June 22, 2015
Few papal encyclicals have been as anticipated, or the subject of such intense speculation and conjecture, as Laudato Si'. This is perhaps due to the celebrity status Pope Francis has attained, and also to the charged nature - at least in the context of American and Australian domestic politics - of his subject matter.
Both the political left and the right are consistently guilty of selectively appropriating aspects of Catholic doctrine that support their positions, while downplaying or ignoring those that do not. They are all cafeteria Catholics (albeit in different ways) who are ever-ready to reach for George Weigel's proverbial gold and red pens. And each will, of course, attempt to spin Laudato Si' to fit its own narrative and advance its own priorities.
However, Laudato Si' transcends our increasingly archaic and meaningless partisan divisions - it supports neither side in their interminable squabbles. Instead, at its heart, it is a profoundly subversive document that represents a mortal threat to our reigning economic, political and cultural paradigms. Indeed, its comprehensive vision of an integral ecology could serve as the basis for the development of a new and authentic Third Way movement - a political philosophy and economy firmly rooted in Catholic Social Teaching that would be very different from anything currently on offer in either Australia or America.
But it is a mistake to view Laudato Si' through a purely political prism, or to permit the media commentariat to mediate Francis's message - you simply must engage this text directly. One of the most remarkable aspects of Laudato Si' is its openness and accessibility to a lay audience. This is not a work laden with academic or technical jargon, decipherable only by experts in philosophy or theology. It is written in a far more inclusive style - indeed, its prose is beautiful and, at times, deeply moving.
Such an approach is appropriate. While so much of the commentary and analysis focuses on its broader political ramifications, in truth the primary audience of Laudato Si' isn't governmental leaders, the titans of global finance, industrial magnates, or the commentariat. Instead, Pope Francis's message is addressed to, and intended for, you. It is a work of love that attempts to break through our shells of indifference and apathy, and inspire us to action.
That said, substantively, Laudato Si' is characterized by a hermeneutic of continuity, not rupture. Pope Francis builds upon the solid foundation laid by his predecessors, bringing together disparate strands that have long been present in Catholic Social Teaching and weaving them into a persuasive and compelling argument in support of his concept of an "integral ecology" - one that reflects the fact that our current environmental, economic, social and even spiritual crises are linked and spring from our broken relationships with God, with each other, and with the natural world.
The encyclical contains a comprehensive survey of the various environmental threats humanity is facing - including, most controversially, climate change, which the pope correctly attributes to human activity. It contains multiple condemnations of our present "throw away culture," consumerism and the operation of unjust and exploitative economic structures and systems. It contains an important discussion about the Catholic concept of the universal destination of goods, and notes that as a result private property rights are always subject to a social mortgage. And it consistently emphasizes "the priority of being over that of being useful" (par. 89), which Francis brilliantly uses to illustrate the intrinsic value and dignity of both creation and of human beings. In Francis's vision, there are neither disposable persons, nor species.
But the encyclical also speaks directly to each of us, to our lifestyles and our priorities. Francis presciently observes that we live in a world where "a minority believes that it has the right to consume in a way which can never be universalized" (par. 50).
I mention this in order to move on to my final point: the call for personal conversion, of the deepest, life-altering sort, that runs throughout the entire document. In a way, it is always easy to spot the splinter in another's eye, and miss the beam in our own. In the present context, simply condemning bankers or other profiteers misses a key insight: we are all complicit in the ecological, human, and spiritual damage caused by our common culture. And, to avert catastrophe, we each must change.
Conversion isn't easy. Inertia is part of human nature - the familiar is comfortable and comforting and so we cling to it. We are unwilling to alter our patterns of consumption or adjust the priorities we have set for our own lives, and encountering others and building relationships and real communities is hard work. Indeed, I imagine that Jesus's call to "come, follow me" (Matthew 4:19) must have struck at least a momentary terror in even the hearts of those who became his most faithful disciples.
But we have no other choice. As Pope Francis warns us, we live at a time when "[d]oomsday predictions can no longer be met with irony or disdain. We may well be leaving to coming generations debris, desolation and filth." (par. 161) The world is our common home; and its fate is inseparable from our destiny.
— Michael Stafford
Michael Stafford is an attorney and a syndicated Catholic political columnist. This article previously appeared in ABC.