The Critical Theory of Pope Francis I: Laudato Si, On Care For Our Common Home

Yosemite Falls. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

Perhaps those on the secular left (if this phrase be permitted) are surprised by the coupling of Pope Francis with Critical Theory. Over the centuries Catholic popes have produced “papal encyclicals” to articulate Catholic social teachings on a wide variety of themes and topics. “Encyclical” means “circulate” – and several of the papal encyclicals (such as Rerum Novarum [On Capital and Labor] by Leo XIII, Pacem in terris [Peace on earth by Pope John XXIII], and Laborem exercens [On human work] by Pope John Paul II) address pressing issues pertaining to how we ought to organize humanity’s collective life (work and governance). Catholics think holistically: offering perspectives on how we ought to order the world to enable human flourishing.

In his copious writings on religion in modernity Jurgen Habermas has argued compellingly that religion (in its various faith-communities and practices) contains “semantic potentials” that can disclose dimensions of reality that may be closed to secular thought. When secular and religious persons converse in public spheres and spaces, the learning process can be complementary, each partner in the dialogue opening out to the way of seeing and acting in the world of the other.

In this article on Pope Francis’ encyclicals Laudato Si (On care for our common home [2015]), I am working within the analytical framework that identifies three modes of analyzing natural phenomena: 1) perceptual-existential (our own responses to objects), 2) scientific (understanding the laws governing natural objects), 3) revelatory (our religious understanding of nature).

Our common home is like a sister

Pope Francis’ namesake, as we all know, is St. Francis of Assisi, who reminded us in the 13th century that “our common home is like a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us” (p. 9). Our sister, Mother Earth, “sustains and governs us” (ibid.). However, “this sister now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her. We have come to plunder her at will” (ibid.). Francis perceives (within his Christian world-view) that the violence infecting our souls is also manifest in the “symptoms of sickness” in the soil, water, air and all forms of life. Who can deny this is so? Are we not dust of the earth—our bodies composed of its elements—the air we breathe and renewal received from the waters?

Francis reminds his readers throughout the world that Pope John XXIII’s encyclical, Pacem in terris, was written just almost sixty years ago with the world “teetering on the brink of nuclear crisis” – now, he is addressing the world faced with “global environmental deterioration” (p. 10). This alarm was shared by Pope John II, who in 1971, just eight years after Pacem in terris, referred to the “ecological concern as ‘a tragic consequence’ of unchecked human activity: ‘Due to an ill-considered exploitation of nature, humanity runs the risk of destroying it and becoming in turn a victim of this degradation’” (ibid.). Pope Paul VI contrasted our astonishing technological accomplishments with “authentic social and moral progress” (p. 11). Our situation is worse than ever: we are teetering on the brink of environmental disintegration in 2022. So says Pope Francis.

Here, we can construct an imaginary dialogue between secular and religious persons. The idea that people perceive the natural world as an instrument for immediate use and consumption (that is, as a thing) reflects the restriction of our relationship to nature as thing apart from us. Frankfurt School Critical Theory anchored its philosophical thought in the critique of instrumental reason. If, let us say, a Catholic believer affirms that God made the world and entrusted its care to humankind as a gift, then this belief can enable a rethinking of the reduction of nature to commodities for our use or enjoyment. It also serves as a brake on scooping everything from the oceans until all coral reefs are bleakly colourless.

If nature (including all creatures, great and small) is a gift, then persons can experience the natural world in all of its effulgence as wonder and amazement. Perhaps the secular person can find common ground with persons of religious sensibility on the shared attitude of awe. The religious person praises the Creator of all things, expressing astonishment at the infinite depths of the worlds small and large. “In the beginning God created heavens and earth”: thus says Genesis 1:1. God made the world, the world was good, humankind must care for it, tenderly. Secular persons can understand how this faith-affirmation discloses deep truths about how we ought to be-with-nature.

The critique of instrumental reason (or restriction of reason (ratio) is a core fundament for Critical Theory. Catholic social thought shares this critique: this “semantic potential” may open up consideration of life as gift, which could fund a renewal of ethical eco-sensibility. Francis doesn’t leave his analysis there; he observes that his predecessor Benedict XVI proposed “eliminating the structural causes of the dysfunctions of the world economy and correcting models of growth which have proved incapable of ensuring respect for the environment” (p. 12). Benedict arrives at this position via the Catholic teaching that “the book of nature is one and indivisible” (ibid.). This religious affirmation does, I think, open up the perception of the inter-connectedness of all reality. A secular sensibility does not arrive easily at how nature’s deterioration connects closely to life, sexuality, environment, family and social relations. Both the damaging of the social and natural environments are rooted in the “notion that there are no indisputable truths to guide our lives, and hence freedom is limitless” (ibid.). Thus, for Benedict, man cannot be limited to a limitless freedom: creation is harmed “where we ourselves have the final word, where everything is simply our property and we use it for ourselves alone” (p. 13). Horkheimer and Adorno maintain that positing a “God” who exists as ultimate judge of whether human actions are just or unjust holds human in check.

After acknowledging the contributions of previous Popes to concerns about environmental degradation (shared widely by scientists, philosophers, theologians and civic groups), Francis commends Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew for “each of us to repent of the ways we have harmed the planet, for ‘inasmuch as we all generate small ecological damage,’ we are called to acknowledge our contribution, smaller or greater, to the disfigurement and destruction of creation’” (pp. 13-14). Revelatory disclosure of meaning (within the Judeo-Christian tradition) calls our destruction and degradation of “God’s creation” (stripping natural forests or destroying wetlands for instance) a “sin against ourselves and a sin against God” (p. 14).

How might secular persons respond to the language of “repentance” and “sinfulness”? Both concepts carry significant weight: sinfulness only makes sense within a perspective that acknowledges a creator who requires that we act ethically and carefully because we are being watched. To repent demands of us not a mere shrug of the shoulders. But, rather, a depth acknowledgement that something holy and sacred has been defiled by our actions. The act of repentance, then, is a turning away for all actions that degrade the good earth. Pope Francis underlines Bartholomew’s attention to the “ethical roots of environmental problems” which require that we “look for solutions not only in technology but in a change in humanity…” (ibid.). This desired change, however, requires lifeworld learning spaces which can cultivate the virtues needed to engage the natural world not as a “thing” but as a “living presence.” Thus, relentless and unceasing consumption must be curtailed radically and wastefulness replaced by a “spirit of sharing.” Generosity that embraces all persons and natural creatures must replace greed.

Drawing inspiration from his spiritual mentor, St. Francis of Assisi, Francis wants we moderns to “see nature as a magnificent book in which God speaks to us and grants us a glimpse of his infinite beauty and goodness” (p. 15). To accomplish this, the “urgent challenge to protect our common home includes a concern to bring the whole human family together to seek a sustainable and integral development, for we know that things can change” (ibid.). Francis does not assume (or seem to think) that we are too far gone to build our common home. He reminds us that many thousands of persons throughout the world are working tirelessly to “resolve the tragic effects of environmental degradation on the lives of the world’s poorest” (p. 18). Francis invites humanity to enter into a “dialogue about how we are shaping the future of our planet” (ibid.). Acknowledging that there are numerous civil society associations and environmental movements engaged in educating the public and enacting various projects, small and large, Pope Francis affirms that “we require a new and universal solidarity” (ibid): cracking walls of obstruction and breaking through to the restoration and protection of the earth. The rest of this article will focus on several aspects of the present ecological crisis and set out Francis’ understanding of some principles drawn from the Judeo-Christian tradition that he thinks ought to underpin humanity’s ethical and spiritual journey.

What is happening to our common home?

Francis begins his opening chapter by raising alarm at how fast our natural worlds are changing, mostly for the bad. With one eye always on the vulnerable of the world, he observes that this “rapidification” of change is seldom geared to the “common good or to integral and sustainable human development” (p. 21). Every evening there are televised nature documentaries (often ravishingly beautiful) that provide visual evidence that the poor people of the world (and the animals they co-habit with) are encroached upon. In India, for example, an Attenborough documentary tells us that at one time there were 300,000 tigers living there; today, a mere 6,000 or so.

The most shocking documentary I have seen recently focused on how climate warming has increased so fast that the Arctic ice is diminishing and endangering humanity’s water supplies. Francis makes the important point that old ideas of progress and no limits to growth have collapsed: we may know these “facts” but wander around half-dazed. We can now sketch briefly four pressing eco-problems humanity faces: pollution and climate change, the issue of water, loss of biodiversity and decline in the quality of human life and the breakdown of society.

Pollution and climate change

Pollution of the atmosphere produces a wide spectrum of health hazards (especially for the poor) and many millions of premature deaths. Our fossil-fuel global economic disorder – caused by “transport, industrial fumes, substances which contribute to the acidification of soil and water, fertilizers, insecticides, fungicides, herbicides and agrotoxins in general” (p. 22). Francis urges us to also take account of pollution produced by residue – including “dangerous waste present in different areas” (p. 23). Indeed, Francis says that: “The earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth” (ibid.). Plastics saturate our oceans and desecrate our beaches; Pope Francis states that these problems are “closely linked to a throwaway culture which affects the excluded just as it quickly reduces things to rubbish” (ibid.). We have not yet found a way to “absorb and reuse waste and by-products” (p. 24).

Turning his attention to climate as a common good, Francis points to solid scientific research that indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climatic system” (ibid.). Most of us have experienced extreme weather events (fires, floods, tornados). This terrible reality calls us, Pope Francis says, to “recognize the need for changes of lifestyle, production and consumption, in order to combat this warming or at least the human causes which produce or aggravate it” (ibid.). Francis lays the blame on our economic model based on the “intensive use of fossil fuels” (p. 25). Laudato Si is packed with critical insights: one can only highlight a few. Warming “creates a vicious circle which aggravates the situation even more” (ibid.)—affecting the availability of essential resources like drinking water, energy and agricultural production in warmer regions, and leading to the extinction of part of the planet’s biodiversity” (ibid.).

Who can deny that we are facing “extremely serious situations” (ibid.)? Pope Francis accentuates the impact of environmental degradation and unequitable distribution of goods on the world’s poor. But Francis believes that: “Many of those who possess more resources and economic or political power seem mostly to be concerned with masking the problems or concealing their symptoms, simply making efforts to reduce some of the negative impacts of climate change” (p. 27). Good practices do exist; but they are far from widespread.

The issue of water

Pope Francis warns humanity that it is “not possible to sustain the present level of consumption in developed countries and wealthier sectors of society, where the habit of wasting and discarding has reached unprecedented levels. The exploitation of the planet has already exceeded acceptable limits and we still have not solved the problem of poverty” (p. 28). Africa, the Pope informs us, is especially affected because large sectors of the population have no access to safe drinking water. And, yes, we must pay attention to the poor quality of the water available to the poor. The Pope affirms that “access to safe drinkable water is a basic and universal human right” (p. 29).

Loss of biodiversity

The Pope urges us to confront the ghastly reality of the plundering of the earth’s resources. We are losing “forests and woodlands…which constitute extremely important resources in the future” (p. 30)—for food and medical cures. But it is not enough, he says, to think of different species as potential “resources” to be exploited, “while overlooking the fact that they have value in themselves” (ibid.). Each year thousands of plant and animal species vanish; they are lost forever; gone from the eyes of our children. The Pope encourages us to be aware that it is not just visible mammals or birds that can go extinct. A well-functioning ecosystem requires “fungi, algae, worms, insects, reptiles and an innumerable variety of microorganisms” (p. 31).

Pope Francis thinks – who can disagree? – that a “sober look at our world shows that the degree of human intervention … is actually making our earth less rich and beautiful, ever more and grey, even as technological advances and consumer goods continue to abound limitlessly” (p. 32). Francis warns us to reject becoming “silent witnesses” to making the “rest of humanity, present and future, pay the extremely high costs of environmental deterioration” (p. 33). Out of the rich’s sight, out of their minds.

Francis draws attention to how plantations of trees have replaced virgin forests, creating monocultures. This seriously compromises biodiversity; so does converting wetlands into cultivated land. Our oceans are also under assault. We are somewhat aware of the “depletion of certain species,” but we tend to overlook marine organisms – some forms of plankton for example. They represent a significant element in the ocean food chain. Watch documentaries on whales and marvel. Pope Francis wants us to affirm the fundamental axiom that “all creatures are connected, each must be cherished with love and respect, for all of us as living creatures are dependent on one another” (p. 36).

Decline in the quality of human life and the breakdown of society

In this sub-section, Francis examines the impact and consequences of environmental degradation on “current models of development and throwaway culture” (ibid.). Urban chaos, poor transportation, visual pollution and noise – plague our urban lives. “In some places, rural and urban alike, the privatization of certain spaces has restricted people’s access to places of particular beauty” (p. 37). We need to learn “how to live wisely, to think deeply and to love generously…. True wisdom, as the fruit of self-examination, dialogue and generous encounter between persons is not acquired by a mere accumulation of data which eventually leads to overload and confusion, a sort of mental pollution” (p. 38).

Michael Welton retired from Athabasca University.  His recent books include Unearthing Canada’s Hidden Past: a Short History of Adult Education and Adult Education a Precarious Age: The Hamburg Declaration revisited.