Tag Archives: Laudato Si

Laudato Si’ and human-nonhuman relations: unanswered questions?

The following is a draft of some ideas I’ve working through as I reflect on Laudato Si’. Comments welcome!

In the response to Laudato Si’ by the Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF), a notable climate sceptic thinktank, the following criticism appears:

“To us the encyclical is coloured too much by a hankering for a past world, prior to the Industrial Revolution, which is assumed to have been assumed to have been generally simpler, cleaner and happier. There is little historical evidence for such a vision… How is the inevitable human impact upon the natural world to be moderated and mitigated?”

To what extent is this true? Laudato Si’ argues for two major changes in human behaviour – improved relationships with the non-human world, with each other, and with God; and, following on from these, moderation in damage to the environment, and consumption, at least for those currently rich.

But are these sufficient to provide practical guidelines for human behaviour. Or, as the GWPF also asks: “To imagine that human civilisation could develop with no adverse or competitive impact upon the wider natural world would be a misleading idealism. Might the encyclical have been rather more open about these realities?” Before we turn to the encyclical, let us consider what questions are at stake and set them in the context of wider issues in human/non-human relations.

One question to consider is: is the world intended primarily for humanity, primarily for non-human creation, or some point in between. Or, alternatively, what is the relative value of the interests of humans and other species?

At one end of this spectrum are views traditionally labelled as “dominion”, or their secular equivalents. At the extreme end of these views, the world is entirely for human benefit. Nature is worth preserving only for its value to humans – as something to eat, a source of chemicals (drugs, for instance) and wilderness and open space as something for us to enjoy.

At the other end we find ideas such as deep ecology. Here, humanity is just another species with no more rights than any other animal or plant. Humanity’s extinction would be mourned no more or less than the black rhino or a species of orchid: indeed, some thinkers even go so far as to consider our extinction could be a positive, given the damage we cause to most other species.

A second group of questions is to what extent humans have a responsibility to attempt to manage the world and ecosystems on behalf of the species in it, whether to attempt to preserve what is there or to improve it, or whether they should leave it alone. One complication here is that no part of creation is stable: we know that over the billions of years before humans arrived on earth, climate, geography and the range and distribution of species varied over time, and the processes leading to those continue, so by attempting to preserve something, we are, in some way, standing against what would have happened in nature.

For both of these questions, few environmentalists would find any extreme position credible, but exactly what middle ground to take is open to some debate. The same applies to Christians. The Bible makes a variety of relevant statements, but offers no single synthesis. For instance, we have both the command in Genesis 2:15 to tend the garden, and by extension at least part of the world, but the end of Job warns us that some aspects of it are beyond our comprehension, let alone our control.

These questions also go beyond academic interest into the practical realm. For instance, questions arise all the time about the balance of land use: should a forest be left in its current state, managed in some way, or cut down to provide space for human habitation and crops? These questions range into the realm of ethics and often economics. One controversial set of ideas proposes putting some sort of “value” on the natural world, enabling decisions to be made on the basis of some sort of cost-benefit analysis. This at least has the benefit of ensuring that non-human interests are taken into account, but there are major concerns about both the principles and practicalities of doing this.

The Bible alone cannot help us resolve these questions. How about a wider ethical or theological framework? All options seem to founder. For instance, consequential ethic methods or utilitarian methods require some basis for weighing the relative happiness of humans and the various species of non-humans: essentially the same problem involved in weighing the value of nature we have just considered.

Many environmental theologians have advocated a theocentric view, where the goal is to focus on God’s role in creation and seek perfect relationships. Or an ethics based on virtues, in which we improve ourselves to the extent we make right decisions and live in right relationships. These are both strands of Pope Francis’s thinking: in the world he imagines, ‘the human person grows more, matures more and is sanctified more to the extent that he or she enters into relationships, going out from themselves to live in communion with God, with others and with all creatures’ ultimately leading to ‘a spirituality of that global solidarity which flows from the mystery of the Trinity’ [both 240, see also 208 and 11 for more on the two issues separately]. But while these characteristics enable one to enact good decisions when they are made, the issue of how we discern where the correct middle grounds lies remains, unless you hold to a theology of God that he can and will direct our paths in arbitrary detail. Or indeed some kind of overrealised eschatology where the ‘lion can lie down with the lamb’ in this world.

Those kinds of views might be more suitably attributed to the pope’s namesake Saint Francis, whom the Pope cites as an inspiration. ‘Rather than a problem to be solved, the world is a joyful mystery to be contemplated with gladness and praise’ [12] is potentially overidealistic, even if this is qualified with a note that such feelings must necessarily lead to action. [11]

Despite that, Pope Francis does list many problems which need solving, together with some pointers to solutions in some cases. In [60] he notes the spectrum between deep ecology and dominion (for him the latter is represented by those who ‘doggedly uphold the myth of progress’), but in [61] he notes that ‘on many concrete questions, the Church has no reason to offer opinion’ and advocates an open-minded debate.

In some respects this is a step forward for the Catholic church. Previous documents in the Catholic Social Teaching tradition have wanted to dismiss ideas such as ecocentrism and biocentrism out of hand due to them ‘[eliminating] the ontological and axiological difference between men and other living beings’ [Compendium 463]. Laudato Si’ at least sees them as positions which can contribute to the debate.

However, much of its thinking seems still rooted in the human-centred thinking of past CST documents. For instance, despite biodiversity being a good, and non-human creatures having value in themselves [33, 69, 82], it is unclear how much influence they will get in discussions. Nature reserves of various sorts are commended [37] but, despite a call to ‘restore the various levels of ecological equilibrium’ [210] there is no suggestion that humanity should retreat and ‘rewild’ what we have previously colonised. Policies are to be ‘developed and debated by all interested parties’ [183] but while local humans get a key place in these discussions, nothing is said about representations by, or at least on behalf of, non-humans.

In the same way, the key notions of Common Good and the Common Destination of Goods are extended to all humans, and to the future [156-158 and 93-95 respectively]: non-human creatures are not in view.

It is important to take into account the answer to the question of how much the ‘failings’ of creation are due to sin. Taking two books I’ve recently read Jonathan Wilson’s thesis in the book God’s Good World is that our theology of creation should be linked to a theology of reconciliation: hence the work of Christ can bring a world of peace – even in this world. Terence Fretheim, coming from the perspective of suffering, argues by contrast that creation is perpetually ‘messy’ and in a state of flux, and some level of suffering is inherent to some as species come and go, for instance.[1] Both Wilson and Fretheim argue that humanity should be co-creators with God of a world which is “more good” but how good can that world theoretically get?

This is in one sense the eschatological question we’ve already touched on: how much can we expect the future harmony of the new creation to be prefigured today? But the important practical implication is whether a theocentric view and better virtues are sufficient to “solve” the environmental crisis, or whether we will still need to adjudicate in disagreements both between different humans and between humans and other creatures. Neither author addresses this ethical question directly. The implication from Fretheim is that such conflicts will still exist. Wilson seems to take the former view. but he excludes environmental action from what he wants to cover. Where Pope Francis stands is less clear. Frequently, and particularly when referencing Saint Francis, he seems to be taking a similar line to Wilson. But when he talks about environmental action, the need for political agreement ‘on systems of governance for the whole range of so-called “global commons”’ [174] is placed alongside the need for improved virtues.

So it is concerning that neither the question of the relative values of human and non-human, nor the potential issue of resource conflict between human and non-humans is presented as an issue. (With the exception of water [27-31] although here, like elsewhere, it appears that human needs are more of concern.) Associated with this is perhaps the most alarming statement in the whole encyclical: ‘it must nonetheless be recognized that demographic growth is fully compatible with an integral and shared development’ [50]. Of course we know that the Catholic Church would struggle with this issue. But it is of concern that both the surrounding text and the reference speak of the needs of humanity alone: far from even considering human/non-human balance as a question to be addressed, here we see a further pushing back of the bounds of non-human creation as acceptable.

So, let us return to the GWPF’s question. How is the inevitable human impact upon the natural world to be moderated and mitigated? By better relationships and with better ethics – which are certainly needed – but some of the key questions seem not to be being asked by the Pope.

[1] Fretheim, Creation Untamed.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Laudato Si – first thoughts

Pope Francis’s encyclical Laudato Si’  has been on the horizon for some time. Environmentalists, knowing his interest in the theme, have been looking forward to it. Some opponents have taken a pre-emptive strike against it, suggesting the Pope should stay out of politics. For instance, Jeb Bush, a Catholic, said:

I don’t get economic policy from my bishops or my cardinal or my pope. I think religion ought to be about making us better as people and less about things that end up getting in the political realm.

It even got an (unofficial) movie-style trailer – rather ironically, given the comments on culture in the encyclical. But what does it say, and will it make a difference in human attitudes towards our environment, particularly in the lead-up to the Paris conference this winter? It is a long document (about 100 pages) and it’s only possible here to give a flavour of the main ideas: I plan to be writing more extensively about it and put it in its wider contexts through the autumn. (For now, I have a follow-up piece planned comparing it with Pope Paul VI’s Apostolic Letter Octogesima Adveniens (1971), which Francis cites, and will also be posting a list of some of the other commentary on the encyclical which I’ve found helpful – or hope to when I find time to read it all!)

What, at root, is it about? This question is not as obvious as it might seem. Through the encyclical, Francis revisits a number of themes from different perspectives. Questions are not “dealt with once and for all, but reframed and enriched again and again” [para. 16]. While this might appear as rambling, the journey has a purpose and helps us dig down into what is really going on. Compare two sections from the beginning and end:

We have come to see ourselves as [Mother Earth’s] lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will. The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, the water, in the air and in all forms of life. [2]

… it is no longer enough to speak only of the integrity of ecosystems. We have to dare to speak of the integrity of human life, of the need to promote and unify all the great values…. It is not easy to promote this kind of healthy humility or happy sobriety when we consider ourselves autonomous, when we exclude God from our lives or replace him with our own ego, and think that our subjective feelings can define what is right and what is wrong. [224]

Much of the first half of the encyclical does deal directly with climate and creation issues: chapter 1 [17-42] contains a recap of the familiar science of pollution, climate change, water and biodiversity. And chapter 2 starts [62-92] with a theological treatise on creation, which “can only be understood as a gift from the outstretched hand of the Father of all, and as a reality illuminated by the love which calls us together into universal communion” [76].

But even here, there are other issues waiting to come out. One of them is the role of science and faith. Unusually for an encyclical, this is addressed not just to the Catholic Church, but is a desire for “dialogue with all people about our common home”[3, emphasis mine]. This desire is genuine: “the Church has no reason to offer a definitive opinion; she knows that honest debate must be encouraged among experts, while respecting divergent views.”[61] But with this comes a strong appeal that faith and spirituality has an important part to play [62-63] and that a purely scientific/technological response must necessarily be inadequate:

Ecological culture cannot be reduced to a series of urgent and partial responses to the immediate problems of pollution, environmental decay and the depletion of natural resources. There needs to be a distinctive way of looking at things, a way of thinking, policies, an educational programme, a lifestyle and a spirituality which together generate resistance to the assault of the technocratic paradigm…. To seek only a technical remedy to each environmental problem which comes up is to separate what is in reality interconnected and to mask the true and deepest problems of the global system.[111]

This leads us into the first of two major anthropological and sociological problems which face us. Our mastery of science and technology has given us an “impressive dominance over the whole of humanity and the entire world” [104], which has had numerous positive effects [102-103], but “nothing ensures that it will be used wisely” [104, emphasis mine]. A strong case can be made that our maturity as a species has not kept pace in other regards: “we cannot claim to have a sound ethics, a culture and spirituality genuinely capable of setting limits and teaching clear-minded self-restraint.” [105] Similarly “the same ingenuity which has brought about enormous technological progress has so far proved incapable of finding effective ways of dealing with grave environmental and social problems worldwide”.[164]

Even worse, we have been sucked into this “technocratic paradigm” in which technological advances are necessarily good, our purpose and culture is mediated through electronic communications rather than human relations, and in which everything possible should be mechanised, even if people are deprived of meaningful work as a result [106-110, 115-128]. Along with this comes a dominant globalised economic model based upon the false notions of unlimited growth and resources. [106,109]

The area of economics is perhaps one where the encyclical could perhaps have benefited from further argument. It was surprising to read that “scarcely anyone dares defend” purely market-driven economics.[109] Bjorn Lomborg has done just that, and a further, predictable, critique came from an Acton Institute spokesman, who accused the Pope of having a blind spot when it came to market economics. The Pope, however, is doing nothing new here: the Catholic Church has long taught that owners of private property have the responsibility to use it for the social good, and Francis quotes his predecessor John Paul II (who was no socialist!)[93]. Nevertheless, sections of mainstream economics provide a weightier foe than Pope Francis seems to have allowed for.

The second anthropological crisis is fuelled partly both by technocratism and our economics: it is one of “modernity grounded in a utilitarian mindset (individualism, unlimited progress, competition, consumerism, the unregulated market)”[210] Or alternatively, a “relativism which sees everything as irrelevant unless it serves one’s own immediate interests”. [122] With such a mindset, we are happy – provided our own financial desires are met – for the “invisible forces of the market to regulate the economy, and consider their impact on society and nature as collateral damage”. We care little for the poor, those in the future, cultures or social structures [143-146] or indeed nature. “The intrinsic dignity of the world is thus compromised”[115] – together with everything in it. Our failure to care for creation and each other are linked.

It is not even as though we as individuals in rich countries are necessarily benefitting.

…people no longer seem to believe in a happy future; they no longer have blind trust in a better tomorrow based on the present state of the world and our technical abilities. There is a growing awareness that scientific and technological progress cannot be equated with the progress of humanity and history, a growing sense that the way to a better future lies elsewhere…. Our megastructures and drab apartment blocks express the spirit of globalised technology, where a constant flood of new products coexists with a tedious monotony. [113]

… although I think many are sufficiently acculturated not to discern this malaise, at least consciously.

A consequence of all this is that any real conception of creation (or anything else for that matter) as common good is lost, whereas we should be thinking instead of extending the notion of common good to future generations also [159]. In our utilitarian, isolationist world, the question of “what kind of world … we want to leave to those who come after us”[160] is alien.

The current global situation engenders a feeling of instability and uncertainty, which in turn becomes ‘a seedbed for collective selfishness’. When people become self-centred and self-enclosed, their greed increases. The emptier a person’s heart is, the more he or she needs things to buy, own and consume…. Obsession with a consumerist lifestyle, above all when few people are capable of maintaining it, can only lead to violence and mutual destruction.[204]

But, as one might expect, in Pope Francis’s wider setting, this question alone is insufficient:

When we ask ourselves what kind of world we want to leave behind, we think in the first place of its general direction, its meaning and its values…. But if these issues are courageously faced, we are led inexorably to ask other pointed questions: What is the purpose of our life in this world? Why are we here? What is the goal of our work and all our efforts? What need does the world have of us? [160]

So how do we address such questions and what answers might we find? Francis is clear that our reflections need to be both deep and decisive: “The effects of the present imbalance can only be reduced by our decisive action, here and now.” [161] It is clear that he will be using his influence on all he meets in the leadup to the Paris climate talks.

But that is only one front on which we need to take action. In the final two chapters, a number of avenues are proposed. The most significant, or at least the most general, is the promotion of dialogue between groups and sectors currently separated from each other: rich world and poor world, national and local politics, economics and other spheres, science and religion, one faith and another, and different sectors of the environmental movement. All need to collaborate to devise an integral ecology (in the widest sense of the term) and “a politics which is far-sighted and capable of a new, integral and interdisciplinary approach to handling the different aspects of the crisis.”[196]

A second strand is the need for better governance: what has been lacking for the climate are enforceable international agreements, and we need “agreements on systems of governance for the whole range of so-called ‘global commons”[174] with clear transparent decision-making in all relevant areas [182-188]. Better governance is also needed in poorer countries where corruption and high levels of inequality have led both to great environmental damage and the failure to bring many out of poverty.[172]

Part of this has to be the need to reform both economics and our notion or progress to become once again the servant of humanity’s common good rather than the master.

Put simply, it is a matter of redefining our notion of progress. A technological and economic development which does not leave in its wake a better world and an integrally higher quality of life cannot be considered progress. [194]

The principle of the maximization of profits, frequently isolated from other considerations, reflects a misunderstanding of the very concept of the economy. [195]

For this reason, Francis is sceptical of some of the proposed market-based solutions to environmental problems, such as carbon trading and putting a price on nature.

Finally, we need to foster a new heart both individually and socially, educating people towards a new lifestyle. Understandably, Francis describes this in terms of Christian belief and heritage, but most of the concepts fit into an idea of general morality. A few quotations give the flavour:

We must regain the conviction that we need one another, that we have a shared responsibility for others and the world, and that being good and decent are worth it. [229]

An integral ecology includes taking time to recover a serene harmony with creation, reflecting on our lifestyle and our ideals, and contemplating the Creator who lives among us and surrounds us. [225]

… love in social life – political, economic and cultural – must be given renewed value…. Social love moves us to devise larger strategies to halt environmental degradation and to encourage a “culture of care” which permeates all of society. [231]

Creatures tend towards God, and in turn it is proper to every living being to tend towards other things, so that throughout the universe we can find any number of constant and secretly interwoven relationships. This leads us not only to marvel at the manifold connections existing among creatures, but also to discover a key to our own fulfilment. [240]

Plenty of more abstract ideals there, but some practical ideas are interwoven in, notably thoughts on ways to improve urban planning. However, as has been said, the purpose of the encyclical is more to promote dialogue and encourage people towards accepting ideas already out there than to provide a grand plan for the future of humanity.

I hope that this (rather long) summary gives you a good feel for what is in the encyclical, but do encourage all to read it for themselves and join Francis on the journey. It is written in generally accessible language with only a minimum of Catholic jargon.

Returning finally to Jeb Bush who thinks “religion ought to be about making us better as people”. Unintentional, I’m sure, but that’s probably the best one-line summary of the encyclical you’re going to get, so please read it again, Jeb!



Leave a comment

Filed under Thoughts