Pope Francis has left us a fairly extensive body of writings, speeches, and homilies to pore over and learn from, but so far seems to be promulgating encyclicals at a slower rate than either of his two previous predecessors. In fact, he has only issued one encyclical that is entirely his: Laudato Si’. Lumen Fidei, a remarkable work in its own right, was of course a type of collaboration between Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis, the latter taking up the work of the former after his resignation. One can glean differences in style and approaches when reading Lumen Fidei, but in Laudato Si’, the voice is Francis’ through and through.
If Laudato Si’ is to be understood as part of the Church’s body of social teaching, as Francis stated, then what can we learn from it? What insights can we glean four years later? Popularly, this document was and continues to be disparaged or hailed, depending on one’s beliefs, as the “climate change document,” a phenomenon Joe Dantona has excoriated in his usual manner. Such a reduction does a great disservice to the Church, insofar as it glosses over a rich theology and ignores other directives or moral exhortations.
To summarize Laudato Si’s essential theological points: through valuing God’s creation as a gift to each of us, we learn to respect the harmony inherent in God’s design and work for their fulfillment according to God’s plan. All God’s creation expresses a natural order of interdependence, a system that each of us belong to and must necessarily protect, for both our physical and spiritual welfare. The degradation of our natural environment, therefore, is a reflection of the degradation of our own hearts.
Indeed, the one word that best summarizes Laudato Si’ is interdependence. It is the middle way between radical individualism and radical globalism. In interdependence, we see both a need and an obligation to reach out to our neighbor to find solutions to our environmental crises that go beyond the power of any one individual to enact. It is opposed to globalism insofar as it refuses to dictate impersonal and “technocratic” solutions from on high, as if we are to have “domination” over the world instead of “dominion.” Interdependence recognizes the inherent value of each part of the whole and its role in God’s creation, whereas globalism would gladly subsume anything and everything–individuals and nations alike–to ensure the furtherance of its utilitarian paradigm.
At the same time, interdependence is opposed to radical individualism, for it rejects two related notions: First, that the world exists for one’s own utilitarian benefit; and secondly, that the only thing that is required to solve “the extremely complex situation” facing the globe is the self-improvement of individuals. It is not enough, Pope Francis states, because, “[t]he ecological conversion needed to bring about lasting change is also a community conversion.” Quoting Romano Guardini, he writes, “This task ‘will make such tremendous demands of man that he could never achieve it by individual initiative or even by the united effort of men bred in an individualistic way. The work of dominating the world calls for a union of skills and a unity of achievement that can only grow from quite a different attitude.'”
The implications of Laudato Si’ go far beyond practical solutions to our care for the environment and ecology broadly. Interdependence or interconnectedness is also an essential aspect of our sanctification in the love of God:
The human person grows more, matures more and is sanctified more to the extent that he or she enters into relationships, going out from themselves to live in communion with God, with others and with all creatures. In this way, they make their own that trinitarian dynamism which God imprinted in them when they were created. Everything is interconnected, and this invites us to develop a spirituality of that global solidarity which flows from the mystery of the Trinity.
This echoes the comments made by Pope Benedict XVI in Caritas in Veritate:
Charity is at the heart of the Church’s social doctrine. Every responsibility and every commitment spelt out by that doctrine is derived from charity which, according to the teaching of Jesus, is the synthesis of the entire Law (cf. Mt 22:36- 40). It gives real substance to the personal relationship with God and with neighbour; it is the principle not only of micro-relationships (with friends, with family members or within small groups) but also of macro-relationships (social, economic and political ones).
In this regard, it is painful for me to see utilitarian paradigms still grip our communities and our nations. I am thinking specifically of the way in which the migrant crisis continues to elicit stronger and increasingly degrading rhetoric from our political leaders, which seems rooted primarily not in a sense of interdependence and interconnectedness but rather the protection of their constituents’ enjoyment of what they claim is theirs alone. This isn’t a phenomenon unique to the United States but seems especially difficult in Italy and many other European nations.
“Where is your brother?” The Pope quoted Scripture during his 2013 trip to Lampedusa, a sort of Italian staging area for migrants who must wait while others debate their fate. He said then:
The culture of comfort, which makes us think only of ourselves, makes us insensitive to the cries of other people, makes us live in soap bubbles which, however lovely, are insubstantial; they offer a fleeting and empty illusion which results in indifference to others; indeed, it even leads to the globalization of indifference.
The truth is, as Francis indicates in Laudato Si’, a culture that is unwilling to appreciate the other, to “[go] out of ourselves to the other” with “disinterested concern and the rejection of every form of self-centeredness and self-absorption” will never find solutions that will bring about significant changes in society. Indeed, as Francis says, “Our lack of response to these tragedies involving our brothers and sisters points to the loss of that sense of responsibility for our fellow men and women upon which all civil society is founded.” To put it in simple terms, a country that would reject the other is destined to fail.
Pope Francis calls us to something better:
[T]here has been a growing conviction that our planet is a homeland and that humanity is one people living in a common home. An interdependent world not only makes us more conscious of the negative effects of certain lifestyles and models of production and consumption which affect us all; more importantly, it motivates us to ensure that solutions are proposed from a global perspective, and not simply to defend the interests of a few countries. Interdependence obliges us to think of one world with a common plan.
In light of God’s creation, all created things reveal fundamental truths about God. Each has a role and purpose given to them by God. Despite the materiality of this world, therefore, the created world only makes complete sense with “supernatural” vision, or when one looks through to creation with the eyes of Jesus who often used created things to illustrate a divine truth (e.g., seeds, fields, seas, etc.). What is the world revealing to us? What is God trying to say to us through creation? For one, we need each other.