Buckle up, because it’s official. Pope Francis’ upcoming encyclical Laudato Sii (Praised be) will be released on June 18. The title comes from St. Francis of Assisi’s well-known Canticle of the Creatures. Laudato Sii will be the second encyclical of Pope Francis’ Pontificate after 2013’s Lumen Fidei, an encyclical that was begun by Pope Benedict XVI and completed by Francis. The forthcoming encyclical has already garnered much pre-promulgation controversy, speculation, and even criticism. Although this was a bit of sound advice (especially numbers 4 & 7). “Environmentalists” and other neo-pagans are already claiming the encyclical as proof that Pope Francis is the radical lefty they hope and think he is, while those more wary of eco-extremism and enviro-politics are already playing the part of apologists, carefully explaining what does and does not fall under the competence of the teaching office of the Successor to Peter. A lot of minds are already made up…and all we know for sure is the title.
More realistically, here’s a bit of what we can expect from Laudato Sii.
Papal teaching can and should never be pigeon-holed into the convenient boxes of political discourse. The teaching mission of the Church is always about more than the sound-bytes of news cycles. Expect the same from Laudato Sii. The encyclical will, as we know, have much to say about the responsibility to care for creation but will no doubt have more to say about the root moral causes of the problems. In an interview on his recent return flight from Bosnia, the Pope even indicated that the encyclical will address the “cancers” consumerism and relativism.
Stop calling it an “environmental encyclical”. In fact, if you’re a Catholic, stop talking about the “environment” altogether. It’s misleading. We should instead be talking about “creation” and “ecology”. The Church’s teaching on the duty to care for creation is not a “position” or a “stance” that exists in isolation. It flows from the revelation She has received from the Creator. Such a teaching can never exist without reference to God and to man because creation does not exist in isolation. It is dependent on God its Creator and man its care-taker and co-creator. This approach is more rightly called “ecology”, which looks at the whole “economy” of creation—and looks to man first. Creation is God’s gift to man, but, man is also God’s gift to man (Centesimus Annus, 38), and as the only rational part of creation, man alone is capable of caring for it. To be sure, the encyclical will be about far more than “the environment”, and it has to be to be authentic and coherent.
To hear some people talk you’d think the Church was a new voice jumping on the “green” bandwagon. As I’ve said before, the Church is especially able to provide sound teaching and guidance on questions related to the care for creation, since She doesn’t confuse creation with the Creator or reduce it to mere matter, mistakes rife in so-called “environmentalism”. Pope Francis’ two predecessors alone left a wealth of teaching related to the care for creation, so much so that Benedict XVI was known by some as the “Green Pope”. Of course, even what Papa Benedict taught was not new. Laudato Sii will no doubt continue in the same vein and probably even make explicit reference to the teaching of the previous two Popes in the area of ecological moral theology. Look for BXVI and JPII in the footnotes and maybe even referenced in phrases such as “As my predecessors said…”
The expected subtitle of the encyclical is “On the care of the common home”. Creation is a home and temple for the human family. Pope St. John Paul II called the family the “first and fundamental structure” for human ecology (Centesimus Annus, 39). In short, you simply can’t say anything meaningful about creation without talking about the family. To care for creation was the first command God gave the family—after the command to make a family, that is (Genesis 1:28). But the family comes first. Social encyclicals from Rerum Novarum to Familiaris Consortio all emphasise the role of the family in, well just about everything. Expect the same from Laudato Sii.
The encyclical will express special concern for the poor, since the Church’s social teaching includes a “preferential option” for the poor and since Creation is a gift to all men, not only those who happen to use more of its resources. The poor are especially affected by the effects of development (for better or worse) and of industry. The activities of societies with more advanced technology and more energy consumption must be carried out with a view toward the common good and toward the poor. Expect the Pope to remind us that the dignity of the poor demands special consideration.
A major point of concern regarding the upcoming encyclical has to do with whether the Pope will “endorse” climate alarmism. I don’t think he’ll go that far, but he will talk about it as if it’s a reality and as a commonly accepted problem, precisely because it is commonly understood to be a problem. Let me just stop you right there…both of you—the skeptic and the alarmist—and say that my point here is not about whether climate change is a “hoax” or is “undeniable” or you know, the usual. And neither will be the Pope’s point. Let’s say climate change really is occurring because of human activity and the Pope says so in the encyclical…so what? Let’s say it’s not really occurring because of human activity, but he claims in the encyclical that it is…so what? A Papal suggestion either way is meaningless, since by itself it’s not a question of faith or morality.
Pope Francis admitted in an interview last August that speaking on a subject like this is difficult “…because on the protection of creation and the study of human ecology, you can speak with sure certainty up to a certain point then come the scientific hypotheses some of which are rather sure, others aren’t.” The Pope may speak in the encyclical as if climate change is a reality if for no other reason than that it seems more commonly accepted than not by the relevant natural sciences. Of course, for the Pope to speak on the moral character and consequences of climate change (whether it is or is not a reality), the climate need not actually be changing as a result of human activity. He can speak about it from a moral perspective, which is well within his authority, and that’s the important thing for Catholics. But as I’ve also said here before, the Christian duty to care for creation—all of creation, that includes people first—is not dependent on whether the climate is or isn’t changing because of human activity. It’s dependent on the Word of God and the divine command to care for the gift of creation. You may now miss the point entirely and argue in the comments about climate change.
For those concerned about pagan-pantheistic trends in modern environmental movements (and rightly so) the fact that the title of the encyclical is based on The Canticle of the Creatures is a relief. The Canticle attributed to St. Francis is profoundly non-pantheistic. It is not a hymn to creation, but to the Creator. It calls all created things (which is everything except God) to offer due praise to their Author and Sustainer. Creation reveals not its own glory, but the glory and majesty of the One God. That this is the title of the encyclical suggests that the first point Pope Francis will make is that the Creator alone is to be praised as divine and creation is not.