Let’s, just for a moment, take a different tack. There is a veritable avalanche of commentaries and analyses of Laudato Si, Francis’ encyclical. I’m not competent to add much to that discussion. Yet, there is something that can be said — needs to be appreciated and celebrated — right off the bat!
As one would expect, the very first paragraph sets the tone with a moving reference to Francis of Assisi’s Canticle from which the encyclical takes its name:
LAUDATO SI’, mi’ Signore – Praise be to you, my Lord… Praise be to you, my Lord, through our Sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us, and who produces various fruit with coloured flowers and herbs.
According to good argumentative style, Pope Francis first references Scripture (Paragraph 2) and then places his pastoral exhortation squarely within the tradition of the church. With one paragraph each, Francis grounds his teaching in that of his immediate predecessors John XXIII, Paul VI, John Paul II and Benedict XVI (paragraphs 3-6).
There is still nothing unique or exceptional about Francis citing secular authorities to bolster his teaching. His claim is not simply anchored in Scripture and Catholic teaching. In paragraph 7 Francis writes:
These statements of the Popes echo the reflections of numerous scientists, philosophers, theologians and civic groups, all of which have enriched the Church’s thinking on these questions.
That reliance on additional sources of teaching authority reflects the best of the Catholic intellectual tradition.
The inclusive context set by Francis is especially welcome and refreshing. He makes a deliberate effort to raise up and give expression to a broad spectrum of additional voices:
Outside the Catholic Church, other Churches and Christian communities — and other religions as well — have expressed deep concern and offered valuable reflections on issues which all of us find disturbing. To give just one striking example, I would mention the statements made by the beloved Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, with whom we share the hope of full ecclesial communion.
Notice… “the beloved Ecumenical Patriarch.” Even more, notice the careful phrasing, “with whom we share the hope” not “with whom we hope to share.” The hope for full communion is already shared!
Francis’ next two paragraphs (8 and 9) cites the teaching and authority of the esteemed Patriarch of Constantinople — considered the “Successor of St. Andrew”, first among equals in the Orthodox Churches.
This sequencing can be nothing but deliberate… first Francis of Assisi, then Scripture, then his immediate predecessors of the past fifty years, then scientists, philosophers, theologians and other civil authorities. Nobody, but nobody, is shown more respect or given such deferential authority as the Orthodox patriarch with a reference in paragraph 7 and then two lengthy paragraphs (below) citing Bartholomew’s teaching authority.
Yes, this encyclical is about our moral obligation to be responsible stewards of God’s good creation. But the earth just shifted under our feet! Did you feel it? When have you seen the Bishop of Rome pay such fraternal respect and deference to another Patriarch? Not in a thousand years has a “Successor of St. Peter” so deliberately shared teaching authority for the church with the “Successor of St. Andrew”!
For the first time ever a high-ranking Orthodox bishop — Metropolitan John of Pergamon — helped unveil a papal text. In addition, two women joined the president the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace headlining a panel of five people presenting various aspects of the document.
The women were Carolyn Woo, president and CEO of the U.S. bishops’ Catholic Relief Services and a former dean of the business school a the University of Notre Dame; and Valeria Martano, a teacher and community organizer in the outlying areas of Rome. The fifth person is an avowed agnostic, John Schellnhuber, founder of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research.
Something dramatic has changed. I like it, I like it a lot! Gives greater credence to whatever else Francis has to say. Makes me excited to read more! The air we’re breathing is already fresher!
LAUDATO SI’, mi’ Signore – Praise be to you, my Lord!
Here are Paragraphs 8 and 9 if you care to read them in their entirety:
8. Patriarch Bartholomew has spoken in particular of the need for each of us to repent of the ways we have harmed the planet, for “inasmuch as we all generate small ecological damage”, we are called to acknowledge “our contribution, smaller or greater, to the disfigurement and destruction of creation”. He has repeatedly stated this firmly and persuasively, challenging us to acknowledge our sins against creation: “For human beings … to destroy the biological diversity of God’s creation; for human beings to degrade the integrity of the earth by causing changes in its climate, by stripping the earth of its natural forests or destroying its wetlands; for human beings to contaminate the earth’s waters, its land, its air, and its life – these are sins”. For “to commit a crime against the natural world is a sin against ourselves and a sin against God”.
9. At the same time, Bartholomew has drawn attention to the ethical and spiritual roots of environmental problems, which require that we look for solutions not only in technology but in a change of humanity; otherwise we would be dealing merely with symptoms. He asks us to replace consumption with sacrifice, greed with generosity, wastefulness with a spirit of sharing, an asceticism which “entails learning to give, and not simply to give up. It is a way of loving, of moving gradually away from what I want to what God’s world needs. It is liberation from fear, greed and compulsion”. As Christians, we are also called “to accept the world as a sacrament of communion, as a way of sharing with God and our neighbours on a global scale. It is our humble conviction that the divine and the human meet in the slightest detail in the seamless garment of God’s creation, in the last speck of dust of our planet”.