Thoughts on Laudato si', Part 1

June 20, 2015

It was perhaps impolitic to wait until Pope Francis’s encyclical, Laudato Si, [1] was actually published before attempting comment on it, given the volume of the advance guard of critics. Marketing naivetĂ© is most certainly evident in failing to post something immediately upon publication. But your humble servant was fearful of exposing his ignorance if he tried to remark on something he had not actually read, and ignorance has dangers enough of its own.       

The reading being accomplished, it can now be safely reported here to those who have not so immersed themselves that the encyclical deserves to be earth-shaking. It will be hard to find a more powerful and learned exposition of the sins of Western-style modernity than what is contained in Laudato si'. Reading the encyclical can be likened to several spiritual punches in the stomach. And let no one assume that he is beyond the scope of its rebuke. Anyone who is not a member of the impoverished, the outcast, and the marginalized will find in its pages a call to repentance.   

A writing of the magnitude of Laudato si' deserves more than one or two articles or posts. It is, therefore, appropriate that we do more. A lengthy series of articles is what is called for, and that is what will be attempted here at Christian Democracy, God willing. We will try to analyze the encyclical in depth, with an eye toward practical application. The series will doubtlessly last beyond the time when the encyclical is the focus of news sources, but so be it. The encyclical is that important; its publication is a watershed moment for Catholic Social Teaching.  

And so we begin… 

The encyclical commences with these words: 

“1. ‘LAUDATO SI’, mi’ Signore’ – ‘Praise be to you, my Lord’. In the words of this beautiful canticle, Saint Francis of Assisi reminds us that our common home is like a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us. ‘Praise be to you, my Lord, through our Sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us, and who produces various fruit with coloured flowers and herbs’. 

“2. This sister now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her. We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will. The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life. This is why the earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor; she ‘groans in travail’ (Rom 8:22). We have forgotten that we ourselves are dust of the earth (cf. Gen2:7); our very bodies are made up of her elements, we breathe her air and we receive life and refreshment from her waters.”

Pope Francis begins the encyclical by quoting the saint from whom he took his name, a saint well-known for his prodigious communion with the natural world, who calls the earth our “Sister” and our “Mother.” And these appellations are not meaningless. The earth is in every respect our kindred, and is due the respect of any mother from whom we derive our physical life.  

Now what would we think of one who mistreated his mother, not just in small things, but who abused and plundered her? What would we think of a child who considered himself lord and master of his own mother? But this is precisely what we have done with the earth, and the moral equivalence is not a mere rhetorical device.

The word for how we have treated the earth is “violence,” as in the story of the Flood, where we read that “the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence.” (Genesis 6:11) Thus,

“The earth mourns and withers,
    the world languishes and withers;
    the heavens languish together with the earth.
The earth lies polluted
    under its inhabitants;
for they have transgressed the laws,
    violated the statutes,
    broken the everlasting covenant.”

(Isaiah 24:4-5)

Our treatment of the earth is, in a word, sin, and, like all sin, it is ultimately self-destructive. Sin always entails a kind of violence against one’s self, and this sin is no different. If we destroy the earth, we destroy the very source of our physical lives. What’s more, we destroy the physical lives of many who have done nothing to deserve it. 

Jack Quirk

Scripture quotations are from the Catholic Edition of the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyright 1965, 1966 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.