A Buddhist Catholic Scholar Breaks Down the Pope’s Climate Encyclical, So You Don’t Have To
Ok, so everybody knows by now that Pope Francis’ encyclical on climate change is a big deal, and that he’s even inciting the kids to riot (tidily) in agapically loving environmental righteousness.
Make a mess, but then also help to tidy it up. A mess which gives us a free heart, a mess which gives us solidarity, a mess which gives us hope.
In the run-up to Pope Francis’ “environmental encyclical” Laudato Si (“Praise to You”), liberal Catholicism was positively giddy with anticipation – as evinced by the mock superhero “trailer” (Pope Francis: The Encyclical) that made the rounds on social media in the weeks prior to publication in late June. To claim that any papal encyclical is met with unprecedented buzz would be melodramatic, but given the amplifying effects of social media, and this pope’s popular appeal, it might actually be appropriate. Because they are the most authoritative documents in the world of Roman Catholic doctrine, encyclicals are guaranteed to have a large, global audience. But Pope Francis’ PR momentum as a “reformer,” and the timeliness of the subject matter of the text, broadened the text’s scope considerably beyond the more than one billion Roman Catholics around the world (although let’s be honest, it’s not like all, or even most, Catholics actually read encyclicals).
That the pope would compose an environmental encyclical is both unprecedented and completely predictable. I mean, the guy named himself after the patron saint of ecology, who famously used to preach to birds and once brokered a truce between the townspeople of Gubbio and a local wolf. What follows is a cluster of cluttered thoughts – partially background, summary, and reflection. Encyclicals as a genre are pretty dense, and this one (clocking in at 180 pages) has a number of moving parts. So these musings might well be considered cursory, at best. If you’re looking for a quick outline and chapter summary by an outstanding ecological theologian, voila.
For those who are unfamiliar with encyclicals (which I realize sounds like the beginning of a bad joke), they can be a peculiar type of document. Encyclicals are composed like really long proclamations that speak to “eternal” theological elements of faith and Church doctrine, within the context of contemporary experience. They are formally authored by a single individual – the sitting pope – but are composed with meticulous external research and editorial support.
And while encyclicals are usually written to address a singular (albeit often massive) topic, it is expected that the author will at least briefly touch on a range of subjects germane to the times. It can be a vertigo-inducing affair. The texts are sweeping by nature, meant to speak to both the intensely personal devotional lives of the diverse body of Roman Catholics, as well as transnational structural issues. Thus, they tend to telescope back and forth between spiritual interiority and global politics. While the primary formal subject of Laudato Si is environmental justice, there are occasional opaque references to topics seemingly far afield – such as an almost throwaway-sounding affirmation of static gender binaries [para. 155] under the auspices of “human ecology,” and rejections of forced population control [para. 50] and abortion rights [para. 120]. But the fact that these nods take up relatively little encyclical ink does not make them trivial.
Encyclicals often – particularly the subgenre of “social encyclicals” – seek to speak out of historical situatedness, but there is a universalist and supracultural orientation that is basically the opposite of perspectival writing method. Pope Francis is, of course, the ecclesiastical leader of the Roman Catholic Church, and that is his primary audience, he follows his immediate predecessors in explicitly addressing his text to all people. Laudato Si falls into the category of “Catholic Social Teaching” – that is, a body of writings promulgated by both popes and bishops’ conferences since Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum, that explicitly address matters of social justice, such as poverty, labor rights, free market capitalism, and structural inequality. However, Laudato Si represents an expansion of the formally “theological” subject matter, and Catholicism’s first environmental encyclical. This is not the first time a pope – let alone regional bishops – has remarked on the record about this topic, but the doctrinal gravity of the subject makes this text stand out.
Although Francis makes occasional references to the manner in which Christianity has historically contributed to a purely instrumental view of the environment, critiques of the text might reasonably argue that he does not take adequate responsibility for the deep impact that Christian thought about our relationship to non-human life has had in establishing a predatory relationship to the natural world.
Unlike the ecological theorist Timothy Morton, Pope Francis is not ready to date the end of the world to the patenting of the steam engine in April 1784. Although Francis bases the entire encyclical on the premise that we are in a dire situation, he is emphatic that his message is, in the end, one of hope. The ark of his writing foregrounds the horrific realities of contemporary ecological destruction (the impacts on vulnerable communities, loss of biodiversity, and moral culpability of the world’s most powerful) a corollary to the generation of bodhicitta that often precedes sitting practice by contemplating the suffering of sentient beings – or, in the Catholic tradition, the meditations on sin and Hell at the outset of the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises. Laudato Si’s litany of current and projected catastrophes have caused some more conservative Catholics to characterize the text as antimodern, “pessimistic,” and “apocalyptic.” However, Francis holds his negative assessments of our contemporary trajectory in tandem with a cautious optimism that all is not lost, and that possibilities still exist for mitigating some of the harm we have caused the planet.
In the text itself, Francis repeatedly reaffirms Catholicism’s traditional anthropocentric orientation – that humanity represents a special, unique place among all Creation – he also emphasizes the inherent dignity and rights of all species. Therefore, Laudato Si argues against a purely instrumental view of the environment, which sees the world as valuable insofar as it is useful for us. This perspective is what he sees as being fundamentally culpable for the rampant environmental abuses that have characterized the modern era, and have formed the basis for anthropogenic contributions to climate change. However, although Francis makes occasional references to the manner in which Christianity has historically contributed to this outlook, critiques of the text might reasonably argue that he does not take adequate responsibility for the deep impact that Christian thought about our relationship to non-human life – its most extreme contemporary manifestation being “Dominionism” – has had in establishing a predatory relationship to the natural world, even in the ostensibly “secular” forms whose own anthropocentrism is the subject of so much of Francis’ ire.
Although the encyclical speaks with the presumption of authority, it also emphasizes personal humility. Accompanying the imagined global audience of the encyclical is a more horizontal perspective regarding the Church’s relationships to non-Catholics. This might seem completely normal to the outside reader, it reflects a profound change in Catholic thinking over the past few decades. Previously, Roman Catholicism was self-consciously supremacist – following Cyprian of Carthage’s dictum, extra Ecclesiam nulla salus (“outside the Church there is no salvation”). This was largely rolled back during the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), a trend which partially accounts for Francis’ lack of proselytizing. There is no section of Laudato Si that proclaims Roman Catholicism to be the one “true” faith, or makes flippant divisive statements about other traditions. Rather, his preferred model of encounter is dialogue.
Furthermore, in this document Francis is aware that he is speaking as a religious leader, not a climatologist. He repeatedly defers to the scientific community when discussing our current and projected environmental instability. There is no hint of an argument over whether global warming is “real” or whether radical action is called for. He recognizes that his authority as titular head of a massive global religious community necessarily extends into the public sector, but that he does not exist in a bubble, and must operate in conjunction with the best scientific information that indicates that climate change is of urgent concern, that human behavior contributes substantially to the environmental crisis, and that it will take a coordinated, collective shift in human behavior to even attempt to move in a different direction.
On June 28th, prior to being serenaded by Patti Smith in pre-celebration of his 80th birthday at the Glastonbury Festival, the Dalai Lama lent his support to the encyclical during a panel discussion on global warming. In his closing thoughts, the Dalai Lama remarked that, “World peace will not [be] achieve[d] through prayer. World peace [will be] achieve[d] only through our action. First, hearing. Second, conviction. Third, action.” Perhaps without intending to, the Dalai Lama paraphrased the longstanding Catholic social teaching formula of “See, Judge, Act” – which also loosely informed the structure of Laudato Si, as it has with many Catholic social documents in the past, since 1961’s encyclical Mater et Magistra, by Pope John XXIII. Although Pope Francis notably declined to meet with the Dalai Lama in December 2014, when the latter was in Rome for a summit of Nobel Peace Prize recipients, the two are often considered to be natural allies – as possibly the two most visible and influential world religious leaders of this era, who appear to share many social orientations. Although Francis does not minimize opinions/feelings/sentimentality, he is concerned – paralleling George Yancy’s anxieties about some liberal white “antiracism” – that we move beyond postures that simply alleviate our own guilt (masking narcissism as solidarity), and take the actions critical to pushing back against our own inclinations towards destruction. Which is much harder, of course.
During Pope Francis’s visit to the United States, he is slated to canonize Junipero Serra, who was a Spanish Franciscan Friar who established missions along the California coast, and has long been a symbol (for some) of Catholic imperialism in the Americas. His impending sainthood contrasts with Francis’ recent anti-triumphalist attention to indigenous rights.
Pope Francis highlights the human impact of climate change on the socio-economically vulnerable – those directly impacted communities that are hit first and hardest by environmental abuse. Francis deploys liberation theology’s dictum of a “privileged option for the poor” as a lens through which to assess the impact of ecological destruction, even extending it to his considerations of non-human life. Among the many scandals of the status quo is the disproportionate suffering by those who are often least implicated in the sins of industrial pollution.
But while Francis makes special note of the particular suffering of indigenous communities [paras. 146, 179], there is a somewhat conspicuous lack of accountability for Roman Catholicism’s role as part of the backbone of colonialism. Personal opinion, but even though Laudato Si makes note of the devastation that resource extraction and pollution have had on indigenous lives, he does not take full responsibility for the Church’s historical impact. On July 10, at the Second World Meeting of the Popular Movements in Bolivia, Francis issued a formal statement of apology for the Church’s role in violence committed by European colonization of the Americas, which he described as “grave sins.” Perhaps there could have been more of this in Laudato Si itself. However, this still stands in tension with the fact that Pope Francis is slated to canonize Junipero Serra during his visit to the United States. Serra (1713-1784) was a Spanish Franciscan Friar who established missions along the California coast, and has long been a symbol (for some) of Catholic imperialism in the Americas. And while Serra is being presented as one of the “good” missionaries, his impending sainthood contrasts with Francis’ recent anti-triumphalist attention to indigenous rights.
Everything is interconnected. This is the consistent refrain of Pope Francis in Laudato Si. As Francis writes: “Time and space are not independent of one another, and not even atoms or subatomic particles can be considered in isolation. Just as the different aspects of the planet – physical, chemical and biological – are interrelated, so too living species are part of a network which we will never fully explore and understand [para. 138].” Francis emphasizes the intrinsic value of all things, the evolutionary kinship we have with all of creaturely existence, along with our shared interests in long-term flourishing. And similarly, Francis’ analysis of social reform is self-consciously intersectional. The root causes of social and ecological injustices are fundamentally intertwined, as are the seeds of collective liberation.
Francis emphasizes the intrinsic value of all things, the evolutionary kinship we have with all of creaturely existence, along with our shared interests in long-term flourishing. And similarly, Francis’ analysis of social reform is self-consciously intersectional. The root causes of social and ecological injustices are fundamentally intertwined, as are the seeds of collective liberation.
However, intersectionality is not just a socio-political analysis in this document, it is also a characteristic of the mystical dynamism that is that is characteristic of the Holy Trinity – revealing something of the interior nature of God [para. 240]. For all of Laudato Si’s very emphatic social and ecological concern, it is fundamentally also a piece of spiritual literature. There are tectonic transnational financial and political battles to be fought, certainly, but Francis is most simply calling readers to conversion – not to any particular religious dogma, but to a new holistic vision of our relationship to one another, to all species of life, and to the transcendent. “Integral ecology” is the term Francis designates for the new, holistic orientation that Laudato Si beckons towards, and this existential transformation serves as the precondition for any structural changes that might aspire to end the self-destructive cycles of violence that have come to characterize contemporary life.
Laudato Si is not the radical document that it is being framed as in conservative circles. Pope Francis does not overturn two millennia of Church doctrine, mandate that all Catholics immediately become vegan and stop driving their cars. He did not out himself as an anarcho-primitivist or deep ecologist. Pope Francis is not the fossil fuel-repelling superhero of the anticipatory short film. There is much to like in this encyclical, and its mere existence would have been inconceivable even three years ago. However, as Nathan Schneider suggested even before it came out, an encyclical alone won’t save the planet.
Dr. Jack Downey has been a professor at La Salle University since 2012, after he completed his doctorate in historical theology from Fordham University. His dissertation was a study of contemplative influences on the development of Catholic Worker theology. His research interests are rooted in the convergence of mysticism and contemplation with intersectional liberation praxis. His main geo-temporal focus is modern North America, with American Catholic history being a primary field of competence―along with some comparative interests, particularly as related to Buddhism. Outside the classroom, he is actively involved in nonviolent direct action education for environmental and social justice movements.