My household relies on one of those old-style push lawnmowers with rotary blades and no engine. I like it for a couple of reasons. First, it’s quiet: I can mow and still talk to my kids. Second, it meets two needs at once: the lawn needs cut and I need exercise. I’ll admit that it doesn’t always do a great job when the grass gets particularly long. However, the only thing it’s cost us in the last ten years is a little bit of lapping compound (to sharpen the blades).
As I was mowing last week I was thinking about Pope Francis’s 2015 encyclical letter Laudito Si (On Care for Our Common Home). Like most people, I usually think about papal documents as I cut the grass. Laudito Si has been on my to-read list for a while. I tried reading through it online a few times (available here), but because reading on a screen stinks I never finished it.
A few weeks ago I bought a printed copy of Laudito Si. It’s a ‘letter’ that reads like a book (104 pages). Having a book in front of me is better motivation than a virtual bookmark. A few people have asked me what I think of Pope Francis’s encyclical. That’s why I was mulling it over as I walked the mower back and forth. Here are a few of my thought on the Pope’s longish letter:
- That fact of Laudito Si – This papal document is one of those things that accomplishes something simply by existing. The fact that Francis would dedicate this much thought and effort to the matter of environmental care has sent a powerful signal. Laudito Si creates a useful platform for faith communities working with others to make progress on these common concerns.
- Recognizing science – Catholics have done a better job positively engaging the hard sciences than have many other Christian traditions. The first chapter of Laudito Si provides a helpful summary of the warning signs and current environmental damage already cataloged by a number of scientific disciplines (i.e. climate change, water pollution, decline in biodiversity, and related effects on human populations). That these issues are described within the covers of a church document is important.
- Theological convictions – It should be the case that Christian communities take these matters seriously. It should be the case that Christian theology provides strong guardrails to keep economic development in line. Francis shows why this is the case, saying for instance, “Clearly, the Bible has no place for a tyrannical anthropocentrism unconcerned for other creatures.” The document does not, however, say much about why these convictions have had little impact over the last 200 years.
- An integrated vision – Francis commends an approach he calls an integral ecology. He differs from some environmentalists who think that the answer to the climate crises lies in drawing down the human population. Francis does not see the flourishing of humans in an essential conflict with the flourishing of the rest of creation. He sees our current ecological crises as a sign of the deep ethical, cultural and spiritual crises of modernity. Concern for the poor and concern for creation are not in competition.
- Use of religious language – It may sound obvious, but I think it is important that Laudito Si makes use of religious language. Thus Francis can call for an “ecological conversion” when many others are reduced to using less powerful terms. Conversion is a good word here, because what is needed is not merely a few policy tweaks or a couple of new habits (those both of those could be good). What is needed is a deep change, a movement, personal and corporate, toward a new kind of fullness and a new kind of liberation. This is a conversion toward a more “contemplative lifestyle, one capable of deep enjoyment free of the obsession with consumption.”
I’m of the conviction that the last few years have shown us (once again) some serious limitations with Catholic polity. My hope is that in the coming years Laudito Si shows us some positive effects of elevating one person and one voice as highly as the Catholic office of the Pope does.