Rarely has a papal encyclical (which is a teaching letter) received such intense pre-release media coverage and debate as Pope Francis’s recent letter, “Laudato Si.”
Many either hoped or feared that the Pope would succumb to scientific pressure and lead the Church into fellowship with pro-abortion, pro-contraceptive, population control groups. There were debates on the scientific evidence, and an argument over whether a pope should be involved in the discussion at all.
Pressure mounted. Tensions rose. Polarity marked the release of the encyclical. But what does “Laudato Si” actually show us? What’s in this encyclical? What is Pope Francis teaching us?
Pope Francis is continuing an apostolic teaching to which St. John XXIII, Blessed Paul VI, St. John Paul II, and Pope Benedict XVI subscribed—namely, we are to care for the earth. If we treat the earth poorly, we nurture a throwaway culture.
By not caring for the world around us, we continue other forms of negligence toward our neighbors, especially the vulnerable. Pope Francis uses this foundation to denounce abortion and population control. He presents an argument agreed upon by many (being custodians of our world) and extends its rational use to controversial issues.
The Pope now holds the public’s attention on moral issues in a way that popes in times past have not. Having provided an ecological basis, therefore, the Pope broadens this basis and provides philosophical and theological thoughts by which he introduces the order of nature and the natural law.
He is using a language and pedagogy that is retrieved from our tradition and yet is new and innovative in its exposition and application. The Pope is teaching what is true and beautiful, while also evangelizing in a very collaborative, casual way.
Is there a reason to be concerned? Has the Pope surrendered traditional Catholic language? Will this new pedagogy help the Catholic Church?
There is no reason for concern. The Pope is affirming the goodness of creation and leading humanity to an acknowledgement of the Creator. He is introducing theological points into ecological themes that are aimed as much at a better understanding of the human person as they are at the environment.
These points are well received by the people of our world and are showing the importance of God and the contribution of biblical truths to our life and our world. This is an evangelization “in the trenches.” It is a Jesuit method that is nourished by discussion, reflection, debate, and time.
Is this just a stealth evangelization? No, the Pope’s points stand on their own—we must care for our world. The Pope is sincere in his teaching and is truly calling all believers and people of our world to care for our planet.
Then where is the evangelization? The Pope’s points, precisely in their sincerity, also stand as sources of evangelization.
While specific scientific and economic points can be debated since they are prudential judgments of the Pope, the doctrine surrounding them are truths of faith and are binding on the consciences of believers. These truths call out to humanity. The human heart is formed to receive and flourish through them.
We can turn to Acts 17 and the work of the great Apostle, St. Paul, during his visit to Athens. In Athens he faced a difficult crowd that could not understand the message of Jesus Christ or the Resurrection.
St. Paul used what they knew, appreciated and valued. He turned to life, animals, nature, the seasons, and history. He even cited their poets, and in doing this he built a bridge between what he and the Athenians held in common (even if for very diverse reasons).
Paul could see what was true, good, and beautiful (cf. Philippians 4:8) and sought to affirm these, build fraternity, and address the truths of faith. This is remarkably similar to “Laudato Si.”
The encyclical reminds us of the goodness of our world, our responsibility to care for it, the dignity of the human person as the unique steward of creation, and the providential care of our Creator over the earth. It’s a sound teaching completely within our tradition and calls us to greater attention and care to all that God has given to us.
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