The Tragedy of Laudato Si’

The case of Pope Francis’ recent encyclical Laudato Si’ can be seen as tragic. This is not because it is the terrible document that some say it is; it is because so much of it is so good, and because it had the potential to be a truly great encyclical. Like a tragic hero, who is so admirable and so promising but who, through a combination of circumstances and his own flaws, comes to a bad end, Laudato Si’ is unlikely to be the positive force it should have been. Instead, it represents a missed opportunity to be a game-changing reflection and guide for Catholics and for the world, because particular elements have obscured and muffled its often-eloquent expression of Catholic social thought. Nonetheless, it is worthwhile to highlight some of what the encyclical has to offer.

As Pope Francis indicates, much of Laudato Si’ builds upon the writings of Pope Benedict and Pope Saint John Paul II. Appropriately enough, its strength is not in its treatment of the environment per se, but of people, and, in particular, of their relationships to the natural environment, the built environment, and each other. Remarking on our “throwaway culture,” Francis states:

If we approach nature and the environment without … openness to awe and wonder, if we no longer speak the language of fraternity and beauty in our relationship with the world, our at­titude will be that of masters, consumers, ruth­less exploiters, unable to set limits on their im­mediate needs. By contrast, if we feel intimately united with all that exists, then sobriety and care will well up spontaneously. The poverty and aus­terity of Saint Francis were no mere veneer of asceticism, but something much more radical: a refusal to turn reality into an object simply to be used and controlled.

The “disenchantment” of the modern world, in which everything is transformed into nothing but material for consumption and use, has been a matter of concern to philosophers for a century or more. It affects not just treatment of the natural world but people themselves, destroying piety, thankfulness, responsibility, and prudence. Ultimately, people become commodified along with the natural world. Contrary to some commentators on both left and right, Francis’ concerns do not make him some sort of nature-worshiping hippie. He finds that

Christian thought sees human beings as possessing a particular dignity above other creatures; it thus inculcates esteem for each person and respect for others…. Our relationship with the environment can never be isolated from our re­lationship with others and with God. Otherwise, it would be nothing more than romantic individ­ualism dressed up in ecological garb, locking us into a stifling immanence.

Francis likewise denounces a “culture of relativism” and the abandonment of fixed truths as a source of both human and ecological harm.

A great deal of the encyclical is best described as highly conservative. Francis finds that there “are signs that the growth of the past two centuries has not always led to an integral development and an im­provement in the quality of life. Some of these signs are also symptomatic of real social decline, the silent rupture of the bonds of integration and social cohesion.” He expresses concern about “the continued acceleration of changes af­fecting humanity and the planet is coupled to­day with a more intensified pace of life and work which might be called ‘rapidification.’” In today’s cities “it becomes difficult to pause and recover depth in life. If architecture reflects the spirit of an age, our megastructures and drab apartment blocks express the spirit of globalized technology, where a constant flood of new products coexists with a tedious monotony. Let us refuse to resign ourselves to this, and con­tinue to wonder about the purpose and meaning of everything.”

Concerns about technology and modern life run throughout the encyclical. For Francis, “when media and the digital world become omnipresent, their influence can stop people from learning how to live wisely, to think deeply and to love generously. In this con­text, the great sages of the past run the risk of going unheard amid the noise and distractions of an information overload.” While some of the benefits of modernity and technology are noted, the losses, including psychic and cultural losses that are potentially experienced by mankind in the modern world, emerge as a major theme. Francis understands how powerfully science and technology influence human life and thought, not always for the better:

It can be said that many problems of today’s world stem from the tendency, at times unconscious, to make the method and aims of science and technology an epistemological par­adigm which shapes the lives of individuals and the workings of society. The effects of imposing this model on reality as a whole, human and so­cial, are seen in the deterioration of the environ­ment, but this is just one sign of a reductionism which affects every aspect of human and social life. We have to accept that technological prod­ucts are not neutral, for they create a framework which ends up conditioning lifestyles and shap­ing social possibilities along the lines dictated by the interests of certain powerful groups. Deci­sions which may seem purely instrumental are in reality decisions about the kind of society we want to build.

Given such remarks it is not surprising that some of the encyclical’s harshest critics are those who most enthusiastically champion technology and “growth” as the solutions to life’s problems. Yet Francis is quite clear that he is not rejecting these, but is calling for “healthier, more human, more social, more integral” approaches, to ensure that technology and development actually contribute to better and more fulfilling human lives. He also, like John Paul II, emphasizes the dignity of work and states that people have a “vocation to work,” and criticizes technological development focused on displacing workers rather than making life better for all.

Francis’ concerns echo those that abound in traditional-conservative and related thought today. His remarks on economics—always some of his most controversial material—are particularly notable:

In order to continue providing employ­ment, it is imperative to promote an economy which favors productive diversity and business creativity. For example, there is a great variety of small-scale food production systems which feed the greater part of the world’s peoples, us­ing a modest amount of land and producing less waste, be it in small agricultural parcels, in or­chards and gardens, hunting and wild harvesting or local fishing. Economies of scale, especially in the agricultural sector, end up forcing small­holders to sell their land or to abandon their tra­ditional crops. Their attempts to move to other, more diversified, means of production prove fruitless because of the difficulty of linkage with regional and global markets, or because the infra­structure for sales and transport is geared to larg­er businesses. Civil authorities have the right and duty to adopt clear and firm measures in support of small producers and differentiated produc­tion. To ensure economic freedom from which all can effectively benefit, restraints occasionally have to be imposed on those possessing great­er resources and financial power. To claim eco­nomic freedom while real conditions bar many people from actual access to it, and while possi­bilities for employment continue to shrink, is to practice a doublespeak which brings politics into disrepute.

These remarks very much bring to mind the mid-twentieth century German economist Wilhelm Roepke, who was influenced by, and whose work exerted influence on, Catholic social thought. Roepke deplored the modern era’s “cult of the colossal”; he saw value in simple living, village life, and, especially, small-scale economics. To Roepke, the modern era is characterized by the “proletarianization” of people, including those in the relatively affluent middle and upper-middle classes, in contrast with earlier eras in which people were less dependent upon large-scale structures. Roepke’s twin evils are big government and domineering big business; he considered both socialism and the wrong sort of “capitalism” (often, but not exclusively, of what might be called the “crony” sort) to be dehumanizing and disempowering, and in fact to be not so unlike one another.

Roepke proposed a “third way”—not the sort of bureaucracy-driven compromise that is often pursued between the two, but a different approach, in which we look at how public policies shape markets, and make efforts, not to suppress markets, but to foster the kinds of markets that encourage decentralization and small-scale activity instead of promoting excessive large-scale economic centralization.

Francis’ embrace of localism extends from economics to environmental stewardship: “…local in­dividuals and groups can make a real difference. They are able to instill a greater sense of respon­sibility, a strong sense of community, a readi­ness to protect others, a spirit of creativity and a deep love for the land. They are also concerned about what they will eventually leave to their chil­dren and grandchildren.” This is a dominant theme of How to Think Seriously about the Planet: The Case for an Environmental Conservatism, a recent book by the British philosopher Roger Scruton. It also echoes the conservatism of the eighteenth-century British statesman Edmund Burke. Moreover, echoing such thinkers as Burke and the mid-twentieth century sociologist Robert Nisbet, Francis emphasizes the role of family:

In the family we first learn how to show love and respect for life; we are taught the proper use of things, order and cleanliness, respect for the local ecosystem and care for all creatures. In the family we receive an integral education, which enables us to grow harmoniously in personal maturity. In the family we learn to ask without demanding, to say “thank you” as an expression of genuine gratitude for what we have been given, to control our aggres­sivity and greed, and to ask forgiveness when we have caused harm.

Some readers will no doubt take exception to various dimensions of Laudato Si’ that have been presented positively here, though it is hoped that many others will see value in them. But why have the issues and questions presented here been virtually absent from public discussion of the encyclical? The answer is no secret, and hinges on two features of this encyclical that effectively “poison the well.”

First and most obvious is Francis’ forceful and unequivocal embrace of anthropogenic global warming, the most hotly debated scientific question of our time. This was guaranteed to overshadow everything else; the media would have you believe that Laudato Si’ is “the climate change encyclical” even though only small portions of it directly address this topic. Moreover, according to a recent Pew poll, only 47 percent of American Catholics share the Pope’s view on this scientific claim; since it is not treated as a contestable question, the encyclical’s calls for “discussion,” “dialogue,” and “ideas” can only ring hollow among those who disagree, and a hostile reception to the entire document is practically assured.

Second, and also widely treated, is the matter of economics and politics. Commentators on left and right appear to have agreed to understand this encyclical (and, in fact, most communications from Pope Francis) as “socialist” and “anti-capitalist” or anti-market. The fact is that for all such talk, very little “smoking gun” language can be found in Laudato Si’. It is more a matter of selective interpretation. Yet, one cannot place all the blame on the interpreters. Although Francis speaks in favor of business, overtones of particularly unsophisticated aspects of leftist ideology can be sensed throughout the encyclical, not so much through what is said, but through how things are said and, especially, through what is left unsaid.

One of these common errors of the ideological left is a tendency to identify some of the worst aspects of modernity, including its materialism, with “capitalism” or markets, even though socialism is an explicitly materialist ideology and hardly has a stellar track record. The Soviet Bloc was infamous for both its environmental degradation and its disempowering statism (to say nothing of its dehumanizing apartment blocks), but one gets no sense of an awareness of this from Francis. Indeed, Roger Scruton has noted many cases in which even milder forms of centralized statism—such as that in the E.U.—have contributed to environmental harm and compromised human safety.

Furthermore, many thinkers like Robert Nisbet have noted how statism damages families, local communities, and the kinds of secondary associations (including churches) that Francis celebrates. Yet, when the encyclical discusses solutions to problems, one gets the sense that, in practice, they would all amount to greater bureaucratic centralization and less freedom. This points toward another common tendency: the pairing of strong aversion to private sector power with naive confidence in even greater concentrations of power in the state (or in supra-national entities), as if the human beings controlling such bodies were not likewise fallen.

John Paul II made clear in his encyclicals that he was not taking sides in old conflicts between the advocates of socialism and the unqualified supporters of all aspects of existing market-based societies, but was offering a different perspective that transcended these tired and narrow-minded debates. In contrast, for all the good it contains, Francis has done little to prevent his encyclical from being popularly interpreted—and dismissed—as just one more voice from the same old left. Consequently, the promise of stimulating fresh, deeper thought, informed by a Catholic perspective, is likely to remain unfulfilled. This is the tragedy, and missed opportunity, of Laudato Si’. It is far more likely to add heat to entrenched conflicts among established political forces than it is to add light to matters with which we all should be vitally concerned.

(Photo credit: Reuters)

William F. Byrne


William F. Byrne is Associate Professor of Government and Politics at St. John’s University (NY), and is the author of Edmund Burke for Our Time: Moral Imagination, Meaning, and Politics.