Pope Francis’ new Encyclical is now one day old and, as feared, the spin doctors are hard at work praising or vilifying the text based on presumptions instead of actually reading what is in the document. Amid migraine provoking drum beats accusing the Pope of Socialism, Communism, population “control-ism,” and superficial rants about “Pope Francis’ letter sharing his opinions on climate change,” what we actually have is arguably the most significant contribution in the modern era to Catholic Social Teaching as it pertains to stewardship of creation.
So, how do we wade through the sea of ideological screams to get to the heart of this Encyclical? In the weeks to come, I will be offering a series of posts on Laudato Si’ to explore the meat of the Encyclical. To be upfront, I am not an expert on Ecology nor would I consider myself a student of Eco-theology. What I am is a Catholic Priest, a Parish Pastor, a former High School religion and astronomy teacher, and someone who is trying to love the Lord with all my heart, soul, mind, and strength. It will be through these “lenses” that I will be exploring this Encyclical. So, let us begin!
Here is a brief, first impression video from Fr. Robert Barron on Laudato Si’
The first thing we have to do before we even approach the document is get an interpretive framework that will help us understand the text (we call this in theology a hermeneutic). As I quickly read through the document yesterday and am now starting a second, slower reading of the text, it is very clear that, even though ecology is the central focus of the Encyclical, the document needs to be read with the seven themes of Catholic Social Teaching (CST) in mind to help us understand what the Pope is trying to accomplish. Many of you at this point may be asking, “What is CST?” CST deals with social issues of justice and peace. One of the goals of CST is to promote human dignity at all stages of life, in every condition of life, so as to help build up the human community and, by extension, the Kingdom of God in our midst. CST is a more recent development in theology precisely because it was born out of the industrial revolution. The “magna carta” of CST is Pope Leo XIII’s Encyclical Rerum Novarum, written to address the dignity of workers during the rise of the industrial revolution. From this starting point, an elegant weave of documents have emerged from different Popes that address different areas of human dignity, but all point back to Leo XIII’s Encyclical.
As CST has developed, there have emerged seven, recognizable categories of emphasis: Life and dignity of the human person, family life (including community and participation), rights and responsibilities, preferential option for the poor and vulnerable, the dignity of work and workers rights, solidarity, and stewardship of God’s creation. The important thing to remember about these themes, both as you read Laudato Si’ and any document of CST, is that they are not meant to be self-contained, isolated categories, but are meant to be read in light of each other and should not be understood apart from each other. If we read the categories apart from one another, the reader can quickly insert their personal social and political opinions into the text, leading to some of the nonsensical interpretations we are being bombarded with in regard to Laudato Si’. When read together, we can see a beautiful, objective ethic of social life that transcends political ideology and uplifts human dignity.
For more information about Catholic Social Teaching, click here to learn about the seven themes and follow the links for more information.
So, how does the interconnected nature of CST work? To begin with, the foundation of CST is that every person is made in God’s image and likeness and has an inner dignity that is to be protected and treasured. It is this principle that has lead to the motto, “Respect Life from Conception to Natural Death.” What is important to remember about this starting point is the use of the word “to.” To say that Catholics respect life from conception to natural death affirms that every point of life between conception and natural death is to be protected. What often happens when CST becomes overly politicized is that the word “to” is implicitly changed to “and” in the minds of the political world, creating two, distinct social ideologies that often break according to party lines. In other words, to emphasis life at conception and natural death emphasizes beginning of life and end of life issues, but often forgets to address the stages of life between these two points. The use of the word “to” points to respecting life at every point, transcending the political agendas of our current ideologies. Therefore, to respect life includes issues of life’s beginning, life’s development, the social and economic circumstances life finds itself in, the necessity of family to nurture life, the necessity to reach out to the poor and those who struggle with life, and the responsibility we all have to protect creation so that life can find meaning and dignity until its natural end. This is part of the theological background for what has been called “human ecology” in theological circles, looking at how the care of God’s creation (or lack thereof) impacts the dignity of the human person. Therefore, the Pope’s new Encyclical would definitely fall in the category of CST and must be read with this intellectual tradition in the background.
Homework Assignment: Before I begin my posts in two weeks (I would start them sooner, but I am in the middle of a big move right now) I would ask you to do three things: 1) Pray for wisdom to understand the Pope’s new Encyclical in a way that you can apply it to your life; 2) Take some time and read up on CST either through the link I provided above or taking some time to understand how these seven themes create a unified vision of human dignity; and 3) Actually read the text, which you can find by clicking here. My next post will explore the Introduction and Chapter One of the Encyclical. In Chapter One, we will explore some of the scientific issues of Ecology so we can get a good bearing on the global concerns being raised by the Holy Father.
Class dismissed!! So that this “class” may be “socratic” in format, post your thoughts on Pope Francis’ Encyclical as you read it: What jumps out at you? What do you like? What don’t you like? What questions arise in your mind that you would like to discuss? What do you think the Pope is trying to say to us? Where do we go from here as individuals and a society?
For some more “backgrounder” information, here is the press conference held by the USCCB. Enjoy!