Mother Pelican
A Journal of Solidarity and Sustainability

Vol. 14, No. 6, June 2018
Luis T. Gutiérrez, Editor
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Third Anniversary of the Encyclical Laudato Si'

Luis T. Gutiérrez

June 2018

"All of this shows the urgent need for us to move forward in a bold cultural revolution."
Pope Francis, Laudato Si' #114

The encyclical Laudato Si' was published by Pope Francis in June 2015. This is a personal reflection on the wise guidance provided by the encyclical, some of the most significant responses during the past three years, and the outlook for taking care of our "common home" in the years ahead.

Brief Overview of the Encyclical

Laudato Si' is, without a doubt, the most beautiful and comprehensive statement that has been written about the ecological crisis facing humanity. Beautiful, because it portrays the entire community of creation as a gift of divine love. Comprehensive, because it deals with the ecological crisis as it pertains to all dimensions of life. Thus it captures the concrete totality of the ecological crisis as a threat to both the gift of love and the gift of life, and conveys the moral obligation to challenge "business as usual."

The introductory paragraphs state the gravity of the situation, the futility of trying to ignore that the crisis is real, and the ethical implications based on biblical revelation and Catholic social doctrine. After the introduction, the encyclical is structured in six chapters which can be summarized as follows:

  1. What is happening to our common home ~ physical disruption, chemical toxification, biological degradation, resource depletion, social inequities, manipulations of the planetary ecology that may impact natural climate variability.
  2. The gospel of Creation ~ the mystery of creation in the biblical tradition, the community of creation in light of the Christian faith, natural resources and the common good, universal communion of humans and the human habitat.
  3. The human roots of the ecological crisis ~ delusions of the technocratic paradigm, domineering anthropocentrism exacerbated by the power of fossil fuels, globalization of the relativistic culture of wealth accumulation, need for a "bold cultural revolution."
  4. Integral ecology ~ humanity as an integral part of the natural world, ecology of daily life, cultural ecology, integration of the social economic and ecological dimensions, principle of the common good, intergenerational justice.
  5. Lines of approach and action ~ need for dialogue about ecological issues at the local, national, and international levels, need for transparency in governance, need for some form of world authority, principle of subsidiarity, integral human development.
  6. Ecological education and spirituality ~ new lifestyles, education for harmony between humanity and the human habitat, ecological conversion, sacramental signs, Trinitarian model of interpersonal communion, the queen of creation, beyond solar light.

The encyclical describes the complexities of ecological issues and the moral imperative to face them yet refrains from formulating specific courses of action. This is precisely what makes it so appealing: it is not a condescending teaching that presumes to offer simplistic prescriptions of what to do or not to do. On the contrary, it is addressed to all men and women of good will, inviting them to a constructive dialogue about what can be sensibly done at all levels (local, national, international) to foster both integral human development and an integral renewal of the entire community of creation. The term "integral" is key. It means that all dimensions of human and nonhuman realities must be considered, because nothing is unrelated to the care of our common home.

Wide Variety of Responses

Responses to the encyclical have ranged from extremely positive to extremely negative, from admiring enthusiasm to visceral rejection, mostly depending on the ideological predispositions of various stakeholders. Among the Catholic faithful, and in Catholic institutions worldwide, the reception has been generally positive, albeit well short of massive manifestations of "ecological conversion."

Most people who can enjoy the convenience of electricity and relatively cheap fossil energy are not willing to change their lifestyles for the sake of pristine landscapes. The addiction to consumerism is hard to overcome, and the concurrent phenomena of globalization and telecommunications are reinforcing the frenzy of production and consumption growth even as physical disruption, chemical toxification, and biodiversity decimation are increasingly impacting the planetary ecology, including undeniable adverse effects on human health. Needless to say, human suffering is not equally distributed, with the poor suffering the most from all forms of ecological degradation, including climate change.

It is unfortunate that Laudato Si' is often referred to as the "climate encyclical." That climate change is being significantly exacerbated by anthropogenic factors is a hypothesis that sounds reasonable but is impossible to prove or disprove experimentally. Natural climate change is real and undeniable, but anthropogenic climate change is conjectural and conveniently deniable. The moral teaching of the encyclical, however, would not change one iota if the climate were to remain invariant, or if it turns out that the climate continues to change within the bounds of natural variability.

The encyclical does mention climate change several times, and would seem to suggest that human activity is a significant factor, but the core moral message is about caring for the planet as our common home and in a way that is socially and ecologically fair to all people, especially the poor. To this end, the encyclical has spawned many significant Catholic initiatives worldwide, such as the Global Catholic Climate Movement and the Pan-Amazonian Ecclesial Network.

Third Anniversary of the Encyclical

As we approach the third anniversary of Pope Francis' encyclical, the pace of change in all dimensions of human civilization seems to be increasing increasingly and is impacting the entire fabric of human relations and planetary ecology more and more deeply. It is no longer just a matter of superficial changes induced by politicians practicing "the art of the possible" while dealing with issues of economic globalization, massive migration, and social media frenzy. Local, national, and even regional issues are no longer separable from issues of global political ecology.

It is now becoming increasingly evident that demographic imbalances and the ecological degradation induced by human consumption can be distinguished but cannot be separated. Everybody, everywhere, rich and poor, is now at risk of drinking microplastics in bottled water. Population growth is becoming the primary driver of all ecological impacts; even if the entire world population were to adopt a lifestyle of bare subsistence, a perpetually growing population in a finite planet is a biophysical impossibility.

Since an ethical system cannot be based on a biophysical impossibility, it would seem that Laudato Si' may have overstated the consumerism issue and understated the demographic issue. Limits to growth can become operative in multiple dimensions. Surely, energy and other natural resources eventually would become limiting. But even if technological advances make it possible to squeeze more and more biophysical resources from the planet, scarcity of essentials and social inequities would translate into social limits to growth that potentially include violence and wars, and even genocide.

The bottom line is that human civilization cannot stand in splendid isolation from the entire community of creation. We may be at the threshold of an ecological crisis of biblical proportions, one that will require a quantum leap in human evolution and is wisely foreseen in the encyclical: "All of this shows the urgent need for us to move forward in a bold cultural revolution." (LS 114)

What Kind of Cultural Revolution?

Early in 2015, in the airplane returning from Manila, Pope Francis had mentioned the urgent need to practice responsible parenthood and casually added that Catholics "don't need to breed like rabbits." Later that same year, in a more formal setting, he shared the opinion that "we are not living an era of change but a change of era."

What is the "era" that is about to change? LS 118 may provide a hint:

"This situation has led to a constant schizophrenia, wherein a technocracy which sees no intrinsic value in lesser beings coexists with the other extreme, which sees no special value in human beings. But one cannot prescind from humanity. 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”. A misguided anthropocentrism need not necessarily yield to “biocentrism”, for that would entail adding yet another imbalance, failing to solve present problems and adding new ones. Human beings cannot be expected to feel responsibility for the world unless, at the same time, their unique capacities of knowledge, will, freedom and responsibility are recognized and valued."

Formulating a new synthesis of capitalism and socialism to improve social/ecological justice is necessary, but not sufficient. Experience, in Cuba and elsewhere, confirms that socialism is capitalism turned inside out, and any new mix of materialist systems would fail to resolve the fundamental issue as long as the delusions of human domination over nature prevail in the global culture.

Such "delusions of grandeur" (LS 114) have been historically reinforced by a conveniently biased interpretation of Genesis 1:28 and an equally convenient disregard for Genesis 2:15. Actually, it goes back all the way to the prehistorical tragedy of original sin and its primary and most universal consequence, succinctly stated in Genesis 3:16; for the man-nature relation is a mirror of the man-woman relation.

Thus it would seem that transcending patriarchy, the culture of male hegemony that emerged after original sin, is also a necessary condition for navigating the ecological crisis. Else, it is hard to imagine how we can evolve from Anthropocentrism to Ecocentrism, let alone how Homo sapiens can further evolve from being Homo economicus to being Homo ecologicus. The principles of solidarity, sustainability, and subsidiarity, as proposed in Catholic Social Doctrine, point in the right direction; but it is time to recognize that religious patriarchy is an obstacle to integral human development and an integral ecology whereby humans behave as members of the community of creation rather than just users, let alone exploiters.

An Integral Anthropology for an Integral Ecology

"Everything is connected." (LS 91, 117). "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." (LS 118)

Gender shapes the world. The gender dimension of the ecological crisis is not explicitly mentioned in the encyclical, but is bound to emerge as we foster a conscious cultural evolution ("revolution"?) pursuant to an integral ecology. For an integral ecology, we need integral human development, i.e., development of the entire person in relation to other persons and nature. This in turn requires an integral anthropology that heals man-woman relations from the curse of sexism, and paves the way for healing man-nature relations from ecological sexism. Such healing has been made possible by the redemption, which is not only about the soul but includes the redemption of the body and the redemption of the entire community of creation. (LS 11, 62, 98, 124, 137ff) The Christian faith is about God made flesh, not about abstractions. Laudato Si' makes this abundantly clear, and is the best guidance we have for discernment and action as the ecological crisis unfolds.

Human development, if not engendered, is endangered. Specifically on the population growth issue, responsible parenthood is the one and only answer. But responsible parenthood is practically impossible as long as men and women relate to each other as sexual objects rather than personal subjects, and as long as gender relations are animated more by biology than by interpersonal communion. It boils down to applying the Ignatian first principle and foundation in the multidimensional context of human ecology. Everything is negotiable but not the failure to internalize that man and woman are created to form families that must become images of the divine Family; for God is a Family, a communion of divine persons. Announcing and exemplifying this "good news" is the most splendid challenge that the ecological crisis poses for Christians: how to bring the gospel of creation, together with the gospel of salvation, to 7.5 billion people, many of them living in abject poverty. A daunting mission but, whereas politics is the art of the possible, nothing is impossible with God.

*        *        *

In brief, this personal reflection about Laudato Si' can be summarized by reiterating that attaining an integral ecology is contingent on integral human development, which in turn is contingent on an integral anthropology that fosters interpersonal communion and care for our common home. The encyclical endeavors to be comprehensive, and covers many topics because practically nothing is unrelated to human ecology, but this is the essential message: we better start working with nature rather than exploiting it and evading responsibility. It is basic common sense; there is no magical fix that will get humanity off the hook when the human habitat is destroyed. A recent report by the Club of Rome acknowledges the encyclical and reiterates the same message. Many men and women of good will are now willing to face reality, but a critical mass of global citizens is needed to overcome "business as usual." Readers who have yet to study the encyclical should do so and draw their own conclusions.


Luis T. Gutiérrez is the editor of the Mother Pelican Journal of Solidarity and Sustainability.

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"We are not living an era of change but a change of era."

Pope Francis, 10 November 2015


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