It has been 5 years since publishing of Laudato sí, Pope Francis’ encyclical On Care for Our Common Home. Laudato sí is a frank (pun intended), and science-based account of what we humans have done to our common home, having made it “look more and more like an immense pile of filth” (LS 21).
There is much in it that resonates with the principles of messy ethics. I wish to name 4 things:
- It recognizes the messy situation we are in: we have altered the climate, destroyed the quality and quantity of fresh water and brought on biodiversity loss to dangerous proportions. We have wreaked havoc on the quality of human life, especially the lives of those in the global South.
- It recognizes the messy responses required: It seeks the common good and inter-generational justice, and it fosters a preferential option for the poorest of our brothers and sisters.
- It recognizes that the problem – and therefore solution – we face is, in many ways, a spiritual one, as Francis calls for humans to an ecological conversion, a spirituality that “proposes an alternative understanding of the quality of life, and encourages a prophetic and contemplative lifestyle, one capable of deep enjoyment free of the obsession with consumption… In this way of living, he says, ‘less is more’” (222).
- It recognizes our tyrannical or distorted anthropocentrism and related unconcern for other creatures when Francis states, “The ultimate purpose of other creatures is not to be found in us” (83), adding “the Bible has no place for a tyrannical anthropocentrism unconcerned for other creatures” (68).
Recognizing these four aspects marks Laudato sí as a pivotal shift in Catholic thinking on the environment, bringing Catholicism to a more foundational place (in word at least), by aligning the cry of the Earth with the cry of the poor.
However, when it comes to Catholic anthropocentrism, it does not go far enough. While exhorted not to be tyrannical, humans are still ‘stewards’ of all creation (236). Yes it is “a fragile world,” but it was “entrusted by God to human care” (78). He goes on, “Human beings, even if we postulate a process of evolution, also possess a uniqueness which cannot be fully explained by the evolution of other open systems (81)”
At one point, he quotes John Paul II: “God [has] given the earth to man, who must use it with respect for the original good purpose for which it was given … (centesimus annus 115). Notice that Francis did not quote John Paul II when he also wrote about, “the mastery of man over nature created by God and placed at man’s service, …” (Redemptoris missio, 58), or when John Paul II said “Yet it was the Creator’s will that man should communicate with nature as an intelligent and noble ‘master ’and ‘guardian,’ and not as a heedless ‘exploiter’ and ‘destroyer’ (redemptor hominis, 15).
Francis is trying to distance his teaching from that of his predecessors, which is good. It is not enough though. Words matter. And so do facts: bees are far better ‘stewards’ of pollination of the myriad plants who foods we enjoy. Phytoplankton is brilliant as producing oxygen out of carbon dioxide. We suck at it. Detritivores are the real ‘masters’ of decomposition and recycling.
Humans should have no greater a role in the world than to be in awe of it, and, to borrow from the thinking of Sallie McFague, take only our share, clean up after ourselves, and keep the house in good repair. And that’s it! Enough with the noble steward talk! No more anthropocentrism, even if putatively benign.
When Catholics hear “take care of creation,” “you possess a uniqueness” or when they are told they possess a “mastery over nature created by God,” and that nature is “placed at man’s service,” they hear only one thing: “you are above it all.”
Want proof? Forget when we recycle or vote for more bike lanes, that’s easy. When we are told – by the natural world itself – that we cannot fly, or build our houses in a flood plain, or that we cannot cull a wolf herd just because it is eating our calf, or that we must cease eating so much beef asap, because producing it is destroying the habitat of millions of other-than-human subjects, or that we must stop consuming, and so on, we have existential tantrums.
Aldo Leopold, writing in the 1940s had it right when he suggested humans demote themselves to ‘just plain members and citizens’ of the natural world. Albert Schweitzer, writing even earlier, proposed a philosophy of ‘reverence for life,’ an ethic of life widened to universality. And here’s the crux of both these new visions of humans in the world: when conflict happens, we don’t simply get our way as has been the case; we negotiate with the natural world. Schweitzer writes, since all “creatures live at the expense of other creatures” [noting that humans are not exempted from this reality], ethical living demands a constant discernment or weighing of the options.
Still, somehow, some Catholics still have this strong craving to feel unique. Perhaps environmentalist and author Bill McKibben offers them a safe ‘specialness’ the rest of creation can live with. He even calls it a unique ‘superpower’: to choose NOT to do something. He says, “The turtle does what she does, and magnificently. She can’t not do it, though, any more than the beaver can decide to take a break from building dams or the bee from making honey. But if the bird’s special gift is flight, ours is the possibility of restraint. We’re the only creature who can decide not to do something we’re capable of doing.”
But there’s a catch with this superpower I would add: we don’t get sidekicks. In fact, if there are any, we are the sidekick to all of Mother Earth!
- Sallie McFague. Life Abundant: Rethinking Theology and Economy for a Planet in Peril. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001.
- Aldo Leopold. “The Land Ethic,” by, pp. 237-264, in A Sand County Almanac. New York: Balantine Books: 1966/1970.
- Albert Schweitzer. Albert Schweitzer : Essential Writings. Selected with an Introduction by James Brabazon. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2005.
- Bill McKibben. Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out? Wildfire: 2019