Thursday, June 18, 2015

First Look at Laudato Si (the real one)

Soon enough we'll find out how accurate the leaked draft of the new encyclical was; we have the official version to look at now.

After the Deepwater Horizon incident in the Gulf of Mexico, I remember expressing my distress that a company could be so cavalier about the potential for widespread environmental damage: Even if they had permission from all the neighboring nations to set up an off-shore oil drilling operation, didn't they have an ethical responsibility, one no government could waive, to protect the environment, which does not belong to any country or its government, nor even to the people whose livespans coincide with the operation, but an ethical responsibility toward the generations yet to come?

Photo by Les Stone, International Bird 
Rescue Research Center: washing 
oiled Gannet
“No,” I was told flatly. “By law, they are accountable solely to their shareholders and have no binding responsibility toward any other person or entity.”

I looked at the pictures of the dead workers, of their families (living in the same neighborhoods as my own family), of the oil-soaked pelicans and the workers pulling oil booms across the shoreline, at the shrimp fishermen whose livelihood was threatened for who knows how long. Nobody had to answer to them for anything. The government levied massive fines on BP (and its partners in the project, Transocean and Halliburton) for gross negligence and reckless conduct, but the company is still “accountable solely to shareholders,” and we can expect it and other massive corporations like it to continue to make decisions that put shareholders first, and the rest of us (and our planet) a few steps behind.

Pope Francis looks at a situation like this (and the many, many more that take place on a smaller scale and in settings where the media coverage is effectively dominated by special interests), and responds with an encyclical.

Unlike Rerum Novarum (the first-ever social encyclical, by Leo XIII), Laudato Si is not addressed to Patriarchs, Archbishops and Bishops, nor (like Quadragesimo Anno, by Pius XII) to Patriarchs, Archbishops and Bishops “and all the faithful of the Catholic world”, nor even (like Centesimus Annus, by St John Paul II) to Bishops, Priests and Deacons, Communities of Men and Women Religious, all the Christian faithful, “and all men and women of good will,” Laudato Si is addressed (in N. 3 of the document) to “every person living on this planet.”

It would seem that not even “good will” is necessary any more. Francis is simply pleading: “I would like to enter into dialogue with all people about our common home.”

By addressing himself to “every person on the planet,” Francis has put himself under some restrictions. He has to start with the concerns of “every person on the planet” and matters that “every person on the planet” can recognize and understand, not addressing as “Vicar of Christ” people who do not know or acknowledge Christ, but speaking as a elder brother to the whole world, and “every person living” in it.

As always, he presumes that Christians will read his words in a Christian manner, interpreting what he says in the light of all that the Bible brings to bear on the subject, even though strictly biblical reflections are developed explicitly toward the end of the document. He expects that Catholics will read his words in an even fuller context, not subjecting a papal document to an entirely secularist interpretive framework, but parsing it in the light of the Catechism and of the whole Catholic tradition, especially in the area of the common good. It would be a grave mistake, and even an injustice to the Pope and to one's fellow-Catholics, to read “Laudato Si” in a purely political light, whether that light is cast from the right or the left.

Catholics can be accustomed to taking Papal documents as “the end of the discussion”: Roma locutus est, causa finitus est, my Dad used to quote in sonorous Latin: Rome has spoken: case closed. At a press conference this morning, Cardinal Weurl said, “Francis is … offering a moral framework in which this discussion can take place … but he's not saying 'This is the conclusion of this discussion'.”

Do your part! Read the document (right-click to download and save to your computer):
Press Conference with Cardinal Weurl and Archbishop Kurtz:

Several Catholic publishers in the US (including the Daughters of St Paul's Pauline Books & Media) plan to release print editions of Laudato Si; to get a 20% discount on your first order from Pauline, sign up for our Discover Hopenewsletter. You'll be notified when the document is printed. (All the typical publishers in the US are under a one month embargo on this.)

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