“Laudate” Let’s “Si” What It Says

It should be no surprise that Laudate Si – Pope Francis’ newest encyclical – hit the press, er, hit cyberspace today. It seems that everyone has an opinion on it. Some are worried. Some are disappointed. Some are ecstatic. And everyone seems to want to claim the encyclical, or at least parts of it, for one ideology or another.

Pope Francis was a chemist before he was a priest and I can’t help but see his science-geek self enjoying writing this encyclical. I wonder if, with the upcoming Synod on the Family, it was a welcome respite for him to write on topics that touch on his scientific roots.

The Pope isn’t confined to science though. He very clearly frames the main topic of Laudate Si as a primarily human one.

IMG_4236As would be expected, he speaks out against population control, contraception, and abortion but doesn’t make these issues the main focus. I have to say I was actually surprised that one of the more harsh (and unexpected) criticisms of the document that I have come across has been from Catholic Family groups who say that the Pope didn’t go far enough in articulating the Church’s teaching on abortion and birth control. I find this criticism to be a bit naive and misplaced. Especially considering that Pope Francis says:

“Instead of resolving the problems of the poor and thinking of how the world can be different, some can only propose a reduction in the birth rate. At times, developing countries face forms of international pressure which make economic assistance contingent on certain policies of “reproductive health”.” (50)

Anyone who has been around long enough to hear the rhetoric over contraception knows EXACTLY what is implied by “reproductive health.”

He also says:

‘If personal and social sensitivity towards the acceptance of the new life is lost, then other forms of acceptance that are valuable for society also wither away.'” (120)

and

Here, though, I would stress the great importance of the family, which is “the place in which life – the gift of God – can be properly welcomed and protected against the many attacks to which it is exposed, and can develop in accordance with what constitutes authentic human growth. In the face of the so-called culture of death, the family is the heart of the culture of life”.[149]

Again, anyone who has lived long enough to be able to read and understand this encyclical knows that “the culture of death” encompasses abortion, birth control, and euthenasia. It was John Paul II who gave us these definitions and phrases. Benedict XVI affirmed them. Now, when Pope Francis uses them, we know what he is talking about. It is not, and should not be absolutely necessary to outline each and every offense against the human person in each and every encyclical. To do so would take an encyclical on one topic and make it about another. No Pope, not even my beloved John Paul II, champion of Human Dignity, condemned contraception or abortion in every single papal document he had published.

Even so, Pope Francis does call out abortion, and he goes further than that too:

“Since everything is interrelated, concern for the protection of nature is also incompatible with the justification of abortion. How can we genuinely teach the importance of concern for other vulnerable beings, however troublesome or inconvenient they may be, if we fail to protect a human embryo, even when its presence is uncomfortable and creates difficulties? ‘If personal and social sensitivity towards the acceptance of the new life is lost, then other forms of acceptance that are valuable for society also wither away.'” -Pope Francis [120]

“On the other hand, it is troubling that, when some ecological movements defend the integrity of the environment, rightly demanding that certain limits be imposed on scientific research, they sometimes fail to apply those same principles to human life. There is a tendency to justify transgressing all boundaries when experimentation is carried out on living human embryos. We forget that the inalienable worth of a human being transcends his or her degree of development.” – Pope Francis [136]

It seems that along with wanting greater condemnation of abortion and birth control, another criticism of the document is that it doesn’t make sense with the looming Synod on the Family.  Personally, I think Pope Francis is being smart here. And the timing of this release isn’t coincidental. One thing that struck me as I was reading through it was his pointed naming of various Bishop’s conferences. He calls out the American Bishops first, followed by the Germans, then the Canadians, Japanese, Brazilians, New Zealanders etc. and each and every time he does it is to point out what is agreed upon.  This is very much the Father “buttering up” his children and reminding them that “look, you DO get along. You DO know what is right” before he lowers the boom.  And that boom is going to be the Synod on the Family.  Its no coincidence that he names the most troublesome “children” (ie: Bishops Conferences) first. And that in doing so, he compliments them and quotes them.  This is a pastoral move as much as it is like a play in a game of Ecclesiastical chess.  I think Pope Francis also knows that calling extra attention to contraception and abortion in a document on the environment is going to detract from the whole point of the document! He has enough trouble with people accusing him of being a Marxist for talking about man’s impact (or non-impact) on climate change for 3 paragraphs!

Pope Francis outlines for us what he wants to discuss and how he hopes this encyclical is the beginning of “reframing and enriching” a discussion that will inevitably invite greater dialogue when he says:

As examples, I will point to the intimate relationship between the poor and the fragility of the planet, the conviction that everything in the world is connected, the critique of new paradigms and forms of power derived from technology, the call to seek other ways of understanding the economy and progress, the value proper to each creature, the human meaning of ecology, the need for forthright and honest debate, the serious responsibility of international and local policy, the throwaway culture and the proposal of a new lifestyle. These questions will not be dealt with once and for all, but reframed and enriched again and again. (ES 16)

John Paul II often posed questions in the beginnings of his encyclicals so this style should be familiar to most Catholics.  While John Paul II asked questions related to man and his place in the world and in relationship, Francis takes this a step further and asks us, as persons created in Christ’s Image what is man’s place in relationship to his neighbor and to creation; and how are the two linked? The encyclical is primarily about the poor and about how the use of the environment can cause good or it can cause greater poverty and unequal distribution of resources.  It reads very much like an extension of Fr. Dubay’s “Blessed are you Poor” (A “must read” if you ask me) and I would expect nothing less from this Pope.  His special charism seems to be that he has been called by the Holy Spirit to reaffirm the “gospel of poverty” and here in America, specifically, where “The American Dream” is all about acquiring wealth and financial “security” it is not going over well.  I think that is more a reflection on America than it is on Pope Francis.  John Paul II often talked of a “poverty of soul” or a “poverty of spirit.”  In America there is indeed a great poverty.  And often those who have much are the “poorest” in this regard.

What I think struck me the most in reading the encyclical was the Pope’s concentration on Genesis. Pope Francis takes a whole chapter in Laudate Si and looks as Genesis as a basis for the Church’s understanding of ecology and our responsibility to the environment. I loved this because it is exactly how Pope John Paul II began Theology of the Body – by looking at the anthropology of man – at Primordial man. John Paul II spent a very long time discussing the creation stories and Adam and Eve and how their relationship to each other, God and to sin impact our understanding of ourselves, God, and our own interpersonal relationships.  One could say that Francis is looking at the Anthropology of environment and that he is outlining what Genesis teaches us about our responsibilities to each other and to God’s creation.  This is absolutely fitting when we consider that the Holy Spirit is always deepening our understanding of God and His created order.  Francis was not about to reiterate what John Paul II said, because John Paul II already said it. He already laid out an understanding a new “Theology” of the human person.  Pope Benedict XVI reaffirmed it and finessed it a bit. He added his own flair and deepened the discussion on the human person to include how the human person engages in Worship and how one encounters Christ once one has realized his own identity IN Christ.  (which is a conversation JPII started). Francis’ role is to follow the natural order of this discussion.  Once man understands himself and his identity in Christ, he then can understand his role in the created order and his responsibilities to that creation.  THIS is where the encyclical begins. Francis is assuming we are somewhat familiar with the “hermeneutic of continuity”  – that we don’t expect him to just regurgitate the two previous pontiffs but to build off what they have taught us.

He does just this – quoting both John Paul II and Benedict XVI quite profusely and building on the themes of man that they constructed during their respective pontificates. But Where John Paul II and Benedict XVI speak of Adam and Eve, Francis speaks of Cain and Abel.  In other words, he is moving the discussion along. If Adam and Eve taught us about “primordial man” and his relationship to God and the other, then Cain and Abel teach us about man’s role in a created world and his relationship to the other and to that creation.  This is precisely how the Spirit works.

Having been primed by the two previous Popes – having received instruction and understanding on who we are as persons and what that means – having been educated on our identity both in relationship and in Christ (“Man cannot know himself except through a sincere gift of self”, and “Unless one knows Christ, he cannot know himself”) we are now ready to understand how this knowledge must compel us to behave in a world that is a gift to us from God.  It is from THIS place that Francis begins his encyclical.  In other words, now we know how to “know ourselves as persons in Christ”, now what? Francis answers the “now what.”  That is the launch point of Laudete Si.

A beautiful culmination of sorts occurs when Pope Francis quotes from Ecclesia de Eucharistia (JPII’s Letter on theIMG_4262 Year of the Eucharist) that it is in the Eucharist that all of creation finds its greatest exaltation. It should be underscored for those who are afraid that Pope Francis is taking the Church in a “different direction.”  Just as John Paul posed the questions “Who is man?” “Why is man here?” over and over and brought us to the conclusion that man cannot know himself except through Christ, and since Vatican II affirmed that the Eucharist is the “source and summit of the Christian life,” man finds himself in the Eucharist; Pope Francis expands on this understanding quoting St. John Paul the Great:

“It is in the Eucharist that all that has been created finds its greatest exaltation. Grace, which tends to manifest itself tangibly, found unsurpassable expression when God himself became man and gave himself as food for his creatures. The Lord, in the culmination of the mystery of the Incarnation, chose to reach our intimate depths through a fragment of matter. He comes not from above, but from within, he comes that we might find him in this world of ours. In the Eucharist, fullness is already achieved; it is the living centre of the universe, the overflowing core of love and of inexhaustible life. Joined to the incarnate Son, present in the Eucharist, the whole cosmos gives thanks to God. Indeed the Eucharist is itself an act of cosmic love: “Yes, cosmic! Because even when it is celebrated on the humble altar of a country church, the Eucharist is always in some way celebrated on the altar of the world”. The Eucharist joins heaven and earth; it embraces and penetrates all creation. The world which came forth from God’s hands returns to him in blessed and undivided adoration…” (236)

Here we have the crux of the issue, and the answer.  Man, creation, all find their greatest identity in Christ, and we have the deepest, most personal encounter with Christ in the Eucharist.  Just as the Eucharist is for man, as the two Popes point out, It is also for Creation – as it is the Eucharist Who joins Heaven and in earth in this act of “cosmic love.”

Despite the fact that the encyclical draws heavily from themes and popes with whom we should already be familiar, Laudate Si is not a comfortable document. Pope Francis challenges especially what we in America would call “the free market” or “capitalism.”  This, I think is good.  If its challenging for us it means that we have begun to make an ideology our idol, and we need to reorient ourselves.  Catholicism is not an ideology, nor is it meant to serve one. We have a tendency to politicize everything in the USA but this is not a political document, and the Church is not a lobby, nor is she an NGO.   (This is a difficult pill for most Americans to swallow.) The Church is the Body of Christ. She holds the deposit of Faith which was entrusted to her by Christ. It is the transmission and proclamation of the Truths of this Faith that she is concerned with. It is not the Church’s responsibility to make us “comfortable.” It is her responsibility to make us holy. Americans hear phrases like “climate change” and panic because we think the Pope has been having secret meetings with Al Gore. We think the Pope has become a politician. We are afraid our ideologies and assumptions are being called into question. And maybe they are. And maybe this is good. If we are being presented with Truth, and this Truth challenges us, we can grow – in faith and in wisdom. But at the heart of this distrust of Pope Francis there seems to be a disconnect between our “American understanding” and the fact that Pope Francis writes for a Universal Church.  The Pope is using phrases and a terminology that means something different worldwide than it does in America.  Its good for American Catholics to take a deep breath and remind themselves that being Catholic in America means not fitting into an ideological or political box, and that the Pope is not, and never will be a politician.  We can take comfort knowing that as Catholics we are members of a Church that surpasses nations and reaches beyond borders. We live in America, but our Faith reminds us that Heaven in our true Home.

After reading Laudete Si I feel challenged. Challenged to examine my relationship with “things,” with technology, with water, with air conditioning, with paper….. and I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I found myself thinking twice before I cooked something new for dinner instead of finishing the left overs in the fridge. I wasn’t all that concerned with the home repairs that need to be done, when I thought of those who may not even have a home to repair. I found myself thinking about just how much we have, and how much we take for granted.  I think that is how we are supposed to feel. I find myself contemplating the plight of those who have much less than I do, and I am wondering what I can and should do about it.  The answers to these ponderings lie, at least in part, in this same document that has caused me to stop and think. The rest of the answers will come, as Pope Francis suggests, “through dialogue.”  I hope that Laudete Si opens a true dialogue, and that “People of good will” will take the Pope up on his implicit invitation to dialogue and discover what our response towards each other and our “Common Home” should be.

Just for fun:

Here are some more excerpts I found interesting:

As the United States bishops have said, greater attention must be given to the poor, the weak and the vulnerable, in a debate often dominated by more powerful interests”.31 (ES 52)

At the other extreme are those who view men and women and all their interventions as no more than a threat, jeopardizing the global ecosystem, and consequently the presence of human beings on the planet should be reduced and all forms of intervention prohibited. (60)

Saint John Paul II stated that the special love of the Creator for each human being “confers upon him or her an infinite dignity”.38 Those who are committed to defending human dignity can find in the Christian faith the deepest reasons for this commitment. How wonderful is the certainty that each human life is not adrift in the midst of hopeless chaos, in a world ruled by pure chance or endlessly recurring cycles! The Creator can say to each one of us: “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you” (Jer 1:5). We were conceived in the heart of God, and for this reason “each of us is the result of a thought of God. Each of us is willed, each of us is loved, each of us is necessary”.39 (65)

The biblical tradition clearly shows that this renewal entails recovering and respecting the rhythms inscribed in nature by the 53 hand of the Creator. (71)

The biblical accounts of creation invite us to see each human being as a subject who can never be reduced to the status of an object. (81)

At times we see an obsession with denying any pre-eminence to the human person; more zeal is shown in protecting other species than in defending the dignity which all human beings share in equal measure. Certainly, we should be concerned lest other living beings be treated irresponsibly. But we should be particularly indignant at the enormous inequalities in our midst, whereby we continue to tolerate some considering themselves more worthy than others. We fail to see that some are mired in desperate and degrading poverty, with no way out, while others have not the faintest idea of what to do with their possessions, vainly showing off their supposed superiority and leaving behind them so much waste which, if it were the case everywhere, would destroy the planet. In practice, we continue to tolerate that some consider themselves more human than others, as if they had been born with greater rights. (90) 

The destruction of the human environment is extremely serious, not only because God has entrusted the world to us men and women, but because human life is itself a gift which must be defended from various forms of debasement.  (ES 5)

Authentic human development has a moral character. It presumes full respect for the human person, but it must also be concerned for the world around us and “take into account the nature of each being and of its mutual connection in an ordered system”.8 Accordingly, our human ability to transform reality must proceed in line with God’s original gift of all that is.9 (ES 5)

My predecessor Benedict XVI likewise proposed “eliminating the structural causes of the dysfunctions of the world economy and correcting models of growth which have proved incapable of ensuring respect for the environment”.10 He observed that the world cannot be analyzed by isolating only one of its aspects, since “the book of nature is one and indivisible”, and includes the environment, life, sexuality, the family, social relations, and so forth. It follows that “the deterioration of nature is closely connected to the culture which shapes human coexistence”.11 Pope Benedict asked us to recognize that the natural environment has been gravely damaged by our irresponsible behaviour. (ES 6)

As examples, I will point to the intimate relationship between the poor and the fragility of the planet, the conviction that everything in the world is connected, the critique of new paradigms and forms of power derived from technology, the call to seek other ways of understanding the economy and progress, the value proper to each creature, the human meaning of ecology, the need for forthright and honest debate, the serious responsibility of international and local policy, the throwaway culture and the proposal of a new lifestyle. These questions will not be dealt with once and for all, but reframed and enriched again and again. (ES 16)

To read Laudate Si in its entirety, Click Here

To read Redemptor Hominis (John Paul II’s flagshop Encyclical on Man) Click Here 

For a great little Article with awesome quotes from Laudate Si Click Here

For an Excellent Piece by Archbishop Chaput on Laudate Si and JRR Tolkien Click Here

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