Most of the early comment on the Laudato Si, Pope Francis’ Encyclical on the environment, has rightly focused on its political impact. But to appreciate its reach it is helpful also to read it within the context of Catholic reflection on ethical issues.
The distinctive contribution of the Encyclical is to make respect for the environment a priority in Catholic life, and to justify that place by making it centrally in Catholic reflection on the human condition.
Encyclicals, which are addressed directly to the Catholic Bishops, always set their themes within the Catholic tradition, and particularly within the context of recent Papal teaching.
So Laudato Si summarises the reflection of Popes John XXIII, Paul VI, John-Paul II and Benedict XVI on the environment. Pope Francis quotes Benedict frequently throughout the document, thus incidentally forestalling any attempt to put a wedge between the two men.
His immediate argument for giving a central place to ecology in Catholic life rests on the conviction that the world faces a crisis caused by global warming and the dire consequences that will follow if it is not addressed by concerted action. The evidence he offers reflects the general consensus of scientists who have studied the matter carefully. Not all Catholics will agree with him, but this has now become the Catholic default position.
In giving ecology a central place within Christian faith, his critical move is to emphasise the interdependence of human beings with one another and with the natural world. We do not have an environment but are part of the environment.
This approach differs from the conventional Catholic approach to moral issues, which begins with individuals and their unique dignity, moves to personal relationships, their relationships to society, and then to the natural world as an outrider.
Pope Francis considers human beings in the network of relationships that constitute human life. These relationships include centrally the non-human world. Because of this interdependence we cannot speak adequately of any dimension of human life without considering our relationships with all other beings. We must treat them with a respect analogous to that we owe to other human beings. St Francis of Assisi, much referred to in the Encyclical, could speak of Brother Sun and Sister Moon.
Of course the Encyclical addresses the environment from the human perspective – he is writing to change human attitudes – but the corollary of his approach is that all ethical reflection must consider the environmental aspects.
The interdependence of human beings on one another underlies the Catholic insistence that in society the dignity of all human beings must be respected, so that the test of any society is how it treats its most vulnerable members. The Encyclical extends that solidarity to the non-human world. We are not masters but fellow servants of our world, and our care must look to the future as well as to the present day.
From this perspective Pope Francis reflects on the causes of the ecological crisis and why the response to it has been so inadequate. He sees its roots to lie in the widespread view that the only important questions to ask have to do with how to achieve our immediate goals, without asking whether the means we use, the goals we set, and the consequences of our actions respect our interdependence with one another and the non-human world. When this narrow view is joined to the assumption that the production of wealth trumps all other values, the inevitable consequences are the exploitation both of people and of the non-human world, gross inequality between societies, and the trashing of the environment.
In the Encyclical the underlying conflict about ecology lies between the Christian view of people as interdependent with one another and with the world of which they are part, and a view of human beings as separate individuals who form themselves by their individual choices. The relationship of atomised human beings with one another is necessarily competitive in exploiting the world outside them for material gain. This view expresses itself in the self-interest evident in national politics and in business. Australians will resonate with his tart account of the current state of affairs:
A politics concerned with immediate results, supported by consumerist sectors of the population, is driven to produce short-term growth. In response to electoral interests, governments are reluctant to upset the public with measures which could affect the level of consumption or create risks for foreign investment. The myopia of power politics delays the inclusion of a far-sighted environmental agenda within the overall agenda of governments. Thus we forget that 'time is greater than space', that we are always more effective when we generate processes rather than holding on to positions of power. True statecraft is manifest when, in difficult times, we uphold high principles and think of the long-term common good. Political powers do not find it easy to assume this duty in the work of nation-building. (178)
Understandably Pope Francis does not place his trust in politics or business as usual to address the ecological crisis. He calls for a conversion that sees people and the world as interdependent, inspired by a vision of the beauty and dignity of both each human being and of each non-human being, leading to a special care for the most fragile. Ultimately it is a conversion from exploitation to love.
The Encyclical also signals a natural convergence of religion and science. Scientists demonstrate what will happen in the world if it is allowed to go as it is, and also speak of the scale of what must be done to address it. But they cannot easily motivate people to action. Religions are in the business of conversion, and their beliefs and symbols can underpin the change of heart necessary for concerted action.