In my view, Laudato Si’ has been intentionally ignored by various factions within the Church, who have consequently done the devilish work of keeping the Faithful from even considering the letter. The demands of the Pope are too much for some to bear, so they have decided that they will not let the Faithful decide whether they will bear them. All the dissenting groups have, however, taken the same course to accomplish their goal, and that is to create the narrative of the hippie pope, the tree-hugger, the greenie. In order to disarm the Pope, they must keep us from hearing the Pope; in order to prevent us from listening, they must make us skeptical or complacent. This is precisely what the interior enemies of the Church have done.
The first trick these ne’er-do-wells have played is to convince us that Laudato Si’ is merely a letter about climate change and environmentalism. It is not. To limit the Pope’s letter to the narrow vision of modern green movements is the basis for each faction ignoring it, but it is a basis which is decidedly baseless. It is true that the Pope discusses the global environmental crisis, pollution, energy production, and climate change. These issues are not the Pope’s primary focus. The Holy Father is using these issues to get at a deeper message. What is happening to our common home reflects what has happened to us, as Francis says in his opening words:
[The earth] 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.
The encyclical is not about an abstract and detached “environment” which we must care for. Francis takes it for granted, as we all should, that the climate is being abused by the human race. He accepts it as a given, as it is, that humanity is poisoning the planet. He does not take at face value what we might suppose to be the causes of this globicide. The issues are not fundamentally energy use or fossil fuels.
The second trick is to tell us that Laudato Si’ is driven by some kind of a political agenda, especially what Americans would call a “leftist” approach. This lie is obvious to anyone who has read the letter. It is a farce which allows American conservatives to denigrate the encyclical and American liberals to laud it, neither having taken a moment to read it for fear of being changed by it. Once shoved off into the realm of partisan politics, the Pope’s words have no interest to anyone; we can hold them up as a victorious banner or fire upon them like a battlefield of cannons, without knowing whose banner we wield or where we are aiming.
The third and final trick is that we have been made to think that, consequently, the encyclical is about an issue far removed from us and alien, a cause to be taken up by the soft-hearted, or soft-minded or, even worse, the rich. Therefore, the rest of us may leave it untouched. It is something about which the average man can do nothing and therefore should not bother. After all, what can he do about a problem so large and far away? If it is something that we can do nothing about, why worry about it? With this third and final twist of the arm, we are set off course. And it all begins with the first step. It is like the opening page of Hobbes’s Leviathan; if you do not immediately challenge his definitions, you are powerless against the callous logic that follows. Or it is like mixing up 91 and 19 on a math test which is based on just one equation: you will fail the test and so will everyone who copied you.
So let us take these three obtuse objections to the Pope’s latest encyclical and drag them into the light, to expose them for the horse hockey that they are.
First, the subject of the encyclical. Laudato Si’ is not a treatise about the natural world, but one that consciously speaks from within that world. The Holy Father talks about the global environmental crisis as a human crisis. We have done this, through our indifference and arrogance. It is not, in the end, oil and coal that have polluted the earth. It is not greenhouse gases that have defaced our common home. We have lost sight of our purpose, of who and what we are, and so can no longer see what the earth is, either. We have abused the world because we abuse ourselves. We have trampled the beauty of the earth because we stomp on the needs of the poor. We poison the planet because we have become venomous toward life: in the womb, in the ghetto, in old age and disability. It is true that each human being is of more worth than the all the stars in the sky and fish in the sea. If we no longer see each person this way, why would we value the air he breathes or the water he drinks? Francis is not concerned with some elitist, self-congratulatory environmentalism. He eviscerates an environmentalism that is obsessed with public relations and blind to human pain:
To blame population growth instead of extreme and selective consumerism on the part of some, is one way of refusing to face the issues. It is an attempt to legitimize the present model of distribution, where a minority believes that it has the right to consume in a way which can never be universalized, since the planet could not even contain the waste products of such consumption.
Francis makes clear from the start that his primary criticism is that we do not see the world as a gift anymore. We are like someone trying to see the value of a Christmas tree who does not believe in parents and children and presents. We cut it down and throw the wood on the fire. We see no other use for it precisely because we only see the use of things, and not the things themselves. In other words, we are destroying the planet because we are so full of sin. Sin is a spiritual reality, and spiritual realities always have physical consequences.
Second, there is absolutely no American leftism in the pages of Laudato Si’. As I said, this is obvious to anyone who has read it. The Pope repeats the standard of the Holy See over the last 100 years: there must be solutions which are global, because we all share the world, and there must be solutions which are autonomous and local, because each society is distinctive and has its own skills to offer. The old Catholic principles of solidarity and subsidiarity are repeated in a new era and with renewed urgency. The Pope has no interest in politics as such, because politics– controlled as it is by business and ideological interests– is largely why we have arrived at this historical tipping point. The Pope tells us what we all know deep within our hearts: the world is controlled by a dictatorship of rampant waste and diabolical consumerism. He aptly labels this a “technocratic paradigm.” This tyranny came to power because we have lost sight of each other, of the weak, of the poor, and of ourselves:
The technocratic paradigm also tends to dominate economic and political life. The economy accepts every advance in technology with a view to profit, without concern for its potentially negative impact on human beings. Finance overwhelms the real economy.
Third, and most absurd, is the idea that this issue has nothing to do with us, the common men and women of the world. It is precisely us whom Pope Francis is addressing. He shoves aside the claim that we little people of the world can do nothing. He demands that we change how we see the world, how we view the poor, and how we act in each moment of the day. All of us are responsible for the damage to nature, for the consequent suffering of the poor, and for the degrading of God’s good earth. We have become exorbitant with excessive energy consumption, indifference to industrial waste, discarding perfectly edible food, cheap and unnecessary products, and sheer unending convenience. This has all been built on the backs of billions of the world’s poor. The market we have built is a sinner’s market. The market is free because its poor are not. The only way it can remain is to continue to build upon them, excusing itself with seeming concessions here and there that amount to more consumerism and more waste. And so it is we who must change.
The Pope makes abundantly clear the cause of this colossal collapse of human society in the making. Unsurprisingly, it is us. And because he says that it is us, there is impetus to ignore him. The Pope has asked what is wrong with the modern world and we have been offended that he dare define that it is only us. Rather than allow us to be transformed by this call to conversion, the powers that be have decided for us that we have no interest in it. They have attempted to domesticate it; since they cannot actually tame the Pope’s words, they make up their own.
In reality, the Pope is doing what so many popes have done before: harassing a heresy. This heresy is an individualistic compilation of selfishness, greed, and indifference to others. It is perhaps the most inhuman and anti-human heresy to ever exist. Every other heresy was taking one truth too far and neglecting all the others; this one takes the old lie that man is the measure of all things and crowns it. It makes man an alien and a foreigner in his own world, a stranger among his siblings:
A misguided anthropocentrism leads to a misguided lifestyle. In the Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, I noted that the practical relativism typical of our age is ‘even more dangerous than doctrinal relativism’. When human beings place themselves at the centre, they give absolute priority to immediate convenience and all else becomes relative. Hence we should not be surprised to find, in conjunction with the omnipresent technocratic paradigm and the cult of unlimited human power, the rise of a relativism which sees everything as irrelevant unless it serves one’s own immediate interests. There is a logic in all this whereby different attitudes can feed on one another, leading to environmental degradation and social decay.
The crux of the problem really is that we can no longer see the earth as a gift. We dominate it, we demand its resources, we accost its inhabitants. We live in our Father’s house and act like the landlords. Having become obsessed with our own comfort, pleasure, and power, we destroy any obstacle to increase them. No one obsessed with power can love the weak; no one who loves his own comfort can give it up to help another. We have been told that the Pope is a tree-hugger, as if the encyclical were really about the trees in the first place. As if the encyclical were addressed to the trees!
The Holy Father says nothing about hugging trees; he says much about venerating them. The Pope has regained a forgotten revelation given to all of us in childhood. It is the child who worships the trees; it is the child who sees them as strong towers in whose majesty he basks and balks and bows with their branches. It is the child who chases a frog for the thrill; only the adult for a profit. We must see creation as a child does. We must see the world with young eyes, because the young really treasure everything. And because the young treasure everything, they find it especially easy to love the God who gave it to them.
The Pope has already accomplished this feat. He wonders in the face of our brother the sun, shining down upon the just and the unjust. He stands in awe of the cool and hot rain, pouring down upon us as it wills without giving a damn what we are doing. He invites us to see the world as a world and not as a tool; for who in his right mind sees his home as a tool? At its heart, in all things, Christianity is nothing less than seeing as a child sees: past the workaday humdrum and grinding noise of machines, a child sees the palaces of gods (most insist we call them angels). A child can stand in the woods and feel the spirit that guards it. He can see the fairies under the woods. It is why a child is sensible enough to feel wonder.
Francis proposes to us the giftedness of the world, a point of view which he calls a human ecology. We possess no human ecology, not because we have too little ecology around us, but because we have too little humanity within us. We do not see the world as it is.
Francis scoffs in the face of the technocratic regime which subjects creation to the degradation of a factory. He, like the Saint from Assisi, acknowledges that the earth is our mother but, even more, she is our sister. It is only earth as sister that makes real sense of the human condition; a sister must be given homage and love, for the simple reason that she is not above us like a mother. A sister is beside us. The earth is the Lord’s sister, too, because of His embrace of humanity. Who is the Lord’s mother and sister but she who does the will of God? And who among us does the will of God better than the wind and the waves?
But in the divine way of doing things it must be recalled that our sister is not simply our family. She is, first and foremost, our neighbor. This imposes upon us a privileged responsibility to love her. The Lord declared, “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.” I say that perhaps we ought to do to the earth as we would have her do unto us. This is the Pope’s prophetic warning to us and we are fools if we continue to ignore it. We already see creation groaning beneath the weight of our oppression.
This is the dramatic change of heart which the Pope proposes to us. Before all else, we must experience this conversion in the depths of our beings.
In another piece, I will elaborate what we are to do once we have embraced it.
Joe Dantona is a convert living in eastern Ohio. He studied political science, history, and theology. He divides his free time between entertaining his wife and kids with dad jokes and getting distracted while reading good books.