In June this year, the much-anticipated encyclical by Pope Francis finally appeared. Unlike papal encyclicals in the past, which were addressed to the Church, Pope Francis’ circular epistle is directed at the whole human family. The reason for this departure is clear: the fundamental concern of this new encyclical has to do with the ecological problem, a crisis that threatens “our common home”.
Also unlike previous encyclicals, the title of this epistle is in Medieval Central Italian, not in Latin. Laudato Si’ (“Praise Be to You”) is an Umbrian phrase taken from Canticle of the Sun, the famous poem-prayer composed by the 13th century monk, St Francis of Assisi, whom the pope wishes to honour in his pontificate.
Although this document deals with a wide range of issues, its fundamental theological assumptions and moral framework are very much in line with the social teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. These assumptions are based on the teachings of the Bible and the church’s profound reflections of these truths for more than two millennia.
Beginning unapologetically with the Christian understanding of the world as God’s creation based on the biblical revelation (Genesis 1-2), Pope Francis roundly rejects any attempt to erase or blur the distinction between Creator and creation by divinising nature.
The Christian doctrine of creation has “demythologised nature”, he argues. “While continuing to admire its grandeur and immensity, it no longer saw nature as divine. In doing so, it emphasises all the more our human responsibility for nature.”
Taking the holistic view of reality in which the created universe is seen as an inter-connected system, Pope Francis argues that “each creature has its own purpose. None is superfluous”. This means that human beings are to respect all living beings.
But he rightly stops short of using the language of rights for non-human animals, preferring instead to speak of their value.
To speak of the value of every creature, however, is not to promote a kind of misguided egalitarianism that we see in some animal-rights activists who refuse to privilege humans over non-human creatures. Created in the image and likeness of God, human beings are the crown of God’s creation, their deep communion with the rest of the created order notwithstanding. To fail to acknowledge and respect human uniqueness, Pope Francis argues emphatically, is to “deprive human beings of their unique worth and the tremendous responsibility it entails”.
The encyclical is not afraid to speak about sin, that rupture of the relationship between God and man due to human rebellion, which in turn distorts and perverts our relationship with God’s creation.
The pope characterises human sin as man’s attempt to usurp the role of God due to his unwillingness to accept his own creaturehood: “The harmony between Creator, humanity, and creation as a whole, was disrupted by our presuming to take the place of God, and refusing to acknowledge our creaturely limitations.”
This tragic colossalism of the human spirit has led to the distortions that lie at the very root of today’s ecological crisis, especially the destructive anthropocentrism which drives humankind to wantonly exploit the natural order to achieve its own goals.
Ironically, however, in doing this, man has become the subject of a techno-scientific tyranny in which the very tools that he has fashioned have become his masters. And this has led to a certain blindness and confusion in our culture.
The encyclical deals with a number of controversial topics on which there is no consensus. Consequently, not every person of goodwill would agree with the pope’s analyses and recommendations.
For instance, not every expert would agree with Pope Francis’ analysis – influenced greatly by the environmentalist Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, known for his aggressive stance on climate policy – that climate change can be directly linked to human activities and habits. Furthermore, global warming has become so heavily politicised that clarity on the issue is hard to achieve.
Be that as it may, Laudato Si’ brings us back to the fundamentals concerning our collective responsibility to our common home and its future, which should never be taken for granted.
Pope Francis writes: “The notion of the common good also extends to future generations … We can no longer speak of sustainable development apart from intergenerational solidarity.”
Even those who disagree with the pope’s analyses and proposals must take his exhortation seriously.
“Soundings” is a series of essays that, like the waves of a sonogram, explore issues in society, culture and the church in light of the Gospel and Christian understanding.
Picture by AlexMax/Bigstock.com
Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity (http://ethosinstitute.sg/).