I have not been in the Catholic cultural commentary business long. I was a freshman in college when Pope St. John Paul II died, and was in the midst of teaching when Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI resigned. As such, I have not witnessed much stirring and controversy concerning a papal encyclical. Not too many non-Catholics pay much attention to letters from popes, especially when they deal with theological topics. This is a loss for such non-Catholics, since they miss out on a wellspring of spiritual commentary and guidelines for their lives.
Such was not the case surrounding the promulgation of Pope Francis’ encyclical, Laudato Si. Everyone, it seemed, had a view about the encyclical, whether positive or negative. That is what happens when such a crucial issue like the environment is discussed. Climate change, pollution, deforestation, and over-hunting/fishing have all been controversial topics in the last few decades, both in religious and secular media. So the pundits began punditing. Pope Francis, to be sure, would revolutionize the Church, casting his lot with political liberals, and joining with eco-terrorists and communists to destroy western society. At last, he would show his true colors and present for all a Church which has finally gotten with the times, so to speak. Both sides of the debate painted such a picture.
On June 18, the Vatican published the official text of the encyclical (a previous draft had been leaked earlier that week). I tried my hardest to avoid reading commentary before I finished the encyclical myself. It was hard. Everybody was talking about the encyclical. I was live tweeting my thoughts, so that I wouldn’t forget anything, all the while not reading what everyone else on the Internet posted about the encyclical.
As a result, I was able to read through the entire encyclical, reflecting on it more closely than if I had read commentaries before reading it.
What follows is the fruit of such reflection. I will go through each of the chapters in the encyclical, looking into what is great and what is more or less so-so. I want the readers to know up front that I loved the encyclical, and hope to reflect on it for years to come. Originally, I planned writing a short, one part post about the encyclical. Instead, I’ll be posting several short posts, allowing for more depth and reflection. I hope everyone enjoys them.
Let’s start with the Introduction. The title of the encyclical comes from the prayer of St. Francis, where the saint praises God through nature. It is a beautiful prayer. If you haven’t had the time to sit and read it, check it out. Anyway, back to Pope Francis. The Holy Father begins by noting that our sister, “Mother Earth,” is crying to Heaven, for we have abused her. The role of believers in respecting and fixing “our common home” is one of the main focuses of the encyclical. In the Introduction, Pope Francis reflects on his papal predecessors, who had also written about caring for the environment in the context of the Church’s social justice teaching. In particular, Francis points to Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI for their contributions to the discussion. Likewise, Francis notes the contributions of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, with whom Francis shares “the hope of full ecclesial communion” (7). The issue, Francis notes, isn’t merely that people need to develop technology to save the environment, but also that people need to change internally. “Otherwise, we would be dealing merely with symptoms” (9). It is in St. Francis that Pope Francis sees his model for this encyclical and his entire papacy, a model of loving God through creation, seeking the Creator in His works. In doing so, Pope Francis hopes to encourage dialogue about what is wrong with the environment and what we, as a human family, can do to help “our common home” (Pope Francis uses that phrase eleven times, including in the full title of the encyclical, to refer to the Earth).