Paul Collins, Catholic writer


Pope Francis puts environment above short term politics

30 June 2015
Paul Collins

Max Charlesworth

The encyclical Laudato si’, mi’ Signore (‘Praise be to you, my Lord’) is an extraordinary document addressed to ‘every living person on this planet’ about ‘care for our common home’ (3). It is a challenging reflection on the whole structure of life and culture in the contemporary world. But it doesn’t let Christianity and theology off the hook. It also confronts some very deeply held Christian traditions, as did Saint Francis of Assisi in the thirteenth century, whose influence is omnipresent in Laudato si [LS]. The Pope refers to him as ‘that attractive and compelling figure, whose name I took as my guide and inspiration when I was elected Bishop of Rome’ (10).

LS achieves, as French philosopher and sociologist Edgar Morin says, ‘a complex view that is global in the sense that it... takes into account the relationship among all the parts.’ In a time of fragmented thought the encyclical takes a very integrated approach and is 'a call for awareness, inciting us to rethink our society, and a call to act' (La Croix, 23/6/15). Theologian Massimo Faggioli says that LS ‘advocates nothing less than a cultural revolution’ (Global Pulse, 18/6/15). As Pope Francis more humbly puts it: ‘Rather than a problem to be solved, the world is a joyful mystery to be contemplated with gladness and praise’ (12). 

In my view even more important than PopeFrancis’ repudiation of much of the politics, economics, technology, capitalist theory and denialist rhetoric of the post-modern world, is the theological and philosophical revolution that he points towards. Few seem to have noticed the radical questioning of human dominance over nature that Francis articulates and the way in which he reintegrates humankind back into the biological matrix from which we first emerged by emphasising the connectedness of all reality. He says that it was above all the mystics who ‘experience the intimate connection between God and all beings, and thus feel that “all things are God”’ quoting the sixteenth century Spanish lyric poet and mystic, Saint John of the Cross (234).

Pope Francis begins by placing himself in a papal tradition of concern for the environment from Pope Paul VI in 1971 to his immediate predecessor, Benedict XVI. Placing LS within the theological context provided by Saint Francis of Assisi (from whose ‘Canticle of Brother Sun’ he takes the title of his encyclical) and the writings of his papal predecessors, he shows that he is not making claims that were not already an established part of the church’s teaching. This is a particularly shrewd move by Francis because he cuts off at the pass those who accuse him of inventing some kind of theological ‘novelty’.

In a deeply ecumenical gesture Francis especially highlights the work of the ‘beloved’ Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the present head of the Orthodox churches, on the environment. He quotes Bartholomew saying that ‘For human beings…to destroy the biological diversity of God’s creation; for human beings to degrade the integrity of the earth by causing changes in its climate, by stripping the earth of its natural forests or destroying its wetlands;for human beings to contaminate the earth’s waters, its land, its air, and its life – these are sins.’ To re-enfoce the point, Francis again quotes Bartholomew saying ‘to commit a crime against the natural world is a sin against ourselves and...against God’ (9). The attached footnote refers to a book of John Chryssavgis, an Australian-born Orthodox priest, who is both theological and environmental adviser to Bartholomew.

Francis is critical of ‘obstructionist attitudes, even on the part of believers, [that] can range from denial of the problem to indifference, nonchalant resignation or blind confidence in technical solutions. We require a new and universal solidarity’ (14). The result of these attitudes is that ‘the earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth’ (21). He links this to a throwaway culture.

LS gives absolutely no comfort to global warming deniers. Based on the scientific consensus Francis says unequivocally that ‘most global due to the great concentration of greenhouse gases...released mainly as a result of human activity’ (23). This results from ‘current models of production and consumption’ (26), and the worst impact will ‘be felt by developing countries in coming decades’ (25) through destruction of their ecosystems, shortage of fresh water (29) and sea level rise. These are already realities in some small Pacific countries like Kiribati and Tuvalu. In Kiribati where much of the land is just a few metres above sea level, they are battling severe flooding, erosion, serious damage to infrastructure, salination of the soil and destruction of crops.

There is no consolation either in LS for technologies ‘based on the use of highly polluting fossil fuels – especially coal’, which need ‘to be progressively replaced without delay’ (165). Francis is nothing, if not explicit: ‘If present trends continue, this century may well witness extraordinary climate change and an unprecedented destruction of ecosystems, with serious consequences for all of us. A rise in the sea level, for example, can create extremely serious situations, if we consider that a quarter of the world’s population lives on the coast or nearby, and that the majority of our megacities are situated in coastal areas’ (24). The Ganges delta in Bangladesh where up to 140 million people live, is an obvious example.

Pope Francis shows little patience with economistic ‘fixes’ like the cap and trade schemes proposed by many Western governments as a way of shifting the emphasis away from fossil fuels. These schemes actually attempt to use the very economic system that caused the problem in the first place as somehow part of the solution. ‘This system,’ he says, ‘seems to provide a quick and easy solution under the guise of a certain commitment to the environment, but in no way does it allow for the radical change which present circumstances require’ (171).

The pope is particularly critical of the loss of biodiversity: ‘The great majority [of plants and animals] become extinct for reasons related to human activity. Because of us, thousands of species will no longer give glory to God by their very existence, nor convey their message to us. We have no such right’ (33). Francis is critical of thinking ‘of different species merely as potential “resources” to be exploited, while overlooking the fact that they have value in themselves’ (33), and he points out that we are biologically intimately interconnected with the world because ‘a good part of our genetic code is shared by many living things’ (138). ‘Nature,’ he says, cannot be regarded as something separate from ourselves or as a mere setting in which we live. We are part of nature’ (139).

We are part of nature’: this is a message that runs right through the encyclical as Francis radically re-situates and re-roots humankind in the natural world. As Edgar Morin puts it: ‘We have in us cells that have been multiplying since the origin of life...If we go back to the history of the universe, it means that we carry the whole cosmos in ourselves’ (La Croix, 23/6/15).

Before the encyclical came out there was concern among some ecologically-involved Catholics that the scientific consensus on global warming and biodiversity loss was going to be left out of the encyclical and considerable pressure was exerted to make sure that the encyclical’s conclusions were based on the best knowledge available. As it turns out Francis’ whole methodology was to take what Vatican Council II called ‘the signs of the times’ absolutely seriously. This meant that contemporary science could not be ignored and it actually formed the factual basis upon which the encyclical’s theological and ethical reflection was based. Without the science the theology would have been without an empirical foundation and meaningless to most people.

Francis has little patience for technological solutions and ‘fixes’. While he is no techno-Luddite, he mounts a profound critique of technology which sounds very much like that of the German philosopher, Martin Heidegger. However, he doesn’t quote Heidegger, but instead refers to a favourite theologian of Pope Benedict XVI, Romano Guardini (1885-1968) who, despite his birth in Verona, lived his entire life in Germany. Even though present-day conservative Catholics have tried to harness Guardini to their critique of the contemporary church, he was a key theologian leading up to Vatican II and a precursor linking the church before the Council to contemporary Catholicism. He is quoted six times in LS. Even before Heidegger’s essay The Question Concerning Technology (1955) was published, Guardini had written in the 1920s about the way technology cuts us off from nature creating an artificial, abstract, one-dimensional, mass, de-personalized and manipulative world.

The Guardini book that Francis quotes in LS is The End of the Modern World (first German edition 1956). The pope says: ‘The gadgets and technics forced upon [humankind] by the patterns of machine production and of abstract planning, mass man accepts quite simply; they are the forms of life itself. To a greater or lesser degree mass man is convinced that his conformity is both reasonable and just’ (203). This is pretty much what Heidegger said. He argued that technology so dominates the horizon of our being and so impregnates our attitudes that we cannot avoid being unconsciously immersed in it and manipulated and controlled by it. It creates a cultural and intellectual Ge-stell (an ‘en-framing’) that determines the way we think. And, says Heidegger, how we think is much more important than what we think.

Pope Francis links his critique of technology to an extractive mentality that presupposes that ‘there is an infinite supply of the earth’s goods, and this leads to the planet being squeezed dry beyond every limit’, an idea which, he says, ‘proves so attractive to economists, financiers and experts in technology’ (106). He says ‘technology tends to absorb everything into its ironclad logic’ (108) and promises ‘quick fixes’ which favours ‘the interests of certain powerful groups’ (107).

Conservative columnist Ross Douthat has critically but correctly understood that LS is far more than an attack on climate change deniers. He sees the encyclical as an attack on ‘the whole “technological paradigm” of our civilization, [on] all the ways (economic and cultural) that we live now’ (New York Times, 20 June 2015). That’s not far off the mark, because Francis is clearly saying that we cannot continue along the trajectory on which we are now headed, for it will lead to environmental and human catastrophe.  As LS says: ‘Doomsday predictions can no longer be met with irony or disdain. We may well be leaving to coming generations debris, desolation and filth. The pace of consumption, waste and environmental change has so stretched the planet’s capacity that our contemporary lifestyle, unsustainable as it is, can only precipitate catastrophes, such as those which even now periodically occur in different areas of the world’ (161).

The pope is also critical of short-term politics; in fact he is almost contemptuous of the lack of vision of the world’s leadership cadre. ‘Continuity,’ he says, ‘is essential because policies related to climate change and environmental protection cannot be altered with every change of government. Results take time and demand immediate outlays which may not produce tangible effects within any one government’s term’ (181). Politicians are besotted with ‘the mindset of short-term gain.’ Francis calls leaders to a level of ‘courage’ far beyond that recommended by Sir Humphrey Appleby in Yes Minister! He challenges them to show ‘a testimony of selfless responsibility.’ What is needed, he says, is ‘a healthy politics...capable of reforming and coordinating institutions, promoting best practices and overcoming undue pressure and bureaucratic inertia’ (181).

Another group that is criticized in LS are those – like me – who say that world over-population is the key problem facing us. Francis repudiates this. ‘Some can only propose a reduction in the birth-rate...To blame population growth instead of extreme... one way of refusing to face the issues’ (50). That’s a bit rough, given that most of us who are concerned about population issues also support a lowering of consumerist living standards. Francis is also critical of ‘certain policies of “reproductive health”’, and he claims that ‘demographic growth is fully compatible with an integral and shared development’ (50). Thus he reduces the population issue to consumerism and inequity in distribution of the world’s goods.

My response is that – pace Francis - it is obvious that numerical growth in developing countries still puts enormous pressure on food, water supplies and natural resources, which often lead to hunger and famine as well as dire environmental consequences. Also as people move out of poverty in countries with enormous populations like India and China, their expectations increase with the result that the pressure on the environment becomes unsustainable. There is a sense in which the encyclical bypasses these questions, or says they are irrelevant. What we are probably seeing here is the influence of Professor Hans Joachim Schellnhuber of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research on the formulation of the encyclical. He commented during the launch of LS that ‘contrary to what some have claimed, it is not the mass of poor people that destroys the planet, but the consumption of the rich.’ He continued that ‘it’s not population dynamics that are jeopardizing the climate. Look at per-capita emissions…you have people in African countries who contribute next to nothing in terms of global warming.’

That’s true, but we can’t just ignore the fact that in 1804 there were one billion people in the world and in 2009 there were seven billion. Predictions are that in 2021 there will be eight billion, and in 2035 there will be nine billion. These kinds of increases cannot be simply dismissed. In all of history there have never been so many people. There is a limit to what the earth can carry; it is not infinite and, pope or no pope, we can’t pretend that this is not a fact.

One of the most unfortunate references in the encyclical is the dismissive use of the term ‘reproductive health’, casting it as a kind of UN-inspired Western plot to stop the poor having children. Presumably the pope’s criticism of reproductive health is to remain consistent with Paul VI’s 1968 condemnation of contraception in the encyclical Humanae vitae and to support the Philippines bishops who have been in conflict with the Aquino government over reproductive health legislation, and to bolster various African bishops’ conferences, such as the Kenyan bishops, who claim it is ‘cultural’ for Africans to have big families.

Dismissing reproductive health is unfortunate because all the evidence shows that it is precisely when women have access to education, security from family or spousal violence, a legal status independent of tribal and patriarchical cultural systems and a genuine access to reproductive health care, that population numbers begin to decline because women then have control of their fertility. This maintains their freedom to decide on the number of births and doesn’t involve curbing population growth by imposing draconian one child policies or sterilization. Thus some pressure is taken off the environment.

If there is one glaring omission in the whole of Francis’ papacy so far, it is his failure to engage meaningfully with or recognize the contribution and status of women. While he has talked somewhat condescendingly about the so-called ‘feminine genius’, he has done nothing structural about acknowledging women’s absolute equality as baptised members of the church. Also the church lags far behind the secular world and key international bodies in affirming women’s contributions to society, culture and to human and environmental betterment. This is a major blind spot for Catholic hierarchs, including Pope Francis

This whole discussion focuses a theme that runs right through LS: Francis’ attempt to integrate environment with social justice and equity for the poor. Until now the Catholic emphasis has been almost entirely on social justice. Sure, there has been recognition of ecological issues in the church and by previous popes, but that hasn’t been where the emphasis has been placed. Francis is trying to rebalance this by focusing equally on the environment and on equity for the poor. He sees the two as intimately interconnected. ‘There can be no ecology,’ he says, ‘without an adequate anthropology’ (118). Everything is inter-related. This is close to the essence of his message. Connection for Pope Francis between people and across barriers of culture, race, class and nation, and reaching out to the natural world itself is the key to life in the contemporary world. As E.M Forster says in Howard’s End: ‘Only connect!’

Nevertheless the pope says: ‘a misguided anthropocentrism need not necessarily yield to “biocentrism”, for that would entail adding yet another imbalance, failing to resolve present problems and adding new ones’ (118). I am not so sure of that. My argument is that there will always be tension between human beings and the environment, especially when human beings become greedy, or when there are too many people. 

So to protect the natural world I would argue that the primary ethical principle has to be that the protection of the earth comes first, because without it we will be homeless. As the pope says the natural world that is not derived from us and, I would add, transcends us. As a result we have to move beyond an anthropocentric to a biocentric ethic. Francis certainly tries hard to keep ecology and social justice together, but I’m not sure he quite succeeds. That’s because I don’t think you can, much as I would like to think otherwise. The primary moral emphasis has to be on the earth; the natural world comes first.

The final chapter of LS is a profound meditation on the Christian contribution to ecological formation and spirituality where Francis highlights the call to ‘ecological conversion’. He says this conversion ‘entails gratitude and gratuitousness, a recognition that the world is God’s loving gift... [and] a loving awareness that we are not disconnected from the rest of creatures, but joined in a splendid universal communion’ (220).

He sets out a process that begins with an asceticism (he doesn’t use that word, but that is what he means) of abandoning the consumerist lifestyle and ‘taking an honest look at ourselves [acknowledging] our deep dissatisfaction and embarking on new paths to authentic freedom’ (204). ‘Christian spirituality,’ he says, ‘proposes a growth marked by moderation and the capacity to be happy with little’ (220). He says that ‘a change in lifestyle could bring healthy pressure to bear on those who wield political, economic and social power’ (206). He sees education as a way of bringing people to this level of realization. In his reflection on ecological conversion he highlights ‘the rich heritage of Christian spirituality, the fruit of twenty centuries of personal and communal experience’ and says it ‘has a precious contribution to make to the renewal of humanity’ (216).

He says that he got the ecological conversion idea from the Australian bishops who in a 2002 social justice statement spoke of the need for ‘reconciliation with creation’. They went on to say ‘we need to experience a conversion, a change of heart’ (218). I myself wrote about the call to ‘ecological conversion’ in my 1995 book God’s Earth. Religion as if matter really mattered (Melbourne: Dove, pp 172-183). I argued that this type of conversion is parallel to religious conversion involving ‘a deep interior change and the consequent making of a personal commitment. The result will be a strong sense of biological and existential identification with other living things and ultimately with the land and the earth itself... This...manifests itself through the release of a deep feeling of sympathy and unity with...the natural world as profoundly and personally connected with oneself. We feel in our bodies the suffering, joy and beauty of the world around us’ (pp 174-5).         

Addressing Christians specifically Francis says that ‘the ecological crisis is also a summons to a profound interior conversion’ (217). He says there are two steps in this conversion process: first, ‘the awareness that each creature reflects something of God and has a message to convey to us’ (221). This is what Saint Thomas Aquinas means when he says omnia creatura demonstrat personam Patris ‘every creature shows forth the personhood of God the Father’ (Summa Theologiae, I, 45, art. 7). Francis says that the second step is when we recognize that ‘God created the world, writing into it an order and a dynamism that human beings have no right to ignore’ (221).  In the end he says ‘nature is filled with words of love, but how can we listen to them amid constant noise, interminable nerve-wracking distractions, or the cult of appearances’ (225). What we need he says in a wonderful phrase is an ‘approach [to] life with serene attentiveness’ (226)       

Nevertheless, the pope admits that some ‘committed Christians...ridicule expressions of concern for the environment. Others are passive’ (217). Both groups need an ecological conversion ‘whereby the effects of their encounter with Jesus Christ become evident in their relationship with the world around them’ (217). He says bluntly: ‘We have had enough of....the mockery of ethics, goodness, faith and honesty. It is time to acknowledge that light-hearted superficiality has done us no good. When the foundations of social life are corroded, what ensues are battles over conflicting interests, new forms of violence and brutality, and obstacles to the growth of a genuine culture of care for the environment’ (229).
The deepest shift that LS proposes is theological. The encyclical challenges the whole Catholic and Christian tradition to rethink the relationship between humankind and the earth. In a way it overthrows some 1750 years of tradition. This is the notion of the human person as a body/spirit composite that entered Christian theology via the third-century Neo-Platonists and later through Saint Augustine. Francis side-steps this paradigm and re-roots the theological tradition in scripture, specifically in the creation accounts of Genesis: ‘The creation accounts in the book of Genesis contain, in their own symbolic and narrative language, profound teachings about human existence and its historical reality. They suggest that human life is grounded in three fundamental and closely intertwined relationships: with God, with our neighbour and with the earth itself’ (66). In other words, the relationship between the natural world and us is restored and Francis sees it as just as important as our relationship to God and to others.
Pope Francis also says that ‘the Bible has no place for a tyrannical anthropocentrism unconcerned for other creatures’ (68). The word ‘anthropocentrism’ crops-up regularly in LS, usually in a negative context: he talks of ‘distorted anthropocentrism’ (69), ‘excessive anthropocentrism’ (116) and ‘misguided anthropocentrism’; the term is also mentioned in paragraphs 118, 119, 122. He re-enforces negativity to anthropocentrism by saying that ‘nowadays, we must forcefully reject the notion that our being created in God’s image and given dominion over the earth justifies absolute domination over other creatures...[Rather] this implies a relationship of mutual responsibility between human beings and nature’ (67).

This signals a profound shift, because what Francis has done is to undermine the whole anthropocentric paradigm. Throughout most of its history Christianity denigrated the body and matter; materiality was seen as antithetical to spiritual growth and the search for God. Since the Neo-Platonists and Augustine introduced the body/soul dualism and the Platonic notion of the hierarchy of being into Christianity, church theology has been besotted with the absolute priority of the human. The notion of hierarchy of being was an arrangement in which God was supreme and every other reality was arranged according to their importance (God, angels, humans, animals, plants, matter, nothingness) with humankind just below the angels and certainly above everything else.

This was re-enforced by the medieval introduction of the concept of natural law, which significantly is nowhere mentioned in the encyclical, but which gave priority to human reason. In the tradition derived from these sources everything in the world plays second fiddle to humankind and its needs. No matter what their rhetoric about environmentalism, the churches have been crippled by this kind of anthropocentric theology that has dominated their unconscious reactions and guided their value judgments. The encyclical finally liberates us from this.

So in one extraordinary step Francis takes us beyond the dominant anthropocentric paradigm and restores a genuine sense of what Catholic cosmologist Thomas Berry, following Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (who is mentioned in LS), has called our ‘biological connectedness’ with the whole cosmos. By this Berry means that life is an interactive continuum from the most primitive forms to the most highly evolved and complex. We are not separate creatures whose lives and value somehow stand outside the rest of creation. We are a constituent part of nature because all life is profoundly related genetically. It is the genes that pass on the ever-increasing complexity of life. The realization of our genetic connectedness with everything else means that, unless we are prepared to destroy something of ourselves, we must work to preserve our common life. This immediately places us in a more humble perspective; we are not separate and over and against the world, but an intimate part of it.

As we have seen LS has no patience for anthropocentrism. The world is bigger than us and we must take it seriously and recognize its autonomy. ‘It would also be mistaken to view other living beings as mere objects subjected to arbitrary human domination. When nature is viewed solely as a source of profit and gain, this has serious consequences for society... The ultimate purpose of other creatures is not to be found in us’ (82-83). The encyclical quotes Aquinas saying that every being ‘continues the work of creation’ (Summa Theologiae, I, 104, art. 1 ad 4), and it also quotes Aquinas’ Exposition in Eight Books of the Physics of Aristotle (II, 14) saying that ‘nature is nothing other than a certain kind of art, God’s art’ (80).
Edgar Morin, who is not a believer, in commenting on the encyclical, says that there is a form of anthropocentric humanism ‘that puts man at the centre of the universe and makes him the sole subject of the universe...It puts man in the place of God...I think that the divine role that man sometimes attributes to himself is absolutely mad.’ Morin argues that this kind of anthropocentrism leads to an attitude of conquering and dominating nature. ‘The world of nature becomes a world of objects’ (Le Croix, 23/6/15).

In LS Francis leads us into a renewed Christian mysticism. ‘The universe unfolds in God, who fills it completely. Hence, there is a mystical meaning to be found in a leaf, in a mountain trail, in a dewdrop, in a poor person’s face. The ideal is not only to pass from the exterior to the interior to discover the action of God in the soul, but also to discover God in all things’ (233). He quotes the Sufi mystic Ali al-Khawas and the Catholic mystic Saint John of the Cross, but he might also have referred to the Aquinas reference quoted earlier where he says that omnia creatura (all creatures) show forth the splendour of God.

Francis links that manifestation of transcendence in the natural world with the sacraments. ‘God’s grandeur’, as Gerard Manley Hopkins calls it, shines forth through the sacrament or the icon of the world. In this Francis shows himself to be a true disciple of Karl Rahner, his Jesuit colleague. Rahner argues in his essay Nature and Grace (London: Sheed & Ward,, 1963, p 10) that we humans have as part of our very essence ‘a natural desire for the beatific vision’, that is we all long for an ecstatic perception of goodness and beauty that will transcend and complete us and take us far beyond our everyday selves. Rahner’s view is that God’s grace pervades the entire created cosmos and that all of us, in our inner core, are oriented towards the transcendent. Thus the world becomes, in a literal sense, a sacrament of the presence of God, a ‘mysterious infinity’ where transcendence is to be discovered.

Needless to say, the encyclical has its critics! Some commentators merely trivialise it and sneeringly dismiss it as the ramblings of a silly old Latin American left-winger with misplaced sentimentalism about the poor and the environment.

Others, such as Paul Kelly in The Australian (24 June 2015), accuse the pope of a ‘green-left-progressive’ stance. Kelly says that the encyclical ‘reveals Francis and his advisers as environmental populists and economic ideologues of a quasi-Marxist bent.’ Kelly says that the language is ‘almost hysterical’ and he describes the contents as ‘profound intellectual ignorance’ creating ‘a schism in Christian thinking between those who believe human dignity finds expression in economic freedom and markets’ and ‘those, like Francis, who call for sweeping “ecological conversion” to combat...environmental degradation and rampant corporate and financial power.’ What Kelly forgets is that Francis stands in a papal social justice tradition that reaches back at least to Leo XIII (1878-1903) that has always been suspicious of capitalist ‘markets’ which are so often a euphemism for greed and the denial of equity and exploitation of the weak.      Kelly needs to recall that the popes have never blessed capitalism. You have to go to bastardised Calvinism to find that. So if Francis is a ‘quasi-Marxist’, let alone profoundly ignorant, then so is Jesus and the Catholic tradition of social justice.

Other conservatives such as Ross Douthat take LS more seriously and acknowledge ‘the depth of its critique’ and its ‘apocalyptic flavour’ which make it more likely that people will ‘think anew’ about what is happening to the environment. Douthat places the pope in the ‘catastrophist camp’ along with most climate scientists; by ‘catastrophist’ Douthat means those who see our current global culture as heading for crisis, war and disaster because of its consumption of resources, greed, moral bankruptcy and the rapaciousness of the free market. Douthat comments that Francis ‘doesn’t grapple sufficiently with the evidence that the global poor have become steadily less poor precisely under the world system he decries’, and he points out that ‘if resource constraints are really as severe as the pope maintains, and technological solutions as limited in power, it isn’t entirely clear how the planet can sustain the steadily growing population the Catholic vision of marriage and fecundity implies’ (New York Times, 22 June 2015).

One of the most penetrating analyses of LS is that of English ethicist and journalist Paul Vallely, author of an excellent biography of Bergoglio. In ‘The pope’s ecological vow’ (New York Times News Service, 29 June 2015) Vallely describes LS as ‘one of the shrewdest documents issued by the Vatican during the past century. It has revealed Francis as a wily and sophisticated politician of the first order.’ He has bolstered his arguments in the encyclical with strategies to answer his critics even before they get their contrary opinions out. But above all Vallely points out that what the pope is tackling is the deep-rooted capitalist mentality that the natural world is merely a source of resources ‘to be manipulated for [the rich world’s] gain.’ Our ‘throwaway culture’ includes unwanted people including the poor, elderly and unborn. ‘Capitalism,’ Vallely says, ‘may maximize our choices...but it offers no guidance on how we should choose. Insatiable consumerism has blinkered our vision and left us unable to distinguish between what we need and what we merely want.’ Vallely argues that at heart the environmental crisis ‘is really a crisis in laissez-faire capitalism.’

This is exactly right. Francis’ critique is not in any way Marxist, but profoundly rooted in the gospel of Matthew where a homeless Jesus says ‘Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head’ (8:20), and the Catholic and Christian tradition tht is so well represented by Saint Francis of Assisi. This is precisely where the encyclical’s revolutionary roots lie and why it is, as Vallely says, so ‘deeply disturbing to those with a vested interest in the status quo.’

LS is the most important encyclical issued since Vatican Council II concluded in 1965. While squarely within the papal tradition of social teaching, it modulates that tradition into a whole new key. It is arguably the most profound and integrated critique of monetarist capitalism yet penned and, as such, calls for a whole new socio-economic approach to life on earth by redefining what ‘progress’ means. For Francis it involves respect for the common good of the whole of creation.

Finally I want to return to the man whose hymn inspired Pope Francis. Sometime in spring 1226, almost blind, suffering from recurrent malaria and acutely ill from what was then called dropsy (now oedema), Francis of Assisi visited Saint Clare’s San Damiano convent, just outside the walls of his hometown. There, in the garden, he wrote the Cantico di fratre sole, the Canticle of Brother Sun, written in rhythmical prose in Francis’ native Tuscan dialect. Nowadays we sing it as ‘All Creatures of Our God and King’ in a loose translation by William H. Draper. It is a cosmic hymn of praise to God in which the whole natural world joins. Pope Francis takes the recurring phrase Laudato si’, mi’ Signore (‘Praise be to you, my Lord’) from the hymn as the title of his encyclical.

Francis’ disciple and first biographer, Thomas of Celano, says that all God’s creatures ‘filled Francis with wondrous and unspeakable joy as he beheld the sun, or raised his eyes to the moon, or gazed on the stars and the firmament...Even towards little worms he glowed with exceeding love...Wherefore he used to pick them up in the way...and put them in a safe place, that they might not be crushed’ (First Life of Saint Francis, I, 29) Conscious of his own approaching death (he died not long after writing the hymn on 3 October 1226), the saint sings: ‘Praise to thee, O Lord, for our sister mortal death, from whom no one may escape.’

Inspired by Saint Francis Laudato si is an incisive, practical, realistic and far-reaching encyclical that tackles the most important issues facing us today honestly and with absolute integrity. It is certainly an extraordinary document that will upset a lot of apple carts, in the church, Catholicism and in the world.

Paul Collins' most recent book on ecology and faith was Judgment Day. The struggle for life on earth, published by the University of NSW Press and Orbis in 2010.

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