The Deep Theological Vision Behind The Pope’s Encyclical

Ever since Adam and Eve, mankind has been entrusted by its Creator with the care and stewardship of the created world.

That simple command from Genesis 2:15—to ‘till and keep’ what is fittingly called a garden—is the obvious starting point for Pope Francis’ new encyclical on the environment (climate change being just one topic among many). But Laudato Si—taken from St. Francis’ creation-inspired hymn of praise to God—invites us to go deeper than this.

The pope begins with the dignity of the human person, recalling that man and woman were made in the image and likeness of God as stated in Genesis 1:26. This fact is the foundation of the Christian teaching on the inviolable dignity of each person, which Francis repeats in Laudato Si.

But there is a sense in which all of creation—not just man—reflects the goodness of God, Francis writes. He invokes St. Thomas Aquinas who makes this point in seeking to explain why there are so many different created things:

Hence we must say that the distinction and multitude of things come from the intention of the first agent, who is God. For He brought things into being in order that His goodness might be communicated to creatures, and be represented by them; and because His goodness could not be adequately represented by one creature alone, He produced many and diverse creatures, that what was wanting to one in the representation of the divine goodness might be supplied by another. For goodness, which in God is simple and uniform, in creatures is manifold and divided and hence the whole universe together participates the divine goodness more perfectly, and represents it better than any single creature whatever (Summa Theologica, Part 1, Question 47, Article 1).

Francis is quick to clarify that this is not to put other creatures on the ‘same level’ as human beings (paragraph 90). But it also means that we cannot treat the rest of the earth and its creatures as mere objects for our dominion (82).

Every created thing, he says, has worth and value: nothing is disposable (84). This is an ecological truth in the sense that smaller creatures like bacteria and algae are important to the health of a habitat. (“But the good functioning of ecosystems also requires fungi, algae, worms, insects, reptiles and an innumerable variety of microorganisms. Some less numerous species, although generally unseen, nonetheless play a critical role in maintaining the equilibrium of a particular place,” 34). It is also a theological truth. Here Francis is again building on a Thomistic principle (see Part 1, Question 92, Article 3, Objection 2).

As persons created in the image and likeness of the God who is love, we have the capacity to love our fellow man and woman, who are also themselves worthy of our love being themselves image-bearers of God (65). As Francis puts it: “For all our limitations, gestures of generosity, solidarity and care cannot but well up within us, since we were made for love” (58).

Such love should extend to creation, Francis says:

Fraternal love can only be gratuitous; it can never be a means of repaying others for what they have done or will do for us. That is why it is possible to love our enemies. This same gratuitousness inspires us to love and accept the wind, the sun and the clouds, even though we cannot control them. In this sense, we can speak of a ‘universal fraternity’ (228).

Here Francis is firmly rooted in the spirituality of his papal namesake and that namesake’s famous hymn, from which the title of his encyclical is taken. In that hymn, St. Francis addresses created realities in fraternal terms: ‘Sir Brother Sun,’ ‘Sister Moon and the stars,’ ‘Brother Wind,’ ‘Sister Water,’ and ‘Brother Fire.’

Such language may strike us today as overly-sentimental or naïve—much like Francis’ preaching to the birds. Francis the pope counters that it is the only theologically (and ecologically) appropriate way to understand our relationship with nature:

Such a conviction cannot be written off as naive romanticism, for it affects the choices which determine our behavior. If we approach nature and the environment without this openness to awe and wonder, if we no longer speak the language of fraternity and beauty in our relationship with the world, our attitude will be that of masters, consumers, ruthless exploiters, unable to set limits on their immediate needs. By contrast, if we feel intimately united with all that exists, then sobriety and care will well up spontaneously (11).

There is thus a certain communion we enjoy with nature—what Francis variously terms a ‘sublime communion’ and ‘a splendid universal communion.’ This communion, Francis writes, is oriented towards God. Just as we are not lords over nature, so also nature is something we worship as an end in of itself. Both instead have their purpose and being in God. Both man and the bodies and elements of nature are, after all, worshipping God together in St. Francis’ hymn.

This leads to one of the more intriguing takeaways of the whole encyclical. If the created world reflects the goodness of God then it can also become a context for our mystical encounter with the Creator God who is beyond nature yet present within it, Francis concludes, citing one of the great disciples of St. Francis, St. Bonaventure:

The universe unfolds in God, who fills it completely. Hence, there is a mystical meaning to be found in a leaf, in a mountain trail, in a dewdrop, in a poor person’s face (223).

This doesn’t mean, of course that the ‘finite things of this world are really divine,’ Francis says. Instead, as St. John of the Cross explained, we sense God in creation because of the ‘intimate connection between God and all beings’ (234). Such intimacy was at its greatest in the Garden of Eden, where no clothing nor manmade homes were necessary for the well-being of man, who was in full communion with nature. It was in such a state that man was originally in communion with God as well.

In showing respect for nature today, then, we take one more step towards the full restoration of that state of original happiness. This is the ultimate message of Laudato Si.

image: giulio napolitano / Shutterstock.com

Stephen Beale

By

Stephen Beale is a freelance writer based in Providence, Rhode Island. Raised as an evangelical Protestant, he is a convert to Catholicism. He is a former news editor at GoLocalProv.com and was a correspondent for the New Hampshire Union Leader, where he covered the 2008 presidential primary. He has appeared on Fox News, C-SPAN and the Today Show and his writing has been published in the Washington Times, Providence Journal, the National Catholic Register and on MSNBC.com and ABCNews.com. A native of Topsfield, Massachusetts, he graduated from Brown University in 2004 with a degree in classics and history. His areas of interest include Eastern Christianity, Marian and Eucharistic theology, medieval history, and the saints. He welcomes tips, suggestions, and any other feedback at bealenews at gmail dot com. Follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/StephenBeale1

Subscribe to CE
(It's free)

Go to Catholic Exchange homepage

  • Lee

    Honestly, say my reading about apostle Paul was much easier

  • Mulligan’s Pal

    Tes. Also he’s getting into the politics of deceptive global warming and is against the second amendment wishing to take away gun rights just like Obama and the UN!!

  • Lee

    Thank you, Francis for your awesome explanations. I read Bible and liked it, but the comment all round wasn’t necessary and just prevented. This is why I always thought the Bible doesn’t need comment. It’s clear to me now that depends on a comment.

  • Lee

    I like Church, but I am a pagan and even if Church will let me in other pagans will never let me out. All I have is the Trinity, Bible and understanding. It’s great that you answered me. Surely, you read what I write.

  • Lee

    I liked what you wrote about confession, but I can’t write it there, that discuss is closed.

  • Andy

    This was a really great reflection. I agree with everything you have said here. Even if people disagree on the cause of climate change, is it so bad a message to take care of God’s creation and try to live more simply? I think the core message is the same regardless of the cause.

  • Mike Sheridan

    God created the universe and all that it contains. That goes for coal and oil. In the grand scheme of things coal and oil are to be used for the good of men. The great goodness that has resulted from the coal and oil is a reflection of the good God, who could only create good. It is incumbent of us to use what has created for the good of all. So whether it be fuels, animals, plants, rivers, lakes, oceans etc., it is there for man’s responsible use. If the use of coal and oil are harming our environment man needs to invent ways for more responsible use. However, man made climate change is not, as some would have you believe, settled science. The Pope, as all of us, should be open to objective studies and data. Most in government and the Pope advisors on this matter, do not want honest debate on climate change. Many billions of dollars have been made by those like Al Gore who support the settled science theory instead of honest debate. Until there is honest debate, which should have been a part of the Encyclical, folks like me will continue to be damned as ignorant deniers when all we search for is the Objective Truth.

  • Maria

    Thank you !
    After having read such negativity about this encyclical , good to see that the light is shining through ;
    the Holy Father is reaching out to ‘ every person ‘ in his Fatherly way , in a world where , as St.John Paul tried to warn us , the ‘ user ‘ mentality and unjust control can predominate in many hearts ; whole cultures seem to have lost much of the truth about the nature of God , which gets so sublimely and gently narrated , in tune with St.Francis , thus hopefully to even unleash the promises for a world that become one , in belief in the goodness of The Father and help to undo the catastrophes that also can be unleashed, because of rebellion in our hearts against the truth of God !
    Using the power of the keys , his exhortation , at the God ordained time and manner ,can help to recapture our identity and connectedness, with The Father, with each other and with creation – to bring us to the lightness of being children , in awe of our Father , to thus live in our patrimony of praise to Him !
    That , in turn can help to alleviate the pain that affects many , in the many loses in life , much like the earth that also is groaning and together , finding the vision and blessing for more hopeful and wiser steps in healing ; hope the profit alone minded would find much in here , to bring more balance in lives, such that men and women have reasonable hours and the 40% unemployed youth in places like Turin find productive work .
    Watching a few you tube videos of his interaction with the young, in places such as in Turin and many disconnected young would connect with his grandpa like affection with the simple joy of a child , taking in good lessons about God in the process ;
    that , hopefully would keep many young for looking for outlets for the despair and hatreds !
    P.S – a correction , in reference to ‘communion with nature ‘ – think the sentence is meant to say – ‘nature is something we do NOT worship as an end in of itself .’
    And many of the skeptics might wake up to find that the themes in the encyclical are what helped many, to worship The Father better , in truth and spirit , that the Holy Father is very much in line with what his predecessors have wanted in same !

  • Michael Dowd

    Thank you Stephen an alternative take on this unfortunate document. While many think Laudato Si is a healthy dose Liberation Theology wrapped in Catholic sentimentality there are certain aspects that deserve to be highlighted as you have done. Unfortunately, the strongest admires of this document will be atheistic environmentalists who will surely use it as propaganda for population control programs. Pope Francis and orthodox Catholics being the losers in the on-going battle with evil.

  • Lee

    I feel myself incomparably better after that prayer. Sorry for my being slightly egoistic and thank you sincerely.

  • Lee

    I guessed slightly about the Greek translation because I read Jewish Old Bible and also Catholic New Testament. In New Testament, there are some events from Jewish Old Bible but with Greek names of the places. I was astonished.

  • Maria

    One of the comments on another site brought out the complaint about how the Pope needs to be an exorcist and how the encyclical had ‘ nothing ‘ to do with same ;
    having read the write up of his speech to the Salesians and young at Turin, just realized how he subtly and gently , without adding to shame or guilt , brought out the few things that might in some mysterious manner account for .add to some of the problems there .
    He mentioned how Turin has been a ‘demonic spot ‘ with involvement in masonry ; those in Family healing ministry mentions how involvement in same tend to afflict grandchildren, making them atheistic !
    Similarly , mention about the genocide in Armenia , unsure of what historic connections , but not far fetched to see how it can go as far back as Constantinople and Italy ; same with mention of the holocaust and again the connection to Fascist Italy ; seems he is helping to bring forth a subtle repentance without making people defensive and then, pouring forth affection and hope , thus to keep the demons at bay by helping the house filled , with praise , in joy and hope .
    it may be good to look at the encyclical too, in a similar manner ; he might be helping all of humanity , by groaning with them , in The Spirit , in order thus to help recognize and take responsibility for not having recognized enough the Father’s love , in the Trinity , for each of us and the creation ; would such be enough , to even help undo predictions such as the Fatima related revelations about seeing the earth’s axis getting tilted in a dangerous manner , leading to terrible world wide destructions !
    May be so and may be he knows things and reasons that make this encyclical a timely need , let alone the possible intent , to cool down hearts that are burning in the lusts of all sorts , caused by Father deficiency !
    Thank God for such a caring Fatherly figure and his wisdom and love , for ‘ every person ‘ and creation , because he loves The Father and knows how He so loves us , thus to have come out with his own canticle , which mentions the mean gate keepers too !
    Thank God too that he has powerful help too , from his predecessors as well, that invoke all of heaven !

  • Antonia

    Agree, Tim. I am appalled that Francis has proved himself to be so gullible in giving credence to the by now almost discredited ‘theory’ of CAGM. Though the globalists keep changing the catch-cry to ‘climate change’ and ‘climate disruption’, I remember those initials stood for catastrophic, anthropogenic, global warming – and it hasn’t happened as predicted by the models. Excercising good stewardship over creation is one thing, but wading into such a contentious ssue is another. I recommend people read Ross McKitrick’s article, “Earth Hour: a Dissent”, to see the harm carbon phobia is inflicting on the poorest of the poor. That millions (billions?) of people cannot flick a switch to turn on a light in the 21st century is wicked.

  • hgs

    @Tim: “then invited real scientist that disagree with you” — well, the problem here is that “real scientists that disagree [with AGW/ACC]” are very, very few and far between — not that different from “real scientists that disagree with the link between smoking and cancer”.
    In other words, “real scientists” (including the Pontifical Academy of Sciences but as opposed to, for instance, much of the GOP in the US), by and large have found the evidence fully convincing.

  • Chris L

    I agree. Many Americans recycle, air conditioning is getting more efficient. New refrigerants have less of an impact on the environment that the original HFC’s. We are driving vehicles that produce much less pollution. Timber companies replant trees, ( just a friendly reminder to all, trees are a renewal resource). I think the encyclical could have been written in two sentences; “Everyone talks about leaving a better planet for our kids. Let’s try to leave better kids for our planet.”

  • Chris L

    TIm, There are many scientist who disagree with greatest hoax that junk science is trying to perpetuate upon a gullible populace. Even if it is a “few”, why are they not allowed to speak? Thats censorship from the Catholic Church. Instead the main adviser was a German panthiest scientist.

  • Mike Sheridan

    Chris, your last 2 sentences say it all.

  • Lee

    Encountering that destroying the living things, most of all humans is the unclean job (another source) agree with you, Francis. Amen.

  • Lee

    I am accustomed not to drink from the tap because it’s poisoned. Tell me what am I not accustomed to. It’s not East Side, but the East itself. Come back to time of Jesus to see an ecology here

  • Lee

    Kids are not born a new page.

  • Lee

    Just not to scold our children let’s admit that all our life passed between bans. Did this make us better?

  • hgs

    @Chris.
    The point that, apparently, the pope and his advisers have recognized is that the critics really have no equal standing, given the evidence: This is evidence coming from all kinds of directions, physics, temperature records, ice cores, tree rings, etc. etc., and from multiple independent research groups.
    What you are suggesting is, essentially not too different from giving those that doubt the connection between cigarette smoke and cancer equal voice in decisions on indoor smoking bans. If you call this censorship, well, then we have to agree to disagree.
    (Note that I have chosen this example deliberately because it is some of the same institutions that have peddled both, doubt about dangers of smoking and doubts about the dangers of unlimited dumping of CO2 into atmosphere and oceans.)

  • Maria

    Had thought that yesterday’s Supreme Court decision on SSM would come out as a painful moment but somehow , it did not seem to matter much ; instead , had the sense that the Presence and protection of The Father is far more powerful than all human folly, that He can bring good out of our failures too !
    And grateful for realizing how much we have , to be grateful to God , about our Holy Father , who got scorned for his ( prophetic ) statement – ‘ who am I to judge , if they are searching for God ‘ ;
    many now can go back to that moment , even wonder if again the Fatherly blessing and power of the keys were thus given , to a situation where mere human efforts fail .
    Thus, SSM gets the potential to be ‘ Sanctity Search Missions ‘ and any one having to deal with them get to look at them with the pure hearts and prayer for merciful deliverance from evil ways !
    There is the Song of Songs, with the words from the groom – ‘ my sister , my bride ‘ and the bride too wishing the groom was like a brother , thus , having the best of both relationships .
    That would be good contrast and lesson for the SS Mission – to be free from the carnal , fallen natures of lustful , ‘ user ‘ ways – destroying dignity of both , of the family lines and even of those in any significant ties with them !
    The encyclical, touching tenderly on human dignity and healthy relationships all around ,
    thus to be able to praise The Father , with pure hearts – seems the Holy Father was blessed and guided to choose a date to publish same , 8 days prior to the Court verdict – thus to have helped many to have moved more into the realm of praise , to be protected against the enemy intent of sense of defeat !
    The Church, as Bride of Christ and St .Paul too mentioning same , how we are like a chaste spouse of Christ ; yet , we know that, same has nothing to do with carnal , impure nature but deliverance from the impurity of idolatry of greed and lust and such ,
    to receive the grace and focus on The Lord , His way of truth and love , to rejoice in His blessings for generations !
    If the enemy is trying to counter the concept of marriage to do its own unholy destructive themes , The Church can unleash its armor of deliverance at more widespread levels such that , persons and relationship, even if they were under enemy influence at the beginning , would be delivered into living chaste holy lives of brotherly or father -son and similar relationships , that what we get would be like micro monasteries and religious houses of praise and good works !
    The Encyclical is giving us the call and the blessing to thus uphold our God given dignity at all times and levels , in order thus to be a people of praise for The Father , with pure hearts , which is our destiny for here and hereafter ; that praise , in turn could be what would sanctify hearts and remedy the distortions and blindness !

  • Lee

    I think, Francis, that, of course, you see better, but nevertheless I wouldn’t perceive it as political solution. May be, we need to visit John the Baptist to chill our mind.

  • Scyptical Chymist

    Not being a theologian, I cannot comment on any deep theological vision, or lack of it, in this encyclical. The exhortations to nurture the earth’s resources and aid our neighbour should be obvious anyway to a Catholic or any Christian. The same is true for Catholics of the other teachings mentioned in passing in this encyclical. However the encyclical’,s main purpose iis to push the currently fashionable agenda of the great and the good that humanity is responsible for a forthcoming calamity of climate change for which their final solution is the culling of lesser mortals. The Holy Father completely rejects this solution of course but unfortunately has swallowed whole the “consensus” of the powerful lobby. This certainly weakens his authority as he does not seem to appreciate that science must allow rigorousvtesting of hypotheses not blind acceptance of them no matter who is behind them. I know that the Pope got a lab technician qualification post high school but he does not display the intellectual acuity of a researcher.

MENU