Since its publication on Thursday, people all over the world have rushed to read, understand, and comment on Pope Francis’s encyclical, Laudato Si’ (Be Praised). This encyclical brings together a rich collection of Catholic teaching about the environment and places it in the context of our current situation. While the document is distinctively Catholic, it can and should be embraced by Christians of all types. Indeed, the Pope has carefully written the letter to pull people into conversation who are not part of the Catholic church. He addresses the letter to “every person living on this planet,” in the hope of starting a conversation about ecology, humanity, economics, and progress that includes explicitly Christian vocabulary and motivations. While many have rushed to press with a focus on this new official Catholic position on Climate Change, or to disagree with the economic arguments in the document, I would like to take a different approach. For those unlikely to make a study of this 180 page document, I would like to focus on some of the most important ways Francis is trying to change the way we think about the environment and the economy.
What are Humans Here For?
While the scientific and policy issues raised in the encyclical will get the most press attention, Francis is primarily doing theology. At the heart of what he wants us to understand is that western culture has historically misunderstood the proper place of humanity in relation to the rest of creation. He emphasizes repeatedly that non-human creatures are not here only to serve us. We have a special, privileged place in God’s plan, but that plan includes the redemption and reconciliation of all creatures. Francis reminds us that, as stewards, humans have a very particular job to do: we are to develop the planet and protect it. Our efforts to “till” and “keep” creation must have the interests of creation in mind, not just our interests. In one particularly memorable passage, he asks us to remember that “Human beings, endowed with intelligence and love, and drawn by the fullness of Christ, are called to lead all creatures back to their Creator” (par. 83).
Our Work Should Be for the World
Once we understand that creation care is a central part of our calling as humans, Francis wants us to also take this calling with us to work every day. His critique of the modern economy is strident, partially because his call is not just pointed to policy-makers. He wants every person in their individual vocation to make their daily work restorative instead of exploitative. This is in direct contrast to modern environmental calls to avoid altering nature. He writes that our respect for the earth should not “imply a divinization of the earth which would prevent us from working on it and protecting it” (par. 90). Later he reminds us that Jesus himself worked with his hands as a carpenter, a vocation in that exemplifies our call to make the earth hospitable to the true needs of all creatures (par. 98).
Francis also reminds us that economic activity, and indeed property itself, should be oriented toward its ultimate purpose – to care for others, especially the poor. Much of the criticism of the Pope’s writing, on economic matters, comes from those who observe the many negative references to profits, economic motives, and finance. Here the statement should not be read as a condemnation of business, but instead a harsh critique of business that is oriented toward profits over service. It is the strict separation of our economic interests from our ultimate calling to care for the poor and the planet that motivates much of this encyclical.
The Spiritual Danger of Wealth
There are harsh words in this encyclical for those of us who are rich. He places the blame for environmental damage squarely at the feet of the developed world, arguing that “twenty percent of the world’s population consumes resources at a rate that robs the poor nations and future generations of what they need to survive,” (par. 95). Earlier, he attributes the indifference of the rich toward the poor on the fact that: “many professionals, opinion makers, communications media and centres of power, being located in affluent urban areas, are far removed from the poor, with little direct contact with their problems” (par. 49). Francis points to the ease with which the modern world allows us to segment our lives and ignore the “the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor” (par. 49). While we might care for the environment and the poor when it is simple to do so, by recycling or voting for progressive candidates, most of our life and work is disconnected from these needs.
The wealth that we enjoy, moreover, is tied up in a technological view of progress that is both good and evil, Francis argues, but rarely neutral. When new technologies allow us to cure disease, lift standards of living for humanity, or decrease pollution, then technology is a tangible and moral good. Too often, however, our technological progress gets disconnected from our true goals, just like the rest of our lives. Because we place great trust in science and technology, moreover, the path of investment and development that we take gets little scrutiny until after we see the harsh consequences.
While it is easy to view Francis’s harsh words about technology as those of a luddite romanticizing a simpler time, this would be incorrect. Instead Francis asks us to subject investment, research and development, government subsidies, and corporate visions all to the same strict moral scrutiny. We must ask: Will this serve the Poor? Will this promote authentic development? Will this protect the planet? Too often, if these ultimate concerns are ignored, technology takes on a life of its own, and “they create a framework which ends up conditioning lifestyles and shaping social possibilities along the lines dictated by the interests of certain powerful groups” (par. 107).
To All People of Good Will
While we debate the most controversial aspects of this encyclical, it behooves us to remember the broad message that this letter communicates: the world is in peril, largely because of an economic and political system that is not well suited to protect the environment and the poor. In response the Pope calls on all of humanity to a common moral purpose and a high moral standard. He asks that we subject all of our lives, all of our work, and our common life together to the goal that God first gave us in Genesis. Finally, he reminds us that despite the real danger, we have a hope that is more real and powerful than the many looming crises. Keeping Christ in our view, he calls us to avoid the destructive anti-human or utopian technological “solutions” that can be so tempting. As a good priest should, he calls us to something better.
-Steven McMullen is an Assistant Professor of Economics at Hope College. He specializes in education policy, and the role of ethics and theology in economics. He is currently working on a book about animal ethics. Most of his writing is available at http://stevenmcmullen.wordpress.com.