The Encyclical Cometh

In case you haven’t heard, Pope Francis is releasing his encyclical on the environment this week. I suspect you have heard. Never has a text that no one has yet seen generated so much attention! I have not seen it either but prognostication is part of an analyst’s brief, so at the risk of proving myself a fool, here are my predictions about “Laudato Si.”

The issue of the environment has never previously received the specific, sustained attention from the Church that an encyclical affords. But, as I have noted before, if the issue is new in terms of being the focus on an encyclical, the theology I anticipate the text will contain will be quite traditional. This is Genesis, after all, which happens to be the oldest part of our tradition. Of course, from Genesis, Catholic Social Teaching has mined our Catholic belief in the universal destination of all created good. This is not a new idea. It is found in St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas and throughout our tradition, But, it may be the least acknowledged or understood teaching of the Catholic Church in our spread-eagle, capitalist society, in which acquisitiveness is the norm and concern for others is rather lacking in esteem. If you doubt it, watch a half hour of television and don’t mute the sound when the ads come on. Or, consider this tortured explanation of the universal destination of goods found at the Acton Institute in which a series of straw men are introduced to essentially shunt this Church teaching of the stage. In the context of dealing with the problem of environmental degradation, the first step is a renewed emphasis on this element in Catholic Social Teaching: God created the world and all that is in it, it is His more than it is ours, and it is ours only insofar as we exercise dominion over it on His behalf and on behalf of those whom He loves, especially the poor.

In addition to the traditional theology stemming from Genesis, I suspect Pope Francis’ text will reflect the spirit of his namesake, the world’s favorite saint, Francis of Assisi. There is something for everyone in the life of St. Francis, and I hope that anyone, at least any Catholic, who is fair-minded, will find themselves nodding in agreement as they read the text when it treats the spirituality of il Poverello. Is there anyone who has not prayed the Prayer of St. Francis? Or read a biography of him? I remember as a child having my Mom read stories about him to me and I loved him then. My dogs have a great devotion to him, for understandable reasons.

The influence of Saint Francis on Pope Francis will be seen in three ways. First, for all the fretting about the relationship between science and theology, I hope the first thing that shines through in this encyclical is the joy that Saint Francis took in Creation. The title of the document is a strong hint that this will be the case. But, it is not just the joy the Saint took in Creation that leads me to think the text will have a joyful tone. We have been so focused on the issue, sometimes we forget who is writing the text. This encyclical is being written by the same man who wrote “The Joy of the Gospel,” the same man who spreads joy as he moves through St. Peter’s Square on Wednesdays or through a favela in Rio de Janiero during World Youth Day.

Second, Francis the pope, like Francis the saint, is a radical Christian in the strict sense of the word, to the radix, the core. He gets to the heart of the matter, through word and gesture, more effectively and persuasively than any person in the public square in my lifetime. And the heart of the matter here is not comparing the benefits of different policies – I anticipate there will not be much in the way of policy at all in the text. That is not the pope’s job. His job is bracingly to pose the question: Knowing what we know, how can we Catholic Christians remain indifferent to the environmental degradation that is currently ruining whole communities, and which threatens to ruin all communities?

Third, the joyful tone and the call to a radical Christianity does not mean that the text will be devoid of the kind of trenchant criticisms of modern, technocratic culture we say in Evangelii Gaudium. Again, the man who wrote that apostolic exhortation wrote this encyclical and some of the socio-economic realities Pope Francis denounced so forcefully in that prior text are at the root of the environmental degradation he will be addressing in this one. For Francis, wrecking the environment is of a piece with other injustices perpetrated by an economic system that worships the false idol of profit, lives on an unsustainable amount of consumerism and consumer consumption, and posits competition as its modus operandi, relegating not only products but people into the morally illicit category of losers. The text will be prophetic in the best sense of the word. Many in recent years have invoked the mantle of prophecy to call for introducing alien intellectual and moral traditions into the thinking and praxis of the Church. The true prophet does not traffic in this. The true prophet retrieves what is best in a people’s own tradition, and calls his or her contemporaries to embrace it anew.

I confess that I wish Pope Benedict XVI had penned an encyclical on the environment before retiring. We know he would have availed himself of the trenchant criticisms of the modern, technological mindset, most clearly articulated in the writings of his Communio co-founder Hans Urs von Balthasar, who wrote:

Whenever the relationship between nature and grace is severed…then the whole of worldly being falls under the dominion of "knowledge," and the springs and forces of love immanent in the world are overpowered and finally suffocated by science, technology and cybernetics. The result is a world without women, without children, without reverence for love in poverty and humiliation – a world in which power and te profit margin are the sole criteria, where the disinterested, the useless, the purposeless is despised, persecuted and in the end exterminated – a world in which art itself is forced to wear the make and features of technique. 

Many of Pope Francis’ critics imply that, compared to his predecessors, he is not much of a theologian, but I read his homilies every morning and have read enough of his writings to conclude that, theologically speaking. he is no slouch. I am sure he has read von Balthasar. Maybe some of this will find its way into the text. It is deep stuff, to be sure, but it is precisely the sundering of the relationship between grace and nature – which is another way of saying a misunderstanding of, or forgetfulness about, the Incarnation - that has gotten us into this environmental mess. Yes, fossil fuels have played their part, but it has been our mishandling of our own capabilities, and the pride those capabilities have occasioned, that is the root of the problem.

I anticipate that the encyclical’s treatment of the issue of “human ecology,” while similarly thick as a theological concept, will be introduced in a very basic, accessible way: Dealing with the environmental problems the world faces is a matter of getting our relationships right, our relationship with God, with one another, and with our environment. And, in the context of an encyclical, getting something “right” means that our attitudes and approaches flow from our core beliefs, rooted in the self-revelation of Jesus Christ. This will be theology, which is the study of God, and only consequently about the (literally) mundane consequences for humankind of that self-revelation. For a Christian, the proverbial bucket in our bucket list does not contain stuff, but relationships which, at the end of our lives, we can look back upon as having brought us love and meaning. Or, to paraphrase historian Brad Gregory, the Church sketches a vision of the good life, not the goods life. On this issue of the environment especially, consumerism is the problem, but the problem of consumerism is deeper than its environmental consequences. Consumerism distorts our understand of ourselves and our relationships, as well as ruining the planet. 

The most important thing to know about the forthcoming encyclical, no matter the particulars, is that it will provide the moral and religious framework for us to think about the issues, the scientific issues, the economic issues, and the political issues. As Dan Misleh, head of the Catholic Climate Covenant recently observed, the pope will invite us to think about these issues as Catholics, not as members of the Sierra Club. He could have added, not as stockholders in Exxon, and not as Democrats or Republicans, or not as Americans or Argentines. In his talk in Rome a couple of weeks back, Cardinal Donald Wuerl made a similar point when he said:

The Church always tries to read the “signs of the times” and offer appropriate guidance by setting the issues of the moment in the context of Catholic Social Teaching….Now Pope Francis is guiding the Church to watchfulness for an urgent “sign of the times,” a new awareness that the human family, if it is to thrive, is being called to a deeper solidarity on behalf of the environment. In doing so, he is also reminding us of the beauty of Creation and our own dignity as its stewards, entrusted by the Creator to nurture and protect the creation for the sake of the whole human family and for generations to come.

So, for all those who fear the pope should not be getting into this issue, and all those who think the pope approaches these issues the way a secular environmentalist would, what the pope is really doing, as Cardinal Wuerl suggests, is what the Church has done for a long time: Face the problems of the world and look at them in the light of our tradition. Those who complain next Thursday – and those who will say stupid things like “the pope is a Democrat” - need to acknowledge this very traditional aspect of Church teaching and, tomorrow, I will attend to some of the anticipated reactions.



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