Laudato Si:
Reactions and comments


1. The priority of the common good.
Obligation to others is the root of Catholic morality, while the doctrine that individual rights trump social responsibility is a post-Reformation distortion of Christianity.  I am not against the legal construct of individual rights that is the basis for liberalism and a democratic state, but I do challenge its PRIORITY over concern for the community.  Put another way, the basic unit of society for Catholics is the family, where everyone is brother and sister to others and must fulfill their humanity by seeking the common good of ALL.  Whereas in liberalism, the individual acts with impunity towards others and responds to personalized conceptions of freedom rather than responsibility to the common good.
Anthony M. Stevens-Arroyo
Professor emeritus, Brooklyn college

2. A journalist’s question: How will the encyclical effect the energy industry or investments there?
The Pope is NOT calling for quick, easy, simplistic, or clear policy proposals.  He is NOT saying that the use of fossil fuels is immoral, etc.  He explicitly notes that real and effective change will take a lot of time, considerable effort, and will be successful in incremental steps.  So how will individual persons, corporate and otherwise react?  I think we will see increased environmental advocacy in investments from institutions who are tied more to faith-based organizations.  E.g., I suspect Religious Orders, faith-related universities, etc. will move more clearly to re-examine their investment portfolios to see how and where their investment decisions might better converge with the appeals the Pope is making.  However, I don't think we will see a major investment shift quickly.

For the next election cycle in the USA I think the Encyclical will drive a bit of a wedge between the perceived alliance between the Republican Party and the more conservative bishops.  Culture warrior bishops such as Philadelphia's Charles Chaput, Madison WI's Robert Morlino, or Providence' RI's Thomas Tobin will have a much harder time telling their flocks that the only key issues to guide voting choices are abortion, same-sex marriage, and embryonic stem-cell research.  Pope Francis clearly now has placed care for environment, the poor, and economic change as moral issues of equal importance.
James Bretzke, S.J. 
Boston College

3. The encyclical in political context
Laudato Si’ is a major encyclical likely to instantly win a place within the Church’s social teaching. At 185 pages and 172 footnotes in the draft form, spanning references to scripture, the church fathers, and prior papal magisterial thought €”especially that of his most recent predecessors”Pope Francis’ letter will doubtless prove to be a milestone for human relations. Many will ignore it and indeed some politicians have made concerted efforts to distance themselves from the encyclical’s contents and authorship. They do so at great political risk In giving a sense of the American political climate and potential for reception of the document, a recent set of figures from the Pew Research Center note the following:

"Pew Research’s survey of 5,122 adults, including 1,016 self-identified Catholics, finds that most overall (68 percent) say they “believe the Earth is warming” and a majority of Catholics of all parties agree (71 percent). But there’s a 34-percentage-point gap between Catholic Democrats (85 percent agree) and Republicans (51 percent agree), with independents landing in between at 72 percent. Among Americans overall, the report says: 'Belief that global warming is occurring is nearly twice as common among Democrats as Republicans (86 percent vs. 45 percent). The view that global warming is caused by human activity is roughly three times as common among Democrats as among members of the GOP (64 percent vs. 22 percent), as is the view that it represents a very serious problem (67 percent vs. 21 percent).'”

Education will be key to moving the planet's inhabitants toward what the pope calls an 'ecological spirituality' that is sensitive to the natural world.  The sixth chapter of Laudato Si’ will stress this elegantly.  May it come to pass.
Patrick Hayes,
Redemptorist Archives of the Baltimore Province

4. Will average Catholics consider the encyclical's content?
Dissemination of the actual content of the encyclical will, of course, prove crucial. Whether and how bishops in each and every dioceses throughout the world make this encyclical a priority will affect whether and how the people hear and adopt the message and its implications. Under the previous two papacies a worldwide cadre of conservative bishops and priests grew, and they largely pressed for the "life" issues in John Paul II's moral encyclicals, while ignoring his several social encyclicals (including one on human labor).

The simple fact is that in the USA regular Sunday mass attendance continues to decline steeply. Thus, preaching from the pulpit, should priests and bishops actually prioritize the encyclical, will only reach roughly a quarter of US Catholics directly. Catholic colleges and universities will be significant platforms for engaging the theology and practical dimensions of the encyclical, with professors also reaching out through media and local speaking venues. Schools at all levels, including campus ministries at secular institutions (where the overwhelming majority of US  Catholic students actually attend) will be so important for educating but also forming the character and behavior patterns of emerging generations.

I find it hard to be simplistically optimistic. Over the decades of my adult life I have observed Americans only to change their consumerist and individualist behaviors when "hit in the pocketbook," such as the raising of gas prices to reduce consumption, or redirected through governmental legislation and policy-enactments, such as the lowering of the speed limit during the energy crises and for years thereafter or the raising of minimum miles-per-gallon for autos and trucks.
Bruce T. Morrill, S.J.,
Vanderbilt University Divinity School



5. From deductive, top-down, metaphysical approach
to an inductive, bottom-up, interdisciplinary, praxis oriented approach

Most Catholics who understand Pope Francis’ approach to the Petrine ministry in Rome would expect Laudato Si’ to include, among other things, reference to the dialectic between the poor and the self-centered, consumeristic culture that predominates in the West. And, they would be right. Catholics may also have anticipated that Francis would saturate the document with appeals to the Bible, regional bishops statements, and wisdom from various spiritual traditions in order to point out how the Catholic tradition has indeed shown concern for creation since its inception. And, they would be right, too. However, what some Catholics may not have gleaned from their first reading of Laudato Si’’ is that it makes unambiguous Francis’ perspective on theological methods, and, the logic that guides them. Francis’ choice of method, and of methodological approach, then, is the focus of the discussion below.  The question I want to respond to is one that has been making the rounds, not only on social media, but also in the email chain related to the WakeUpLazarus website.  The question provoked much critical reflection on my part. 

In regard to the question of whether Laudato Si’’ has, or will, change Catholic social teaching, one interlocuter claimed that, “Francis has not changed Catholic social teaching significantly in this Encyclical.” I humbly beg to differ. Why? Well, my initial thought about this person’s claim was that it was correct in some sense but not right in another.  It is correct in that Laudato Si’’ has, and/or will not change, the content, direction, and/or concerns of Catholic social teaching.  The Catholic tradition has always shown great concern for creation in both sacred scriptures, the actions of saints, and, the teaching of the magisterium.  In recent times, concern for the environment and ecology was made a priority during Benedict XVI’s papacy leading him to be named the first “green pope.” On the other hand, I think that Laudato Si’’ has changed the papal discourse on method, or, the way, or process, with which Catholic social teaching is done.  I would argue that Laudato Si’’ shows Francis’ change in approach to method/methodology with respect to recent patterns in Catholic social tradition. 

Francis’ praxis oriented approach is markedly different from his predecessor Benedict XVI.  Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, in many of his addresses and writings, made clear that he favored a classic deductive approach to theological method, one that appeals primarily to Greek forms of reasoning, especially metaphysics.  Francis’ turn away from such a deductive, top-down, metaphysical approach and toward an inductive, bottom-up, interdisciplinary, praxis oriented approach is made clear in Laudato Si’’ when Francis twice claims that, “realities are more important than ideas” (LS, No. 110 & 201 - a point he first made in EG 231).  With this statement Francis shows he is much more aligned with an Aristotelian as opposed to a Platonic approach, Benedict XVI of course favoring the latter. 

In continuity with the methodical and methodological preferences of John XXIII and Paul VI, Francis appropriates the See, Judge, Act method for theological reflection on, and interpretation of, reality (or the signs of the times, if you prefer) with the aim of transformative social action on behalf of a just, common good. This method was first developed in the Catholic Church by Cardinal Cardijn of YCW fame, and, later developed by Latin American bishops (CELAM) and liberation theologians, with recent advancements made by North American practical theologians.  While the See, Judge, Act method is there implicitly (no. 15), the justification for use of this method is made explicit when Francis says, “theological and philosophical reflections on the situation of humanity and the world can sound tiresome and abstract, unless they are grounded in a fresh analysis of our present situation, which is in many ways unprecedented in the history of humanity” (no. 17). 

Francis then describes the practice of the method to provide an overview of what is to come. Francis says he will begin by reviewing (see) the best scientific research today, then consider (judge) principles from Judeo-Christian tradition. Then in light of this theological reflection, he will advance proposals for dialogue and action (act), both on an individual and global level.  This three step process represents a praxis oriented approach that prioritizes a critical assessment of reality (step 1) in order to change reality (step 3) through critical theological reflection as a mediatory step (step 2). 

After this overview, Francis begins chapter one by engaging interpretations of scientific analysis in order to describe “what is happening to our common home.” Francis then moves to step two. He begins his theological reflection with consideration of the “Gospel of Creation.”  As he begins this process Francis reminds readers that dialogue between science and faith can produce fruitful dialogue (no. 62). To be more precise, Francis argues that, “Given the complexity of the ecological crisis and its multiple causes, we need to realize that the solutions will not emerge from just one way of interpreting and transforming reality (no. 63). He goes on to say that, “if we are truly concerned to develop an ecology capable of remedying the damage we have done, no branch of the sciences and no form of wisdom can be left out, and that includes religion and the language particular to it.” In addition, Francis adds, “a science which would offer solutions to the great issues would necessarily have to take into account the data generated by other fields of knowledge, including philosophy and social ethics (no. 110). This correlational approach is aligned with much of Catholic tradition in that the Church has always been open to dialogue with philosophical thought (Aquinas’ use of Aristotle); which has enabled her to produce various syntheses between faith and reason.  Yet, at the same time it advances beyond the limited approach of synthesizing faith and reason to include other social discourses such as sociology, anthropology, critical theory, and various scientific approaches.

Francis’ appeal for a more inductive, bottom-up methodological approach to the ecological crisis is, however, made more explicit when he says that prudent judgement is needed to guide discussions in which all those directly or indirectly affected (farmers, consumers, civil authorities, scientists, seed producers, people living near fumigated fields, and others) can make known their problems and concerns.  This type of approach appeals to a form of pastoral listening with an added touch of ethnographic tact.  Francis’ call to listen to those on the ground again points to the fact that Francis calls for an integrative approach to the ecological crisis, which would require, at the very least, interdisciplinary research capable of shedding new light on the problem (no. 135).  This interdisciplinary research could bring together different fields of knowledge, including economics, in the service of a more integral and integrating vision.  From what I gather, Francis’ favors a critical correlationist approach to understanding the ecological crisis (no. 143), an approach that fosters dialogue between scientific-technical language and the culture and language of the people.

To be sure, toward the end of the document, Francis again appeals to an interdisciplinary approach to methodology when, in critical fashion, he states, “it cannot be maintained that empirical science provides a complete explanation of life. This would be to breach the limits imposed by its own methodology. If we reason only within the confines of the empirical science, little room would be left for aesthetic sensibility, poetry, or even reason’s ability to grasp the ultimate meaning and purpose of things” (no. 199). Instead of such a limited methodological approach Francis claims that because “religious classics can prove meaningful in every age” they should be integrated into methodical approaches to the understanding of humanitarian crisis such as the ecological one that currently places a question mark over the future of life on the earth.

At this point you may be asking yourself, “So what? What does this discussion of method and methodology have to do with anything? What purpose does it serve? Who does it help? I think for Francis, his claims concerning methods, methodologies, and, the critical correlation of scientific knowledge and religious classics, are not without purpose.  Francis appeals to the significance of praxis oriented methods, inductive, interdisciplinary methodologies, and critical correlation approaches because they can be fruitful for the field of Christian education. For Francis more pedagogies need to turn to educating for transformative action.  For example, Francis states that because “there is a nobility in the duty to care for creation through little daily actions,” there needs to be a certain approach to education, one that can foster real changes in lifestyle (no. 211). Francis seems to be calling for an “education in environmental responsibility [that] can encourage ways of acting which directly and significantly affect the world around us, such as avoiding the use of plastic and paper, reducing water consumption, separating refuse, cooking only what can reasonably be consumed, showing care for other living beings, using public transport or car-pooling, planting trees, turning off unnecessary lights, or any number of other practices” (no. 206). In fact, he cautions Christian educators that we must teach students to “not think that these small efforts are not going to change the world. They benefit society, often unbeknown to us, for they call forth a goodness which, albeit unseen, inevitably tends to spread” (no. 212).  Thus, in light of this call for a more praxis oriented pedagogy, I ask, what better way is there to teach students about how they can change reality than by teaching them how to use the See, Judge, Act method? In my practice of teaching I’ve seen this method in action in the classroom and it does indeed provoke changes in the way students understand reality.

In conclusion, all the aforementioned textual evidence shows that Francis indeed did change Catholic social teaching, he just didn’t change the content or concerns of the tradition.  Rather, because he believes that, “the time has come to pay renewed attention to reality” (no. 116), and, that "realities are more important than ideas" (LS, No. 110 & 201 - a point he first made in EG 231), Francis has helped the theological pendulum swing from Benedict XVI's concern with orthodoxy toward a Franciscan concern for orthopraxy.
 Robert Pennington,
St. Thomas University, Florida

Your analysis is spot on! And not too long for what you uncover within the text. I agree that a methodological shift has occurred that could impact the Catholic world given it comes from the Petrine office. Outside of the Catholic world the shift to praxis will resonate with those who are open. Certainly the encyclical is very readable and easier to invite people to consider. Other aspects regarding this encyclical, beyond the context and the method employed, is the timing of its arrival and the voice of the author. The time is right in that many people are seeking such a clear articulation of an integral moral vision for the future of humanity and the author is a credible witness to the Gospel.
Michael Dallaire,
Educator & Writer,

6. From the environment to the cosmic common good
Whether Francis has done something new here, I think he has! All of my scholarly work has focused on ecological ethics and on Catholic social thought in particular, and I have previously argued that there is an ambiguity in the tradition: do we care about the Earth, about the climate, simply because it affects us humans, or because we are part of a greater whole, a cosmic common good? I saw St. John Paul II express both themes, while Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI frankly was most concerned about human development, and he had an unnecessary fear of pantheism.

In Laudato Si, we have an unequivocal expression of the communion of creation. I do not think this can be under-emphasized. Non human creatures are loved by God, sustained by God, and redeemed by God in eternity. Previously, this has been a minority position of the Church: Aquinas did not envision plants and animals partaking in the resurrection. Here, I think, we have the opposite: we have a cosmic Christ, a cosmic Creator, and a cosmic Spirit.

So please let us theologians stop speaking of "the environment"! Let us, please, eliminate "the environment" from our vocabulary. We are talking about the Earth, "of which we are a part" (#17). It is not about "us in here," and "the environment out there," but all of God's good creation, and how we as the most powerful creature might participate in the future viability of both. Some might see here only a terminological shift (environment=Earth) but I think it is a huge shift in mindset and vision: human flourishing is part of a community, and that community is planetary, and that community is universal. We are part of an Earthly, a cosmic common good, and only by enacting that do we fulfill our true humanity.
Daniel P. Scheid,
Duquesne University

I too agree with Robert’s methodological analysis.  Thank you for sharing it with us.   Thanks to Dan as well on your insightful assessment of the relationship of Francis to JP II and Benedict.  I agree that the ‘environment’ is a problematic term and I appreciate your remedy.  One term that I think capture’s our sense of being a part of the earth in an dependent relationship with non-human nature is to refer to human beings as ‘earthlings’.
Richard Miller,
Creighton University

7. A holistic problem requiring a holistic method
Pope Francis' summary of his methodology (#15) I found to be remarkable, and I appreciate Robert's extended reflections on this, especially those that call for a more praxis oriented pedagogy in our classrooms.

It was enlivening for me to read how the encyclical unfolded €“ and not altogether surprising, given the use of the "see, judge, act" method €“ with its attention to experience. I was taken by Pope Francis' numerous uses of the word spirituality and culture, as well as how the encyclical opens up pathways for inter-religious dialogue; concern for the environment/ Earth is not just a dialogue point between the theological community and scientists, but also an urgent occasion for religious leaders/adherents to dialogue for the sake of "protecting nature, defending the poor" (#201). His embrace of culture extends to poetry and music; I find this so heartening, that the project of ecological/Earth healing is not a problem that the scientific community needs to tend to....this problem is characterized as a holistic problem, and so requires the engagement of entire communities and cultures for creative, imaginative responses and healing.  
Oswald John Nira,
Our Lady of the Lake University, San Antonio

Add your comments below