I have been struggling to know what to say about Pope Francis’s new encylical, Laudato Si. As my friend Frank Beckwith (who created the above graphic) notes, it really and truly hits the sweet spot for me — so much so that I have been stymied even knowing where to begin. So, like Francis, I’ll just start writing, with no idea where I’m going to stop.

Laudato Si (hereafter, “LS”) is sprawling, messy, wild, and visionary. It’s bizarre to consider that American conservatives were freaking out in advance about the prospect that the Pope was going to weigh in against climate change in this encyclical. He does, but to act as if that were the main thrust of the document is like judging Thanksgiving dinner by the quality of the cranberry sauce.

It is tempting to call LS a traditionally conservative document, but there is plenty in it that will unnerve free-market individualists, who generally call themselves conservative — and liberals will be just as challenged by it. What Francis has written is an encyclical that celebrates life as harmony, communion, and incarnation. He calls on all persons to revere nature as gift, and to think not as atomized individuals, but as stewards who owe a debt to others, as well as to the past and to the future.

If you have read my 2006 book Crunchy Cons, the roots of all this in traditional conservatism should be very familiar. LS is a radical challenge to modernity as both the political left and the right understand it. Catholic blogger Jennifer Fitz understands what’s it stake here, calling, tongue-in-cheekily, LS a “terrible problem” for Catholics who practice the separation of their faith from their entire lives:

This is the terrible problem.  When a pope writes about the Trinity, we can nod and smile and adjust our prayers to make sure we’ve got three Persons with one Divine Nature and our work is done.  But when he says, rightly, that actually we need to change the way we live all the other hours of the week, that gets uncomfortable.  Because either we have to change the way live, or we have to decide we’re not going to do the Catholic thing after all.

Where to begin? Let’s start with Francis’s statement that both the physical and the social environment have been damaged by human action:

Both are ultimately due to the same evil: the notion that there are no indisputable truths to guide our lives, and hence human freedom is limitless. We have forgotten that “man is not only a freedom which he creates for himself. Man does not create himself. He is spirit and will, but also nature”. With paternal concern, Benedict urged us to realize that creation is harmed “where we ourselves have the final word, where everything is simply our property and we use it for ourselves alone. The misuse of creation begins when we no longer recognize any higher instance than ourselves, when we see nothing else but ourselves”.

The root of all our environmental and social problems is selfishness, is pride, is the belief that we are the center and the height of all creation. Therefore, if we are to restore the environment, it can’t simply be a matter of applying an ingenious set of technical solutions. It requires, more deeply, conversion of the heart. The core of the problem, Francis indicates, is the mistaken belief that humankind lives apart from nature, and the related belief that we owe nothing to others, either those who share this time and place with us, our ancestors, or to our descendants.

And, it’s the unwillingness to see that everything is connected, a phrase that turns up over and over in LS. For example, says Francis, there is a solid scientific consensus that the planet is warming, and that humankind dumping of carbon into the atmosphere has a lot to do with it. (He’s right that there is a scientific consensus, by the way.) This means that the industrial nations, with the activity that has both made them wealthy and that is a result of their wealth, bear a disproportionate responsibility for contributing to a condition that affects the entire planet. The poorest people on the planet, though, are those who suffer the most from the effects of climate change, yet, says the pope, the richest nations feel little sense of obligation to help those whose suffering is increased, indirectly, by the way the rich nations choose to live.

He has a point. One weakness of LS, though, is the pope’s lack of recognition of the fact that the greatest force pulling the poor masses out of poverty has been … capitalism, and industrial development. (David Brooks has a valid critique of this out today.) On the other hand, the pope is correct that the planet cannot withstand a universalization of the industrial, carbon-based system. And he is certainly right that the solution cannot be found in a “deified market” — that is, a vision that treats the free market as an end in itself, rather than as a means to an end, which is a just and harmonious life based on the common good.

“The problem is that we still lack the culture needed to confront this crisis,” says Francis. He means that our individualism and self-centeredness keeps us from seeing and doing what is necessary to meet the challenge. This, the pope indicates, is at the root of so many of our problems today — and not just environmental problems. Says Pope Francis:

This is the way human beings contrive to feed their self-destructive vices: trying not to see them, trying not to acknowledge them, delaying the important decisions and pretending that nothing will happen.

It is a problem, in part, of vision. He mentions Dante early in the encyclical (and also St. Therese of Lisieux and her “little way” — thanks, Pope!), and I kept thinking as I read LS about how Dantean the encyclical is. In the Commedia, the pilgrim Dante’s journey is one of pilgrimage from darkness to light, from blindness to sight, from a radical bondage to the self and exile from God to harmony with Him and with a Creation in which everything is connected to and through God. The journey towards wholeness and harmony cannot happen without the pilgrim looking squarely at vice and resolving not to rest in helplessness before them, but rather to commit one’s will, powered by the grace of God, to fight the disorder.

Here is the theological-anthropological heart of Laudato Si:

The creation accounts in the book of Genesis contain, in their own symbolic and narrative language, profound teachings about human existence and its historical reality. They suggest that human life is grounded in three fundamental and closely intertwined relationships: with God, with our neighbour and with the earth itself. According to the Bible, these three vital relationships have been broken, both outwardly and within us. This rupture is sin. The harmony between the 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 in turn distorted our mandate to “have dominion” over the earth (cf. Gen 1:28), to “till it and keep it” (Gen 2:15). As a result, the originally harmonious relationship between human beings and nature became conflictual (cf. Gen 3:17-19). It is significant that the harmony which Saint Francis of Assisi experienced with all creatures was seen as a healing of that rupture. Saint Bonaventure held that, through universal reconciliation with every creature, Saint Francis in some way returned to the state of original innocence. This is a far cry from our situation today, where sin is manifest in all its destructive power in wars, the various forms of violence and abuse, the abandonment of the most vulnerable, and attacks on nature.

We are not God. The earth was here before us and it has been given to us. This allows us to respond to the charge that Judaeo-Christian thinking, on the basis of the Genesis account which grants man “dominion” over the earth (cf. Gen 1:28), has encouraged the unbridled exploitation of nature by painting him as domineering and destructive by nature. This is not a correct interpretation of the Bible as understood by the Church. Although it is true that we Christians have at times incorrectly interpreted the Scriptures, nowadays we must forcefully reject the notion that our being created in God’s image and given dominion over the earth justifies absolute domination over other creatures. The biblical texts are to be read in their context, with an appropriate hermeneutic, recognizing that they tell us to “till and keep” the garden of the world (cf. Gen 2:15). “Tilling” refers to cultivating, ploughing or working, while “keeping” means caring, protecting, overseeing and preserving. This implies a relationship of mutual responsibility between human beings and nature. Each community can take from the bounty of the earth whatever it needs for subsistence, but it also has the duty to protect the earth and to ensure its fruitfulness for coming generations. “The earth is the Lord’s” (Ps 24:1); to him belongs “the earth with all that is within it” (Dt 10:14). Thus God rejects every claim to absolute ownership: “The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; for you are strangers and sojourners with me” (Lev 25:23).

This responsibility for God’s earth means that human beings, endowed with intelligence, must respect the laws of nature and the delicate equilibria existing between the creatures of this world, for “he commanded and they were created; and he established them for ever and ever; he fixed their bounds and he set a law which cannot pass away” (Ps 148:5b-6). The laws found in the Bible dwell on relationships, not only among individuals but also with other living beings. “You shall not see your brother’s donkey or his ox fallen down by the way and withhold your help… If you chance to come upon a bird’s nest in any tree or on the ground, with young ones or eggs and the mother sitting upon the young or upon the eggs; you shall not take the mother with the young” (Dt 22:4, 6). Along these same lines, rest on the seventh day is meant not only for human beings, but also so “that your ox and your donkey may have rest” (Ex 23:12). Clearly, the Bible has no place for a tyrannical anthropocentrism unconcerned for other creatures.

Ever read Matthew Scully’s amazing, life-changing book Dominion? You should. That last line of the encyclical is what Dominion is about. If Laudato Si speaks to you in any way, you need to buy Scully’s book.

More radical stuff from Francis:

A spirituality which forgets God as all-powerful and Creator is not acceptable. That is how we end up worshipping earthly powers, or ourselves usurping the place of God, even to the point of claiming an unlimited right to trample his creation underfoot. The best way to restore men and women to their rightful place, putting an end to their claim to absolute dominion over the earth, is to speak once more of the figure of a Father who creates and who alone owns the world. Otherwise, human beings will always try to impose their own laws and interests on reality. [Emphasis mine — RD]

Without recognizing that there are limits written into nature by nature’s God, there is nothing to keep humankind from transgressing nature, including human nature, to reshape it in our image. Says the Pope:

Nature is usually seen as a system which can be studied, understood and controlled, whereas creation 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.

This is an insight that the Church applies not only to industrial development, but also to all aspects of “transhumanism.” Laudato Si applies to Monsanto, but it also applies to Caitlyn Jenner. It applies to ExxonMobil, but it also applies to abortion rights advocates. More:

Neglecting to monitor the harm done to nature and the environmental impact of our decisions is only the most striking sign of a disregard for the message contained in the structures of nature itself. When we fail to acknowledge as part of reality the worth of a poor person, a human embryo, a person with disabilities – to offer just a few examples – it becomes difficult to hear the cry of nature itself; everything is connected. Once the human being declares independence from reality and behaves with absolute dominion, the very foundations of our life begin to crumble, for “instead of carrying out his role as a cooperator with God in the work of creation, man sets himself up in place of God and thus ends up provoking a rebellion on the part of nature.”

To elaborate further:

The basic problem goes even deeper: it is the way that humanity has taken up technology and its development according to an undifferentiated and one-dimensional paradigm. This paradigm exalts the concept of a subject who, using logical and rational procedures, progressively approaches and gains control over an external object. This subject makes every effort to establish the scientific and experimental method, which in itself is already a technique of possession, mastery and transformation. It is as if the subject were to find itself in the presence of something formless, completely open to manipulation. Men and women have constantly intervened in nature, but for a long time this meant being in tune with and respecting the possibilities offered by the things themselves. It was a matter of receiving what nature itself allowed, as if from its own hand. Now, by contrast, we are the ones to lay our hands on things, attempting to extract everything possible from them while frequently ignoring or forgetting the reality in front of us. Human beings and material objects no longer extend a friendly hand to one another; the relationship has become confrontational. This has made it easy to accept the idea of infinite or unlimited growth, which proves so attractive to economists, financiers and experts in technology.

Francis gives thanks for the scientific and technological advancements that have cured diseases and relieved poverty. His encyclical is not anti-science or anti-technology. The problem is that too many of us think that because we can do something, we are free to do it. “A technology severed from ethics will not easily be able to limit its own power,” he says:

But human beings are not completely autonomous. Our freedom fades when it is handed over to the blind forces of the unconscious, of immediate needs, of self-interest, and of violence. In this sense, we stand naked and exposed in the face of our ever-increasing power, lacking the wherewithal to control it. We have certain superficial mechanisms, but we cannot claim to have a sound ethics, a culture and spirituality genuinely capable of setting limits and teaching clear-minded self-restraint.

This, by the way, is Canto XXVI of Dante’s Inferno, and the lesson of Ulysses’s damnation. If you want to see what a poetic version of Laudato Si looks like, read the Divine Comedy. 

Francis challenges the entire project of modernity, and its myth of progress. He is not against modernity, and not against progress. But the measure of progress he uses is not the same as many others’:

All of this shows the urgent need for us to move forward in a bold cultural revolution. Science and technology are not neutral; from the beginning to the end of a process, various intentions and possibilities are in play and can take on distinct shapes. Nobody is suggesting a return to the Stone Age, but we do need to slow down and look at reality in a different way, to appropriate the positive and sustainable progress which has been made, but also to recover the values and the great goals swept away by our unrestrained delusions of grandeur.

Here is another part of Francis’s core argument:

 The universe as a whole, in all its manifold relationships, shows forth the inexhaustible riches of God. Saint Thomas Aquinas wisely noted that multiplicity and variety “come from the intention of the first agent” who willed that “what was wanting to one in the representation of the divine goodness might be supplied by another”, inasmuch as God’s goodness “could not be represented fittingly by any one creature”. Hence we need to grasp the variety of things in their multiple relationships. We understand better the importance and meaning of each creature if we contemplate it within the entirety of God’s plan. As the Catechism teaches: “God wills the interdependence of creatures. The sun and the moon, the cedar and the little flower, the eagle and the sparrow: the spectacle of their countless diversities and inequalities tells us that no creature is self-sufficient. Creatures exist only in dependence on each other, to complete each other, in the service of each other”.

Francis goes on to repeat an old idea in Catholic Christianity: reality is Trinitarian. Again, Dante builds his Commedia around this idea — literally, he structures the poem itself in homage to it, because it is at the poem’s thematic heart. What Pope Francis teaches in his encyclical is not new, but it is an old idea that the modern world desperately needs to rediscover:

The Father is the ultimate source of everything, the loving and self-communicating foundation of all that exists. The Son, his reflection, through whom all things were created, united himself to this earth when he was formed in the womb of Mary. The Spirit, infinite bond of love, is intimately present at the very heart of the universe, inspiring and bringing new pathways. The world was created by the three Persons acting as a single divine principle, but each one of them performed this common work in accordance with his own personal property. Consequently, “when we contemplate with wonder the universe in all its grandeur and beauty, we must praise the whole Trinity”.

For Christians, believing in one God who is trinitarian communion suggests that the Trinity has left its mark on all creation. Saint Bonaventure went so far as to say that human beings, before sin, were able to see how each creature “testifies that God is three”. The reflection of the Trinity was there to be recognized in nature “when that book was open to man and our eyes had not yet become darkened”. The Franciscan saint teaches us that each creature bears in itself a specifically Trinitarian structure, so real that it could be readily contemplated if only the human gaze were not so partial, dark and fragile. In this way, he points out to us the challenge of trying to read reality in a Trinitarian key.

The divine Persons are subsistent relations, and the world, created according to the divine model, is a web of relationships. 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. 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. In this way, they make their own that trinitarian dynamism which God imprinted in them when they were created. Everything is interconnected, and this invites us to develop a spirituality of that global solidarity which flows from the mystery of the Trinity.

Again and again, Francis repeats: Everything is connected. Our inability to perceive this truth about reality prevents us from understanding the root of our problems and doing something about it. Says the Pope:

Our difficulty in taking up this challenge seriously has much to do with an ethical and cultural decline which has accompanied the deterioration of the environment. Men and women of our postmodern world run the risk of rampant individualism, and many problems of society are connected with today’s self-centred culture of instant gratification. We see this in the crisis of family and social ties and the difficulties of recognizing the other.


I’m going to take up a specific case of this dynamic at work in a subsequent post.

Laudato Si is a rich, complex work. It doesn’t offer solutions — the Pope admits that the Church is not competent to offer technical advice — but it does provide a framework for discussing solutions. Francis says that rather than give up in the face of the immensity of the challenge, each of us would do well to live by St. Therese’s “little way”: doing what we ourselves can do, within the limits of our own particular circumstances, to restore harmony to creation by restoring it in our own hearts and lives. Even that would be a radical countercultural act, because it goes against the dominant paradigm of our time.

Ross Douthat says that Francis, in the encyclical, sees a clash between what Douthat usefully terms “Dynamists” and “Catastrophists”:

Dynamists are people who see 21st-century modernity as a basically successful civilization advancing toward a future that’s better than the past. They do not deny that problems exist, but they believe we can innovate our way through them while staying on an ever-richer, ever-more-liberated course.

Dynamists of the left tend to put their faith in technocratic government; dynamists of the right, in the genius of free markets. But both assume that modernity is a success story whose best days are ahead.

Catastrophists, on the other hand, see a global civilization that for all its achievements is becoming more atomized and balkanized, more morally bankrupt, more environmentally despoiled. What’s more, they believe that things cannot go on as they are: That the trajectory we’re on will end in crisis, disaster, dégringolade.

Like dynamists, catastrophists can be on the left or right, stressing different agents of our imminent demise. But they’re united in believing that current arrangements are foredoomed, and that only a true revolution can save us.

This is Pope Francis’ position, and the controlling theme of his encyclical.

I have been skeptical of Pope Francis’s pontificate, as you know, but on the matter of Laudato Si, and of harmony, communion, and incarnation, this Benedict-loving crunchy con is wholly Franciscan.