The Communio Connection

Guest post: Mary Taylor helps us read Laudato Si' in light of relational, trinitarian Communio thought

My friend Mary Taylor has graciously shared her thoughts on Laudato Si’. Mary is a consulting editor of Communio: International Catholic Review, an important journal and school of thought that, Mary tells us, echoes through Laudato Si’.

Mary holds degrees from Yale Divinity School and the Universidad Rey Juan Carlos in Spain. She lives in Connecticut with her husband and was a long-time friend and colleague of the late Stratford Caldecott.

The first half of Mary’s essay introduces us to Communio in light of Laudato Si’. The second looks more closely at how to read Laudato Si' in light of the Communio influences, especially related to key language and themes in the pope’s encyclical.

And so a big thank-you to Mary for her guest post, which will help us all better read Laudato Si' and so respond more fully to what Pope Francis is actually saying.

I have been reading with interest the reactions to Laudato Si', and many of them call to mind the famous story of the blind men and the elephant (each touched a part of the elephant, and then concluded that an elephant was very like a snake, or a tree trunk, or a rope, or a fan, etc.).

Writers, cherry-picking the document, have dismissed (or praised!) the encyclical as Marxist, Socialist, or radical; and the Pope himself as either a neo-pagan, or an environmental “wacko” (literally the word used!) who sees the persons and the biosphere as an undifferentiated unity, or, most surprising of all, an anti-modernist and Luddite who fears technology.

Communio is a communion of the body and blood of Christ (e.g. 1 Cor. 10:16) Now the Whole attains its full concreteness; everyone eats the one bread and thus they themselves become one ... through the sacraments human existence itself is joined to and transformed into communion with Christ.

There is no denying (and in fact Pope Francis does not deny) that there may be disagreements about prudential judgments; I leave that truth aside here. What I want to concentrate on is that there is always the danger of taking the part for the whole, which distorts the truth not only of the whole, but of the part. The blind man does not see that the whole elephant, and so he also misrepresents, for example, the trunk—all its functions, its structure, its connection to the other parts—as something very different: a snake. One must encounter the gestalt, the form of the whole, to have a true understanding of the nature of the parts. In just this way, one must look at the whole picture of the encyclical before plucking out random threads. Within Catholic thought the quintessential approach which begins with “seeing the form” is “communio.”

Communio is not another “ism,” it is not a system, and it is not a theory. There is no manual or “Dummy’s Guide” to communio thinking.

Let me rely on Benedict XVI, the most eminent living representative and one of the founders of Communio: International Catholic Review, and particularly on an article he wrote in 1992 for the journal when he was Cardinal Ratzinger, “Communio: A Program” (unless otherwise noted, all quotations are from this article). In it he said that communio must “first be understood theologically.” If you are a Catholic who assents to the Creeds, you already understand a good part of the meaning, because it is Trinitarian, Christocentric, and rooted in the mission that the Holy Spirit lays on all Christians. Ratzinger continues, “Only then can one draw implications for a sacramental notion of communio, and only after that for an ecclesiological notion.”

Communio is a communion of the body and blood of Christ (e.g. 1 Cor. 10:16). Now the Whole attains its full concreteness; everyone eats the one bread and thus they themselves become one ... through the sacraments human existence itself is joined to and transformed into communion with Christ. The Church is entirely herself only in the sacrament, i.e., wherever she hands herself over to him and wherever he hands himself over to her creating her over and over again. As the one who has descended into the deepest depths of the earth and of human existence, he guides her over and over again back to the heights. Only in this context is it possible to speak about a hierarchical dimension and to renew our understanding of tradition as growth into identity.

Ecclesiologically, this means—without ever denying “the unique significance of the local Church” nor repudiating “movements and new communities in which the Church and faith can be experienced with new vigor”—that the local Church can no more be cut off from the Universal Church than can a branch be hacked off a vine and still have life within it. If that were true, the Church would be merely a “network of groups, which as such precede the whole and achieve harmony with one another by building a consensus.” The wholeness of Christ is instituted in the wholeness of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church, which precedes and is greater than the sum of its parts. Also, we cannot “reduce the Church to the level of a political party”: a conciliar text is not a “party platform,” a Council is not a “political convention.” Pope Francis has said on more than one occasion that the Church is a “love story,” “the body of Christ,” and not a bureaucracy or NGO (non-governmental organization). Nor, as Ratzinger said, is it sociological or psychological:

The church discussed in the New Testament is a church “from above,” not from a humanly fabricated “above” but from the real “above” about which Jesus says: “You belong to what is below, I belong to what is above” (John. 8:23)….The ecclesiology “from below” which is commended to us today presupposes that one regards the Church as a purely sociological quantity and that Christ as an acting subject has no real significance. But in this case, one is no longer speaking about a church at all but about a society which has also set religious goals for itself. A principal task of the review Communio had to be, and therefore must still be, to steer us toward this real “above,” the one which disappears from view when understood in merely sociological and psychological terms.

To place communio in the wider historical conversation would be to note that, as we all know, there was a broad and deep watercourse of Catholic thought in the 20th century that culminated in—not began with—the Second Vatican Council. (Volumes have been written about that history, and many philosophers and theologians contributed. Among my many favorite works are the essays of Karol Wojtyla—St. John Paul II—in the Catholic Thought from Lublin series).

And, as everyone also knows, there was a great deal of trouble after the Council as to exactly what it meant. The “mainstream media,” with no knowledge of theology or philosophy, naturally reduced the council to political bickering, adopting political categories (progressives versus conservatives) to distort Catholic teaching beyond recognition.

The journal Communio was founded by Joseph Ratzinger, Hans Urs von Balthasar, Henri de Lubac, and others, after the Council. Although I hesitate to use language that is often misunderstood, its members interpreted the Council through what Ratzinger called a “hermeneutic of continuity” as opposed to a “hermeneutic of rupture,” seeing the Council not in terms of the fleeting zeitgeist, in a complete rupture from the past, but as growing and changing in organic continuity with what went before—the whole history of doctrine and praxis from the early Church Fathers—to the present day.

It is important to note, however, that the idea of “continuity” was never meant to abrogate the novelty, surprise, and freshness that Christ always brings, and that the Council itself brought.

We often forget that aggiornamento, “bringing up to date,” was not the only goal of the Council; aggiornamento was meant to go hand-in-hand with ressourcement, a retrieval of the sources. The problem is that when these two are looked at as antagonistic opposites, we enter a zero-sum game in which adherents of one win ground at the expense of the other, distorting both.

"Communio was founded to attract and bring together Christians simply on the basis of their common faith, independently of their membership in particular communities."

Communio embraces both, and in fact neither can truly be itself without the other.

Aggiornamento without ressourcement ends up trying to conform the Church to the prevailing fads and fashions of the world; while context is important, it is not the historical, critical or sociological situation that throws light on the revelation of God, but the other way around. Ressourcement without aggiornamento would be to make of the Church a museum piece instead of a living reality.

The Church must speak to the present day, but in the light of the riches of a 2,000 year old tradition. Communio is a matter of retrieval and renewal (in fact there is a series of volumes entitled Ressourcement: Retrieval & Renewal in Catholic Thought).

Rather than dueling opposites, with the two sides extrinsically related, we have polar relationships, in an intrinsic relationship. Benedict XVI often wrote about this “both/and” aspect of Catholicism as opposed to an “either/or” that is destructive and distorting. To take just two of many examples, in Caritas in Veritate he showed how eros without agape degenerates into making the person a commodity, and agape without eros can become a disinterested and incomplete, abstract “benevolence;” and he wrote prolifically on how faith without reason becomes fundamentalism or extremism, while reason without faith has its own pathologies, such as the illusion of omnipotence.

Another key aspect is that the “whole” is not a mere assemblage of parts, but a oneness that depends on distinction, rather than dissolving it, like a marriage:

As opposed to the centralized approach of [the journal] Concilium [founded, among others, by Hans Kung], we thought that the meaning of the word communio required a harmonious coexistence of unity and difference.

When we remember that “communio” is based first on the Trinitarian “communio” (the difference-within-unity of the Triune God) and on Christ (in whom not only humanity and divinity but all “good” dualities are resolved, though asymmetrically, for, to borrow from the Fourth Lateran Council, one side is “ever greater” than the other), then we can understand the work of communio.

Theology on one's knees

As I said above, there are differences among the many thinkers, and that is not the only reason the term “school” does not fit. The journal’s founders preferred to speak of a “program”; its journal would be “structurally different” from other journals in that it was “not intended to offer intellectual goods for sale but needed a living context to support it….Communio was founded to attract and bring together Christians simply on the basis of their common faith, independently of their membership in particular communities.”

Communio within the Trinity is a matter of self-giving generosity, gratuity, and of receptivity, concepts important to Laudato Si'.

Not offering “intellectual goods for sale” means that the category of “theory” does not fit either. None of the founders saw themselves as building self-enclosed systematic theologies or theories that would “compete” with other systems. In Salt of the Earth, Ratzinger said:

I have never tried to create a system of my own, an individual theology. What is specific, if you want to call it that, is that I simply want to think in communion with the faith of the Church, and that means above all to think in communion with the great thinkers of faith. The aim is not an isolated theology that I draw out of myself but one that opens as widely as possible into the common intellectual pathway of the faith.

This openness is a constitutive feature of communio. Another of the review’s founders, Balthasar, saw the task of the theologian as something like what the art critic needs to do: to show the inner harmony and necessity of the masterpiece. The form of Christ is a whole, a harmony of truth, beauty and goodness. The theologian’s attitude is that of a servant, not a critic in the sense of one who passes judgment, nor a blind man who distorts a single aspect, substituting it for the whole.

Finally in this brief summary is the place of the Marian fiat.

Communio within the Trinity is a matter of self-giving generosity, gratuity, and of receptivity, concepts important to Laudato Si'. The form within the Trinity is echoed in Mary's surrender to God; her “yes” made possible the overflowing of that love into the world, made possible our “yes,” and we constitute the Church whose business it is to continue to act as the channel of God’s love.

The way one grows crystals is by dropping a seed crystal into a receptive medium. Slowly, this medium begins to reduplicate the very form of the original crystal, so that no matter what part you examine, you will see repeated the same dynamic structure. The analogy is, like all analogies, very imperfect, but from a communio perspective the Church might be seen as the receptive medium whose task it is to reduplicate the poured-out love of God in the persons who make it up. The Father’s self-giving is the express image of Himself in His Son; the Son’s response is openness, surrender, obedience even unto death. This love is the “infold” from which everything else “unfolds.” The theologian must himself surrender to God in order to be of use to others. Theology must begin and end in prayer; this is “theology on one’s knees,” a phrase of Balthasar’s later adopted by Pope Francis.

There is no manual or “Dummy’s Guide” to communio. The best way to understand it is to enter into the conversation at whatever level one finds most accessible. There is a great deal more that I have not even touched upon, from the analogy of being to John Paul II’s nuptial mystery to the value of mythopoesis to the importance of the transcendentals of Truth, Beauty and Goodness; this is barely even a sketch of communio thinking. In the next part I will consider especially the “logic of gift” and what Benedict XVI called “a new trajectory” comprising a “deeper critical evaluation of the category of relation” as especially pertinent to Laudato Si'. There will also be the need to look at the communio appraisal of technology to dispel the idea that Francis is simply “anti-modern.”

The best thing I can do at this point is to allow Ratzinger to sum up the meaning of communio:

A journal which goes by the name of Communio must therefore keep alive and become engrossed in God’s speech before all else, the speech of the trinitarian God, of his revelation in the history of salvation in the Old and New Covenants, in the middle of which stands the Incarnation of the Son, God’s being with us. The journal must speak about the Creator, the Redeemer, our likeness to God, and about the sins of humanity as well. It must never lose sight of our eternal destination, and together with theology it must develop an anthropology which gets to the heart of the matter.

I couldn’t come up with a better summary of the heart of Laudato Si' if I tried. For it is not first and foremost “the climate change encyclical” but a hymn to the Catholic vision of the Creator God, the Incarnate Christ and creation as the gift of love, rooted in Scripture. Then, as St. John Paul II famously said in Centesimus Annus, “At the root of the senseless destruction of the natural environment lies an anthropological error”—both a misunderstanding of what it means to be a person, and the sins crying out for reconciliation, what St. John Paul II called the “four ruptures” (and Francis echoed several times in Laudato Si'): “within ourselves, with others, with nature and other living creatures, and with God.”

Reading Laudato Si'

Thus far, I've noted that the encyclical, like the Catholic faith itself, must be grasped as a whole (though in the case of the faith this “grasping” or “seeing” will never be exhaustive): concentrating only on specific parts not only misses the whole and its meaning, but distorts the parts themselves. At the end of June, I attended the presentation of Laudato Si' by Cardinal Turkson of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace at the United Nations and was gratified to see that that is how he presented the document.

The Cardinal began by saying that Pope Francis “did not set out to write an encyclical on climate change” or, he said later, an anti-business encyclical (or an anti-modern encyclical, or a political encyclical). Rather, he said, the purpose was to link human and natural ecology based on a contemplative, prayerful attitude toward creation. The need for a contemplative stance before the gift of creation is a constant theme throughout the work of Hans Urs von Balthasar and Benedict XVI, in fact everywhere in communio thinking. It is the deepest heart of the saints’ relationship with God; Pope Francis especially points to St. Bonaventure and St. John of the Cross in paragraphs 233 and 234.

It appears that most media outlets did not read beyond Chapter One, so that the public conversation is engrossed in argument over policy issues. Therefore, I have a modest proposal: I suggest reading the chapters out of order.

So what we actually have first of all is a hymn to the Creator; the work that follows is what St. John Paul II called in Reconciliatio et paenitentia (echoed several times by Francis) the central task of the Church: “reconciling people with God, with themselves, with neighbor, with the whole of creation.”

Note to whom the encyclical is addressed: not to the Bishops, the faithful, and “men of good will,” as other encyclicals are, but simply to “every person living on this planet,” which includes people of other religions and no religion at all.

That means that the interpretive key for those starting from Chapter One might be Paul’s address to the Greeks at the Aereopagus in Acts 17; Paul acknowledges their beliefs, in order to reveal to them the inadequacy of their dominant ideology in the light of the truth about the Creator God, “in whom we live and move and have our being.”

It appears that most media outlets did not read beyond Chapter One, so that the public conversation is engrossed in argument over policy issues. Therefore, I have a modest proposal: I suggest reading the chapters out of order.

“In our end is our beginning,” said T.S. Eliot, and “end” should not be understood simply as “the last in a chain of events,” but in the Catholic sense of a telos, that from which all things ultimately originate, toward which all things aim, and in which all things culminate.

Start, then, with Chapter Six, Section VI. The Eucharist is our source and summit, as St. John Paul II said, the “living center of the universe, the overflowing core of love and of inexhaustible life….The Eucharist joins heaven and earth; it embraces and penetrates all creation. The world which came forth from God’s hands returns to him in blessed and undivided adoration.” It reminds us of the praise of the cosmos (as our liturgy says, “Father, you are holy indeed, and all creation rightly gives you praise”). Turning to Sections VII and VIII, we find the Triune God, the creator and center of reality, the very Trinitarian structure of that reality, and Mary, assumed into heaven not only as the Mother of God, but as the Queen of all creation. The last section, IX, “Beyond the Sun,” named from a phrase in a sonnet on death by Rupert Brooke, turns us to our Final End, when as Revelations 21:1 says, we will see “a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and earth have passed away.” We will be face to face with the beauty of God, in the presence of Christ, says Francis, who “makes all things new” (Rev. 21:5).

The encyclical is very rich in communio themes; in the rest of this essay I will only be able touch on some of them.

Trinitarian Relationality

Benedict XVI wrote in Caritas in Veritate that we need a “deeper critical evaluation of the category of relation,” one that does not rely on the social sciences alone, but requires metaphysics and theology “if man’s transcendent dignity is to be properly understood.” Despite the attempt to reduce our connection simply to the fact that every creature on earth shares a similar biology, or a similar chemistry, or the same white hum of energy, or is interdependent in terms of the food chain, Pope Francis makes clear the teaching of the Church that our relation is far deeper; it is a relation from and toward God as Creator, making all creatures, as Father Robert Barron says, our “ontological siblings” (always remembering the unique place and dignity of persons). It is the Love of the Triune God expressed in the Trinitarian structure of reality that explains how and why creation is an interconnected web.

Francis agrees with what Benedict XVI so often said: ignoring human ecology ends by destroying natural ecology.

The divine Persons are subsistent relations, and the world, created according to the divine model, is a web of relationships. Creatures tend towards God, and in turn it is proper to every living being to tend towards other things, so that throughout the universe we can find any number of constant and secretly interwoven relationships. (240)

The communio way of seeing persons is as “substantial” or “subsistent” relations; Joseph Ratzinger wrote about this in Introduction to Christianity when he said that relation is not an “accident” but has intrinsic meaning for persons; it is constitutive. The Creator God is not a monolith but a “trinitarian communion” (239) of divine Persons, and because a relational community is the heart of God, it is the heart of all that He created. An insight of the Church beginning with the patristic fathers was that there are traces or marks of the Trinity in all created things.

Pope Francis says that St. Bonaventure teaches that each creature bears in itself a specifically Trinitarian structure (239); I would add that St. Thomas Aquinas said that every creature carries the trace of Trinity “(1) in being created as an individual, (2) in having a form, and (3) in being related to other things.” In the words of Stratford Caldecott, this is the “radiant wholeness which accompanies the creature like a star, reflecting within the particular limits of creaturehood the inexhaustibility of the divine goodness as always more.” To see this is to understand the “trinitarian key for reading reality” (239).

However, the Church has a radically different vision for human beings in reference to the rest of creation; once again, as I said in Part One, a “both/and.” Human persons, as created, are part of the web, but at the same time, as made in the very image and likeness of God, they are unique. The Pope, referencing Genesis in Chapter 2 Section II, reminds us too that “Saint John Paul II stated that the special love of the Creator for each human being ‘confers upon him or her an infinite dignity.’”

Integral Ecology

Several things follow from this “both/and” relationality: First, human ecology cannot be separated from environmental ecology, a recurring theme of JPII, B16, and Francis. In Part One, I noted that a central concern of the communio thought of Benedict XVI was in reconciling apparently opposing dualities like faith and reason, for each side needs, and is intrinsically related to, the other side—a “unity-in-distinction” brought about not in spite of, but because of the differences between them.

Cardinal Turkson made that exact comparison, using Benedict XVI’s faith and reason example (and see Francis’s footnote # 141), when he made clear that the interrelatedness of human ecology and natural ecology required that their differences could only be seen in the light of their unity—they were not two separate things but two aspects of one reality.

Environmental Ecology without Human Ecology

The encyclical has been praised and blamed (depending on one’s perspective) for its superficial compatibility with a kind of neo-pagan nature-worship. Yes, it is true that “God is intimately present to each being” (80) but this does not imply “a divinization of the earth” (90). “Judaeo-Christian thought demythologized nature. While continuing to admire its grandeur and immensity, it no longer saw nature as divine. In doing so, it emphasizes all the more our human responsibility for nature” (78).

“Creation” is not equivalent to “nature.” Nature, says the pope, is “a system which can be studied, understood and controlled” (76). Creation has a broader, deeper meaning than nature: “a gift from the outstretched hand of the Father of all, and as a reality illuminated by the love which calls us together into universal communion” (76).

It is no compliment to God’s omnipotence to treat what he has made of nothing as if it were little better than nothing. It is no compliment to a poet to be always seeking him and resolutely refusing to read his poetry.

Francis repeatedly points out the inconsistencies of environmentalists, who “demand certain limits be imposed on scientific research” when it comes to the environment and animals, but balk at doing the same with human life: “there is a tendency to justify transgressing all boundaries when experimentation is carried out on living human embryos” (136). There are others: “It is clearly inconsistent to combat trafficking in endangered species while remaining completely indifferent to human trafficking, unconcerned about the poor, or undertaking to destroy another human being deemed unwanted” (91), and “concern for the protection of nature is also incompatible with the justification of abortion” (120).

Those environmentalists who ignore “life issues” evince “an obsession with denying any pre-eminence to the human person; more zeal is shown in protecting other species than in defending the dignity which all human beings share in equal measure” (90). Francis agrees with what Benedict XVI so often said: ignoring human ecology ends by destroying natural ecology:

When we fail to acknowledge as part of reality the worth of a poor person, a human embryo, a person with disabilities—to offer just a few examples—it becomes difficult to hear the cry of nature itself; everything is connected. Once the human being declares independence from reality and behaves with absolute dominion, the very foundations of our life begin to crumble, for “instead of carrying out his role as a cooperator with God in the work of creation, man sets himself up in place of God and thus ends up provoking a rebellion on the part of nature” (117).

Finally, a kind of purely secular environmentalism, devoid of transcendence, is woefully inadequate; “Our relationship with the environment can never be isolated from our relationship with others and with God. Otherwise, it would be nothing more than romantic individualism dressed up in ecological garb, locking us into a stifling immanence” (119).

Human Ecology without Natural Ecology

On the other hand, it also follows from “both/and” relationality that Catholics cannot use excuses like political polarization to avoid thinking about creation. “It must be said that some committed and prayerful Christians, with the excuse of realism and pragmatism, tend to ridicule expressions of concern for the environment,” but “living our vocation to be protectors of God’s handiwork is essential to a life of virtue; it is not an optional or a secondary aspect of our Christian experience”(217).

One of my particular favorite lines is a paraphrase of the great theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar on the gaze of Jesus: “The very flowers of the field and the birds which His human eyes contemplated and admired are now imbued with His radiant presence” (100). Too many Catholics seem almost to be Gnostic dualists; others think that creation can simply be ignored; it is seen as nothing more than an inert backdrop. Benedict XVI said that “the book of nature is one and indivisible,” and Francis says, “Nature cannot be regarded as something separate from ourselves or as a mere setting in which we live. We are part of nature, included in it and thus in constant interaction with it” (139). In paragraph 98 the Pope reminds us that Christ himself did not ignore creation, and because of the Incarnation, no disfiguring dualisms are to mar the faith.

As Francis reminds us, the creation accounts in the book of Genesis reveal that human life is grounded in those “fundamental and closely intertwined relationships: with God, with our neighbor and with the earth itself”

Lest any one imagine that this is a “post-conciliar” idea, let me quote Frank Sheed in Theology and Sanity, writing before Vatican II, who also linked contempt for creation (natural ecology) with the loss of love for others (human ecology):

It is no compliment to God’s omnipotence to treat what he has made of nothing as if it were little better than nothing. It is no compliment to a poet to be always seeking him and resolutely refusing to read his poetry. God is communicating with us, telling us something, by way of his universe. There is something verging on the monstrous about knowing God and not being interested in the things he has made, the things in which his infinite power is energizing. The logical development of so strange an attitude would be to love God so exclusively that we could not love men—an exclusiveness which he has forbidden.

A Few More Issues

The “both/and” applies to other issues as well. For example, the Pope is not a Marxist, but follows in the footsteps of St. John Paul II in Laborem Exercens, who saw private property as a great good—when it was oriented toward the common good, the “universal destination of goods.” Francis clearly explained that “the Church does indeed defend the legitimate right to private property, but she also teaches no less clearly that there is always a social mortgage on all private property, in order that goods may serve the general purpose that God gave them” (93).

The encyclical is not anti-technology; the achievements of science and technology are praised throughout the document. The technology sections rely heavily on Romano Guardini, a great influence on the communio founders (and on Francis, who studied him in Germany as part of his unfinished doctoral work).

As in the writings of so many of these thinkers, it is not technology that is the problem but what Francis calls the “technocratic paradigm,” when “life gradually becomes a surrender to situations conditioned by technology, itself viewed as the principal key to the meaning of existence” (110). As we saw above, Francis said that the key to reading reality is the Trinity—its generous, overflowing love and the ontological depths of its relationships. When instead “the method and aims of science and technology [become] an epistemological paradigm which shapes the lives of individuals and the workings of society” then “the effects of imposing this model on reality as a whole, human and social, are seen in the deterioration of the environment, but this is just one sign of a reductionism which affects every aspect of human and social life” (107).

The Logic of Gift, Work, and Social Relations

We now return to the “contemplative, prayerful attitude” with which we opened. Francis continues the papal teaching of Benedict XVI in Caritas in Veritate on what St. John Paul II called the “hermeneutics of Gift,” part of a communio theme with a long history and a constitutive importance, intrinsically entwined with receptivity toward God’s generosity (I strongly recommend Kenneth Schmitz’s book The Gift: Creation as a study both broad and deep; it is out of print but well worth a library search). We must receive the gift in contemplative openness, and the proper response is gratitude. And because the earth is given to us and then passed on—given—to future generations, “the environment is part of a logic of receptivity” (159).

This logic of gift runs throughout the entire encyclical and is a matter of a profound encounter with and relationality to the living God, our neighbors, and all creation. As Francis reminds us, the creation accounts in the book of Genesis reveal that human life is grounded in those “fundamental and closely intertwined relationships: with God, with our neighbor and with the earth itself” and that “these three vital relationships have been broken, both outwardly and within us. This rupture is sin” (66) (I referred to John Paul II’s “four ruptures”, including a rupture with our own selves, in Part One; see his Apostolic Exhortation Reconciliation and Penance). And so we are called to conversion and reconciliation, which “entails gratitude and gratuitousness, a recognition that the world is God’s loving gift.”

Understanding that “Creation is of the order of love,” that everything is a gift—the world (159), our bodies (155), our life in our families (213), our intelligence (69), our neighbors (115), each moment (226)—and understanding that “We are not God. The earth was here before us and it has been given to us” (67), we then see that “our human ability to transform reality,” whether through science or art, whether in terms of human ecology or natural ecology, “must proceed in line with God’s original gift of all that is” (5). Our call means that we are called to imitate God’s “generosity in self-sacrifice and good works” (220). Even our Sabbath “contemplative rest” stands in a constitutive, “both/and” relationship to our work:

We tend to demean contemplative rest as something unproductive and unnecessary, but this is to do away with the very thing which is most important about work: its meaning. We are called to include in our work a dimension of receptivity and gratuity (237).

I said at the beginning that the encyclical should be read from its “end”—its heart and center—in order to understand the social parts. Francis says, “If everything is related, then the health of a society’s institutions has consequences for the environment and the quality of human life. Every violation of solidarity and civic friendship harms the environment” (142, and quoting Benedict XVI). That creation is an “order of love” does not refer to human emotion or will alone (see Communio editor D.L. Schindler’s book Ordering Love for details of its extensive and beautiful meaning), and it encompasses, as Benedict XVI said, the “macro-relationships, social, economic and political ones” (quoted by Francis in paragraph 231).

The document contains a great deal on policy, social institutions, farming, business, the economy, sustainable development, architecture, food, and more. On these issues of prudential judgment, the Pope has made it clear that “the Church does not presume to settle scientific questions or to replace politics. But I am concerned to encourage an honest and open debate so that particular interests or ideologies will not prejudice the common good” (188).


I began with the blind men and the elephant, and the truncated understanding that comes from focusing on only the parts of a whole. Drawing from St. Thomas Aquinas, the Pope says that we “understand better the importance and meaning of each creature if we contemplate it within the entirety of God’s plan,” for it is the “universe as a whole which shows forth the inexhaustible riches of God” (86), a whole that is “open to God’s transcendence, within which it develops” (79).

I continued with the contemplative, prayerful attitude toward all creation and our need for reconciliation. In reading Laudato Si', all will become clear when illuminated by the light of God and His creative love, Dante’s “ love which moves the sun and the stars.”

Praise be to Him!

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Catholic Ecology posts my regular column in the Rhode Island Catholic, as well as scientific and theological commentary about the latest eco-news, both within and outside of the Catholic Church. What is contained herein is but one person's attempt to teach and defend the Church's teachings - ecological and otherwise. As such, I offer all contents of this blog for approval of the bishops of the Church. It is my hope that nothing herein will lead anyone astray from truth.