July 1, 2015
What is probably the most common misconception of Pope Francis is that his teachings represent a kind of rupture from the past. Nothing could be further from the truth. The things the Holy Father has said grow out of, and are completely consistent with, Catholic Tradition. This is true also of what he has written in Laudato si’ , as the pope himself points out.
To a “world teetering on the brink of nuclear crisis, Pope Saint John XXIII wrote” Pacem in Terris, “an Encyclical which not only rejected war but offered a proposal for peace.” Eight years later “Blessed Pope Paul VI referred to the ecological concern as ‘a tragic consequence’ of unchecked human activity” saying that due “‘to an ill-considered exploitation of nature, humanity runs the risk of destroying it and becoming in turn a victim of this degradation’.” Pope Saint John Paul II “warned that human beings frequently seem ‘to see no other meaning in their natural environment than what serves for immediate use and consumption’,” and subsequently called “for a global ecological conversion.” Pope Benedict XVI “likewise proposed ‘eliminating the structural causes of the dysfunctions of the world economy and correcting models of growth which have proved incapable of ensuring respect for the environment’.”
Of course, there was the one that the pope took as his “guide and inspiration” when he was elected Bishop of Rome: Saint Francis of Assisi, “the patron saint of all who study and work in the area of ecology, and” who “is also much loved by non-Christians.” Saint Francis “was particularly concerned for God’s creation and for the poor and outcast,” and showed “us just how inseparable the bond is between concern for nature, justice for the poor, commitment to society, and interior peace.”
The intensity of Saint Francis’s communion with nature was such that he would preach even to the flowers, because, for him, “every creature was a sister united to him by bonds of affection. That is why he felt called to care for all that exists.” He invited “us to see nature as a magnificent book in which God speaks to us and grants us a glimpse of his infinite beauty and goodness.” He did not see the earth as “a problem to be solved,” but as “a joyful mystery to be contemplated with gladness and praise.”
Pope Francis points to the saint whose name he bears as an example of the fact that convictions affect “the choices which determine our behaviour.” Beliefs do matter, as Catholicism has always taught. If we do not feel the kinship with nature that Saint Francis did, “our attitude will be that of masters, consumers, ruthless exploiters, unable to set limits on their immediate needs.” On the other hand, if we sense our intimate union with creation, “then sobriety and care will well up spontaneously. The poverty and austerity of Saint Francis were no mere veneer of asceticism, but something much more radical: a refusal to turn reality into an object simply to be used and controlled.”
In Laudato si’ the Holy Father is calling us to the sense of kinship with every creature that Saint Francis experienced. If our attitude toward nature can thus be changed, the result will be a profound and radical change in our actions. It is a worthy calling, which is now extended to each and every one of us. It is certainly not, in any sense, a break from Catholic Tradition.