Deep diving into Laudato Si’

The most-excellent journal Communio offers helpful and beautiful insights into Pope Francis’s eco-encyclical

One of the casualties of a summer focused on my own big writing project was posting on the brilliant essays about Laudato Si’ in the Winter 2015 edition of Communio: International Catholic Review. In short, if you don’t have a copy nearby, order it here and make the time to read it.

The edition came in my postal box this spring and I’ve been savoring it since. In it seven authors provide helpful and often lovely insights into the depths of Pope Francis’s encyclical, the first such papal document to fully tackle the topic of ecology—in all its integrated forms.

Only two of these essays are available for free download. I’d like to focus on two that are not available online.

As always, my friend and Communio frequent contributor Mary Taylor offers a unique voice in her essay “Ecology on One’s Knees: Reading Laudato Si’.” Taylor critiques many of the readings and much of the commentary that has flourished since the release of the eco-encyclical in June 2015. She finds much if it wanting and offers a helpful way forward.

“It appears from the fragmented readings … and from popular commentary that many readers of the encyclical did not pay attention to much beyond the first chapter, thus remaining with the flickering shadows of Plato’s cave,” Taylor says. Such inadequate readings include those focused exclusively on the technical, the moralistic, or the political.

Taylor writes,

[w]hat vanishes in cybernetic language like the word “ecosystem” (nature reduced to properly functioning component parts), what is lost in the dreary earnestness of moralism, what is suffocated in a toxic political atmosphere of ecological policing, is any sense of amazement at the radiance of being and the joy, gratitude, and humility from whence ethics, policy, and action should spring. Every reductive reading stems from a demand for power, not in the sense of human creativity but as the “lordship over all” which is the motive of the technical paradigm; the politics of power contravenes statecraft’s principal defense of the common good; moral relativism rises in conjunction with the “cult of unlimited human power.” We need a way to read, says the pope, drawn from religious tradition, which “remind us of the transcendent dimension of human existence and our irreducible freedom in the face of any claim to absolute power.” (Taylor, pg 638, quoting Laudato Si’, 159, 210, 219.)

Taylor continues to suggest a reading with an eye on Christian proclamation as the main key for understanding Laudato Si'—that is, reading it in a Trinitarian and a Marian way. In short, that suggests reading the text back to front. What does that mean? You’ll have to read Taylor's essay yourself. A summary will not do justice to her offerings.

What I can do is to give an example of someone who has read Laudato Si’ as Taylor suggests. Patrick Fleming, who teaches economics as Franklin & Marshall College, is one of the seven authors of this edition, and his essay is both stunning and timely.

In “Economics, Ecology, and Our Common Home: The Limits of a Preference-based Approach to Human Behavior,” Fleming blends his theological and economics training with his experiences farming.

Fleming is concerned with how contemporary economic theory looks more at means than ends—in how it sees the world in abstractions, rather than as real and integrated local systems of natural environments, people, families, and communities. Fleming notes that this is an issue that flows throughout Laudato Si’. It is also maintained in the limelight by high-level Vatican voices, such as Cardinal Peter Turkson.

Fleming writes,

I was lucky enough to meet a dairy farmer and marry her. Marriage teaches many lessons, but in my case it also taught me a lot about farming. And one thing I have learned is that agricultural work is an endeavor that takes place precisely at the intersection of the smaller human economy and our larger ecological home. When walking outside at 6:00 a.m. on a bitterly cold winter morning to milk and feed the cows, a farmer simply cannot ignore this larger reality that precedes us, that for better or worse shapes and contains our economic life, and does not bend to our will arbitrarily. While we sometimes would like to argue with this “reality which has previously been given to us, which precedes our existence and our abilities” (LS, 140), we know it is better to cooperate, rather than compete. It is within this interplay of human desire and natural limits, this genuine dialogue of economy and ecology, that a farmer lives and moves and makes a home. And in fact, whether we are aware of it or not, so do all of us. (Fleming 719)

Well, I best end things here, because that paragraph about says all I could hope to discuss in a single post.

Again, you can (and should) read the entirety of Fleming’s and Taylor’s work, and the other works, in the Winter 2015 edition of Communio, which you can order here.

Happy reading, and stay tuned for more from this most excellent journal.

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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.