audato Si” (Praised Be), the long-awaited encyclical from Pope Francis, had raised hackles well before its release, at the noon of 18 June, 2015, in Rome. It was hard to remember a document that had created so much anxiety and expectation even before its release. Or the last time a 180-page theological treatise became essential reading, overnight. Other papal encyclicals had crossed into the political realm, for reasons both conservative (“Humanae Vit”’s opposition to birth control in 1968) and liberal (“Pacem in Terris” opposition to nuclear weapons in 1963).
But never, perhaps, had a Pope’s writing seemed so intensely relevant to a world desperate for moral leadership. With its length, its historical sweep and its willingness to speak hard truths, it assumed an instant authority before a world that reels every day from one crisis to the next. It is hard to know whether this document will affect the climate debate that it seeks to influence in the legislative assemblies that are so different from the Vatican.
There is an unfamiliar kind of political message in this encyclical. Even if the Pope’s feelings were already known, the encyclical offered a densely constructed argument that took things to a much higher level. It will take time to process. But already, this old planet feels a little younger than it did yesterday,” writes a well-known historian Ted Widmer, in his article “The Pope’s Political Earthquake.”
While denouncing the tawdriness of politics in many tartly phrased passages, it also opens a clearing for political and moral leaders of vision to move forward and build something better.
An awareness of the poor – so absent from most of what we read and hear all day – permeates the encyclical from start to finish. The earth itself is celebrated as “among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor.” So the encyclical urges us “to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor” (#49)
He seeks “the deepest roots of our present failures,” not just the current symptoms. He often talks about the last 200 years as a single, recent period, the way only a Pope can. He is thinking about the rise of venture capitalism, the Industrial Revolution and the highly consumptive economy that came in its wake. He praises the improvements it brought, but now demands a different kind of accounting.
The language of the encyclical is strong, bracing and rejuvenating. The Earth is “an immense pile of filth.” We live with a “throwaway culture.” The world is becoming less colourful, and more “limited and grey.” He calls for an authentic humanity to come into our politics; he thinks it has always been here, like “a mist seeping gently beneath a closed door.”
The Pope rejects a magical conception of the market, which would suggest that problems can be solved simply by an increase in the profits of companies or individuals. “Is it realistic to hope that those who are obsessed with maximizing profits will stop to reflect on the environmental damage which they will leave behind for future generations? Where profits alone count, there can be no thinking about the rhythms of Nature, its phases of decay and regeneration, or the complexity of ecosystems which may be gravely upset by human intervention” (#190).
As a good prophet he both announces and denounces. Pope Francis denounces indifference, resignation and obstructionism. He announces a more positive vision deeply rooted in Franciscan and Ignatian spirituality – which helps us to relocate our place in God’s greater plan for creation. He encourages cooperation, leaving room for the genius of individual “cultures, experience, involvements and talents”
Further, he recognizes the negative and affirms the positive. “Yet all is not lost. Human beings, while capable of the worst, are also capable of rising above themselves, choosing again what is good, and making a new start, despite their mental and social conditioning. We are able to take an honest look at ourselves, to acknowledge our deep dissatisfaction, and to embark on new paths to authentic freedom. No system can completely suppress our openness to what is good, true and beautiful, or our God-given ability to respond to his grace at work deep in our hearts” (#205).
There are many threads connecting the anti-nuclear activism of earlier generations with the environmental work being done today; Francis surely knows this, and pays tribute to “Pacem in Terris”, which spoke against the Doomsday of nuclear destruction. In “Laudato Si”, the pope visualizes a different kind of Doomsday – a bleak world that has closed all decent possibilities of living for the young and has become an environmental disaster.
Much language in “Laudato Si”, about “the common good” and how we get there, stems from this important insight. “Pacem in Terris“indirectly helped to pay the way forward to the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty of 1963. “Laudato Si”may have a similar afterlife that endures long and affects decisions of the civil and political communities.The subtitle of Ted Widmer’s article may well prove to be right: “The world might just be talking about Francis’ great treatise for years to come.”
An editorial in the prestigious scientific Journal ‘Nature’ praised the letter. “The papal calls to end poverty and share the world’s ecological space in a fair way are objectives that mirror the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, to be released in September. The Pope’s letter adds an important facet to the discussion.”
Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize sums up the significance of this encyclical. “We are asked, in effect, to decide between future regrets: One: We could have saved some money and didn’t. Two: We could have saved the planet — and failed. How is that even a debate?”