Pope Francis’ Vision for the Church as given in Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel) & Laudato Si (On Care for Our Common Home)

  • The 2015 encyclical Laudato Si is the main course of our meal today. But a little earlier on, in 2013, Francis gave us a first course (a starter or appetizer) with his apostolic exhortation, EG. Laudato Si and Evangelii Gaudium are both authoritative teaching documents of the Church – not press conference interviews or unscripted off-the-cuff comments that can be ignored.  The Old Testament Prophets – Samuel, Jeremiah and Amos – often interject in their text: “It is the Lord who speaks”. So, from time to time, I should perhaps interject: “It is the Magisterium of the Church who speaks”.
  • Evangelii Gaudium (EG) is in a starkly different tone and style from what we are used to in documents coming from Rome. Pope Francis writes in warm, familiar and down-to-earth language, with wit and affection – but also with harsh words, especially for elitism and clericalism in the Church, harsh words for materialism and selfish individualism, and harsh words for indifference to social injustice and the deteriorating plight of the poor.
  • EG has two fundamental focuses:
    • First, transforming the way we live as Church and reenergising us to become a genuinely ‘missionary Church’ and all of us ‘missionary disciples; and
    • Second, putting the poor back where they belong at the very heart of the Church’s mission.  So, joyful missionary disciples and an authentic option for the poor.

198 “That is why I want a poor Church for the poor….. to put them at the centre of the Church’s pilgrim way. We are called to find Christ in them, and to lend our voice to their causes.”  As he did himself visiting refugees in Lesbos.

  • Francis repeats over and over again, like a mantra, ‘Realities are more important than ideas’. Realities are more important than ideas! So with that in mind he looks at the realities in our world and in the Church and holds a mirror up for us to see ourselves.
  • He criticises the economy of exclusion and inequality which dominates our world,

53 Such an economy kills. How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points?” 

Then he takes aim at the materialistic culture and the worship of money.

55 “The worship of the ancient golden calf has returned in a new and ruthless guise in the idolatry of money…”

He lambasts the rampant compulsive consumerism where ethics have evaporated.

2 “The great danger in today’s world, pervaded as it is by consumerism, is the desolation and anguish born of a complacent yet covetous heart, the feverish pursuit of frivolous pleasures, and a blunted conscience. ….there is no longer room for others, no place for the poor. This is a very real danger for believers too.” 

Francis laments what he describes as ‘the globalisation of indifference’ to suffering and hardship in our world today, an expression which he returns to frequently. It stands alongside a similar phrase used by the Jesuit Father General, Adolfo Nicolás, ‘the globalisation of superficiality’ to which we are subjected in the media.

Finally, he rejects the sterile pessimism of the prophets of gloom in the Church (including those who say there is nothing we can do, but perhaps pray, that climate change is already happening/going to happen — neglecting all we can prevent, or those who go further and predict doom or the end of the world.  We feel called to faith, hope, and action.)

84 “At times we have to listen, much to our regret, to the voices of people who… can see nothing but prevarication and ruin. We feel that we must disagree with those prophets of doom who are always forecasting disaster, as though the end of the world were at hand.”  (himself quoting here Pope John XXIII)

Francis vigorously restates the pivotal teaching of Vatican II and uses its language and concepts which were beginning to fade away. Although EG does not anywhere seek to overturn traditional Church teaching it certainly does seek to overturn (and is fearless in doing so) the way we have done things, our praxis, our practice, the way we translate that teaching into pastoral programs, the way we minister to our people, the way we pass on that teaching to our communities. Fine teaching without effective pastoral action is empty, sterile and void. He points us to a new way of being Church today – a Church in every locality close to and in solidarity with the poor, making their cause our own – in short, a Faith which discerns the signs of the times and then does Justice.  A Faith that does Justice!

And he points to an appropriately decentralised Church, an inculturated Church, which embraces subsidiarity within that global solidarity.  Solidarity and subsidiarity are the twin pillars of Catholic Social Teaching. The Option for the Poor is a call to all of us without exception.  But the manifestation of an authentic option for the poor in Guyana will be different from the UK, from India or from Brazil.

49 “I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security… my hope is that we will be moved by the fear of remaining shut up within structures which give us a false sense of security, within rules which make us harsh judges, within habits which make us feel safe, while at our door people are starving and Jesus does not tire of saying to us: Give them something to eat (Mk 6:37).”

  • The model of the Church Francis wants is a field hospital where the battered and weary are welcomed with compassion and where they can find comfort and support – in a word he wants a Church characterized by mercy, a Church clothed in mercy.
  • So a poor church in terms of economic clout and political power but a rich church too – rich in mercy, which means rich in compassion and solidarity, rich in inclusiveness and rich in accompaniment, standing alongside and breaking bread with those many struggling on the pilgrim journey.
  • And hence 2016, this Holy Year of Mercy and Misericordiae Vultus as the dessert for our meal!

Laudato Si’ (LS)

‘Laudato Si – Care for Our Common Home’ constitutes a substantive addition to the corpus of Catholic Social Teaching. The encyclical is of equivalent importance to Pacem in Terris (PT) (and arguably even Rerum Novarum). Like John XXIII’s PT, which inspired world leaders with a moral vision when the world seemed in danger of nuclear war and planetary catastrophe, today, LS comes at a time of potential ecological disaster and is again addressed to all people of good will.   It is above all a call for dialogue with honesty and transparency to involve all persons and peoples, institutions, and organisations that share this same deep concern for our common home.

Given his mantra ‘Reality is more important than Ideas’ he wants the perspective of the poor to be heard, understood, felt and smelt by the upper ranks in the Church and in society. It is exposure to reality that can change us; ideas have an altogether more ephemeral presence in our lives. And lack of physical encounter with the problems of the excluded leads to a numbing of consciences.  It is not therefore surprising to find a ‘See-Judge-Act’ logic to this encyclical. It is a letter which is for universal reading but for local application by us here in Guyana– especially as  paragraph 38 is explicitly about our rainforest, ‘those richly biodiverse lungs of our planet’ which need special protection.

So the first reality he examines is the state of planet earth, Our Common Home – and the Rerum Novarum of our day, “the new problems” of social exclusion and environmental degradation that threaten that common home.

LS does not enter directly into the scientific debate which would be inappropriate as it is not the Church’s expertise (188). But he presents with great clarity a summary of the solid scientific consensus that exists. Greenhouse gas emissions are rising fast, dangerously disrupting the climate system, undermining the life support systems of the planet for humanity and millions of other species, and posing a grave threat to sustainable development everywhere. “The climate is a common good belonging to all and meant for all” (23). The earth groans under the awful burden of pollution and degradation. “The earth, our home, he laments, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth” (21). The earth cries for the destruction of biodiversity, of entire species disappearing because of human carelessness. It weeps dry tears because water is misused and the deserts are growing. Pope Francis invites us to be still and to listen to these sufferings. The cry of the earth.

“Our common home is falling into serious disrepair” (61). “Degrading the earth, stripping it of its natural forests, contaminating its water, its air, its land – these are sins” (8). “If we scan the planet we see that humanity has disappointed God’s expectations” (61). The worst impacts of climate change will be felt by developing countries; the gravest effects of pollution of air and water and the environmental destruction of plants, forests, soils and rivers will be suffered disproportionately by the poorest people and the poorest communities. The quick and easy profits from destruction of the forest habitat and extraction of minerals are destroying lives and livelihoods across the Amazon Basin and across the planet.  Inequality which grows and grows is allowed, encouraged and defended. The plight of the poor & marginalised and the plight of the earth are inseparable; and Laudato Si urges us to integrate justice questions into the environmental debate. (48)

Time and again Francis insists: The cry of the earth and the cry of the poor are a single cry. “We are not faced with two separate crises one environmental and the other social,” one on the coast and the other in the interior “but rather with one complex crisis, requiring an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded and at the same time protecting nature.” (139)

Francis describes and heaps criticism on what he calls the technocratic paradigm or the technocratic approach that reduces all of reality including human life to objects that are open to endless manipulation for the sake of profit – and with the false hope that ecological problems can be solved by throwing money at them, with just a few tweaks to the economic system.  The economic system relies on this technocratic mind-set and is ready ruthlessly to exploit the resources of the planet in pursuit of an increase in so-called progress, meaning unending growth and profit accumulation. The cosmos is viewed “as a mere ‘space’ into which objects can be thrown with complete indifference” (115) God is absent and ethics and morality are gradually banished from the discussion.  But the economy can serve our human well-being only if it is kept within a moral framework for the common good.

Today the global market economy thrives in a dark twisted forest of injustice, too often unchallenged, anchored to an addictive consumerism and an egotistical throwaway culture. This is already bringing mutilation to our common home and cruel abuse, impoverishment, and forced migration to its most vulnerable inhabitants – and there is little or no thought for the next generation. “We may well be leaving to the poor of the future debris, desolation and filth” (161).  But “the environment is on loan to each generation who must then hand it on to the next” (159). Intergenerational solidarity is not optional but rather a basic question of justice.

Analysts have isolated 5 evil myths spoken or unspoken which lurk and grow today just beneath the surface whilst morality is gradually excluded from the discussion and we get ethics-free pockets or zones.  Those five obscene affirmations are:

  1. Greed is Good
  2. Exclusion is Necessary
  3. Elitism is Efficient
  4. Prejudice is Natural
  5. Despair is Inevitable

They are not laid out in this pithy format by Pope Francis but they are indirectly present in Evangelii Gaudium and Laudato Si – and his teaching is the riposte and the antidote to this depressing quintet of abominable one-liners. Let’s be clear that far from offering a naïve condemnation of capitalism, as some critics have suggested, Laudato Si provides a sharp and intelligent critique of the fundamental limitations and failings of the market economy especially when it spectacularly fails to provide for the poor.

Many efforts to seek concrete solutions to the environmental crisis have proved ineffective, not only because of opposition from powerful vested economic interests which trump the common good but also because of a more general lack of interest. So we see “superficial rhetoric, sporadic acts of philanthropy and perfunctory expressions of concern, and genuine attempts at change are viewed often as nuisances based on romantic illusions” (54).  Obstructionist attitudes, even from members of the Church, can range from “denial of the problem to cynicism and indifference, nonchalant resignation or blind confidence in technical solutions.” (14) So, that globalised indifference and that globalised superficiality clearly have to be tackled. “Many of those who possess more resources seem mostly to be concerned with masking the problems or concealing their symptoms” (26). Too many of us “can be silent witnesses to terrible injustices” (36).

Many things have to change but it is we human beings above all who need to change. Awareness of the gravity of the crisis must be translated into new habits.  So Francis urges everyone – individuals, families, local communities, nations and the international community – to change direction by taking on responsibility for the task of caring for our common home. To change direction for us in the Church, we are told, means an ‘ecological conversion’ – to alter our very seeing, judging and acting.  An ecological conversion is essential to turn our ideas and intuitions into an authentic lived ecological spirituality, that will guide us towards a wholesome personal lifestyle and to committing ourselves to service and the exercise of political responsibility. “A commitment to this ‘change of direction’ cannot be sustained by doctrine alone without a spirituality capable of inspiring us…that nourishes and gives meaning to our individual and communal activity” (216).

Francis writes of his deep concern, his deep love, being touched deeply and thinking deeply; and for us to deal with ever present superficiality and confront this technocratic paradigm he wants us too to go deep and to contemplate in depth, to drink deep at the well-springs of the Spirit – and to leave behind simplistic headlines and banal twitter feed. He is again affirming that spirituality of creation.

The key element in this ecological conversion is a willingness to resist the present-day consumer culture. The major economic and political changes necessary across the world can never take place unless they are underpinned by widespread personal and community conversion. Borrowing a notorious phrase from Mao Tse Tung he declares “There is an urgent need for us to move forward in a bold cultural revolution”.

And we must  remove the plank from our own eyes. We need to cultivate ecological virtues and move away from a duty-based ethics (which people never like) to virtue ethics, from “we have to” to “we want to” whether in terms of our water and electricity usage, our recycling, planting trees or whatever. We begin to make the transition from good stewardship of creation, which is relatively easy, to friendship and communion with creation, which is much harder. Make no mistake: ecological conversion requires a massive shift.

The theological reflection in Laudato Si recognises that many Christians have misinterpreted the words of Genesis 1 “to have dominion over the earth” as allowing the unbridled exploitation of nature and the rupture of the relationship with the earth. But he bluntly reminds us “We are not God” (67). “This rupture is sin” (66). Genesis 2 instructs us to “‘till and keep’ the garden of the world – ‘tilling’ means cultivating or working while ‘keeping’ means caring, protecting, overseeing and preserving” (67). There is no place at all for ravaging the earth unconcerned for other creatures.

But Francis is leaving behind not only rape and pillage of the earth; he is also guiding us on from wise stewardship and management of the natural world (as set out by Popes Benedict XVI & John Paul II) towards communion with the natural world, to an affective caring relationship with creation which engages our feelings, our emotions, our passion and our love.  It’s not just being stupidly sentimental about the environment – it’s a response to the poisoning of our rivers and creeks by mercury from gold-mining enterprises, and to the pile of filth! “God has joined us so closely to the world around us that we can feel the desertification of the soil almost as a physical ailment and the extinction of species as a painful disfigurement” (EG 215).

Reminding us that human life is grounded in three fundamental relationships – with God, with neighbor and with the earth itself, LS underlines that every created thing is connected to every other created thing. There is not just an instrumental value but an intrinsic value in non-human species, he says, – but absolutely not on the same plane as human beings in their uniqueness. The priority then is of ‘being’ over ‘being useful’; and because of this, biodiversity must be protected.

Francis seems to be discarding altogether the anthropocentric perspective – which makes man the measure of all value – man as God.  But he equally rejects any sort of New Age ecocentric view (Goddess earth) and explicitly outlaws any pantheistic interpretations. Instead he puts in place, what we might call, a theocentric synthesis of his own which respects the fundamental interconnectedness and brings man into right relationships with God, with other human beings, and with creation. “We are part of nature, included in it and thus in constant interaction with it” (139). LS has in this way articulated an ‘integral ecology’.

Laudato Si is profoundly a message of optimism. The Creator does not abandon us. It is calling on humanity to use reason and faith together to create one world as a common home where the economy is once again bound by the common good and in which the common good is no longer confined to the good of humans but embraces reverence for the physical Earth and other species. It is extending the Common Good. It’s now truly the cosmic common good. “The preferential option for the poorest of our brothers and sisters” and for the earth “is today an ethical imperative for effectively attaining the common good” (158).

LS looks back for inspiration to St Francis of Assisi who preached love for nature and it looks forward to practical solutions in our time to creating a new economic system that harnesses technology and morality to save the planet from the spiral of self-destruction. And he says to each and every one of us: you know what you should do. No more excuses. Just Do It!

But bring it continually into your prayer life, perhaps seeking the intercession of Mary, ’Mother and Queen of All Creation’ and especially to your celebration of the Eucharist.  “The Eucharist joins heaven and earth – it embraces and penetrates all creation…The Eucharist is an act of cosmic love” (236). It is a source of light and motivation for us to cherish and protect all of creation (236)Amen.

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