Reflections on Laudato Si’ by Archbishop Malcolm McMahon

The Encyclical Laudato Si’ has several distinctive features: it is the longest encyclical ever, it is the first to have a title that isn’t in Latin, it is the first to use the ‘See-Judge-Act’ methodology in its structure and it is the first to deal explicitly with ecology. In paragraph 15 the Pope says that the encyclical “is now added to the body of the Church’s social teaching”.

Its length is a tribute not to Pope Francis being a seemingly inexhaustible human dynamo but to the complexity of his subject matter and the collegial way in which it was written. The text repays a close reading and I offer some keys to opening up understanding of the document.

The first key is its full title: “Encyclical letter Laudato Si’ of the Holy Father Francis on Care for Our Common Home”, beginning with a quotation from the canticle of the Pope’s namesake, St Francis of Assisi. It is a faith statement of adoration of God inspired by contemplation of creation. In paragraph 11 he writes “Just as happens when we fall in love with someone, whenever he (St Francis) would gaze at the sun, the moon or the smallest of animals, he burst into song, drawing all other creatures into his praise.” Francis is encouraging us to develop the same inclusive, inspiring, prophetic and challenging attitude.

The word ‘care’ develops the relational aspect of the well established notion in CST of ‘stewardship’. The Pope advocates a relational anthropology where humankind is an integral part of life on earth, rather than separate from all other life and somehow above it, as if the world was humanity’s play thing and we were in charge and free from any restraints. This calls for personal transformation beginning in our spiritual life and leading to changed behaviour in social life.

The word ‘common’ occurs frequently in the document, emphasising inclusivity as in common problems, common solutions, common creatures, common goods, common destination of goods, common good, communities, communion, and common home.

The word ‘home’ itself in its Greek form as ‘oikos’ opens areas of economics, ecology, ecosystems and eco-politics, eco-spirituality and leads us to Oikoumene: the whole world.

So the first key tells us that this is an ecumenical document that explores the relationships between faith and reason, between people and planet, between creatures and Creator.

The second key is the use of ‘See – Judge – Act’. This methodology, beloved of Joseph Cardijn and the YCW, is extensively used by the church in South America.

In this document the ‘See’ includes the big picture. The whole world is brought into the discussion. We have science, politics, poverty, ecology, town planning, transport, etc. Nothing is left out.

The ‘Judge’ involves consideration of where we get the criteria we use in decision making and here it involves close examination of scripture and the principles of CST.

The ‘Act’ requires that we work collaboratively. The Pope considers the role of politics and of the church.

The third key comes in three words: development, ecology, spirituality. The encyclical talks about ‘integral human development’ meaning all of the person and of all persons: it advocates personalism not individualism, sustainability not the myth of market led progress, the option for the poor not a theology of prosperity. Pope Francis speaks of a refreshed anthropology that doesn’t have humankind at the centre, that consciously connects environmental, economic and social aspects, that values culture and daily life, and which puts concern for the Common Good and Human Dignity at the centre of its practice. He also raises concerns about intergenerational and interspecies justice

It would be a caricature to imagine that Pope Francis is St Francis but this encyclical shows concern for animals within an integral ecology. For example, “changes in climate, to which animals and plants cannot adapt, lead them to migrate; this in turn affects the livelihood of the poor, who are then forced to leave their homes, with great uncertainty for their future.”(#25) A good example of his integrating vision is in #35 when he writes “In assessing the environmental impact of any project, concern is usually shown for its effects on soil, water and air, yet few careful studies are made of its impact on biodiversity, as if the loss of species or animals and plant groups were of little importance. Highways, new plantations, the fencing-off of certain areas, the damming of water sources, and similar developments, crowd out natural habitats and, at times, break them up in such a way that animal populations can no longer migrate or roam freely. As a result, some species face extinction. Alternatives exist which at least lessen the impact of these projects, like the creation of biological corridors, but few countries demonstrate such concern and foresight. Frequently, when certain species are exploited commercially, little attention is paid to studying their reproductive patterns in order to prevent their depletion and the consequent imbalance of the ecosystem.”

On the thorny issue of experiments on laboratory animals Pope Francis is clearly in continuity with his predecessors when he puts human well being first while showing a strong concern for animal welfare. He writes “While human intervention on plants and animals is permissible when it pertains to the necessities of human life, the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that experimentation on animals is morally acceptable only “if it remains within reasonable limits [and] contributes to caring for or saving human lives”. The Catechism firmly states that human power has limits and that “it is contrary to human dignity to cause animals to suffer or die needlessly”. All such use and experimentation “requires a religious respect for the integrity of creation”. (#130)

On the subject of genetic modification of species, he writes “Human creativity cannot be suppressed. If an artist cannot be stopped from using his or her creativity, neither should those who possess particular gifts for the advancement of science and technology be prevented from using their God-given talents for the service of others. We need constantly to rethink the goals, effects, overall context and ethical limits of this human activity, which is a form of power involving considerable risks.”(#131) He points out: “Nor are mutations caused by human intervention a modern phenomenon. The domestication of animals, the crossbreeding of species and other older and universally accepted practices can be mentioned as examples.” (#133)

Laudato si’ does not present Pope Francis as a spiritual Dr Doolittle but it is a document that can give inspiration to all who love animals as part of creation. It is founded on observation of what is happening in the world; it asks that we make a prophetic response to our observations in our personal lives, our organisations and our structures; it insists that all life is interconnected; it points out that our faith calls us to be open to the world and all that is in it.

As he writes in the closing prayer:

“Awaken our praise and thankfulness
for every being that you have made.
Give us the grace to feel profoundly joined
to everything that is.”