Cursory Reflections on Laudato Si: – Part 1

A several part treatment begins today.

The end of art. 3 reads:

In this Encyclical, I would like to enter into dialogue with all people about our common home.

This may be a hermeneutical key informing us that the encyclical is less of an authoritative teaching than a beginning of dialogue and reflection. Nevertheless, the Encyclical is still an authoritative act of the Magisterium:

15. It is my hope that this Encyclical Letter, which is now added to the body of the Church’s social teaching, can help us to acknowledge the appeal, immensity and urgency of the challenge we face.

Art. 5 follows JPII in stating:

Accordingly, our human ability to transform reality must proceed in line with God’s original gift of all that is.

Here, we see an absolute norm: Our development of the world must be (this is a moral ought, replete with consequences) in conformity with God’s wisdom, with the viable possibilities inherent in the world. By “viable” I mean: Possible and life-giving.

Art. 6 registers very important remarks from Pope Benedict. Francis comments:

Pope Benedict asked us to recognize that the natural environment has been gravely damaged by our irresponsible behaviour. The social environment has also suffered damage. Both are ultimately due to the same evil: the notion that there are no indisputable truths to guide our lives, and hence human freedom is limitless. We have forgotten that “man is not only a freedom which he creates for himself. Man does not create himself. He is spirit and will, but also nature”

The danger of a “tyranny of relativism” threatens both the human good, society, and the environmental good, which itself is, obviously, ordered to our good. This is clear in Francis’s citation of Patriarch Bartholomew’s words:

For “to commit a crime against the natural world is a sin against ourselves and a sin against God”.

Art. 12 reflects on St. Francis and urges us towards a non-reductively utilitarian view of the world, really, towards a contemplative view.

If we approach nature and the environment without this openness to awe and wonder, if we no longer speak the language of fraternity and beauty in our relationship with the world, our attitude will be that of masters, consumers, ruthless exploiters, unable to set limits on their immediate needs. By contrast, if we feel intimately united with all that exists, 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.

Again, art. 13:

Rather than a problem to be solved, the world is a joyful mystery to be contemplated with gladness and praise.

Such a view is in clear contrast with that of modernity. We can think only of Bacon and Descartes, who mapped out the world precisely so as to plunder it. Even if with good intentions! Even if for the physical good of the poor and downtrodden! If the view of the world is one of mapping reductively and exploiting technologically, the result will be a denial of substantial forms (natures!) and the imposition of artistic forms without norms (technology gone awry, without prudence guiding it) – that is, GMOs etc. If the physical stuff is nothing but homogenous “matter”, then we have no substantial forms (natures!) to respect.

Could we say that there is an implicit: Back to Aristotle! Back to metaphysics! in this encyclical?

The pope calls everyone in the world to reflect on this problem of the devastation of the environment, for this problem affects us all:

We need a conversation which includes everyone, since the environmental challenge we are undergoing, and its human roots, concern and affect us all (art. 14)

In art. 20, we see a great and crucial dig at the likes of Big Oil At Any Cost and also at Big Agri At Any Cost.

20. Some forms of pollution are part of people’s daily experience. Exposure to atmospheric pollutants produces a broad spectrum of health hazards, especially for the poor, and causes millions of premature deaths. People take sick, for example, from breathing high levels of smoke from fuels used in cooking or heating. There is also pollution that affects everyone, caused by transport, industrial fumes, substances which contribute to the acidification of soil and water, fertilizers, insecticides, fungicides, herbicides and agrotoxins in general. Technology, which, linked to business interests, is presented as the only way of solving these problems, in fact proves incapable of seeing the mysterious network of relations between things and so sometimes solves one problem only to create others.

Who could possibly disagree with the pope that

The earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth (art. 21).

The pope is calling us back to nature, to respect the Natural Law of the cycle of life:

It is hard for us to accept that the way natural ecosystems work is exemplary: plants synthesize nutrients which feed herbivores; these in turn become food for carnivores, which produce significant quantities of organic waste which give rise to new generations of plants (art. 22).

If we attempted, in culture and technology, to imitate this kind of patter, we would make considerable progress. Amen to that!

Art. 23 turns to the climate:

23. The climate is a common good, belonging to all and meant for all.

It should be noted that there are two senses of “common good”. The first, and more excellent, is that good which exceeds the parts and which is the goal of the parts. For instance, peace among men is that “tranquility of complex order” that is the goal of society, just as the “harmonious melody” emergent from the many singers is the goal of the chorus. The second, foundational but less excellent, is that good which is resource to many. Indeed, water is a common resource to many, but it is not the good at which we aim. Rather, we desire to have healthy water so that we might live and the chorus of living things as well, with the rhythmic backdrop of the flow of water.

Clearly, then, the climate is not the first kind of common good. It is only the second kind of common good. It is not our goal but our common resource and niche / habitat. That does not mean it is for “exploitation” and trampling of feet. Instead, it means that it is elemental, ingredient, to a balanced human life lived in a pilgrim way on our home planet.

With these two sense of common good, further, we can rightly interpret the two different kinds of goods at stake: The human social good (good of society) and the natural environmental good. The latter is crucial, ingredient, to the thriving of the former. It is fundamental. It is not, however, an “excelling” good. The human society is the excelling good. We could say, we must say, to bring both together, that the human society thriving in the context and in the created chorus of the inanimate and animate but non-rational world – that this is the yet greater good. Bring in the angels and we have that over which God said, “It is very good”. But best of all, and the only end the loss of which is essentially and eternally tragic, is the salvation of each person and the communion of all the saved.