Edition 10, 17 July 2015

From the Rector

Fr Chris Middleton SJ

Pope Francis’ encyclical, Laudato Si’: The Care of Our Common Home, attracted much greater attention from the world’s media and commentators than almost any similar Papal document in modern times. In part, this was because the topic of the environment is both accessible and topical. Moreover, the timing appeared to be aimed at influencing the UN Climate Change Conference in Paris. In the United States the encyclical was also seen as having an impact on the upcoming presidential election, especially given that a number of the Republican candidates are Catholics with records of some considerable scepticism towards environmental issues such as climate change.

While many in the environmental movement and leaders such as President Obama were quick to praise the Pope’s intervention as significant in potentially moving world opinion to a more activist response, others, such as Paul Kelly in The Australian, were quick to challenge the Pope’s wisdom or competence on an issue that has obvious political, economic and cultural implications. In the secular sphere, of course, ultimately the impact of the Pope’s words will rest on their persuasiveness rather than any authority as such. And critics might be content to dismiss his writing as simply the musings on an interesting old man.

For Catholics though, an encyclical is an important exercise of the Pope’s teaching magisterium and has authority as an expression of the Church’s social teaching. It is a teaching document asking of Catholics some degree of ‘religious assent’. And indeed, there were calls from many, and it must be said from quarters that aren’t normally quick to quote Papal authority, for immediate and significant Church action in the area of environmental policy. And there were some conservatives, normally quick to reference Church authority, who seemed reluctant to attribute any authority in the encyclical. William Oddie, a respected British Catholic writer, wrote

I believe we all must, respectfully decline to accept what he says. Social teaching of a sort it may be: but given its content and its openly acknowledged intellectual sources we have to say that consistently ‘Catholic’ it is not. (Catholic Herald)

This area of Church teaching is one that both critics and Catholics tend to approach with an ‘all or nothing approach’, allowing for little nuance or analysis in understanding what and how the Church teaches. Very broadly speaking, ‘cafeteria Catholics’ will tend to pick and choose what appeals according to their own convictions, conservatives will tend to look for ways to minimize its authority and liberals will tend to seek to use it as a weapon in support of their priorities, and their secular counter-parts will do the same.

For example, Greens Senator, Larissa Waters, began a question in Parliament with:

I refer to the teaching letter, or encyclical, from Pope Francis which calls for an urgent moral response to the scientific reality of global warming, rampant environmental destruction and extreme poverty and condemns indifference, denialism and obstructionism. Forty-two per cent the Abbott cabinet is Catholic including the Prime Minister who, of course, once trained to be a Catholic priest….

This from a Party that has repeatedly assailed the influence of the Church in public life and which would no doubt decry any attempt by the Church to influence policy in areas such as same-sex marriage! And not a whiff of embarrassment at the hypocrisy.  

Is this encyclical then an authoritative teaching for Catholics? What is actually being claimed in terms of faith, and what is not? Is there any room for disagreement? Is it simply the Pope’s personal take on an important issue?

The Pope, himself, alludes to the complexity of social teaching and the need for interpretation and reflection beyond any appeal to authority:

There are certain environmental issues where it is not easy to achieve a broad consensus. Here I would state once more that the Church does not presume to settle scientific questions or to replace politics. But I am concerned to encourage an honest and open debate so that particular interests or ideologies will not prejudice the common good. (Paragraph 188)

In the context of a Catholic school in our Jesuit tradition it is important to tease out the precise nature of an encyclical such as Laudato Si’, taking seriously both what is taught and what is not taught. It is not ‘all or nothing’, and we must get beyond such responses if we are to have a mature and educated faith. In particular, the Church’s teachings on morality – personal and social – whether it be in terms of sexuality, the structures of society, or protection of human life, reflect coherent and complex understanding of our world and human nature. If this teaching is reduced to prohibitions and simplistic statements it will do us no good in handing on the faith to a generation that will readily question, but which also will be tempted to simply dismiss without any sustained thinking about an issue.

In many ways understanding an encyclical is as simple as drawing a distinction between the principles being taught and the application of such principles in particular contexts. Thus the Pope, when he teaches on faith and morals, speaks authoritatively for Catholics, but when speaking on science or economics or politics, then his words, insofar as they deal with applying principles or in analyzing the state of affairs, must rest on the merits of his arguments. Archbishop Mannix articulated this distinction in 1963 when he wrote: “but in all other aspects of their temporal activity, whether concerning the practical policies to be chosen or the strategic and tactical methods to be preferred, the laity acts on its own responsibility and rejoices in full freedom, in both obedience and action”. 

The Pope speaks with urgency in claiming that the world faces an ecological crisis. While this is not a matter of Church teaching in a precise sense, there is an authority behind the message that at the very least commands our attention and reflection. It is simply not good enough to propose inaction. Whatever one’s views on climate change, or more likely on the accuracy of modelling, cleaning up the mess, addressing issues of energy resources and protecting the environment as our home would seem logical imperatives that should unite rather than divide. The Pope adds two religious imperatives. One is the theological idea that the world is of God and we are stewards with a responsibility to the Creator, and the other is that our commitment to the poor as those most in need must have a priority in shaping our response to the environment. Pollution, loss of biodiversity, the issue of the world’s water resources, the impact of development on human life and society, global inequality, are issues with a moral dimension, especially as they impact on the poor.

Central to Catholic social teaching, to the Catholic world view, is the primacy of the common good.  Pope Francis writes that “the climate is a common good, belonging to all and meant for all” and that “our earth is essentially a shared inheritance”.  This idea of the common good has traditionally rejected any trend in capitalism, or any other system, that leaves no place for an ethic that prioritises the common good, and is perhaps suspicious of an undue individualism in our culture. Market forces, without the inherent regulation of the common good, risk diminishing the dignity and the value of the human, and especially the poor. Francis applies the biblical ideal of stewardship to our responsibility for an environment that is of God and is entrusted to our care.  He also brings something of the spirituality of Francis of Assisi in regarding nature as being in relationship with us, in speaking of “our sister Mother Earth”.  There is also an Ignatian view of the world, in that God can be found in all things, which carries an implication as to how we are called to regard the created order. This approach is also tied to the Catholic respect for life as a “seamless garment” in all its manifestations. Indeed, Francis outlines a vocation in regards to a call to “cooperate as instruments of God for the care of creation”.

The second main moral underpinning of the teaching is our responsibility for the poor, and the conviction that many of the dangers around the environment also contain significant threats for the poor. Poorer countries are lesser able to adapt to any significant climate change, and many of the poor depend on agriculture and the seas for their livelihoods, and these are threatened by pollution, climate change etc. There is in effect a relationship between the poor and fragility of the planet”. For students in our Jesuit schools there would be a familiarity with the ideal of ‘a faith that does justice’ and of our desire to seek to form ‘men and women for others’.  Here Pope Francis is seeking to awaken our consciousness, and our conscience, to a dimension of debate over environmental policy that can too easily be forgotten, namely our responsibility to the poor.

To some extent the encyclical also rests on science. The Pope, himself, has something of a scientific background, but the document does not rest on his scientific understanding. Here, too, our response should be driven by the merit of the argument, and not by authority in itself. This encyclical is unusual in the sense that there were formal consultations with scientists before it was written,  Many are unaware that there is the Pontifical Academy of the Sciences, arguably one of the oldest scientific bodies in the world, with a membership of some eighty top scientists, including more than twenty Nobel laureates. Its current president is Werner Arber, a Nobel laureate and a Protestant.  Past members include Ernest RutherfordMax PlanckOtto HahnNiels Bohr and Charles Hard Townes. I am no scientist, but it is clear that this encyclical is scientifically literate, and broadly speaking the Pope’s analysis of the science of the environment is one shared by the overwhelming majority of the world’s scientists.

Identifying a crisis and outlining moral principles in regards to the challenge, would lack credibility if not accompanied by some suggested ways forward. Though it is good to restate that providing a motivation for action among the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics is no small thing. The articulation of possible ways to address the challenge of an ecological crisis deserves attention but also arouses the most controversy. And here certainly Catholics need remember that it is fine, indeed desirable, to question, debate and disagree with Pope Francis. Identifying ways to address ecological challenges does not belong as such to the realm of Church teaching, but the encyclical contains substantial critiques worthy of study and respect.  

And unsurprisingly these elements of the encyclical, such as the human roots of the ecological crisis (chapter 3) and reflections technology, globalization, and our responses (chapters 4-5), contain controversial analysis. To my mind, like all of us, Francis is a product of his environment, and therefore has something of a Latin American perspective in his critiques, and Argentina went through a financial crisis not too dissimilar from that faced by Greece today. Also because he has had such an experience of the poor he sees the casualties of our globalized economy. He is highly critical of a consumerist mentality and throw-away culture that is both wasteful of the environment and injurious to the poor. Our system may offer great choice and freedom, but it offers little guidance on how we should choose, and it can tend to a throwaway culture in which there are unwanted people – the poor, the elderly, the unborn.

But personally, I would argue that Francis fails to acknowledge the progress that has been made by our economic system in lifting tens of millions out of poverty, and the creativity and energy that is inherent to it. We need only remember The Population Bomb (1968) by American ecologist, Paul Ehrlich, with its dire prediction that in the 1970s hundreds of millions would die of starvation, to be cautious of positions that underestimate the human dynamic.  I don’t believe Catholic social teaching has ever fully appreciated the dynamism of capitalism in terms of freedom, creativity and innovation (apart from some reference in John Paul II’s Centesimus Annus in 1991), as distinct from its susceptibility to rewarding greed and entrenching inequality. There is much to distrust about the market forces, especially when divorced from any moral context such as the common good, but I suspect that these same market forces hold the real key to our ability to meet climate change. For example, we see in parts of the world significant progress in renewable energies being driven precisely by its economic benefits. I really don’t see the world at large opting for a radically different economic model, and I think the Pope underestimates the resilience and adaptability of a capitalist/consumer system to meet the ecological crisis. Similarly, I suspect that he does underestimate the power of technological innovation as a way to address environmental challenges.

 Laudato Si’ provides Catholics with clear teaching on the moral imperative to engage with the environmental causes in all its facets, both in the name of good stewardship and for the sake of the poor. It does provide a compelling argument, though one not without room for dissent, about the priority that should be given to the ecological crisis, and especially climate change. For people of good will, whatever their religious views, it adds a significant voice to the debate. It offers thoughtful and reasoned argument for ways forward, though not all will win great support. And our reading and reflection on it offers an opportunity for a mature and adult faith response that takes such a document seriously but not uncritically.


Chris Middleton SJ