Laudato Si’ and the Common Good

Pope Francis does not settle science or replace politics but opens doors and hearts to the fullness of creation.

What business is it of the pope what goes on in politics and science? That’s a question that has come up in recent days and weeks surrounding the release of Pope Francis’s much-anticipated encyclical on ecology. Laudato Si’ (“Praise be to you” — the title comes from the beginning of a canticle addressed to Jesus Christ by St. Francis of Assisi) presents a fuller vision of creation and our responsibilities toward it than we’re liable to see on any given Vanity Fair Caitlyn Jenner cover-story reading day.

“The Church has the duty of scrutinizing the signs of the times and of interpreting them in the light of the Gospel” is what Gaudium et Spes (Joy and Hope), the document on “the Church in the modern world” that came out of the Second Vatican Council, said about just this kind of thing. “In Laudato Si’, Pope Francis is applying the teachings of the Church to one of the most important and also meaningful controversies of our time,” says Matthew Bunson, senior correspondent for Our Sunday Visitor and editor of the Catholic Almanac. “In doing so,” Bunson says, “he builds his encyclical on the legacy of Catholic Social Teaching. Like his predecessors in their social encyclicals, Francis is not concerned with settling some scientific dispute, nor does he claim competence to do so. Rather, he reminds the world that the Church has the task of guiding discussions toward the deeper realities of issues and crises and to offer prudent and timely advice.”

The encyclical in fact says, “The Church does not presume to settle scientific questions or to replace politics.”

RELATED: The Pope’s Encyclical, at Heart, Is About Us, Not Trees and Snail Darters

Bunson observes: “To deny the right of the Church to speak on such matters is to suggest that Pope Leo XIII should not have waded into the question of labor, that Paul VI should not have interfered with the scientists who had perfected contraception, and that the Church should remain silent on cloning and embryonic research.” In each of these cases, papal encyclicals have furthered conversation, stirred up controversy, and informed consciences.

Around the same time as Gaudium et Spes was issued — at the end of the Second Vatican Council, nearly half a century ago — Pope Paul VI pled in a letter to the women of the world: “Reconcile men with life and above all, we beseech you, watch carefully over the future of our race. Hold back the hand of man, who, in a moment of folly, might attempt to destroy human civilization.” (Pope Benedict reissued this same plea in the fall of 2012.) Pleading with humanity to take a look at what it is or may just be on the verge of doing to itself is not a new position for a pontiff. Nor is being criticized, rebuffed, and dismissed for doing so.

Chad Pecknold, associate professor of theology at the Catholic University of America, tells me that “a friend recently asked me the same question” about what the Church has to do with politics and science. His reply? In the Catholic tradition, “all policy recommendations should be carefully considered, and in an encyclical such as this, such recommendations should inform Catholic conscience.” But, he explains, “as the Holy Father says, no particular policy recommendation ‘binds the conscience’ of a Catholic engaged in concrete recommendations particular to his or her own context. This falls under positive precepts of the natural law, in which case there can be legitimate disagreement about solutions and policies. This does not mean that when teaching touches policy considerations it can be dismissed by any Catholic outright. It still must inform the conscience.”

RELATED: The Encyclical’s Challenge Is to Climate-Change Activists, Not Skeptics 

Uninformed consciences, it could quite easily be said, have been at the root of many problems of our day. Catholics in the public square — were they to operate as Catholics on questions of public policy and witness in rigorous ways — could go a long way toward offering an alternative to many of the conventional answers that often do not lead to human flourishing.

To be free, we need to know what the choices are in the first place. That’s where conscience comes in. That’s where the likes of Laudato Si’ come in.

There are, surely, debates to be had about some of the issues raised and recommendations made in Laudato Si’. Samuel Gregg, director of research at the Acton Institute, though concerned about the pope’s weighing in too deeply on some technical issues (like the impact of air conditioning), is clear that “it is perfectly legitimate for Pope Francis to address the moral dimension of man’s relationship with the environment. Our free choices and actions vis-à-vis the natural world unquestionably touch on issues of doing good and avoiding evil.”

To be free, we need to know what the choices are in the first place. That’s where conscience comes in. That’s where the likes of Laudato Si’ come in.

As a philosopher type puts it to me: Pope Francis in his new encyclical “underscores vividly that the human person is not an aberration or threat to the environment but the center of visible creation.” From that center, good can come, should we choose to be good stewards, directing our attention to gratitude. That might just get us to the bigger picture — about life and death, and family, and the common good — that many commentators have missed in Laudato Si’.


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