What difference does the encyclical make?

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If you have brought food, may I invite you to put it on the table? “Bless us, Lord, and all these gifts we have received through your goodness; and help us never to forget those who go hungry. Amen.”

Laudato Si’ (“Praise be to you, my Lord!”), Pope Francis’ recent encyclical letter subtitled “on care for our common home”, contains many pieces of spiritual advice. One of them is that we should cultivate “an attitude of the heart, one which approaches life with serene attentiveness… One expression of this attitude” Francis goes on, “is when we stop and give thanks to God before and after meals. I ask all believers,” he urges, “to return to this beautiful and meaningful custom. That moment of blessing, however brief, reminds us of our dependence on God for life; it strengthens our feeling of gratitude for the gifts of creation; it acknowledges those who by their labours provide us with these goods; and it reaffirms our solidarity with those in greatest need.” [226/7]

It seems to me that this is as good a summing up as any of the spirit of this encyclical. I was originally intending to go through what Francis describes as his “both joyful and troubling” reflection from beginning to end, but one of this Pope’s characteristics is what has been called the endearing untidiness of his appearance. You could say the same about Laudato Si’. Its 40,000 words make it the longest ever papal encyclical. One critic called it vague and verbose. I would not go that far, but the pope could perhaps have done with a better editor.

This is at heart a theological and philosophical document, and I am neither a theologian nor a philosopher. I came to it as a cradle Catholic, who has been involved for some years with various ecumenical groups meeting to share concern for environmental justice. I was excited as were many others at the prospect of a papal encyclical about the environment, and having read it, I felt I wanted to talk about it and spread its message.

But what difference does the encyclical make? What difference does any papal encyclical make? There have been more than one a year during the last century, but if you ask people which ones they remember, I suppose you might be lucky to get even a couple of names. Pacem in terris perhaps – the plea for world peace made 50 years ago in the wake of the Cuban missile crisis; and Humanae Vitae which confirmed the papal ban on artificial means of birth control.

Given the lack of progress with regard to nuclear disarmament and the widespread use of the pill by Catholics, you could perhaps say that each has made about as much difference as the other.

Traditionally encyclicals are circular letters from the Bishop of Rome to his fellow bishops. Laudato Si’ breaks the pattern as it is addressed – not directly or indirectly to the Catholic faithful – but instead “to every person living on this planet”. 

Yet as Stalin famously asked, “The Pope: how many divisions does he have?”

And Richard Dawkins in the second volume of his memoirs, writes that “faith seems ... to qualify as a kind of mental illness”. “What” he asks “has ‘theology’ ever said that is of the smallest use to anybody?” Clearly for Dawkins, the encyclical is not destined to make a great difference.

Nor does it apparently for the Bishop of Chester and Baron Donoughue (head of the Number 10 Policy Unit under Harold Wilson). Their 16-page paper published by the Global Warming Policy Foundation concludes that Laudato Si’ is “Well-meaning but somewhat naïve”.

A strong and detailed response to that paper has just been published by David Atkinson – you can read it via the John Ray Initiative website. Yet David himself takes Francis to task for what he says about population – namely that “demographic growth is fully compatible with an integral and shared development.” [50]

More publicly, Jeb Bush, candidate for the Republican nomination in next year’s presidential election, said about the encyclical that “I don’t get my economic policy from my bishops or my cardinals or my pope. I think religion ought to be about making us better as people, less about things [that] end up getting into the political realm.”

So, why the fuss? Well, as you probably recall, the headlines at the time the encyclical was released were all about a passage that you and I might regard as entirely uncontroversial, namely the sentences in the encyclical that read:

A very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climatic system… A number of scientific studies indicate that most global warming in recent decades is due to the great concentration of greenhouse gases… released mainly as a result of human activity.” [23]

Laudato Si’ does indeed say all the things that the extensive news coverage highlighted: it not only insists that climate change is the fault of man; but it calls for rapid conversion of our economies from coal, oil, and gas to renewable energy; and reminds us that the first victims of the environmental crisis are the poor. 

Francis’ contribution to the climate debate builds on the words of his predecessors—but for them ecological questions appear secondary by comparison.

As the writer Bill McKibben put it in the New York Review of Books, “Francis’s words fall as a rock in this pond, not a pebble. They help greatly to consolidate the momentum toward some kind of agreement at the global climate conference in Paris in December. On those grounds alone, Laudato Si’ can be said to stand as one of the most influential documents of recent times.”

But, McKibben goes on, if you read the whole encyclical, you realize that it is far more important than that. Instead of a narrow and focused contribution to the climate debate, it turns out to be nothing less than a sweeping critique of how we inhabit this planet—an ecological critique, yes, but also a moral, social, economic, and spiritual commentary.

One of the stand-out books written in the past 50 years, the name of which everyone remembers is Small Is Beautiful (1973), by E.F. Schumacher. Like that book, you can’t categorize the text of Laudato Si’ as liberal or conservative; there’s some of each, but it goes far deeper than political labels allow.

The ecological problems we face are not, in their origin, technological, says Francis. Instead, “a certain way of understanding human life and activity has gone awry, to the serious detriment of the world around us.” [101]

The pope is no Luddite (“Who can deny” he asks [103], “the beauty of an aircraft or a skyscraper?”) but he insists that we have succumbed to what he calls [101] a “technocratic paradigm,” which leads us to believe that “every increase in power means ‘an increase of “progress” itself’…as if reality, goodness and truth automatically flow from technological and economic power as such.” [105]

Men and women, he writes, have from the start “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.” [106]

In our world, however, “human beings and material objects no longer extend a friendly hand to one another; the relationship has become confrontational.” [106]

With the great power that technology has afforded us, it’s become “easy to accept the idea of infinite or unlimited growth, which proves so attractive to economists, financiers and experts in technology. It is based on the lie that there is an infinite supply of the earth’s goods, and this leads to the planet being squeezed dry beyond every limit.

Those of you who have been part of this Churches Environmental Justice Network for many years – or come to it from similar backgrounds – will not need me to go through the whole of Francis’ analysis, as it’s familiar territory.

In what he calls his “ethical and spiritual itinerary”, he writes not only about climate change, but also

  • pollution,
  • the issue of water,
  • loss of biodiversity,
  • the decline in the quality of human life,
  • the breakdown of society,
  • global inequality (the idea of a true ecological debt) – and
  • our weak responses to our parlous situation.

We need only take a frank look at the facts,” he says, “to see that our common home is falling into serious disrepair.”

Several main themes run through the text. Francis addresses them from a variety of different perspectives: besides his critique of the power derived from technology,

  • he returns again and again to the intimate relationship between the poor and the fragility of the planet, and the conviction that everything in the world is connected. Two obvious examples: “There has been a tragic rise in the number of migrants seeking to flee from the growing poverty caused by environmental degradation.” [25] and “War always does grave harm to the environment.” [57] We can’t escape the truth of these statements unless we never open a newspaper or listen to the wireless.
  • He calls for other ways of understanding the economy and progress.
  • He urges that we give the value proper to each creature. (“We have only one heart,” he writes, “and the same wretchedness which leads us to mistreat an animal will not be long in showing itself in our relationships with other people.” [92]).
  • He asks for forthright and honest debate. (“The Church” he says, “does not presume to settle scientific questions or to replace politics.” [188] And “On many concrete questions, the Church has no reason to offer a definitive opinion; she knows that honest debate must be encouraged among experts, while respecting divergent views.” [61])
  • He points to the serious responsibility of those in charge of international and local policy.
  • He proposes an end to the throwaway culture and
  • a new personal lifestyle. “A person who could afford to spend and consume more but regularly uses less heating and wears warmer clothes, shows the kind of convictions and attitudes which help to protect the environment. There is a nobility in the duty to care for creation through little daily actions.” [211] And “Living our vocation to be protectors of God’s handiwork is essential to a life of virtue; it is not an optional or a secondary aspect of our Christian experience.” [217]

There’s material here for many sermons and meditations. The chapter headed “The gospel of creation” alone references 50 biblical passages showing how our faith underpins our care both for nature and for the vulnerable.

In the Bible,” Francis says, “the God who liberates and saves is the same God who created the universe, and these two divine ways of acting are intimately and inseparably connected.” [73]

And “It is good for humanity and the world at large when we believers better recognize the ecological commitments which stem from our convictions.” [64]

In other words, we should practice what we preach.

Given that popes come with a reputation for voicing their personal views, it’s remarkable to see the number of times Francis acknowledges the insights of his fellow bishops from all around the world, of those from other Christian traditions and other faiths. This is reflected in the enthusiastic response the encyclical has had worldwide.

It’s a response too due to Francis as a man who was wont to travel round his diocese by bus. You can’t somehow see him flying to the Arctic Circle in order to talk about global warming.

Laudato Si’, even though written by the pope, makes no claim to infallibility. But in a word crying out for moral leadership, it feels authentic, just as in a stick of rock the name runs right though.

You can perhaps see that this is not a document that’s difficult to read. Yes, it contains some poetic language, but basically it has its feet on the ground: it’s about reality – and that’s a word that incidentally occurs more than 40 times.

And it’s because of this realism and directness that I believe the encyclical will make a difference. Anyone can understand most of it. Few can argue seriously with its main message.

Threaded through Laudato Si’ are words of encouragement:

  • Paragraph 12: “Rather than a problem to be solved, the world is a joyful mystery to be contemplated with gladness and praise.”
  • All it takes is one good person to restore hope!” [71]
  • If we acknowledge the value and the fragility of nature and, at the same time, our God-given abilities, we can finally leave behind the modern myth of unlimited material progress.” [78]
  • We can once more broaden our vision.” [112]
  • Truly much can be done!” [180]
  • All is not lost.” [205]
  • We are always capable of going out of ourselves towards the other.” [208]
  • The rich heritage of Christian spirituality, the fruit of twenty centuries of personal and communal experience, has a precious contribution to make to the renewal of humanity.” [216]
  • Let us sing as we go. May our struggles and our concern for this planet never take away the joy of our hope.” [244]

And going back to what Jeb Bush said: “I think religion ought to be about making us better as people.” Isn’t this precisely what Laudato Si’ achieves?


Martin Davis: 3rd September 2015