The liberation methodology of 'Laudato Si''

This story appears in the Francis: The Environment Encyclical feature series. View the full series.

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Last week, Jeb Bush joined a number of Republicans who have relativized the value of Pope Francis' encyclical Laudato Si'.

"I don't get economic policy from my bishops or my cardinals or my pope," he said, averring that religion "ought to be about making us better as people, less about things [that] end up getting into the political realm."

Beyond the fact that such statements are disingenuous coming from politicians who bring their faith convictions to bear on other issues, I'd like to make one further point: While I don't happen to agree with Bush that religion's primary task is to make us better people, that is precisely what Laudato Si' aims to do.

First of all, as background, in order to speak ethically about the environment, we have no other choice than to tackle scientific and economic matters. We cannot say that because religion should be about making us better people, it can only tackle simple questions that do not require complex analysis in the applied sciences. Such a limited agenda would require us to renounce our intelligence and the Catholic synthesis between faith and reason.

Cutting back on the number of pertinent questions we allow ourselves to consider as Catholics demonstrates a closed-mindedness that Jesuit Fr. Bernard Lonergan calls "bias" and identifies as the root of all sin. It may be the implicit subject of the encyclical's most blistering criticism.

Francis' profoundly original catechesis reflects on what he calls "ecological virtues" (88) that we are simply not used to thinking about. Yet our unfamiliarity with these virtues is itself immoral. It is a sinful luxury of the first world to reduce religious ethics to so-called personal morality -- which is best distinguished not from applied ethics, as Bush supposes, but from structural sin.

Ecosystems are dying; the poor are suffering. That is where the true moral stakes of our (interconnected) existence lie, and "that is why the New Zealand bishops asked what the commandment 'Thou shall not kill' means when 'twenty percent of the world's population consumes resources at a rate that robs the poor nations and future generations of what they need to survive' " (95).

The encyclical -- whose theological "loci" (places of reflection) include favelas and coral reefs -- utilizes the method of liberation theology, which begins by finding an actual place where we can encounter true reality in order to understand it better, where we can shoulder its heavy burden before ultimately seeking to transform it.

"Many professionals, opinion makers, communications media and centres of power, being located in affluent urban areas, are far removed from the poor, with little direct contact with their problems," the pope explains. "They live and reason from the comfortable position of a high level of development and a quality of life well beyond the reach of the majority of the world's population. This lack of physical contact and encounter, encouraged at times by the disintegration of our cities, can lead to a numbing of conscience and to tendentious analyses which neglect parts of reality" (49).

At first, I was surprised by the wide-ranging nature of the encyclical, which, contrary to what media coverage generally emphasized, doesn't confine itself to the issue of climate change. Yet I see now that its ambitious scope takes up the challenge of a systematic investigation of social reality, honors its own contention that all ethical and environmental issues are interrelated, and also adds experiential (and not just scientific) evidence for the claim that "doomsday predictions can no longer be met with irony or disdain. We may well be leaving to coming generations debris, desolation and filth" (161).

Over at First Things, R.R. Reno makes the provocative point that despite its alignment with modern science, the encyclical is actually one of the most anti-modern documents the church has produced since the Second Vatican Council. Indeed, Francis remarks that environmental education, a tradition in which he presumably wants to inscribe his encyclical, "tends now to include a critique of the 'myths' of a modernity grounded in a utilitarian mindset (individualism, unlimited progress, competition, consumerism, the unregulated market)" (210).

These myths that rupture our connection with the earth are only reprisals of the original sin of Genesis 3, by which humanity's relationship with the earth was first severed (66). This is how far back we need to go, and this is why this encyclical is so groundbreaking. In much the same way that Martin Heidegger's Being and Time accused the whole, reifying history of philosophical metaphysics of forgetting the existential strangeness of being, the Catholic tradition -- to say nothing of the market economy -- has largely forgotten the cosmological interconnectedness of all life. Since perhaps the Patristic era, ecological virtues simply haven't been on our religious agenda at all.

"Superficially," the encyclical explains, "apart from a few obvious signs of pollution and deterioration, things do not look that serious" to us. Yet of course, "such evasiveness serves as a license to carrying on with our present lifestyles and models of production and consumption" (59).

If Bush is concerned with becoming a better person, then, he must know that evasiveness -- as a license for perpetuating a morally degraded status quo -- is a sin. Raping the earth and getting paid for it is a sin, no matter how dismissively he may claim that areas of scientific disagreement are invulnerable to moral analysis by the church.

We also must ask ourselves whether our moral and theological imagination been tragically, even sinfully, narrow.

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