Revisit Laudato Si’ to prepare for Pope’s new document on ecology

Francis calls us to “broaden our vision,” to expand our way of thinking beyond the limitations of economic and technological development at any cost.

Sep 15, 2023

Pope Francis' 2015 encyclical on the environment, "Laudato Si', on Care for Our Common Home," is seen during an ecumenical study day on the document in York, England, in 2016. (Flickr/British Province of Carmelites/Johan Bergström-Allen)

In less than a month, Pope Francis is scheduled to release a new apostolic exhortation on the environment, which is being described as a follow-up to his 2015 encyclical letter, Laudato Si’, on Care for Our Common Home. The publication of this document on October 4 coincides both with the liturgical celebration of the Feast of St Francis of Assisi and the conclusion of this year’s annual “Season of Creation.”

The impacts of the ongoing and increasing climate crisis affects everyone and every creature that shares “our common home.” These communities are interconnected. As Francis said in Laudato Si’, “We have to realise that a true ecological approach always becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.”

It would be helpful to return to Laudato Si’ in preparation for receiving the Pope’s forthcoming magisterial teaching. Since what has been mentioned by the Pope and others has focused on both the human toll (think climate refugees) and human cause (think unbridled capitalism and the decadent life of wealthy nations), it seems to me wise to revisit Chapter 3 of Laudato Si’, titled “The Human Roots of the Ecological Crisis.”

Chapter 3 is organised into three parts: “Technology: Creativity and Power,” “The Globalisation of the Technocratic Paradigm,” and “The Crisis and Effects of Modern Anthropocentrism.” I would venture to guess that these three themes will again make an appearance in some way in the Pope’s “updating” of Laudato Si’.

The first part focuses on the role of human technology over the course of history for both positive development and catastrophic destruction. Regarding the former use, the Pope explains, “Technoscience, when well directed, can produce important means of improving the quality of human life.”

But, as he quickly notes, “it must also be recognised that nuclear energy, biotechnology, information technology, knowledge of our DNA, and many other abilities which we have acquired, have given us tremendous power. Never has humanity had such power over itself, yet nothing ensures that it will be used wisely, particularly when we consider how it is currently being used.”

Here we find Francis’ warning that uncritically embracing technology is problematic both on practical and moral fronts. Indeed, there are many positive things for which technological development is responsible, but we should never lose sight of the shadow side of unchecked technology.

The warning Francis presented eight years ago still rings true today: “Our immense technological development has not been accompanied by a development in human responsibility, values and conscience.”

The second section of the chapter builds on the first, calling out the way technological developments have informed a widespread global ideology motivated by financial profits.

By Fr Daniel P. Horan

One of the hidden consequences of this “technocratic paradigm” is the belief that “current economics and technology will solve all environmental problems, and ... that the problems of global hunger and poverty will be resolved simply by market growth.” As with the poor and vulnerable in the human family, so too the rest of creation suffers the consequences of reckless economic and technological policies.

Francis calls us to “broaden our vision,” to expand our way of thinking beyond the limitations of economic and technological development at any cost.

Herein lies one of the major problems to persist since the promulgation of Laudato Si’. We have not done enough to “broaden our vision,” or to invest in another paradigm such as the “integral ecology” that Francis has been advocating. Instead, most people in power have treated each ecological hurdle as a discrete problem with a potential technological or economic solution. And things are only getting worse.

Finally, the last section, the largest of the three, focuses on “modern anthropocentrism,” that erroneous way of thinking that places the human species at the heart of the universe and suggests the only thing that matters is our comfort, safety, success and future.

Francis notes: “Once the human being declares independence from reality and behaves with absolute dominion, the very foundations of our life begin to crumble.”

Indeed, we have deluded ourselves into thinking that we are all that really counts, and the consequences have been devastating not only for the nonhuman world, but for the human family too.

Francis describes this anthropocentric worldview as a form of relativism. “When human beings place themselves at the centre, they give absolute priority to immediate convenience and all else becomes relative. Hence we should not be surprised to find, in conjunction with the omnipresent technocratic paradigm, and the cult of unlimited human power, the rise of a relativism which sees everything as irrelevant unless it serves one’s own immediate interests.”

Like many others, I eagerly await this new exhortation, expecting that the Pope will build on these themes and expand on them to address the current post-pandemic climate catastrophe.

At the heart of whatever the particular shape the document may take is sure to contain a strong call for a new way of thinking and living, rooted in the call to “integral ecology.” In the meantime, we would all do well to revisit Laudato Si’ to prepare for what is to come. --NCR

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