Today at Roman noon, Pope Francis publicly released his new encyclical, Laudato Si’, named for a line in the thirteenth-century Canticle of the Sun by St. Francis of Assisi, the Pope’s namesake. An Italian-language draft was leaked online Tuesday, but now the official version is out in several languages. After working my way through the leaked draft these last two days (and just now, the official English text), I thought I’d share five things I think are worth noticing.
1. The basics of an encyclical and how to read one. Of the many formal documents popes customarily publish, the encyclical is relatively high on the authoritative scale. Laudato Si’ marks the third big publication of Francis’s papacy (the first being the encyclical Lumen Fidei and the second, the apostolic exhortation Evangelii gaudium). Like all Vatican documents, the encyclical is a conservative genre in that it presents itself as a continuation of–rather than a break from–previous papal teaching. An encyclical will never flatly state, “Here is a new teaching.” It will say, “As my predecessors have consistently taught…” An encyclical, then, is not a straightforward, stand-alone document but should be seen as part of a larger conversation constituted by other papal publications of the last several decades. And so reading Laudato Si’ carefully means reading between the lines, looking for coded language and conspicuous silences. Does the encyclical echo or avoid topics that are currently popular among the hierarchy? Does it cite texts that have been ignored or maligned in recent years? When it references previous popes, which aspects of their teaching does it highlight? Does it use buzzwords? If so, does it use them in the same way previous authors have, or does it retain the language while shifting the content?
2. Virtually nothing on homosexuality, and relatively little on gender and sexuality in general. Pope Benedict XVI famously spent a large portion of his 2012 Christmas address to the curia decrying gay marriage and gender constructivism as a type of environmental degradation. He spoke often of “human ecology,” arguing for a fundamental link between respect for the natural world and respect for human nature–in particular, maleness and femaleness, understood as immutable, given categories that are violated by things such as homosexuality, contraception, and abortion. This was the at the center of John Paul II’s “Theology of the Body,” and Benedict rarely mentioned ecological issues without also mentioning the dangers of deviation from the gender binary. Laudato Si’, by contrast, never once explicitly mentions homosexuality. That is a silence that speaks volumes. Paragraph 155 mentions Benedict XVI’s concept of “human ecology,” speaks of vaguely of accepting one’s own body, including its maleness or femaleness, and not “cancel[ling] out sexual difference because [one] no longer knows how to confront it”…and then it stops, with no further clarification. End of paragraph, end of chapter.
This is not to say that Pope Francis’s thought is not patriarchal or heteronormative. Many of his remarks show that it quite obviously is, and he is certainly no fan of what he calls “gender ideology.” Nor has he given any indication that he approves of abortion or artificial contraception. But it is also fairly clear to me that these things, while they are deep-seated enough that they find their way into his off-the-cuff remarks every month, are not the primary driving force in his thought. They’re there, but they’re simply are not his priorities, either practically or theologically. And that is saying something, because they were the priorities of the previous two popes, and they remain the priorities of many of the bishops appointed by them. As Francis said in his September 2013 interview,
We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. This is not possible. I have not spoken much about these things, and I was reprimanded for that. But when we speak about these issues, we have to talk about them in a context. The teaching ofthe church, for that matter, is clear and I am a son of the church, but it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time.
Several conservative commentators realized, rightly, that Francis’s remarks in that interview were strikingly unlike his predecessors’, and that a change in emphasis was a change in some real sense. For John Paul II and Benedict XVI, opposition to contraception, abortion, and same-sex activity was a totalizing discourse, of either utmost importance or no importance at all, growing out of the first principles of their theological anthropology and thus part of the architecture of the rest of their thought. It was the sine qua non of Catholic moral theology and could never be repeated too frequently. Laudato Si’, on the other hand, devotes one brief paragraph to abortion (120) but largely gets on without it. And contraception is never mentioned–not even in the paragraph on overpopulation (50). Again, this is a rather loud silence. This is what the development of church teaching, at this level, looks like in action.
3. The view from the peripheries is central. There is another shifting of frameworks in Laudato Si”s consistent linking of care for the environment with care for the poor, since the poor are the ones who suffer most from environmental degradation (25, 49, and 51, for instance). It is their experience that Francis places at the center of his discussion, and this is a deliberate move. It’s not simply that he wants to include the experience of poor in theological reflection, giving them a seat at the table as if theirs were just one more perspective to enrich the conversation. No, Francis has said before that seeing reality accurately requires an epistemic privileging of marginal perspectives:
Great changes in history were realized when reality was seen not from the center but rather from the periphery. It is a hermeneutical question: reality is understood only when it is looked at from the periphery, and not when our viewpoint is equidistant from everything. Truly to understand reality we need to move away from the central position of calmness and peacefulness and direct ourselves to the peripheral areas. Being at the periphery helps to see and to understand better, to analyze reality more correctly, to shun centralism and ideological approaches. (Nov 29, 2013, “Wake Up the World”)
This, I think, is one of the most significant and novel contributions of the new encyclical. One hopes that this epistemology will gain a foothold in hierarchical teaching.
4. The authority of local bishops’ conferences. This shunning of centralism comes through in the encyclical’s numerous citations of documents from national episcopal conferences. The footnotes cite the bishops of Southern Africa, Australia, Latin America and the Caribbean, Japan, Brazil, Paraguay, the US, New Zealand, Mexico, the Philippines, Bolivia, Germany, the Patagonia-Comahue region of Argentina, Canada, Japan, the Dominican Republic, and Portugal. Ecclesiologically speaking, we can see this as part of Pope Francis’s commitment to collegiality–that is, a model where the magisterial authority of bishops worldwide is almost as high, in ordinary circumstances, as that of the bishop of Rome.
5. Unambiguous affirmation of anthropogenic global warming. Finally, the encyclical pulls no punches when it comes to affirming the scientific consensus on climate change: “A very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climatic system. … a number of scientific studies indicate that most global warming in recent decades is due to the great concentration of greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrogen oxides and others) released mainly as a result of human activity” (23). This will be particularly hard to swallow for some American Catholics, as will the encyclical’s blunt words for the free market: “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. Is it realistic to hope that those who are obsessed with maximizing profits will stop to reflect on the environmental damage which they will leave behind for future generations” (190)?