An Idiot’s Attempt to Make Sense of ‘Laudato Si’: Take One

One of the great things about doing a regular literature podcast is that you have to read the damn books, which I do with varying success (T.S. Elliot defeated me utterly…). This was a great opportunity to read the latest source of controversy, Laudato Si’: Pope Francis’ much anticipated and dreaded encyclical on care of the natural world.

Listen to the podcast here

You can access the entire text of the document for free from the Vatican Website. I should attach a caution to this document before you go toddle off to go and read it.

Warning: This document has the potential to radically alter the way you see the world. Do not read unless you are prepared to ‘take the medicine’ without the sugar or complaining.

Now that you are suitably warned, I am going to tackle this ‘Idiot’s Attempt’ a little counter intuitively by telling you what the document IS NOT about.

Laudato Si’ is NOT about Climate Change

Wait what? Isn’t this an environmental thingy? Yes, yes it is, but it is not about climate change. This is what drove me nuts about all the hyperbole on both the ‘left’ and the ‘right’ (Urgh I hate those terms… if anyone has better ones, please tell me!). They zeroed in on a couple of words that he only mentions about 10 times in a document that is about 200 paragraphs long. For anyone who is not familiar with the drama that ensured immediately after the release of the encyclical it went something like this:

Lefties to righties: SEE! Even Pope Francis think’s Climate Change is real! Stop being such loooosers and get building solar plants and wind farms…

Righties to lefties: Oh yeah? Well… He’s the Pope and shouldn’t be sticking his nose in science stuff and it’s just an encyclical and not a binding infallible statement so we don’t have to do what the Pope says anyway! 

I was literally like…

sheldon-throwing-papers-gif

The high horses have been mounted and they have bolted to God-knows where. The saddest part of all this hoopla was that they BOTH missed the point. Yes the Pope talks about climate change and he is firmly of the opinion that there is a significant Anthropogenic contribution to it.

This is what the high-horse riders missed: the Anthropogenic factor is not about the physical reality of our presence in the natural world. It is fundamentally spiritual. The Anthropogenic factor is about the way we use the natural world as an object to dominated, exploited and used for our own selfish ends.

Therefore, the fact that the Pope says the words ‘climate change’ it is nothing more than a temporal marker of the environmental disaster du jour. If it’s not global warming, it will be global cooling or a sentient garbage dump or whatever else we could cook up.

Laudato Si’ is a fitting follow up to St John Paul II’s Theology of the Body

Now this may be a little controversial, but hear me out. Human beings are good, but disordered. Sounds a little harsh, but what I (and most Catholic Theologians) mean is that there is a discord in human nature that prevents us from acting in accordance with our goodness. St Paul in his letter to the Romans sums it up rather nicely:

“For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.”

Romans 7:18-19 

The root of this disorder is Original Sin. Original sin profoundly ruptured our physical selves from our spiritual selves and it has consequences for our relationship with God, with each other and with the natural world. Pope John Paul II was given the task of re-ordering our relationship with ourselves as embodied sexual (i.e. male and female) beings and our relationship with each other. The simplest, most practical application of John Paul’s Theology can be distilled as this: The opposite of love is not hate, it’s use. When we love someone, we will their good as another human being. When we use someone, we submit them to our will as a means to an end.

Pope Francis continues this task by asking us to look around and see how we have failed to love the natural world around us. The natural world is a gift that God has given us it is alive. Not in a creepy, pantheistic-Avatar way, but in the sense that it is in motion. It grows, changes, follows cycles and is all delicately and profoundly interconnected.

Modernity has made us experts in using the riches of the earth for our own ends. When one looks at a Mountain, one generally has two possible thoughts:

  1. “Wow! What a magnificent mountain! How good it is to provide water from snow melt, support forests and all that lives in it!
  2. Hey this mountain has rocks that indicate the presence of gold seams. Let’s make me a millionaire!

Pope Francis is calling us to love the natural world. That is, to will it’s good. No it is not willing the good of the natural world to throw out half of the food we buy, nor is it necessarily digging up fertile farmland to mine unobtainium, nor is feeding thousands of cattle corn in crowded yards to meet the demand of fast food restaurants and nor is it building gizmos that will fail after two years.

Pope Francis is challenging our modern view of the natural world as a resource to exploit, dominate and manipulate. He particularly challenges the West because we are the worst culprits when it comes to this mentality. This mentality of use not only damages the environmental ecology, but our human ecology (borrowing a term from Pope Benedict XVI).

So Imma gonna leave it here. I’ve said enough and I’ll be unpacking the human ecology bit in a couple of weeks time. Provided Uni isn’t too crazy. Agree, or disagree, let me know! Just play nice okay?

Art Credit: Luigi Chialiva (1842-1914) (Koller Auktionen, 16.09.2013, lot 3250) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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