What’s really new in Laudato Si’

Most analysts have focused on how Francis draws on his predecessors and Scripture to expound on his message in his encyclical, and that’s not new. Every social encyclical I’ve ever read does the same. It’s the style, as much as numbering the overlong “paragraphs” is.

Some analysts have focused on how Francis reconciles faith and science in his argument. That’s not new unless you tuned out the Church after the whole “Galileo” incident.

Lots of analysts note the emphasis Francis puts on the poor, and that’s not new at all.

I’ve echoed the point of others that one thing that’s new in Laudato Si’ is the way he draws on fellow bishops for reference in making his case. That’s new, and it’s probably going to be a while until people catch on to how much that precedent, if followed, will change the Church by decentralizing it.

But as I read it, the one thing that strikes me as new in terms of papal pronouncements in the encyclical is the way Francis elevates Creation as a reflection of God’s divine nature. It is, you have to say, very much in the tradition of his namesake, St. Francis of Assisi. He acknowledges from beginning to end that the worl that surrounds us has value not only as the raw material of our human abundance, but also as a loving and beloved entity in relationship with God. 

Two of the most beautiful stretches of Laudato Si’ express this theological claim. In paragraph 33, he says “It is not enough, however, to think of different species merely as potential ‘resources’ to be exploited, while overlooking the fact that they have value in themselves…Because of us, thousands of species will no longer give glory to God by their existence, nor convey their message to us. We have no such right.”

In 77: “Creation is of the order of love. God’s love is the fundamental moving force in all created things…Every creature is thus the object of the Father’s tenderness, who gives it its place in the world. Even the fleeting life of the least of beings is the object of his love, and in its few seconds of existence, God enfolds it with his affection.” We are used to hearing this sort of thing about an unborn child. Francis means this for the amoeba, flower and butterfly in its own way as well.

That’s new. As I looked through the references to ecology and the environment in the works of his predecessors since Pope Leo XIII began the genre of social encyclicals in 1891, I didn’t see this. I believe that, just as powerfully as John Paul II’s Theology of the Body will transform our understanding of human relationship over the decades to come, this thoroughly Franciscan understanding of Creation has the power to transform the way we understand the workd around us in a new way.

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