Soon after promulgating Humanae Vitae in 1968, Blessed Pope Paul VI stated that what was needed for a fuller understanding of the encyclical was a fuller, more adequate anthropology. His successor, Pope Saint John Paul II, would later supply this fuller, more adequate anthropology when he expounded and developed his philosophical and theological anthropology of the human person. One needs only recall the series of Wednesday audiences wherein he developed what we now call the “theology of the body.” [i] Pope Benedict XVI later picked up a similar theme when he expounded a profound theological anthropology in Caritas in Veritate (June 9, 2009), while situating the human person in proper relation to the Trinity and to one’s neighbor in Deus Caritas Est (December 25, 2005). Pope Francis was indebted to these doctrinal developments of his predecessors when he came to write his most recent encyclical, Laudato Si (LS), a debt he acknowledges in the encyclical’s opening paragraphs (3-6). However, Laudato Si has a different emphasis, expressed in the opening words, which come from a canticle written in Old Italian and composed by St. Francis of Assisi in 1225: “Canticle of the Creatures.” By opening with this canticle, Pope Francis introduces the rich philosophical and theological anthropology of his predecessors into the relational context of the earth’s environment, which is contiguous with human life in the body.
A Fundamental Human Ecology
For example, Pope Francis writes in Laudato Si, “Learning to accept our body, to care for it and to respect its fullest meaning, is an essential element of any genuine ecology” (155). Far from being a form of somatolatry, or worship of the human body, Pope Francis here affirms the share we have as embodied persons in the surrounding physical environment. He gleans this insight from the account of creation in the Book of Genesis (chapters 1-3) where “in the beginning” human life was “grounded in three fundamental and closely intertwined relationships: with God, with our neighbor and with the earth itself” (66). Then the Holy Father continues: “According to the Bible, these three vital relationships have been broken, both outwardly and within us. This rupture is sin” (ibid.). This division—within ourselves, with God, with one another, and with the earth[ii]—accounts for Pope Francis’ rather sobering judgment that the earth, “our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth” (21).
This is significant because it helps us to understand how the “human environment and the natural environment deteriorate together; we cannot adequately combat environmental degradation unless we attend to causes related to human and social degradation” (48). As it goes with ourselves, so it goes with the environment; if we neglect ourselves and our relationships to one another and God, then predictably neglect of the physical environment follows. A wholesome human ecology, which acknowledges and accepts the profound “relationship between human life and the moral law” (155), is a prerequisite for a wholesome environment. Neglect and abuse of the earth, therefore, are best explained by the deterioration in human ecology, as when the poorest and weakest among us are neglected and forgotten. Supplying in justice the proper care due to the human body would include a whole host of corporal works of mercy wherein we clothe the naked, feed the hungering, dress wounds, and supply adequate housing to the homeless. How we understand ourselves is reflected in how we treat one another and the environment. Consequently, the “acceptance of our bodies as God’s gift is vital for welcoming and accepting the entire world as a gift from the Father… whereas thinking that we enjoy absolute power over our own bodies turns, often subtly, into thinking that we enjoy absolute power over creation” (155).
The Limits of Power and Effects of Exploitation
We need only recall the refrain of women who favor abortion, “it’s my body and I am free to decide” as though such decisions are executed without any relationship to human ecology and the physical environment. Here absolute power over one’s own body reduces the child in the womb to property, free to be dispensed or retained, thrown away or kept like any other possession. Pope Francis affirms that exerting such absolute power over ourselves and our own bodies leads, by extension, to a similar exercise of absolute power and domination over the physical environment. The examples of such exploitation of the earth abound within the encyclical, but Pope Francis also continues to remind us how “the poor end up paying the price” (170) of the unfettered harvesting of the earth’s resources. They are the ones left unemployed when a multi-national company relocates; they are the ones left behind to live with the resulting deteriorated environment, which is not only polluted but also depleted. “While some are concerned only with financial gain, and others with holding on to or increasing their power, what we are left with are conflicts or spurious agreements where the last thing either party is concerned about is caring for the environment and protecting those who are most vulnerable” (198). Perhaps it was just such alliances and strongholds in His day that accounted for a similar sobering assessment by Jesus when he said: “the poor you will always have with you” (Mk 14:7).
There are several instances where Pope Francis appears to accept global warming as an established, scientific fact brought on by unsustainable human consumption and intervention in the environment. For example, our Holy Father writes: “A very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climatic system…. Humanity is called to recognize the need for changes of lifestyle, production and consumption, in order to combat this warming or at least the human causes which produce or aggravate it” (23). Statements like these have troubled some commentators on the encyclical, since there is concern over the Holy Father overstepping the bounds of his competence by accepting a conclusion that to their minds is scientifically dubious. Pope Francis was aware that some of his readers would question his statements in Laudato Si. He wrote: “There are certain environmental issues where it is not easy to achieve a broad consensus. Here I would state once more that the Church does not presume to settle scientific questions or to replace politics. But I am concerned to encourage an honest and open debate so that particular interests or ideologies will not prejudice the common good” (188). Given the overall context of the encyclical and the numerous statements favoring a more integrated approach to problems of the environment, this statement of purpose seems all the more genuine.
Working for the Common Good
There is plenty of work for all men and women of good will to accomplish when it comes to improving the physical environment. This is the major thrust of Pope Francis’s encyclical: we all have our part to play in improving our common home; and he makes this broader appeal through frequent mention of the common good. There can be no doubt about the tremendous benefits received through Christian faith and the restorative grace of Christ. The very title of the encyclical was taken from a canticle penned by a man, Francis of Assisi, who through faith in Christ was restored to full and vital relationship with God, himself, his neighbor, and the whole of creation. “Praise be you (laudato si), my Lord, with all your creatures, especially sir Brother Sun” (87). In the encyclical, the Holy Father also references St. Bonaventure, who interpreted the universal reconciliation experienced by Francis of Assisi as in some way returning him “to the state of original innocence” (66). These benefits of faith thus become all the more real in the light of St. Francis’s experience in creation. But Pope Francis is also mindful that we are all responsible, together, for the good of the earth—whether we are believers or unbelievers; Christians, Jews, or Muslims; atheists or agnostics—we are all responsible. So he addresses Laudato Si not only to believers in Christ, but also “to all people of good will” (62).
Pope Francis makes this broader appeal through a shared concern for the common good, which he defines using a text from the Second Vatican Council: “The common good is ‘the sum of those conditions of social life which allow social groups and their individual members relatively thorough and ready access to their own fulfillment.’”[iii] This definition helps us to understand such statements as: “The climate is a common good, belonging to all and meant for all” (23). Industrial emissions in China affect the air quality in Australia, while higher stacks from coal plants in the United States can precipitate acid rain in Canada. Corporate decisions made in one country will directly affect local, regional, sometimes national and even international ecosystems and environments. Indeed, “everything is closely interrelated” (137) and nature “cannot be regarded as something separate from ourselves or as a mere setting in which we live” (139). We belong to nature and if nature becomes polluted with toxins, we can become sick as a result. Pope Francis’ appeal to the common good leads him to ask questions like, “What kind of world do we want to leave to those who come after us, to children who are now growing up?” (160) Who in their right mind would wish to grow up next to a stream that has deteriorated and become polluted through industrial waste? Such an environment wounds the local common good by decreasing the conditions within which human life can prosper and grow. Through appeal to the common good, therefore, Pope Francis makes many such common sense statements and judgments that most men and women, whether religious or not, can readily hear and understand.
In light of his appeal to the common good, one of Pope Francis’ solutions particularly stands out. It has long been the staple of Catholic social teaching that the State has been entrusted with care for the common good. This constitutes the ultimate purpose and reason for becoming an elected official, namely, to preserve those conditions within society wherein persons and intermediate groups of persons may prosper and attain their own fulfillment. One of our Holy Father’s solutions favoring both human ecology and the material environment, therefore, requires that politics not become subjected to the economy (189). He calls for an honest and frank dialogue between politicians and corporate, economic interests, but is also careful to point out that politicians can become hijacked from caring for the common good through private offers of economic or political gain. His call to politicians to have genuine concern for preserving the common good supplies the context of what might otherwise appear to be a number of dour, even Marxist comments against Capitalism. For example, he writes: “Once more, we need to reject 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” (190). Here Pope Francis is not leveling a Marxist critique against Capitalism or even private enterprise; rather he is concerned for the adulteration of the common good when economic interests steal away politicians from caring for the whole of society.
The Earth Is Our Common Home
It would be unfortunate to read Laudato Si and not hear the major thrust of the encyclical, namely, we human beings occupy, together, a common home called Earth and we must learn to care for her. We can no longer live as though we are unrelated to one another and to the physical environment. We all belong to Earth and each of us requires some share in her vast store of riches to live and prosper as human beings, not least of which includes clean air and water. Yet Pope Francis also reminds us of the universal destination of goods, that is, how Earth belongs to everyone and not just a select few. Quoting his predecessor Saint John Paul II, he wrote, “The principle of the subordination of private property to the universal destination of goods, and thus the right of everyone to their use, is a golden rule of social conduct and ‘the first principle of the whole ethical and social order.’”[iv] Far from being a critique of private ownership by way of Marxist analysis, the Holy Father here simply limits private ownership by appealing to an absolute precept of the natural law, namely, God has given the earth to everyone throughout all generations and not just a few within any one generation. The ready access to fundamental human goods for life in certain areas of the world must become real in other areas where basic human needs are left unmet. The improvement of our human ecology will directly impact and lead toward an improvement in our environmental ecology. How we treat one another becomes extended to the physical environment. This is the meaning of what Pope Francis calls in Laudato Si an “integral ecology,” wherein the isolated human subject becomes given over to his or her native and personal embodiment such that relationship to God, one’s neighbor, and the physical environment are embraced. It was just such an integral experience—so full of relational communion in life and goodness—that led St. Francis of Assisi to express such deep gratitude to God in the words concluding the encyclical: “Praise be to You!” (246): Laudato Si!
Fr. Daniel Pattee, TOR serves as Associate Professor of Theology at Franciscan University in Steubenville, OH. He has been a professed member in the Sacred Heart Province of the Third Order Regular Franciscans for 35 years and a priest for 29 years.
[i] A series of 129 talks given on the Wednesdays between September 5, 1979 and November 28, 1984.
[ii] We need only recall Cain’s lament to the Lord after slaying his brother Abel to understand what Pope Francis means here: “Look, you have now banished me from the ground” (Gen 4:14, NABRE).
[iii] Laudato Si, art. 156 quoting Gaudium et Spes, art. 26.
[iv] Laudato Si, art. 93 quoting Laborem Exercens, art. 19.
This article originally appeared on pages 14-16 of the printed edition.