Some forms of moral reasoning in “Laudato Si” are unsurprising.
A sketch of the efficiency of recycling in the food chain is deployed as a natural law argument against wasteful human living in section 22; the climate (section 23) and creation (section 156-7) are defined as “common goods;” and the dignity of all human beings is stressed in section 154 among other places.
These are all familiar modes of moral reasoning in Roman Catholic ethics and particularly in the tradition of Catholic social teaching.
At the heart of the encyclical, however, are more surprising ethical arguments. There are a series of rhetorical reimaginings of the nature of creation.
The pope narrates the world, and our relationship to it, in new ways. If we accept his acts of redescription, then we will have no choice but to relate to creation, and to each other, differently.
Francis says to us gently, yet persistently, “You have not understood what the world is; if you did, you would treat it differently.” How should we see it?
- The earth as home, sister and friend.
“Our common home is like a sister with whom we share our life,” Francis writes in section 1. In “Laudato Si,” the earth is repeatedly our “home” and, at key points, our “sister.”
We have treated the world as a storehouse from which we may take what we need, and as a dump onto which we may throw what we no longer want.
To think instead of a home, to be loved, developed, cared for, repaired and decorated is necessarily to reimagine the boundaries of what we might do to and on the earth.
To speak of the world as “our sister” is first of all to insist, as the fundamental theological sections of the encyclical do (see sections 84-92), that the planet is a creature, just like us.
It owes its existence to the will of God, just like us. We are therefore to respect it – and to love it – as a family member, not to exploit it as a resource.
- The intimate connection between the planet and the poor.
There is no surprise in Pope Francis’s awareness of, and concern for, people in serious poverty.
“The poor” become a motif in “Laudato Si,” echoing the Psalms (and certain themes of liberation theology).
In a striking move, however, the planet is numbered among “the poor.” In section 2, already we find the remarkable assertion, “the earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor.”
This reflection encompasses the unsurprising, if vital, observation that the poor suffer most from environmental degradation (see section 16 as an example), but it goes much further.
The earth our sister is not just one of us, but one of the poorest and most damaged of us; she deserves our compassion, not just our care.
- The connectivity of all things.
Francis emphasizes this in section 2. “We ourselves are dust of the earth (cf. Gen 2:7); our very bodies are made up of her elements, we breathe her air and we receive life and refreshment from her waters.”
It is not just that we are intimately connected to the planet, however. “It cannot be emphasized enough how everything is interconnected’ (section 138).
God has made all things “very good”: each thing in itself is good, but the divinely established network of relationships and dependencies is more excellent – and vital.
The encyclical therefore suggests that our environmental damage largely results from our upsetting of a carefully balanced equilibrium.
We intervene to try to repair the damage and upset it more. We pride ourselves on our ability to use technology to reshape and repair the environment, but our pride is false.
- The beauty of the world.
This reflection leads us to what I take to be the heart of the project of reimagination that the encyclical offers us.
We need to repent of our lust for the things the world can give us, and of our pride that we can repair the damage we do.
Instead, we should view the world with awe and reverence, seeing it fundamentally as a thing of beauty.
“If we approach nature without this openness to awe and wonder, if we no longer speak the language of fraternity and beauty in our relationship with the world, our attitude will be that of masters, consumers, ruthless exploiters,” the pope asserts in section 11.
The second chapter of the encyclical, which is the theological heart of the piece, ends with a brief section on “the gaze of Jesus” (sections 96-100).
It describes Jesus during his earthly ministry as “full of fondness and wonder” for creation; it even claims that “he often stopped to contemplate the beauty sown by his Father,” which may be a slight overreach from the biblical evidence.
However, this indicates the importance for this encyclical of our mode of seeing.
Francis fundamentally asks us to stop seeing the world as a resource, waiting to be used up, and to start seeing it as suffering sister, delicate web, beautiful creation. When we do, we will act rightly toward it.
Stephen Holmes is a Baptist minister, presently employed as senior lecturer in Theology at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. His writings also appear on his blog, and you can follow him on Twitter @SteveRHolmes.
Editor’s note: This is the fourth in a series of articles offering Baptist responses to the papal encyclical on the environment. Previous articles in the series are: