The Philosophy of Laudato Si

Much has already been written about Pope Francis new encyclical.  A great deal of that writing has analyzed the letter through a political lens.  This is not illegitimate, as Pope Francis raises many issues that are explicitly political.  And the mixing of politics and religion is rarely without controversy.

But for this article I would like to focus on the middle section of his letter.  The first part Laudato Si (LS), addresses the perceived ecological problem.  The large sections at the end are about how to deal with the problem.  But the middle establishes the philosophy on which Francis builds his ecological ethic.

What Francis presents is a fundamental rejection of a universe at which man is at the center.  There are many environmentalists who would agree with Francis but they have a different reason.  This is why I think some may misunderstand LS as a letter that devalues man at the expense of the other creatures in the natural world.  Some environmentalists would place the planet at the center with man as simply another species on it.  But Francis does not propose a planet-centric ecology.  This is what makes the philosophy of this letter so important to understand.  Francis asks “To whom does the natural world belong?”  Does it belong to man?  No.  Does it belong to itself?  No.

Nature belongs to God.

Fundamental to Francis’ understanding of the world is a rejection of the world’s Summum Bonum.  The “Summum Bonum” means “Greatest Good.”  Each culture and age is defined by what it considers to be the greatest good of the society.  Dr. Peter Kreeft has often made note of how Western civilization changed its Summum Bonum from the medieval period and into the Renaissance and Age of Enlightenment.

In the Middle Ages, the greatest good of society was “goodness.”  This was reflected in harmony with each other and harmony with God.  In those days, the common response to being in the presence of a great mountain would be to feel wonder at awe at its majesty.  The mountain made you think of the greatness of God’s design and that beauty would inspire art and poetry and a reflection on God who is Beauty Itself.

But during the Renaissance and Enlightenment, the greatest good of society shifted away from an appreciation of nature to a conquest of nature.  There became a burning urge to explore new frontiers assert the will of man of the natural world.  In this mindset, a person would look at a mountain and instead of receptive appreciation they would want to climb to the top.  “Why climb a mountain?”  The answer from this age is: “Because it’s there.”

There is nothing wrong with exploration, experimentation, or even mountain climbing per se.  In fact, doing such things led to great advancements in technology and science, not to mention to discovery of America (not the mountain climbing part though).  But the philosophy underneath this movement is what Francis finds troubling.

LS says that it is a misread of Genesis to say that humans own the planet.  The earth is not ours.  It is God’s.  This fundamental difference tells us that we are not its owners but its stewards or caretakers.  We cannot do to the planet anything at all that we wish.

Anyone who has seen my car can tell you that it is messy (to be charitable).  But it is my car and if I feel like throwing my McDonald’s bag on the car floor after it has been emptied of its McGoodness, I will do so without hesitation.  But I find that when I travel in someone else’s car, I am very careful about leaving any trash.  Why the difference?  Because one is mine to do with as I will and the other is not.  Out of respect I must maintain that car as the owner wishes.

God is the owner of Earth.  We must take care of the Earth not because man is beholden to the Earth; we are beholden to God.  And God designed His creation not for us alone but for Himself.

The words of LS remind me of the great Cosmic Dance at the end of CS Lewis’ amazing novel Perelandra.  The main character is on an alien world and is given a vision of God’s design of an interconnected cosmos:”Though men or angels rule them, the worlds are for themselves. The waters you have not floated on, the fruit you have not plucked, the caves into which you have not descended and the fire through which your bodies cannot pass, do not await your coming to put on perfection, though they will obey you when you come….Be comforted, small immortals. You are not the voice that all things utter, nor is there eternal silence in the places where you cannot come. No feet have walked, nor shall, on the ice of Glund; no eye looked up from beneath on the Ring of Lurga, and Ironplain in Neruval is chaste and empty. Yet it is not for nothing that the gods walked ceaselessly around the fields of Arbol. Blessed be He!”

Notice that it is not man which gives meaning to the universe and the universe does not give itself meaning.  Only God can give it meaning.  There are parts of this cosmos that no human being will ever explore or experience.  But that does not make them pointless.  They were made by God and so have meaning.

Francis wants to get away from a mindset that looks at nature as mere utility.  He defines this as the “technocratic paradigm” which  “exalts the concept of a subject… gains control over an external object… It is as if the subject were to find itself in the presence of something form- less, completely open to manipulation.” (LS 106)  In other words, this modern way of looking at things sees the world as a blank slate to be remade after whatever fashion man can think of.

But the universe is not a blank slate.  It is made with a nature.  To ignore that the things God has made have within them a certain designed nature leads to fundamental errors not only in the ecology of the environment but also in the human person.  Think about how this philosophy has led to “gay marriage” and the hoopla over Bruce Jenner.  I think of the character Ian Malcolm from the movie Jurassic Park who said “Your scientists were so busy trying to see if they could that the didn’t bother to think if they should.”  This is not a rejection of scientific and technological progress.  For Francis, it is not a question whether man can find a way to be better at discovery.

 It is about whether we can discover a way to make man better.

And by “better” we mean more in harmony with God and with our fellow man.  And if we can enter in to that appreciation of nature at the heart of LS, I think that we will find joy.  It is the joy that we feel at the pink clouds of a sunset or the smell of rocks warming after the rain or the morning chirping of the robins.  In those moments we are invited to enter into the praise that nature gives to God.  I do not mean to imply Mother Nature is a conscious person, but God’s creation reflects His goodness.  We can be caught up in that reflected “song” of praise.

I am left with the lyrics of the late, great song-writer Rich Mullins who wrote “The Color Green,” a song very much in keeping with the philosophy of LS.  In fact the first word of the refrain are “Be praised” which is the English translation of Laudato Si:

“Be praised for all your tenderness by these works of your hands.  Suns that rise and rains that fall to bless and bring to life Your land.  Look down upon this winter wheat and be glad that You have made blue for the sky and the color green that fills these fields with praise.”

Copyright © 2015, W.L.Grayson

W.L. Grayson

W.L. Grayson

I am a devoutly Catholic theology teacher who loves a popular culture that often, quite frankly, hates me. I grew up absorbing every movie, TV show, comic book, science fiction novel, etc. I could find. As of today I’ve watched over 2100 movies and tv shows. They take up a huge part of my life. I don’t know that this is a good thing, but it has given me a common vocabulary to draw from in order to illustrate whatever theological point I make in class. I’ve used American Pie the song to explain the Book of Revelation (I’ll post on this some time later) and American Pie the movie to help explain Eucharist (don’t ask). The point is that the popular culture is popular for a reason. It is woven into the fabric of our lives and imaginations, for good or ill. In this blog I will attempt to bring together the things of heaven with the things of earth. Of course this goal may be too lofty for someone like me.

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