by Jason Damon – Franciscan Action Network Intern
Pope Francis has captured the hearts and imaginations of individuals around the world. He has reached a level of popularity, among both Catholics and the population in general, that I think very few people could have ever anticipated. However, rarely has there ever been a figure in public life, particularly when that individual is leader of more than one billion people, that doesn’t occasionally cause a bit of controversy. Tragically enough, that controversy has reached a peak with the release of “Laudato Si,” an encyclical written by the Holy Father encouraging a broader respect for creation. Irony that it is something entitled “Praised Be” and calls for a level of care for the world around us in the spirit of St. Francis of Assisi (arguably the most popular saint in the Catholic Church) that has stirred up a firestorm and ill will toward the pontiff aside, I think it also speaks to the politicization of faith and the placing of political agendas above moral calls to action.
The encyclical and its subject matter have, from various levels of public and private life, seen its author receive a host of charges, from being a subversive left-wing puppet to “letting his guard down” against birth control, abortion and other things the Church finds immoral. Pope Francis has also been criticized by several American politicians-among them presidential hopefuls Jeb Bush and Rick Santorum-for wading into a subject they’ve deemed as inherently political and therefore something that should be avoided by a religious leader.
Unfortunately, such criticism is not only ignorant, short-sighted and simply not true, but also dangerous. The Pope in speaking on this subject is not speaking as a scientist (although he does have a chemistry degree) nor is he speaking as a political or temporal leader; as has been his focus throughout his pontificate, Pope Francis is speaking pastorally. He is speaking from a place of faith, as his statement in Chapter 5 (“The Church does not presume to settle scientific questions or to replace politics) and as the prayers at both the beginning and the end of the encyclical make clear. Ignorance of that difference has the capability of making us blind to the core of his message, and that message is, fundamentally, that we as human beings have a responsibility to care for the planet and the world around us. This is not a red/blue issue. It’s not even (only) a Catholic issue; it’s a human issue, as the Holy Father emphasizes in the opening of “Laudato Si” when he writes that the encyclical is addressed to “every person living on this planet.” The goal of this encyclical is to encourage serious debate on a topic that can and already has had a big impact on the world population.
Which circles around to perhaps the most frustrating, and the most puzzling, piece about the uproar over “Laudato Si,” and that is the treatment by some people and outlets as if environmental awareness is a new, foreign and threatening part of Catholic social teaching. The content of this encyclical is nothing groundbreaking and in fact grows out of a deeply ingrained tradition in the Church; what is new is the methods by which the pontificate has addressed them. As Pope Francis cites throughout the encyclical, both of his predecessors (St. John Paul II and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI) have addressed the topic of care for creation and the deplorable way in which we as a human race have treated the environment around us as well as a host of theologians and religious stretching far back into our tradition. In fact, Pope Francis, along with prominently citing his namesake and inspiration front-and-center, also mentions figures like St. Benedict and St. Teresa di Lisieux. All have spoken against the anthropocentric view that creation is something that exists solely to serve us and not as something to be respected in and of itself; in fact, Pope Francis (and his predecessors) make a wonderful point against unadulterated relativism. There are some times and circumstances where unbridled freedom to do whatever one wants without thought to the world and people around them for personal or group fulfillment is harmful to both oneself and society and is therefore morally -and unequivocally- wrong.
This is a view that rather than fall outside the lines of or threaten the establishment of a consistent pro-life ethic actually strengthens it because it is the throwaway culture, rallied against in “Laudato Si” and throughout the duration of the Pope Francis pontificate, that “justifies every type of waste, environmental and human, that treats both the other and nature as simple objects and leads to a myriad of forms of domination.” (Chapter Three, paragraph 116). I think we have a tendency, as human beings, to want to sort things into nice little piles when in fact so much of the world around us is interconnected in a way that makes such compartmentalization virtually impossible. The point being stressed with “Laudato” is that we cannot separate the societal utilitarian approach that we as a race are so often guilty of from the environmental one that has seen us justify brutal exploitation of the world around us- “our common home”- for the sake of perceived advancement, and in fact Pope Francis draws parallels between how we’ve treated the world around us as an object to be used how we see fit without regard to consequences and how we as a people continue to do the same thing to those around us, whether it’s abortion, human trafficking, disregard for the poor and so forth. If we want to create a more perfect world and society, one in which all human beings are treated with the dignity and respect that they inherently possess, then we need to put an end to utilitarian mentality of using people and creation as ends to a mean and not as a mean in and of itself. This change in societal world view doesn’t stop at how we treat our environment, but instead extends to and includes it. The phrase that I think most sticks out to me in reading “Laudato Si” is that of “integral ecology,” used throughout the work, where the human and social dimensions of humanity are intertwined with ecological concerns, and it is this aspect that lies at the heart of Pope Francis’ message.
All of this makes the comments of socio-political leaders regarding the message of Pope Francis that much more baseless. Santorum (a practicing Catholic) has essentially said that the Holy Father should “leave science to the scientists” and focus on things like “theology and morality,” sentiments that have been echoed by others. Again disregarding the fact that Pope Francis was a chemist before he was a seminarian, his writings have reflected and enforced that attention to environmental issues is, in fact, a moral issue. Additionally, Catholics have both a right and a responsibility to speak out in regard to moral issues not just in a peripheral role but a leading one, especially on divisive issues that are sharply drawn down ideological lines. Such willingness to find a lasting solution on the topic and to stimulate discussion on an issue where there are so many strong emotions, as is one of the stated purposes of the encyclical, should not be condemned or ignored by the temporal leaders of this world but instead respected and emulated.
Personally, Pope Francis’ encyclical is a bright light. Although I’m discouraged that it’s become embroiled in controversy that I can’t understand, I’m glad that my pope has come out with something that may not be politically palatable but is an important issue to discuss nevertheless. Praised be!
(photo courtesy of New Ways Ministry)