Justin Thacker

Laudato si’ – Papal Encyclical on Climate Change

Pope FrancisToday saw the launch of the Pope’s latest encyclical, Laudato Si. As widely covered in advance, it represents the most clear statement to date of the Vatican’s understanding of, and response to, climate change. However, the most striking aspect of the document is its length and breath. At just over 40,000 words it is the longest encyclical for at least 10 years. This is reflected in the range of issues that are covered.

As expected, there is a lengthy treatment of the human and environmental costs of climate change but in addition the Pope manages to find space to talk of urban planning, public transport and parenting. The rationale for this lies in what he calls an ‘Integral Ecology’. In essence, his argument is that part of our problem has been the tendency to isolate and fragment human life into constituent parts. It is such fragmentation that has allowed economics to dominate politics, consumerism to dominate society and individualism to dominate ethics. The result has been a self-centred culture of instant gratification that is destroying ourselves, our relationships and the planet which we share with the rest of creation.

Behind all of this lies a disordered anthropology. The Pope is very careful not to deny evolutionary theory, but at the same time he is adamant that it does not explain the whole of life.  Though he doesn’t quote them, he would disagree with the Bloodhound Gang that we “ain’t nothing but mammals”. We are social, emotional, rational, creative, relational and spiritual beings that “transcend[] the spheres of physics and biology.” I stress this because it is this reappraisal of our identity that to me, at least, represents the unifying idea in this encyclical. The logic is that what has allowed us to think it acceptable to ravage our planet is the wrong idea that the only moral duty we owe is to ourselves – to our survival. That would represent an evolutionary – or at least biological – anthropology. In contrast, a theological anthropology tells us not only that we have duties to one another and to creation, but also to God. We are not individual organisms of survival, we are instead relational beings designed for social and spiritual flourishing.

Such flourishing requires however a fundamentally different approach to our planet. In lengthy sections, he details the ecological disaster before us, and just as importantly stresses the human cost of this. He rightly points out that the burden will disproportionately be felt by the poor, not by the rich, and in response he chastises the so-called developed nations for emphasising the economic debt of poor countries while completely ignoring the ecological debt owed by the West to the rest.

The encyclical concludes with a series of specific recommendations. Perhaps the most notable of these is a critique of carbon credit systems which he argues simply allows a continuation of exploitation with less guilt and fails to fundamentally address the problems before us. While he gives a nod to a more ecologically sound lifestyle, it is clear that his main message is for world leaders – especially in the Western world – to work together, to think long term, to change the rhetoric and to take seriously the environmental crisis before us.

Notwithstanding a somewhat odd discursion into Mariology at the end, this is a brilliant and powerful piece of writing. It is thoroughly biblical, rhetorically persuasive, fundamentally important and precisely what public theology should look like. I commend it to you all.


18/06/2015 - Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , ,

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