The Catholic Church has embraced a radical position on sharing the world’s resources, one that we would all do well to heed and ponder. But the real significance of Laudato Si’ is its powerful message on the centrality of ending poverty for healing the wider crises of climate change and environmental degradation.
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This is an undeniably radical message from such a historically conservative establishment, one that goes even further than previous encyclicals – such as those of Pope Benedict and John Paul II – which also provided an unequivocal critique of unbridled market forces and advocated, in various ways, for stronger regulation of the international economy and global forms of redistribution. Pope Francis draws extensively on the writings of earlier saints and pontiffs, although the tone and feel of his eloquent letter is decidedly down-to-earth and accessible, including the practical guidance to individuals (of relevance to laypeople as much as the religiously inclined) for how to live more simply and overcome the “utilitarian mindset” that defines the individualistic consumer culture of modern times (see chapter six).
So it’s no wonder that prominent climate activists like Bill McKibben and Naomi Klein are standing behind the Pope’s call to action, while many in the progressive community are saying he’s “right on the economics” as well as on the science of global warming. However what’s truly unique about Laudato Si’ is not its overall policy guidelines or the scathing analysis of market fundamentalism, but its deep concern for the poorest in society along with an underlying and passionate conviction: that the climate and inequality crises are inextricably interconnected. This can be understood as the real import of Pope Francis’ discourse, bearing in mind his insistence that it should be read as a ‘social teaching’ rather than a green manifesto. As he succinctly puts it in the first chapter: “The human environment and the natural environment deteriorate together; we cannot adequately combat environmental degradation unless we attend to causes related to human and social degradation” (49).
Again and again he returns to this central theme, variously repeating how “everything is connected” and thus if we fail to hear the cries of the poorest among us, it becomes “difficult to hear the cry of nature itself” (117). Warning against both a misguided anthropocentrism as well as ‘biocentrism’ (i.e. focusing on environmental concerns above all else), he further warns: “There can be no renewal of our relationship with nature without a renewal of humanity itself. There can be no ecology without an adequate anthropology. When the human person is considered as simply one being among others, the product of chance or physical determinism, then our overall sense of responsibility wanes” (118).
This paragraph among all the others is worth quoting in full and reflecting upon:
“In the present condition of global society, where injustices abound and growing numbers of people are deprived of basic human rights and considered expendable, the principle of the common good immediately becomes, logically and inevitably, a summons to solidarity and a preferential option for the poorest of our brothers and sisters. This option entails recognizing the implications of the universal destination of the world’s goods, but, as I mentioned in the Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, it demands before all else an appreciation of the immense dignity of the poor in the light of our deepest convictions as believers. We need only look around us to see that, today, this option is in fact an ethical imperative essential for effectively attaining the common good” (158).
Indeed whether we are believers or not, it is arguable that a fairer and more sustainable distribution of resources throughout society can only result from an urgent understanding of the “period of self-destruction” that we are living in, and the need to adopt new lifestyles and new modes of economic organisation that affirm a sense of “universal fraternity” (228), especially “with those in greatest need” (227). It follows that a vast educational endeavour is required to overcome the “excessive anthropocentrism which today… continues to stand in the way of shared understanding and of any effort to strengthen social bonds” (116). Such is the subject of the final chapter that discusses the social mindset and behaviours that reflect a more enlightened understanding of responsible stewardship in place of the old “techno-economic paradigm”.
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