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A Social Ecology

On a crisp autumn Sunday morning, in a town nestled beneath towering bluffs on the Minnesotan banks of the Mississippi River, a nineteen-year-old boy stood near the steps of a church in which he knew not a soul, wondering if the answers to his doubts about his faith might lie within. His shirt was wrinkled and his tie wide—this was the ’90s—and when a bell overhead clanged the commencement of Mass, he turned and fled for his dorm room, where numerous sins against his proclaimed faith had already been committed, and where they would soon resume.

Pope Francis
Encyclical on Climate Change and Inequality: On Care for Our Common Home
(Melville House Books, 2015)

This young man was I, and that moment marked the end of my formal relationship with the Catholic Church. As the eldest of four, and a dutiful boy, I strived through childhood and my teenage years to set the best example I could muster for my siblings, and to exceed my parents’ expectations. This behavior included a posture of piety that extended well beyond the pew: I performed as an altar server from the fifth grade through my senior year of high school. I attended years of catechism classes, served as lector for the occasional Mass, and considered becoming a Eucharistic minister before I graduated high school and left the family home.

In the twenty intervening years since that Sunday in Winona, Minnesota, I have not lost sight of the Church: its machinations continue, and I have observed them in the manner an expatriate might watch the workings of the government in his forsaken homeland. My questions about Catholicism and its claims coalesced into suspicions, and then hardened into cynicism as the Church was revealed to contain cesspools of sexual predation buried beneath a bureaucratic bulwark of heartless, immoral, thoroughly unchristian bishops. Calls for the hasty beatification of John Paul II struck me as reflexive, defensive, protective, and wrong. Benedict popped into and out of the scene, like an overly stern substitute teacher. And then came Francis.

From the outset of Francis’s papacy, it was evident that the Church was going to change. Much hay has been made of this pope’s humble dress, of his electing not to stay in the papal palace, and of his quasi-progressive statements, interesting flourishes all. But when Francis broke with papal tradition to wash and kiss the feet of women, girls, infants, inmates, Muslims, and the disabled, in detention centers and community living homes, instead of the pampered toes of favored priests in the majesty of the Vatican, I sat up and paid attention. For the first time in adulthood, I was moved by the actions of a pontiff.

Still: Francis is the pope, so I approached his Encyclical On Climate Change and Inequality with a degree of wariness roughly equal to my curiosity. Laudato Si’ is the second encyclical Pope Francis has published, but the first, Lumen Fidei, was his completion of a work begun by his predecessor, Benedict, whose storied orthodoxy, rigid scholarship, and unfortunate vocal timbre marked his papacy with a clinical and authoritarian aesthetic. Laudato Si’ was my first direct look at Francis’s thinking—and on topics of concern to any of us, instead of strict Catholic doctrine. The encyclical, which is subtitled On Care For Our Common Home, is famously addressed to “every person living on this planet,” because despite being couched in the moral framework of Catholicism, the author aims to unify humanity in a renewed spirit of shared purpose toward our collective well-being. That simple goal is stymied if we are not good stewards of our home planet, and if we fail to find compassion for those of us who suffer most.

The breathless reception this encyclical received on publication—first in the slack-jawed fawning of the media, and then in clenched-lip dismissals by America’s anti-intellectual pundits and politicians—suggested that the pope had touched a nerve. My initial suspicion was that the work would function first as a reprimand, second as an apologia, and third, as a subtle form of proselytizing (in the form of topical social commentary) for a new generation of spiritual wanderers. Indeed, the first few sections of my copy are marked in heavy pencil with phrases such as “how Catholic” and “another bid [for souls]” and so on.

But as I continued reading, I was first disarmed by Francis’s candor, then charmed by his inclusiveness, and finally astonished as he jettisoned one papal stereotype after another. He acknowledges the “numerous scientists, philosophers, theologians and civic groups” who have “enriched the Church’s thinking” on matters of human concern. Francis concedes that, “the Church has no reason to offer a definitive opinion” because “an honest debate must be encouraged among experts, while respecting divergent views.” Francis makes direct reference to biological evolution, and allows that “the creation accounts in the book of Genesis” have their own “symbolic and narrative language.” He is utterly sincere in his invitation to dialogue, and reasonable in his rationale, and the effect is palpably refreshing in these cynical, hyper-partisan times. That the most compelling voice of reason on matters of global concern should rise from the throne of St. Peter is not something I thought I’d see in my lifetime.

Francis notes that Christians “have at times incorrectly interpreted the Scriptures,” which he frequently quotes to support his arguments. But the writing in Laudato Si’ is also rich with citations to theologians, saints, other popes, bishops’ conferences, and more. Francis quotes his own Apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium (2013), to suggest that, “religious classics can prove meaningful in every age,” and ask, is it “reasonable and enlightened to dismiss certain writings simply because they arose in the context of religious belief?” The leader of the Catholic Church is making liberal concessions to science, philosophy, and realms of thought beyond dogma. If “an intense dialogue fruitful” for “the entire human family” is to proceed, non-Catholics must make similar concessions to the faith of Francis and his followers. Though the pope concedes that “the Church does not presume to settle scientific questions or replace politics,” he asserts that “scientific and technological progress cannot be equated with the progress of humanity and history” unless it is accompanied by ethical and moral growth. Francis makes a case for Catholicism as a fitting framework for such ethics, but without one hint of absolutism. His concern is for all people, Catholic or not: we are one human family, and we are in this mess together.

Francis delineates that family by constantly referencing the world’s interconnectedness, not just person-to-person, but also person-to-market, and market-to-ecosystem, and in countless other iterations. He draws an alarming parallel between the “throwaway culture” of mass consumption and the “disposable of society,” namely the impoverished, ignored, disregarded, and forgotten, including the incarcerated and the unborn. The encyclical’s two subjects are not “two separate crises, but rather one complex crisis which is both social and environmental” as “nature cannot be regarded as something separate from ourselves or as a mere setting in which we live.” The only way in which the ailing human family can heal is through “an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature.”

Such proclamations may sound broad and idealistic, but so what? Francis is not naïve about the scope of the world’s problems, but he will not truck with those who say nothing can be done. The pope’s prose is most persuasive (and poetic) when he addresses such naysayers. He chides “obstructionist attitudes, even on the part of believers, [which] range from denial of the problem to indifference, nonchalant resignation or blind confidence in technical solutions.” Political comments about the poor are too often tangential, as present-day economic powers maintain a focus on “speculation and the pursuit of financial gain.” Francis preserves his most cutting language for this market-driven thinking, which becomes a flashpoint for his connecting the poor to climate change: “[…] the same mindset which stands in the way of making radical decisions to reverse the trend of global warming also stands in the way of achieving the goal of eliminating poverty.” Worse:

[…] the most one can expect is superficial rhetoric, sporadic acts of philanthropy and perfunctory expressions of concern for the environment, whereas any genuine attempt by groups within society to introduce change is viewed as a nuisance based on romantic illusions or an obstacle to be circumvented.

And later, he continues:

[…] in this context, talk of sustainable growth usually becomes a way of distracting attention and offering excuses. It absorbs the language and values of ecology into the categories of finance and technocracy, and the social and environmental responsibility of business often gets reduced to a series of marketing and image-enhancing measures.

This is what Pope Francis calls “modern anthropocentrism,” and, while its destructive nature may be evident to any human, it is a matter of Catholic concern because it upends the natural order, so far as Catholics see it. Quoting John Paul II, Francis reminds his followers that, “[…] not only has God given the earth to man, who must use it with the original good purpose for which it was given, but, man too is God’s gift to man [and] he must therefore respect the natural and moral structure with which he has been endowed.” Quoting Benedict, Francis elaborates, stating that, “creation is harmed ‘where we ourselves have the final word, where everything is simply our property and we use it for ourselves alone.’” Francis eschews:

[...] a Promethean vision of mastery over the world, which gave the impression that the protection of nature was something that only the faint-hearted cared about. Instead, our “dominion” over the universe should be understood more properly in the sense of responsible stewardship.

At junctures like these in the encyclical, after my initial cynicism had waned, I saw past the pope’s Catholicism. I am welcome at his table, as are scientists, and politicians, and even atheists (whom John Paul II had rejected in his encyclical Fides et Ratio), provided I am willing to tackle the difficult problems at hand. It amused me to hear the leader of the glacially-paced Catholic Church lament that “politics and business have been slow to react in a way commensurate with the urgency of the challenges facing our world,” until I took a fuller measure of the monumental shift marked by the book in my hands.

Pope Francis urges us to “regain the conviction that we need one another” and to remember that “being good and decent are worth it.” Serious and meaningful change is required, but there is “a nobility in the duty to care for creation through little daily actions.” He encourages us—all of us, not just Catholics, lapsed or otherwise—to “be serenely present to each reality, however small it may be,” and to do away with the “mockery of ethics, goodness, faith and honesty.” In Laudato Si’, Francis offers more than relatively progressive social teaching to the Catholic canon. He reminds us repeatedly that our problems can be solved only if “we can overcome individualism” and “bring the whole human family together.” This is the gentle but steady alarm of a clear-eyed minister preaching to a cynical world, calling believers and non-believers alike to the task of working together for the betterment of all. And that is a bell that anyone can answer.


Jack Finnegan

JACK FINNEGAN is a writer and storyteller currently residing in Ketchikan, Alaska.


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