Rowan Williams writes:
Perhaps the first thing that
needs to be said about Pope Francis’s encyclical on the environment is that it
is an entirely natural development not only of the theology of Evangelii
but also—as the
extensive citations show—of the theology of Pope Benedict, especially as found
in Caritas in veritate
Both the pope’s critics
and his supporters have often missed the point: Benedict’s Christian humanism,
his consistent theology of the dignity of the human person, his concern for a
culture in which there is no longer a viable understanding of any given order
independent of human will—all this is reiterated with force and clarity by Pope
This encyclical is emphatically not charting a new course in papal
theology, and those who speak as if this were the case have not been reading
either pope with attention.
What is uncomfortable for some is that a number of
points clearly but briefly made by the previous pontiff have been drawn out in
The fact that we live in a culture tone-deaf to any sense
of natural law is here starkly illustrated by the persistent tendency of modern
human agents to act as though the naked fact of personal desire for unlimited
acquisition were the only “given” in the universe, so that ordinary
calculations of prudence must be ignored.
Measureless acquisition, consumption,
or economic growth in a finite environment is a literally nonsensical idea; yet
the imperative of growth remains unassailable, as though we did not really
inhabit a material world.
It is this fantasy of living in an
endlessly adjustable world, in which every physical boundary can be
renegotiated, that shapes the opening reflections of the encyclical and
pervades a great deal of its argument.
The paradox, noted by a good many other
commentators, is that our supposed “materialism” is actually a deeply
The plain thereness of the physical world we inhabit tells
us from our first emergence into consciousness that our will is not the
foundation of everything—and so its proper working is essentially about
creative adjustment to an agenda set not by our fantasy but by the qualities
and complexities of what we encounter.
The material world tells us that to be
human is to be in dialogue with what is other: what is physically other, what
is humanly other in the solid three-dimensionality of other persons, ultimately
what is divinely other.
And in a world created by the God Christians believe
in, this otherness is always communicating: meaning arises in this encounter,
it is not devised by our ingenuity.
Hence the pope’s significant and powerful
appeal to be aware of the incalculable impact of the loss of biodiversity: it
is not only a loss of resource but a diminution of meaning.
“Because of us,
thousands of species will no longer give glory to God by their very existence,
nor convey their message to us” (33).
argument of these opening sections of Laudato si’
points us back to a fundamental lesson: We as human beings are not the source
of meaning or value; if we believe we are, we exchange the real world for a
virtual one, a world in which—to echo Lewis Carroll’s Humpty Dumpty—the only
question is who is to be master.
A culture in which managing limits is an
embarrassing and unwelcome imperative is a culture that has lost touch with the
very idea of a world, let alone a created world (i.e., one in which a creative
intelligence communicates with us and leads us into meanings and visions we
could not have generated ourselves).
The discussion in Chapter III of the
obsessive pursuit of novelty in our lives draws out very effectively how the
multiplication of pure consumer choice produces not greater diversity or
liberty but a sense of endless repetition of the same and a lack of hope in the
Once again, the underlying issue is the loss of meaning. It is fully in
keeping with this general perspective that what Pope Francis has to say about
the rights and dignities of the unborn (120) is seamlessly connected with the
dangers of a culture of “disposability” in which the solid presence of those
others who do not instantly appear to contribute to our narrowly conceived
well-being can so readily be forgotten.
Ultimately, as the pope lucidly puts
it, “when the culture itself is corrupt and objective truth and universally
valid principles are no longer upheld, then laws can only be seen as arbitrary
impositions or obstacles to be avoided” (123).
Battling about legal controls is
pointless unless we are able to persuade people of the human richness of a
culture informed by that radical openness to meaning that is ready to leave
behind the calculations of profit and public utility as the only tests of
success and political viability
The encyclical makes various points in its
later sections about the need for a robust international legal framework for
addressing our environmental crisis, but its focal concern is that we should
face the need for “a bold cultural revolution” (114).
Because of the eagerness of some commentators to stir the
pot of controversy over the causes of climate change, this appeal for cultural
revolution has been pushed to one side in a predictable flurry of what it’s
tempting to call counter-pontification.
Some have said indignantly that the
pope has no charism of authoritative teaching on scientific matters, and so
have excused themselves from thinking about the underlying theological point
(rooted, as I have already said, in the same theology as Pope Benedict’s, a
theology of human vocation in a limited material world and the decadence of a
human culture incapable of facing non-negotiable truth).
In fact, of course, no
one, least of all the pope, has claimed or would claim such a magisterium; but
what the pope actually says on this subject is grounded, entirely justifiably,
in two things—first, a massive professional consensus on the rate of climate
modification; and second, the direct experience of those living in the world’s
most vulnerable environments, who will bear witness to the measurable effect of
desertification or rising sea levels.
In such a situation, if it is rationally
arguable (as it unquestionably is) that certain modifications in human behavior
can alter the situation, even marginally, for the better, and if it is
theologically arguable (as it unquestionably is) that our habits of consumption
reveal a spiritually disastrous condition, then it is frankly a diversionary
tactic to make debating points about the pope’s non-infallibility on scientific
Also striking is the encyclical’s
consistent emphasis on solidarity as a rule-of-thumb test for the moral
defensibility of this or that policy.
In Chapter IV especially, the pope
reflects on the inseparability of social health and cohesion on the one hand
and harmony with the environment on the other (yet again, there is conspicuous
reference to Pope Benedict’s thought, as in 142).
Pope Francis comes back here
to the question of law: in many settings, the rule of law is a sorry fiction,
with an administrative elite exploiting public process to advance private
interest; and even in less corrupt environments, the law loses credibility when
the social order manifestly fails to protect the poorest.
In a passage clearly marked by Pope
Francis’s experience as a pastor in Latin America, he lays out the connections
between a lawlessly drug-abusing culture in a wealthy society, the toxic social
and political distortions imposed by this on poorer societies, the economic and
environmental degradation produced by the requirements of drug supply, and the
resultant decay of the rule of law all round (142).
vision—crucially—holds together what the rule of law is about (the security of
persons from harm and the possibility of equal access to redress for all) with
the acceptance of a world of mutual respect and the understanding of limits.
Here, as at several points, Pope Francis makes it clear that his commitment to
environmental justice is not in the least an advocacy of political primitivism
or benign anarchy. Indeed, you could fairly say that he is suggesting that only
when his “cultural revolution” is in hand can we properly understand politics
If our thinking and sensibilities are wedded to the will and its
dramas, politics slips toward that marketized condition that increasingly dominates
electoral campaigns—tell us (aspirant politicians) what you want and we shall
argue about which of us can give it to you most effectively; never mind what
our social life might be for.
Solidarity with the world we’re part of and
solidarity among us as its inhabitants belong together; environmental justice
(justice for the poor, justice for the next generation, as spelled out in
159–60) teaches us about ordinary justice and lawfulness between citizens—and
So it is no surprise that the
argument returns more than once to the question of how local cultures are to be
heard, respected, and given real agency (144); how we escape from the
assumption that the discourse of the “developed” world is the only
unchallengeable orthodoxy around the globe today.
Change involves valuing the
local, and so valuing the apparently modest gesture, the symbolically weighty
but practically limited action that simply declares what might be done
differently. St. Thérèse of Lisieux is invoked to good effect here (230), and
this is a very significant issue if we are to avoid giving the impression of a
crisis so intense that no small gesture is worthwhile.
And it is with this in
mind that the encyclical in its final pages (233–7) sets out a strong theology
of the sacramental life, underlining not only the way in which the Eucharist
reveals the inner energy of all material creation by the grace of the Incarnate
Word but also the “sabbatical” vision of time made spacious in the celebration
of God’s gifts.
“We are called to include in our work a dimension of
receptivity and gratuity” (237); and, strikingly, St. John of the Cross is
cited (234) as establishing the continuity in absolute difference that is God’s
presence in the created order.
Ignoring or distorting our responsibility in the
material world is ultimately a denial of that eternal relatedness that is God’s
own trinitarian life: we need to discover a spirituality rooted in “that global
solidarity which flows from the mystery of the Trinity” (240).
In short, this is more than an
encyclical on the environment: it has clear and provocative things to say about
our environmental responsibility and our current cultural malaise in this
regard, but, by grounding its environmental critique in a critique of the soul
of the contemporary developed world, it presents a genuinely theological vision
with implications in several distinct areas.
It was, for example, good to read
(149 ff.) a brief but penetrating reflection on the actual geography of our
urban environments, on how we display what we think matters in the way we
design our civic spaces.
These paragraphs should be a powerful diagnostic tool
for understanding better what has to be done to rescue urban society—not only
what support services should be available but what absolutely practical
considerations should enter into the design of shared space, even the materials
used in building.
And, again echoing things that have been said from the
Vatican often enough in the past decade, the issues around environmental risk
prompt some hard questions about how a world still passionately committed to a
model of absolute state sovereignty (except where globalized finance is
concerned, of course) devises effective instruments for international
monitoring and sanctioning of ecological threats.
This is one area in which the
encyclical—like earlier papal pronouncements on the subject—will inevitably
feel over-idealistic: we are not going to have a world government any time
soon, and the problems in creating any such entity are pretty well insurmountable.
The truth is that we are pretty much condemned to an endless and generally
frustrating series of arguments over where any authority might lie for the
monitoring of the environmental record of sovereign states—looking ultimately,
perhaps, to a regime like the UN nuclear inspectorate.
There could be more
about the UN in these pages, though it is true that this is not a period where
high expectations of that body are easy to sustain.
And there is one other area
where I feel more nuance could be added, though I mention it in full awareness
of its delicacy, and of the fact that, as a non–Roman Catholic, I do not have
exactly the same specific commitments about the ethics of birth control.
I entirely agree that identifying a rising birth rate as the root of the problem
or suggesting that ecological crisis is best resolved in terms of population
limitation is often another displacement activity on the part of developed
cultures unwilling to adjust their behavior (50): the burden on the planet
represented by large poor families is incomparably less than the burden of the
lifestyles of “developed” economies, and we need to be reminded unsparingly of
this bald fact.
But is there a question, in the longest view, about what
population the earth can sustain? All the arguments about living in a limited
environment (which make it clear that unlimited economic growth is nonsense)
bear eventually on the issue of unlimited population growth.
The pope has given
indications that he is not insensitive to this question, but there is more to
do here, I suspect, in clarifying what a response that was grounded in Catholic
theology but clear-eyed about the challenge might look like.
FINAL POINT: If I had a single reservation about the theology of Evangelii
, it would have been that an understandable desire to avoid any
churchy preciousness about liturgy made the brief remarks about the sacramental
life in that document feel just a little perfunctory.
This encyclical more than
makes up for that in the eloquent reflections on the sacraments in its
It is interesting that the theologian most often quoted in
the document, apart from previous pontiffs, is Romano Guardini—not only a
writer admired by Pope Benedict, but one who represents just that ecclesially
and liturgically informed theology which came to fruition in Europe on the eve
of Vatican II, presenting a coherent, imaginatively vivid, socially and
politically critical worldview profoundly rooted in a highly traditional
dogmatics, looking back to those patristic and monastic sources in which
ethics, liturgy, spirituality, and doctrine were not separated.
It is this
hinterland that makes Pope Francis so hard to categorize in the eyes of those
who think only in terms of left and right as conventionally imagined. And that
is, I believe, a very healthy place for a theologian, a pope, or indeed a
church, to be.
If we can lift our heads from the trenches of contemporary
media-driven controversy, what we are being offered in this encyclical is, in
the very fullest sense, a theology of liberation, drawing our minds and hearts
toward a converted culture that is neither what T. S. Eliot called “ringing the
bell backwards,” pining for a lost social order and a lost form or style of
authority, nor a religiously inflected liberalism, but a genuinely ecclesial
The pope’s cultural revolution is about restored relationship with the
creation we belong with and the creator who made us to share his bliss in
communion; it is about the unbreakable links between contemplation, eucharist,
justice, and social transformation.
It constitutes a major contribution to the
ongoing unfolding of a body of coherent social teaching, and a worthy expansion
and application of the deeply impressive doctrinal syntheses of Pope Benedict’s