From my childhood, shortly after the Depression, I remember the slogan “Production for use, not for profit,” and people talked about the irrationality of the market. In this country and in powerful circles around the world, ideas like these have long been relegated to occasional pious declarations that everyone expects will be ignored. Now, Pope Francis has united concern for the poor with concern for the earth in a powerful encyclical addressed to everyone, not just Catholics, and has taken his message on the road to insist that we take such ideas seriously.
The encyclical, titled Laudato si’, discusses climate change, which got the press coverage when it was released, but that’s not the end of the story. “Recognizing the reasons why a given area is polluted requires a study of the workings of society, its economy, its behavior patterns, and the ways it grasps reality. … We are faced not with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather with one complex crisis which is both social and environmental.”
Laudato si’ comprises 246 long paragraphs divided into 6 chapters, each with 3 to 9 sections. It is written in simple, conversational style, but the ideas are complex as they are as bold. As noted in the introduction, “Although each chapter will have its own subject and specific approach, it will also take up and re-examine important questions previously dealt with.” The broad coverage, looping structure, and conversational language make it a slow read and hard to summarize. I’ve never been religious, so I can only read the religious parts as allegory. I disagree regarding family planning and some other issues. No matter: reading Laudato si’ carefully is well worth the effort; just don’t expect to do it in one sitting.
As I read it, the non-doctrinal parts of Laudato si’ can be summarized through an example. In the face of disasters such as earthquakes or floods, people commonly put aside petty differences and narrow self-interest to work together for the common good, and find this temporary solidarity and common purpose emotionally rewarding. Pope Francis calls on us to recognize that globally we are creating an enormous if slow moving environmental and social disaster, driven mainly by our profit and consumption-oriented economy, to which we should respond in the same way, and benefit from the same reward. On the threat, he does not mince words:
Doomsday predictions can no longer be met with irony or disdain. We may well be leaving to coming generations debris, desolation and filth. The pace of consumption, waste and environmental change has so stretched the planet’s capacity that our contemporary lifestyle, unsustainable as it is, can only precipitate catastrophes, such as those which even now periodically occur in different areas of the world. The effects of the present imbalance can only be reduced by our decisive action, here and now.
For Francis, the roots of the problem lie not in technology and capitalism per se, but in the self-centered, individualistic, and free market ideology and consumerist culture that have developed along with them, and in the power of transnational corporations and financial institutions. The challenge is to develop, in the face of that power and the attraction of consumer goods, an alternative view of life and a culture based on concern for natural and human communities, and the realization that only within such a culture can we develop fully as individuals. He emphasizes that people need useful work, and economies should aim to provide such work and minimize environmental harm, as well as provide goods and services that people need: “Once more, we need to reject a magical conception of the market, which would suggest that problems can be solved simply by an increase in the profits of companies or individuals.”
These ideas are not new, even within the Catholic Church, and especially the Church in formerly colonial countries such as Francis’s own. Similarly, his attention to indigenous people, and his dark view of big business and big finance, seems rooted in the conditions and history of his native region.
So, what is to be done? The practical recommendations are familiar. For our daily lives, practice random kindness and senseless acts of beauty, use and waste less, recycle, buy locally, live thoughtfully, and give more attention to family and friends than to digital distractions. For our public lives, join in community activity and, if so inclined, social, environmental or political activism. What is new is having these ideas united in a coherent and forceful way, by such a person in such a prestigious position.
Will Laudato si’ matter? Stalin famously asked: “The Pope: how many divisions has he got?” Even though Francis is the head of the Catholic Church, how much it matters will depend on ordinary people of good will within and outside the Church. If we ignore it, others who are challenged by it will be happy to do so as well. If we read it, discuss it, apply its message to our own lives and to political questions at all levels, and insist that political candidates address these questions, then it may matter a lot. Moreover, it gives us in the environmental community an opportunity to open discussions and build mutual understanding with the faith community and others concerned directly with the problems of the poor, and so give greater weight to the ideas of social, economic and environmental justice. In unity there is strength. We would be wise to not let this opportunity pass.