Commentary on “Laudato Si’” – Encyclical Letter by Pope Francisco
I shall start by looking at the name of the text itself, “Laudato Si’” (Praise be to you, my Lord), which is taken from the Canticle of the Creatures written by St Francis of Assisi, which praises God through “our Sister Mother Earth”. So, from the outset, there is an attitude of exaltation of the planet on which we live. For readers who are unused to reading texts of the Catholic Church, I shall explain briefly what an Encyclical Letter by a Pope is. It is a text written for a general group of people, for example for all the bishops, or all the catholic faithful, or, in addition to these, to people of “good will”. However, on this occasion, the Pope said that he wanted to address “every person living on this planet”. And so it is a text that is as open as possible. And the reason is that “global environmental deterioration” affects everyone.
The making of a text like this generally adopts a methodology that has been followed since the end of the 19th century. In it, the Pope does not appear as someone reflecting alone on a subject, but rather as one who is making his contribution to the construction of a heritage. It is a legacy that has been systematically created since a famous encyclical on social issues by Pope Leo XIII, known as Rerum Novarum in 1891, giving rise to what is called the Social Doctrine of the Church.
This encyclical, on the subject of ecology, is appearing at a time when Jorge Bergoglio wishes to contribute to influencing the next international conference on climate change in Paris. It is a document that is relatively easy to assimilate in its different parts but, at the same time, difficult as a vision of the whole. It is a real challenge because it makes an assessment of the relationships that exist between nature, human beings, society and, of course, God, as the sole creator of everything and everyone. Politically it can justify positions of the left or the right, depending on the aspects we wish to highlight. I have come across commentators who are more on the right, for example, who reject this text politically because they consider it to be naive and anti-capitalist. Personally, I can see continuity with the past but also a new concern with synthesis. The Pope brings in the most important figure in terms of ecological matters in the history of the Catholic Church: St Francis of Assisi, the most nature-friendly saint, he who loves all creation, and who uses bold but precise expressions in his vision: how could one forget the prayers where he speaks of “brother sun” and “brother fire”? He is also the great friend of animals, but he is above all the one who loves the poor, and starting with them, all people. Pope Francis seeks in some way to bring St Francis’s vision of the world up to date for the 21st century. That is where he draws his inspiration from, and he then seeks contributions from the thoughts of popes who preceded him, especially John Paul II and Benedict XVI. A number of times, he also quotes someone I admire a lot: the priest, theologian and Italo-German writer Romano Guardini (1885-1962), who has an extraordinary lucid vision of the dilemmas of the 20th century and who is yet to be discovered by the public in general. In addition, he refers to the publications from different episcopal conferences (organised groups of bishops from a specific country).
The main impression that one has of this text is that it sees the situation as a whole, that is, that all aspects of nature, the physical, the biological in general and human in particular, are interdependent. Humans have a central role, but have, of necessity, to respect the nature of which they are part. And so, in essence, it is the turning away of humans from their responsibility for nature that the Pope wishes to question. And in this turning away the Pope includes social issues, the forgetting of the poorest. To counteract this, the Pope proposes a radical ecological vision, in which humans’ concern for nature embraces different aspects: respect for the environment, for the central value of human labour, for the primacy of the “common good” of all people. The last two centuries of human history are viewed by the Pope with a critical eye. The Pope does not deny the benefits of progress, but, at this stage in history, he warns of its dangers, in a chapter entitled “Globalisation of the Technocratic Paradigm”. For him, this paradigm has a series of problems, the main one being that human beings are not at its centre, but are an instrument that is increasingly disposable. Humans have tremendous power in current scientific and technical knowledge about things, but, in the end, this power is in the service of the few, and as Romano Guardini said “Modern man was not educated in the just use of power”.
At the end, the Pope says that his lengthy reflection had been “both joyful and troubling”. Indeed, it is with these two feelings, of being joyful and troubled, that we read this text, on which everyone should meditate.