Laudato Si’: Pope Francis’ UPSETTING (But Hopeful) STORY About Our WORLD

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In my local faith community – St. Clare’s Catholic Church in Berea, Kentucky, we’re getting ready for Advent. As our seasonal project, we’re proposing a parish-wide discussion of Pope Francis’ eco-encyclical, Laudato Si’.

I’ve suggested that we purchase copies of the encyclical for each adult member of our parish, that we centralize it in a special liturgy, and that we present copies of Laudato Si’ to each recipient just as we do the Eucharist each Sunday. The presenter would say something like, “Receive the call of Pope Francis’ to reform your life and save our planet.” And the recipient would respond, “Amen.”

However, as our Peace and Social Justice Committee has discussed such possibilities, some have remarked that the pope’s encyclical is rather long and difficult to read. They’ve predicted that despite having the book in their hands, many parishioners will never get around to reading it.

What we need, my friends have said, is a comprehensive thumbnail sketch of the encyclical’s contents – with some provocative discussion questions.

So in fewer than 2000 words, here’s my stab at that. My summary contends that in Laudato Si’ Pope Francis is telling us a disturbing but hopeful story. In fact, the story’s main point (about the failure of capitalism) is told in all the papal social encyclicals since Leo XIII (1891). But this time the world is listening.

Here’s what Francis says in Laudato Si’:

  • The earth was given to humankind as a whole (93).
  • It belongs to everyone (93, 95, 158).
  • Thus the earth is primarily a Commons (164).
  • The climate itself is a common good (23).

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  • Though the Commons by definition cannot be privately owned, the Church has always recognized the right to private property in other spheres (93).
  • However the Church has never understood even this right as absolute or to be exercised primarily for personal gain (93).
  • Instead the right to private property has primarily been considered an administrative responsibility (95, 159).
  • As such it must always be exercised for the common good (129, 156).
  • In fact, “the first principle of the whole ethical and social order” is “the principle of the subordination of private property to the universal destination of goods, and thus the right of everyone to their use” (93).
  • So it is immoral that the earth’s resources and wealth be concentrated in the hands of a few (50, 90).

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  • The Judeo-Christian tradition unequivocally supports the position that the earth belongs to everyone (66, 67, 71, 76, 93, 95), that human “owners” do not have absolute dominion over possessions (67, 68, 75, 82, 83, 93, 95), that all life forms are loved by God (68, 69, 76, 77, 92, 96), and that extreme wealth inequalities are immoral (70, 71, 71, 90, 95).
  • Jesus endorsed all those beliefs by incarnating God’s presence in a poor worker as the locus of God’s presence par excellence (98, 99).
  • Additionally, the natural world itself, as the “Book of Creation,” represents a source of revelation. It too supports biblical insights that summon humans to ecological responsibility rather than to absolute dominion over nature (85, 86,87, 88).
  • Jesus supported such convictions with his teachings about the universal fatherhood of God (96), with his parables about seeds, soil, plants, flowers, harvest, birds, and weather patterns (97, 100), and with display of his own complete harmony with nature (98).
  • The work of the Church, as a community of Jesus’ followers, is “to remind everyone of the duty to care for nature,” while at the same time protecting humankind from self-destruction (79).

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  • Nonetheless at some point in history (“when the Roman Empire was seeking to impose absolute dominion”), the notion of private property became distorted (74).
  • Private property came to mean absolute ownership for personal enrichment without reference to the common good.
  • The notion of private property expanded to include the right of “owners” to do whatever they wished with “their” property including its complete destruction, without regard for “collateral damage” suffered by billions of humans and innumerable life forms excluded from the benefits of the market system (49, 67, 123).
  • Eventually common goods such as seeds, water, and life itself were turned into commodities whose ownership was “privatized” (30, 134).

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  • After the Industrial Revolution, the power of “owners” to alter and destroy “their” goods increased dramatically.
  • The steam engine and its successors (including today’s robots and computers) conferred power to alter and even destroy not only what owners considered their belongings, but the Commons in general (including the air, water, wetlands, mountains, non-human lifeforms, “resources” below the earth’s surface, and the climate itself).

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  • Free market ideology has played no small part in enabling unregulated technology’s harmful impact on the earth.
  • This ideology includes deep-seated, but often indefensible (109) convictions, for instance that:
    • Human beings enjoy absolute dominion over nature (67).
    • The world is anthropocentric: it revolves around human beings who can treat other life-forms as instruments for their benefit and pleasure (115).
    • Such beliefs are supported in the Bible (67).
    • A technological imperative demands that every advance in technology represents “progress” and therefore must be accepted as inevitable (105).
    • Might makes right and winners are entitled to “take all” (82).
    • Government regulation of the market is always undesirable, even in the face of huge income disparities (60).
    • No action should be taken on climate change in the absence of indisputable proof demonstrating the human origins of unusual climate events (186).
    • Unregulated market forces can solve all problems of environmental destruction and poverty.

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  • The combination of technological development, market forces, and an enabling “free market” ideology has increasingly conferred on industrialized countries the ability to exploit resources world-wide.
  • As a result, for the past 200 years, these nations have incurred an “ecological debt” vis-a-vis the rest of the world (51).
  • Besides robbing their colonies of valuable resources while often enslaving their people, the industrialized countries have filled the atmosphere with two centuries of climate-changing pollution which most proximately threatens the colonies they exploited (51, 52, 170).
  • As a result, the industrialized powers owe their former colonies debt-repayment (30).
  • Such reparations must at the very least include cancellation of “Third World” debts, transfers of money and of non-polluting technology (52, 172).

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  • Indigenous people have been especially attuned to such inequities and obligations on the parts of their exploiters (146, 179).
  • They have not only experienced colonialism as theft of their resources, they have identified the practices of industrialized capitalism as the rape of the one they (and St. Francis) honor as “Mother Earth” (1).
  • For their part, scientists in the industrialized world have warned humans about the unsustainability of such practices on purely scientific grounds (161).
  • True to the predictions of both indigenous shamans and secular scientists, we have now reached a crisis point (23).
  • Humans must either change their economic paradigm (based on this concept of absolute ownership) or face extinction (23, 61, 181).

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  • Many with vested interests in continuing to profit from the earth’s destruction have adopted “obstructionist attitudes, including denial (14, 26).
  • They are more willing to risk the earth’s destruction than to abandon the concept of absolute ownership upon which capitalism-as-we-know-it is based (60).
  • So they mistakenly claim that deregulated markets and technological development will save the day without basic changes in the consumerist lifestyle (109, 110).
  • They also propose risky “solutions” [such as Solar Radiation Management (SRM)] rather than low-tech, common sense responses to problems connected with climate chaos (14).

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  • The common sense solutions must on the one hand include acts on the parts of individuals such as “avoiding the use of plastic and paper, reducing water consumption, separating refuse, cooking only what can reasonably be consumed, showing care for other living beings, using public transport or carpooling, planting trees, turning off unnecessary lights. . .” and reducing the use of air conditioning (55, 212).
  • On the other hand, dealing with climate chaos requires action which national governments alone are capable of performing (38, 129).
  • These include weening national populations from dependence on fossil fuels (165) as well as investment in high-speed railways, and renewable energy sources. National governments must also strictly regulate trans-national corporate activity (38).
  • Changing paradigms even includes the submission of national governments to an international body with legislative authority to protect rainforests, oceans and endangered species, as well as to promote sustainable agriculture (53, 173, 174, 175).

(Author’s Note: By the way, if we think the United States with its proud history of independence could never submit its own legislative power to the possibility of being overridden by some international body, we should know that it already has. U.S. membership in the World Trade Organization, the provisions of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and those of the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) already allow international bodies to nullify U.S. laws such as those protecting our air and water. That is, if such national laws are ruled to interfere with the expected profits of multinational corporations, the laws can be rendered null and void, regardless of what U.S. citizens might think. In other words, there is precedent for U.S. submission to international bodies with binding authority to legislate about environmental deregulation. The pope is merely requesting that the same authority be given an international body tasked with protecting the environment rather than allowing its further degradation.)

  • In summary, the principles guiding necessary changes include the following:
    • The Principle of the Interconnectedness of All Reality: (e.g. 16, 42, 70, etc.).
    • The Principle of the Common Good: “The common good is ‘the sum of those conditions of social life which allow social groups and their individual members relatively thorough and ready access to their own fulfilment’.” Laudato Si’ identifies the common good as a “central and unifying principle of social ethics.”(156).
    • The Principle of the Subordination of Private Property: “(T)he first principle of the whole ethical and social order” is “the principle of the subordination of private property to the universal destination of goods, and thus the right of everyone to their use” (93).
    • The Principle of the Universal Destination of All Goods: (See immediately above).
    • The Principle of Preferential Option for the Poor: This principle “entails recognizing the implications of the universal destination of the world’s goods . . . {T}his option is in fact an ethical imperative essential for effectively attaining the common good” (158). In practice it means guaranteeing the rights of the world’s poor to land, housing, work, education, credit, insurance and access to markets (94).
    • The Principle of Distributive Justice: According to Pope Francis, the common good cannot be served without social peace which in turn “cannot be achieved without particular concern for distributive justice; whenever this is violated,” he observes, “violence always ensues” (156).
    • The Principle of Subsidiarity: this principle embraces decentralized solutions (144, 157, 179, 196).
    • The Principle of Transparency: Laudato Si’ states that “An assessment of environmental impact of business ventures and projects demands transparent political processes involving a free exchange of views . . . Environmental impact assessment should . . . be carried out in a way which is interdisciplinary, transparent and free of all economic or political pressure. . . A consensus should always be reached between the different stakeholders . . . The local population should have a special place at the table . . . (183).
    • The Precautionary Principle: This principle (as expressed by the Rio Declaration of 1992) states that “where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a pretext for postponing cost-effective measures” which prevent environmental degradation.” Laudato Si’ adds that “If objective information suggests that serious and irreversible damage may result, a project should be halted or modified, even in the absence of indisputable proof. Here the burden of proof is effectively reversed, since in such cases objective and conclusive demonstrations will have to be brought forward to demonstrate that the proposed activity will not cause serious harm to the environment or to those who inhabit it” (186).

FOR DISCUSSION

  1. How does the message of Pope Francis’ encyclical make you feel? Hopeful? Discouraged?
  2. In your opinion does the pope step outside the area of “faith and morals” by addressing issues such as climate change and its relationship to capitalism-as-we-know it?
  3. How is climate change a matter of moral concern?
  4. Is the pope correct in subordinating the rights of private property to the common good?
  5. What might that subordination mean in practice?
  6. How is climate change connected with your faith?
  7. What alternatives to capitalism-as-we-know-it can you think of?
  8. What would happen if climate-change deniers applied the pope’s Precautionary Principle to climate change?

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Mike Rivage-Seul's Blog

Emeritus professor of Peace & Social Justice Studies. Liberation theologian. Activist. Former R.C. priest. Married for 40 years. Three grown children. Four grandchildren.

4 thoughts on “Laudato Si’: Pope Francis’ UPSETTING (But Hopeful) STORY About Our WORLD”

  1. Mike,

    This summary will be very helpful in my parish, St. Mary’s in Painesville, Ohio, as we study this encyclical.

    Thanks!

    Bob Coughlin

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  2. Thanks Mike for such thorough and understandable explanation of the Popes encyclical. A ‘keeper.’

    When Francis oped one if his addresses, I thing to Congress, in the courtesy of being a guest to the US with, “the land of the FREE and the home of the BRAVE”, I knew we were going to get more of the samo, even though he did strike some serious notes by implication but he in no way turned over any tables, instead just swept the scum under the rug.
    In reading the encyclical one also gets the impression that the canticle of principles intoned were Catholic historic principles.
    This is a deception. Our church has been supporters of the crimes he mentions for close to 2000 years. Consistently. The Vatican, Rome and especially the US hierarchy carry the same card..
    All part of the military, industrial. political and “in-God-we-Trust”- religious complex – todays world virtual Senate.
    I do believe however his “Stay strong” remark was not specific to the lady in the guestline.
    That was a cardinal Mickey Finn – spiked by an arch-bishop I guess.
    Listening to demnow yesterday I ask where does the man get his world news’ reports from?
    Not from the Skibbereen Eagle!
    Jim

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The Wiki link to “Skibbereen” led to even more details about this little town where most residents bear the surname of “McCarthy” (locally dominant clan since ancient times).

      Skibbereen’s town charter dates to 1657, and in 1631 the town welcomed many refugees from the “Sack of Baltimore”.
      http://www.baltimore.ie/heritage-history/the-sack-of-baltimore-1631.html

      Though I learned early on that Ireland had been subject to Viking predations, I had no idea that Dutch and Ottoman pirates were carrying Irish people off into slavery as late as 1631.

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  3. Links to “Skibbereen” went into moderation, possibly because WordPress dislikes links. I wanted to thank you, Jim, for pointing the way to stories about the audacious “Skibbereen Eagle”. From one of the links, “The Story of the Skibbereen Eagle”:

    “In 1898, to widespread bemusement, a small Provincial Newspaper in an equally small town in the South West corner of Ireland sonorously warned the Czar of Russia that it knew what he was up to and he should be careful how he proceeded for “The Skibbereen Eagle” was wise to his game and in future would be keeping its eye on him! It is doubtful that Nicholas II, Emperor and Autocrat of All the Russias, even noticed the Eagle’s admonitions but as history soon proved he should have paid closer attention to the Eagle’s insightful opinions!”

    The “Eagle” was also keeping its eye on powerful Lord Palmerston and Emperor Wilhelm of Germany…

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