I’m taking a little break from the weekly reflections on passages from Laudato Si’. Instead, here is my original introduction to the encyclical. Originally published in multiple parts, it’s all here as one post.
Rethinking Laudato Si’: An Introduction to the Encyclical
In 2015, Pope Francis released his first encyclical to the world. Encyclicals are a formal letter from the Pope circulated to all the Catholic churches on matters of great importance. In Laudato Si’, the Pope, in consultation with many advisers from around the globe, addresses environmental stewardship and climate change through the lense of the Gospel. The document was about so more than picking up trash and going “green”; it offered a radical critique of our consumerist society and carbon-dependent economy.
Laudato Si’ calls for nothing less than a peaceful revolution.
In the months following, the document received extensive coverage in the media, and it was lauded by many as important intervention on climate change negotiations. Within Catholic circles, many were hopeful that the encyclical would encourage Catholic communities to embrace and embody a culture of simplicity and ecological responsibility.
Two years out, I think it’s fair to say that the reception of the encyclical by Catholics in the United States has been mixed. My former parish hosted a small reading group, had a weekly bulletin with quotes and tips, and staff members ordered biodegradable plates (a big source of waste in parishes). I heard stories about other parishes adopting small measures to be more sustainable.
There are also some incredible national and international organizations that have been empowered by the encyclical. For example, The Catholic Climate Covenant is doing advocacy work in Washigton D.C. and mobilizing and educating Creation care teams around the country. Some dioceses and religious orders have implemented more sustainable policies. The archdiocese of San Francisco sponsored a workshop for parishes to get started on sustainability.
All of this is great. Without dismissing the hard work that is already happening, my impression the overall reception of the encyclical by the Catholics in the Unites States leaves something to be desired.
There has been no revolution. To the best of my knowledge, nothing has been organized by any diocese in my region of the country, nor are there any special parish initiatives in our area. By last summer, one year out from the release of the encyclical, only 32% of American Catholics recalled even hearing about Laudato Si’ at their Churches. A recent survey confirmed that most American Catholics are not hearing about the encyclical on Sunday.
What explains the lukewarm reception? I see at least at least five good reasons for this.
1. Political polarization
Our country continues to be deeply polarized. Attitudes toward climate change and ecology have been caught up in questions of identity and societal conflicts. Unfortunately, the Catholic Church in America has not escaped this polarization. According to a study covered by the Gaurdian, the encyclical did little to change Catholics minds about environmental issues, at least in the months following the release of the encyclical.
2. The Church is slow
The Church moves on a different timeline than the American news cycle (or presidential elections). Social encyclicals and other documents can take years to be fully appreciated. The Francis papacy has reminded us that the Church is continuing to reflect and debate the implications of the Second Vatican Council over fifty years after it adjourned! This can be frustrating for those who us who think that the time for serious action on climate change is running out.
3. We’re not hearing about it on Sunday
Many Catholics haven’t encountered the document in any substantive way at their parishes. Papal documents as a rule don’t make for a particularly riveting reading experience, so it’s understandable that people are not reading it from cover to cover. Laudato Si’ has many beautiful passages, but it also contains a lot of somewhat dry social-cultural critique. It’s less excusable that Catholics are not hearing about the ideas raised by the encyclical from parish or diocesan leaders or in popular parish programing (with exceptions). Why this is the case deserves some unpacking in a later post, but fears over #1 is likely a strong driver.
4. An inconvenient truth
The encyclical is a very hard pill to swallow. Francis is not simply telling us to show concern about climate change by contacting representatives or examining you carbon footprint (although those things are important). The letter offers a radical critique of our economic and societal systems that we participate in on a daily basis. Francis challenges our consumer driven economy and the “dominant technocratic paradigm,” outlining the damaging cultural and spiritual effects while also offering suggestions toward cultivating an alternative way of life. Those who care may find themselves frustrated by global inaction or paralyzed by the immensity and complexity of the issue.
5. “What does this have to do with the salvation of souls?”
I was asked this question in earnest shortly after the encyclical was released. Questionable theological premise aside, this sentiment is understandable. How can my relationship with Jesus have any impact on these admittedly bleak and complicated global problems? Jesus lived two thousand years ago; the environmental issues of our day were not on his radar. Some Catholics, and not just the climate change deniers, suspect that the Church is intervening in an area that is beyond her competency. Maybe it is best to leave this issue to the power-brokers and experts, they say, and focus on things that are closer to home – closer to your actual sphere of influence.
Perhaps some of the people see in the Church a refuge from the arguments and problems playing out on the global stage. Bringing some of those problems in would spoil one of the comforts that draw them the Eucharist on Sunday.
Turning Laudato Si’ Upside Down
Do you remember Lost?
In the show, survivors of a plane crash are forced to work together in order to survive on a mysterious tropical island. Lost elicited both positive and negative reactions from viewers, but there’s no denying that the series was a cultural phenomenon. I was one of those a die-hard “Losties”, discussing theories and literary motifs on fan forums and with friends.
I loved the plot twists that forced viewers to rethink everything seen until that point. For example, there was the stunning revelation that John Locke had been paralyzed before the plane crash (he had full control of his legs on the island). The twist shed new light on his actions on the island and the motivations behind them.
I speculated above on some of the reasons why the response of U.S Catholics to Laudato Si’ leaves something to be desired. Two stumbling blocks in particular are worth highlighting.
First, there is the sheer immensity of the environmental problems outlined by the document. They can leave one feeling overwhelmed and powerless.
Then there is also the more practical question of what ecology has to do with my relationship with Jesus or the Church. Isn’t ecology a scientific problem, best left for the experts to solve?
Just as Lost gave us spectacular “this-changes-everything” narrative twists, I submit that chapter six of Laudato Si’ offers the patient reader a change in perspective. Pope Francis turns everything that came before on its head, giving Christians more solid grounding to embrace the Pope’s call to action.
First, a note of the structure of Laudatory Si: The introduction begins with the historical context of the document and invokes the patron of ecology, Saint Francis of Assisi. Chapter one gives the reader an eagle’s eye view of the many environmental challenges communities face around the globe. Chapter two the theological resources that underpin a Christian ecology. Chapter three critiques what it believes to be at the root of the current crises – the “technocratic paradigm.” The technical paradigm is an ingrained way of thinking – cultural presuppositions – about the nature of reality. As an alternative, chapter four offers up an “integral ecology,” a more comprehensive way of conceiving the common good and human flourishing that includes the poor and the health of ecosystems that humans inhabit. Chapter five teases out some policy implications from the principles of an integral ecology.
If the reader were to give up here, she would be understandably disappointed. It’s all well and good to give us sound theology, and call for a paradigm shift in how we look at our relationship to nature – but how exactly do we go about making that shift more than just wishful thinking?
Giving up on Laudato Si’ at this point would be tempting, but it is like giving up on the Paschal story of Jesus at his crucifixion. Chapter six is the key.
Chapter six begins by underscoring the importance of ecological education, but acknowledges that the mere dissemination of knowledge is powerless to effect the kind radical and sustainable change we need.
“Yet this education, aimed at creating an ‘ecological citizenship,’ is at times limited to providing information, and fails to instill good habits…If the laws are to bring about significant, long-lasting effects, the majority of the members of society must be adequately motivated to accept them, and personally transformed to respond.”
Old habits die hard. We have known for years about the importance of taking immediate action to mitigate climate change, and yet global leaders continue to move at a snail’s pace. Take a more localized example: most American’s accept the reality of human-induced climate change, and yet sales of less energy efficient vehicles spike whenever gas prices take a dip.
In the third section of chapter six, we get our sea change. Addressing Christians who would rather ridicule or ignore concerns for the environment in favor of more pragmatic concerns, the Pope calls for, “’ecological conversion,’ whereby the effects of their encounter with Jesus Christ become evident in their relationship with the world around them.”
For Christians, conversion is an encounter with God’s love, manifest in Jesus Christ. It involves “recognition of our errors, sins faults, and failures” and leads to “heartfelt repentance and desire for change.” Conversion is a transformation of the whole person: heart, mind and body. New attitudes and habits are the fruit of this shift.
Some would have us believe that the ecological crisis is another problem to manage or overcome, if we would only simply adopt the recommended practices, support the right politicians and public policies. But in chapter four, the Francis writes that the illusion of control and narrow focus on fixing problems is what got us into the ecological crisis in the first place. Education or wishful thinking will not cure the hubris.
Nor will education cure the collective selfishness and greed that drives the consumerist economy: “The emptier a person’s heart is, the more he or she needs things to buy, own and consume. It becomes almost impossible to accept the limits imposed by reality.”
To be clear – the environmental crisis does involve education, policy advocacy and lifestyle change. But the message here is that it is also spiritual crisis that can only be overcome by conversion and transformation of heart.
That is why it is foolish for Christians to ignore environmental concerns for more “pragmatic” spiritual concerns. The Pope says, “Living our vocation to be protectors of God’s handiwork is essential to a life of virtue; it is not an optional or a secondary aspect of our Christian experience.” That is, responsible ecological thinking and practice is integral to the Christian spiritual life. If we encounter Jesus in prayer, we are transformed. That transformation effects how we look at the world, our place within it, and how we act on that new perspective.
What are some of these new attitudes that grow through conversion? Laudato Si’ keys in on a few.
Instead seeing the natural world used and exploited for our own purposes, conversion brings “recognition that the world is God’s loving gift, and that we are called quietly to imitate his generosity in self-sacrifice and good works.”
In a world where everything good comes to us as a gift, living for others brings joy and fulfillment. The sacrifices required for uplifting the poor and downcast among us, and for the preservation of the planet for future generations -they are no longer a burden, but a joy.
Happiness and contentment can be found without the need to acquire and consume. In response to the fear of giving up a lifestyle (with its comforts and conveniences) that is not sustainable, conversion finds that “sobriety, when lived freely and consciously, is liberating.”
4. Universal Fraternity
Instead of seeing ourselves as separate from nature, or as fine tuners of a machine, conversion “entails a loving awareness that we are not disconnected from the rest of creatures, but joined in a splendid universal communion. As believers, we do not look at the world from without but from within, conscious of the bonds with which the Father has linked us to all beings.”
Since we need one another, we have a “shared responsibility for others and for the entire world.” This love is manifested through daily gestures of mutual care, but “is also civic and political, and it makes itself felt in every action that seeks to build a better world.”
In the face of overwhelming challenges, transformation of mind and heart brings new ideas the table and renews passion for the cause. “Ecological conversion can inspire us to greater creativity and enthusiasm in resolving the world’s problems and in offering ourselves to God “as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable”
6. Attentiveness to the Present Moment
In response to anxiety and paralysis over the future, conversion cultivates loving attentiveness to the present moment: “To be serenely present to each reality, however small it may be, opens us to much greater horizons of understanding and personal fulfillment.”
These attitudes are fundamental to the Gospel and two thousand years of Christian spiritual practice. None of them are ancillary to the road of Christian discipleship. None can be ignored on the path of holiness.
Nor are they just ideas that we store in our mind for use when needed. They are spiritual realities – gifts – that take root in the fertile soil of prayer. Prayer is the lifeline to the source of our conversion. Healthy attitudes need ongoing discernment and are reinforced by daily actions. We are not perfect, so the daily process of plugging into the source and responding with action is messy.
Please don’t mistake any of this for an optimism that ignores the real threats that we face today. Just read chapter one and three (or visit sites like climate.nasa.gov) to learn the extent of the mess we have made. And it can get worse. Whether through self-induced ecological catastrophe or nuclear war, we obviously possess the capacity to obliterate the gift of life and irrevocably harm this planet we call home. In addition, Catholic theology holds that God does not force humankind to take the right course of action.
Given that the situation is bad, does our Faith give us ground for trusting and acting as if a force more powerful that human sin is at work in the world and will ultimately prevail?
According to Laudato Si’, that grounding is in the Trinity. God is a self-giving community of three Persons. Creation originates from an outpouring of that mutual love, and so there is a Trinitarian dynamic of creative love at work in all of creation. We can see it in the interconnectedness of all things. Human beings reflect that Trinitarian love in a special way; by reaching outside of themselves, in freedom, forming relationships. “The human person grows more, matures more and is sanctified more to the extent that he or she enters into relationships, going out from themselves to live in communion with God, with others and with all creatures.” We see this exemplified in the person of Jesus, whom we are called to imitate.
That the self-giving Love calling in depths of our hearts, calling us to conversion, is the same Love that gave birth to the universe is a solid grounding for hopeful creative action.