nature, because «creation has to do with a project of love from God» (76). He quotes, more than once. a beautiful text from the book of Wisdom (11,24) where it clearly appears that «the creation belongs to the order of love» (77) and that God is “the Lord who loves life” (Sab 11,26).
The text is open to an evolutionary vision of the universe, without using the term. It engages in circumlocution when referring to the universe as «composed of open systems that enter into communion, one with another» (79). He uses the principal texts that link the incarnated and resurrected Christ with the world and with all of the universe, making matter and the entire Earth sacred (83). And in this context, Pope Francis quotes Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955; nº 83 note 53), as the precursor of this cosmic vision.
A consequence of the fact that God-Trinity is a relationship of divine Persons is that all things in relationships are resonant of the divine Trinity (240).
Quoting Bartholomew I of Constantinople, Ecumenical Patriarch of the Orthodox Church, he «recognizes that sins against creation are sins against God» (7). Hence the urgency of a collective ecological conversion to restore the lost harmony.
The encyclical concludes this part with certitude: «the analysis showed the need for a change of course… we must get out of the spiral of self-destruction into which we are now sinking» (163). It is not about reform, but, quoting the Earthcharter, about searching for «a new beginning» (207). The interdependency of everything leads us to think «of a single world with a common project» (164).
Since there are multiple aspects to reality, all intimately related, Pope Francis proposes a holistic ecology that goes beyond the environmental ecology to which we are accustomed, (137). Holistic ecology covers all fields, the environment, economy, social, cultural, and daily life (147-148). The encyclical never forgets the poor whose living links of belonging and solidarity with one another are a testament to their form of human and social ecology, (149).
The third methodological step is to act. In this part, the encyclical touches the great themes of international, national and local politics (164-181). He emphasizes the interdependence of the social and educational with the ecological, and with sadness, confirms the difficulties caused by the predominance of technology, impeding the changes that could restrain the voracity of accumulation and consumption, and inaugurate a new paradigm, (141). He retakes the theme that the economy and politics must serve the common good, and create the conditions for a possible human plenitude (189-198). Again he insists on a dialogue between science and religion, as suggested by the great biologist Edward O. Wilson (cf. the book, Creation: how to save life in the Earth, 2008). All religions «must seek to care for nature and to defend the poor» (201).
Also in the aspect of acting he challenges education to create an «ecological citizenry» (211) and a new life style, based on caring, compassion, shared sobriety, an alliance between humanity and the environment, because they are inextricably linked, the joint responsibility for all that exists and lives, and for our common destiny (203-208).
Finally, the moment to celebrate. The celebration is realized in a context of «ecological conversion» (216) that implies an «ecological spirituality» (216). This spirituality derives not so much from theological doctrines as from the motivation elicited by faith to care for the Common Home and «to nourish a passion for caring for the world» (216). This experience precedes a mysticism that mobilizes people to live an ecological equilibrium, «the interior with itself, the solidarian with the others, the natural with all the living beings and the spiritual with God» (210). That «less is more» and that we can be happy with little then appears to be the truth.
In the context of celebration, «the world is something more than a problem to be resolved, it is a delightful mystery we contemplate with joyful praise» (12).
The tender and fraternal spirit of Saint Francis of Assisi runs through the entire text of the encyclical Laudato sí’. The present situation does not call for an announcement of tragedy, but a challenge, that we may care for our Common Home and for others. There is in the text a lightness, poetry and joy in the Spirit and the indestructible hope that if the threat is great, greater still is the opportunity to solve our ecological problems.
He ends poetically “Beyond the sun” with these words: «Let’s walk singing. May our struggles and concern for this planet not deprive us of the joy of hope» (244).
I would like to end with the final words of the Earthcharter that Pope Francis also quotes (207): «May our times be remembered for awaking a new reverence for life, for the firm resolution to reach sustainability, for accelerating the struggle for justice and peace, and for the joyful celebration of life».