Read Charitably, Act Nobly: A Defense of Laudato Si

Two figures for whom I have great respect have written thoughtful, but off-the-mark, articles about Laudato Si. The first is Fr. James Schall, S.J., a priest whose learning and experience far surpass mine. The second is Peter Augustine Lawler, a professor of government at Berry College. Lawler draws on Fr. Schall quite a bit, but it seems to me that both their articles seek to exploit something explicitly political that is not necessarily present in the encyclical. While one could interpret it through the lens of Kulturkampf, Catholics are not called to do so. We are called to view our pope, his writings, and his challenge to us, as charitably as possible. To engage it as a political document is to fan the fires of political conflict. Whether on the side of the “Left” or the “Right,” to read it explicitly politically is to play the biblical Zealot, to expect not the King of Kings, but a Bar Kokhba.

This explanation may seem paradoxical, but allow me to explain. Both authors note that the encyclical runs the risk of giving impetus to statist impulses. While I tend to find the word “statist” unhelpful, I do agree that one could interpret the encyclical through this lens. As Fr. Schall writes:

The distinctions are delicate. Francis sees human and ecological disaster only if we continue pollution and neglect of the poor. He does not see it as a Feldstein-ish, anti-Christian world in which human beings are controlled for their own good by what are in effect demonic powers. His emphasis, here at least, is not so much salvation but making a world fit for the poor.

Lawler does not sound much more hopeful:

[I]t’s too Heideggerian… it’s unrealistic and incipiently tyrannical to think that – on the level of politics – said decision could free us from being enslaved to some extent to sin, beginning with ordinary human selfishness that is usually most successfully curbed with incentives.

In other words, they seem to take the encyclical on political terms. It is useful and interesting, but ultimately stands as a decisive statement of a pro-environmentalist bent. Their responses are, unsurprisingly, among the more charitable as far as “conservative” thinkers go. Fr. George W. Rutler has stronger words for those interested in reading the encyclical as a call to action:

From the empirical side, to prevent the disdain of more informed scientists generations from now, papal teaching must be safeguarded from attempts to exploit it as an endorsement of one hypothesis over another concerning anthropogenic causes of climate change. It is not incumbent upon a Catholic to believe, like Rex Mottram in Brideshead Revisited, that a pope can perfectly predict the weather. As a layman in these matters, all I know about climate change is that I have to pay for heating a very big church with an unpredictable apparatus. This is God’s house, but he sends me the ConEd utility bills.

But is all this resistance really necessary? Can we really conclude that the pope has aligned himself with secular interests in some misguided attempt to water down Catholic belief? No, and, in fact, it seems somewhat uncatholic to view the encyclical with such suspicion. When the pontiff speaks, perhaps it would be best to scrutinize one’s presuppositions rather than prepare a response before one has read the full document.

True, Catholics are at liberty to disagree with the pope, and in some ways, perhaps we should, but it seems unwarranted to draw battle lines the second the pontiff lobbies a critique of capitalism. When one reads with a hermeneutic of charity, and not of suspicion, one finds much worthy of commendation, much that challenges us as “moderns” to bring our lives into line with the Gospel. A few examples might suffice to show the breadth of the encyclical:

Our insistence that each human being is an image of God should not make us overlook the fact that each creature has its own purpose. None is superfluous. The entire material universe speaks of God’s love, his boundless affection for us. Soil, water, mountains: everything is, as it were, a caress of God.

There can be no ecology without an adequate anthropology. When the human person is considered as simply one being among others, the product of chance or physical determinism, then our overall sense of responsibility wanes.

Politics must not be subject to the economy, nor should the economy be subject to the dictates of an efficiency-driven paradigm of technocracy. Today, in view of the common good, there is urgent need for politics and economics to enter into a frank dialogue in the service of life, especially human life.

These are but three examples, but they pull us in different directions. They affirm the special nature of humankind, but remind us that all that God has created is good, that we exist as stewards. They remind us that our faith comes before economics. Commitment to any economic or political paradigm, be it socialism, capitalism, communism, or distributism, must be secondary. We are Catholics, believers, first, and citizens of our respective poleis second.

It seems to me that the uncharitable or less charitable responses to the encyclical miss precisely that. Yes, the piece comes down on the side of anthropogenic global warming, but even if one omits that entire section, the rest remains entirely valid. The pope concedes that the science remains undecided, but asks us to renew our commitment to the Gospel anyway, to engage in the tiniest of personal acts on a daily basis in an attempt to make the world better for the poor, the distraught, and the downtrodden: “Saint Therese of Lisieux invites us to practise the little way of love, not to miss out on a kind word, a smile or any small gesture which sows peace and friendship. An integral ecology is also made up of simple daily gestures which break with the logic of violence, exploitation and selfishness.”

Perhaps, then, Catholics, even simply believers in general, should not be taking the document politically. The exhortation is to a new mode of living, not to state ownership of all means of production. It condemns abortion, genetic manipulation, and even transsexualism. It is not some radical break with tradition. Perhaps we ought to seek the beams in our own eyes before assuming the worst of the Holy Father and the political machinations which might emerge from his encyclical. A charitable reading is the gateway to a transformed understanding and thereby a transformed life, and even where there is disagreement with the pontiff, we may find cause for celebration in his careful logic and fatherly concern. As Jesus says in the Gospel of Matthew: “Everyone who listens to these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and buffeted the house. But it did not collapse; it had been set solidly on rock.” (7:24-25).

Will we listen with care to the bishop of Rome, or assume the worst and refuse to act because of partisan sensibility?

Chase Padusniak is a doctoral student at Princeton University, where he specializes in medieval English literature.

One thought on “Read Charitably, Act Nobly: A Defense of Laudato Si

  1. This is a first for me regarding Pope Francis. I have no problem with him criticising capitalism. I fail to see much good it does around our world. Just because a person likes some form of socialism does not mean they are communist me I think of myself as a social nationalist! Probably best I describe it that way rather than the other way round!! As i said I’m pretty sure this is only time I’ve agreed with anything Francis has said.


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