Laudato Si’, Pope Francis’ recent encyclical on care for our common home is not an easy read. The difficulty of the text is not because of the inclusion of scientific analysis or economic terminology. Rather, this encyclical is a text that demands a conversion of life on the part of the reader.
The central claim of Laudato Si’ is that the destruction of the environment finds its source in a human heart turned in upon itself. Humanity has ceased to look upon “our Sister, Mother Earth” (No. 1) as a gift to be received and instead has “come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will” (No. 2). The source of this problem is a form of self-adoration in which we claim “an unlimited right to trample his [God’s] creation underfoot” (No. 75). In this way, the annihilation of creation does not simply arise from a lack of prudence upon our part. Rather, we have ceased to be grateful that God has created us as the crescendo to an act of love, which is all of creation.
Thus, the conversion toward gratitude is a turning away from what the document calls a throwaway culture or logic. This very logic, as Laudato Si’ makes clear, is a culture of relativism in which no person is to be received as gift but as an object to be used for the sake of commerce and politics alike (No. 123).
Focus on gratitude
The challenge of Laudato Si’ is not simply that of environmental destruction but of a kind of idolatry of progress, which has slowly moved the human family away from love toward an insatiable desire to consume. The ungrateful callousness that has become implanted upon the human heart has resulted not only in environmental destruction but also the abortion of the child (No. 120) and the globalization of indifference toward the poor (No. 52).
This conversion toward gratitude and away from callousness is in fact the fundamental gift of the Church. The Eucharist that we celebrate is not a private act of devotion. Instead, the celebration of the Eucharist restores us to a posture of gratitude in which we once again perceive creation as gift (No. 236). If we are to heal the divisions introduced into the created order by this globalization of indifference, the path forward is not merely technological innovation but learning the grammar of a love that dares to see how everything in creation is first and foremost a total gift from the triune God.
What does this mean for the ministry of the Church? Simply, the Church must emphasize in her teaching, preaching, liturgical formation and works of mercy a proclamation of thanksgiving for creation and salvation alike. The Gospel is not a series of moral stories but a description of how God has restored humanity and the entire created order to its original posture of gratitude through the paschal mystery of Jesus.
Our liturgical spaces are places where we are restored to our vocations to praise and adore God. Marriage is that sacrament whereby husband, wife and children learn anew what it means to be grateful for creation. This restoration of gratitude through every aspect of the Church is the most important offering we can bestow to the human family in overcoming the violence we have introduced within creation.
Effects on the poor
Laudato Si’ also forces us to look at how human beings have desecrated our dear sister, Earth, and how this act of desecration has ruined the lives of the human family. Pollution has made our home “look more and more like an immense pile of filth” (No. 21). Such pollution “produces a broad spectrum of health hazards, especially for the poor, and causes millions of premature deaths” (No. 20).
Climate change, treated using only political gamesmanship, “is a global problem with grave implications: environmental, social, economic, political and for the distribution of goods. It represents one of the principal challenges facing humanity in our day” (No. 25). Shortage of water leads to the suffering of millions, not simply from thirst but from the illnesses and global conflicts that result from scarcity of water (Nos. 28-30). Laudato Si’ refuses to turn away from the suffering inflicted by our sinful desecration of God’s creation.
Pope Francis does not simply describe the effects of environmental destruction. Rather, he offers a genealogy of how we have arrived at this destructive point. He notes “many problems of today’s world stem from the tendency, at times unconscious, to make the method and aims of science and technology an epistemological paradigm which shapes the lives of individuals and the workings of society” (No. 107). We have lost a contemplative capacity as a human society, the ability to look at the created order and perceive it through the eyes of love. We turn to technology to save us, disregarding the deeper transformation that is needed.
What is needed, Pope Francis points out, is a new ecological culture. He writes, “Ecological culture ... needs to be a distinctive way of looking at things, a way of thinking, policies, an educational program, a lifestyle and a spirituality which together generate resistance to the assault of the technocratic paradigm” (No. 111). In this way, Laudato Si’ is a hopeful document, challenging Catholics and people of goodwill to participation in the creation of such a culture.
At the smallest level, this culture is created whenever an individual person sacrifices some small comfort for the sake of the common good (No. 211). Such a culture is formed in the context of the family in which we learn the art of gratitude through simplicity of family life (No. 213). It flourishes in civic and political life when we participate in a government not of power politics but the common good (No. 229). We promote it when we conceive of economic progress not according to the creation of wealth but a deeper sense of human happiness (No. 195). Even an aesthetic formation, an appreciation of the gift of beauty, is part of creating this culture (No. 215).
The Church in particular has a vocation to play in forming men and women in the creation of this culture. Praying together as a family is a concrete way of teaching the practice of gratitude. Catholic schools can offer a hopeful and integral vision of politics, economics and science that responds to the problems of the times as an offering of love for the created order. Our parishes can gather together to create community gardens that provide food for the neighborhood, learning once again to dwell in peace with the earth and one another. These practices create cultures of genuine solidarity and, thus, love.
The greatest challenge of Laudato Si’ is the invitation it offers for us to avoid the hopelessness that too often infects the human condition. Pope Francis invites us as Catholics to participate in the re-creation of a culture of love. This ecological culture, attentive to the whole human family, offers the potential for not simply the renewal of nature but of humanity itself. Praised be to him.
Timothy P. O’Malley is director of the Notre Dame Center for Liturgy.