The genius of Laudato Si’ should make us all uncomfortable

 When U.S. presidential candidate Jeb Bush initially distanced himself from Laudato Si, he raised some eyebrows not only by doing so, but on the grounds he took: “Mr Bush, who is a convert to Catholicism, said: “I don’t get economic policy from my bishops or my cardinals or my pope.”

I will leave for others to discuss the degree to which Gov. Bush has been consistent on this point, but what struck some people was that he saw this encyclical as “economic policy.” 

Jeb was right. At least on that point. I can do a lot of posts on why Catholics should listen to the Church on economic issues, and how the Church can and should engage non-Catholics on economic issues. But Governor Bush is absolutely right that this is an economic document.

What is overlooked by the most casual observers is that Pope Francis makes an essential part of his encyclical the idea that care for the poor and care for creation are inextricably connected.

I would argue that he does this on three levels: practical, psychosocial, and theological.

(Quick note: For those who have suffered through my earlier posts on Evangelii Gaudium, Im not planning to go through and quote extensively to support this and other arguments. I’d welcome you to read the encyclical itself and let me know if I’ve done it justice.)

Practical: Francis makes the point that, on climate change, the poor are disproportionately affected. While you and I in the West may think of waterfront property as the provenance of the rich, Francis makes the point overtly that the poor live in areas directly affected by sea level rise and desertification – the majority of our megacities and a quarter of the world’s population live near the coast. If sea level rise puts Bangladesh underwater, as some scientists think is inevitable, 100 million people will be displaced, and the vast majority are poor. 

Indirectly (except maybe in par. 25), Francis makes the very practical point that disruptions of any kind, including climate, hit hardest the poor, who lack the resources – financial and social – to weather the storm (literally, in some respects). So practically, harm to the environment is harm to the poor.

Psychosocial: I’m open to a better term for this. More thoroughly than the practical, Francis argues that the way we treat the world around us is an indicator of how we treat the poor, and vice versa. I am not a criminologist (I’m not a lot of things), but I know in our area when a teenager was convicted of assaulting a llama (OK, I live in Florida, this stuff happens), the local authorities made a point that intentional cruelty to animals is often a precursor to serious sociopathic having like serial killing. On a simpler level, how we treat that which can’t fight back extends from non-human to human and back.

Theological: Maybe the most central point to make here is that how we treat the poor, and how we treat “our common home,” reflects our understanding of God and God’s relationship to that which he created. Building on Saint John Paul II’s teaching on the Theology of the Body (which, if I’d needed to learn WordPress 20 years ago, I’d have blogged on) and a long Christian tradition, Francis starts with the assertion that our God of Love is first and foremost a Creator who creates out of love in order to love all that He has created. This may sound like mushiness.

But if we were created by and for a God who loves all that He has created in order that we can participate in that act of love and act of creation, then that has implications. Francis counters this understanding with an instrumental one, in which the world around us (and, let’s face it, all but a few of the people around us) are instruments for us to bend toward our will. When Francis rails against an anthropocentric understanding, it is this instrumentalism. If we profess God the Creator and Lover, then we cannot be the center of the universe. Which means that we cannot evaluate the world solely or even primarily about how we can benefit from manipulating it.

This is a big deal wrapped in small words. If we believe that God made all of this out of Love, not only for us but for the rest of it, then we better treat it – both the natural world and the people we don’t have a direct emotional investment in – as something God loves as much as He loves us. If we choose to treat the people around us or, Francis says, the natural world that is our home and theirs, as a resource, an object, rather than a beloved and a fellow subject, then we are making a statement about how much we really believe in God.

Francis’ predecssors since Leo XIII have made variations of this point about other people. The ways in which Francis extends this thinking to our common home are fascinating to watch and reminiscent of his papal namesake.

2 responses to “The genius of Laudato Si’ should make us all uncomfortable”

  1. […] According to some readers of the document, what is overlooked by the most casual observers is, that Pope Francis makes an essential part of his encyclical the idea that care for the poor and care for creation are inextricably connected. {The genius of Laudato Si’ should make us all uncomfortable} […]

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