'Laudato Si'' a plea for Christianity to be taken seriously in ecological debates

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

I've already reflected on the prophetic edge of Ladauto Si'; now I'd like to balance that reflection by considering its extraordinary positive contribution to Christian spirituality. I'll do so with a mind to its audience -- or, as the case may be, its audiences.

I couldn't articulate better than Jay Michaelson does how "theologically revolutionary" Laudato Si' really is -- how its "radically anti-fundamentalist biblical hermeneutic," its "mystical nature panentheism," and its "highly adumbrated anthropocentrism" place the text "alongside the best of radical, progressive religious environmentalism."

Yet could its profound originality be problematic, if its aim is to persuade climate skeptics that care for the environment is consonant with their own conservative religious values?

Many have pointed out -- here, for instance -- that the encyclical cites local bishops' conferences almost two dozen times. This is undoubtedly historically significant, although its appeal to a certain kind of geopolitical religious authority may not win over theological conservatives.

What may be more rhetorically significant are the rest of the document's footnotes, even if their appeal to papal, rather than episcopal, magisteria is less historic.

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By my count, 36 of the encyclical's footnotes come from Pope John Paul II, 29 come from Pope Benedict XVI, and 10 come from the Catechism of the Catholic Church. (Added to these are a number of citations of Romano Guardini and Thomas Aquinas.) In other words, Francis has taken pains to place himself in line with his more theologically conservative predecessors.

Of course, it is fascinating to see how these magisterial sources are selected and interpreted.

For example, Francis reads Aquinas not in the rigidly syllogistic manner common to 20th century scholasticism, but in the dynamic and even mystical manner academic scholars are beginning to adopt in Thomistic studies. In Paragraph 240 of Laudato Si’, he quotes Aquinas to the effect that "creatures tend towards God, and in turn it is proper to every living being to tend towards other things, so that throughout the universe we can find any number of constant and secretly interwoven relationships."

Here as elsewhere, Francis elicits a cosmological spirituality from a traditional source. Look at paragraph 85, where he backs up a lofty statement by the Canadian Bishops' Conference -- "From panoramic vistas to the tiniest living form, nature is a constant source of wonder and awe. It is also a continuing revelation of the divine." -- with some striking support from none other than John Paul II: “Alongside revelation properly so-called, contained in sacred Scripture, there is a divine manifestation in the blaze of the sun and the fall of night.”

Francis then cites the Catechism, in a passage so poetic it made me want to open it up to see if that's what it really says: “God wills the interdependence of creatures. The sun and the moon, the cedar and the little flower, the eagle and the sparrow: the spectacle of their countless diversities and inequalities tells us that no creature is self-sufficient. Creatures exist only in dependence on each other, to complete each other, in the service of each other."

The bulk of the document's astonishing catechesis in eco-spirituality take place in its second chapter (62-100). At one point, for instance, he proposes that Franciscan spirituality contains an antidote to the rupture caused by original sin: "Saint Bonaventure held that, through universal reconciliation with every creature, Saint Francis in some way returned to the state of original innocence" (66).

At another point (96-100), the pope offers an astonishing Christology based on the "gaze of Jesus," depicting him as someone who "lived in full harmony with creation" and drew it to himself in the Resurrection, so that "the very flowers of the field and the birds which his human eyes contemplated and admired are now imbued with his radiant presence."

Yet what is most interesting is that this extraordinary chapter begins by addressing itself not to conservative Christians but to a largely agnostic scientific community. It pleads for Christianity to be taken seriously, staging a defense of the relevance of religion to the ecological debate, insofar as it trains us to see mystery in the created world.

The encyclical, then, is somewhat holographic: its traditional sources disclose something almost panentheistic, even as its appeal to scientifically minded moderns wants to lead them to the sources of Christianity.

It occurs to me that this document is a bridge not only to scientists but to the kind of people who call themselves "spiritual but not religious," who say they prefer to contemplate God in pristine forests rather than in human-made churches, and whose personal sensibilities tend toward the New Age or the neo-pagan. It could extend the so-called "Francis effect" if it allows such people -- and they are many -- to see that Christian spirituality can speak to their hearts and minds.

Yet these may be the very people who will never read the text, particularly if they have the impression that all the encyclical does is confirm what they already believe about climate change -- if they have the impression that the encyclical is directed exclusively at conservative religious fundamentalists.

I'll end this reflection on a personal note. For years, I've talked theology with my cousin, a profoundly sensitive young man with a deep connection to animals, who has a passing, peripheral interest in Christianity yet finds the religion too anthropocentric to be adequate to his feelings of connectedness with all reality.

I understand; indeed, I recently posted a verse by Rilke, who hates to see God depicted in "king's robes" while so many other lovely images ("you drifting mist that brought forth the morning") seem to be ruled out, implicitly, as too "pagan."

When you read paragraphs of Laudato Si’ like Paragraph 33 and Paragraph 92, you can see that Pope Francis has given the church resources (in these cases, resources in the field of animal rights) it never had. He has taken the frame of Christian spirituality and expanded it -- or, better yet, made it more porous, so that it is capable of taking in more and more of the divine mystery.

For this I am grateful -- and if it manages to save the planet from global warming, all the better.


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