A close reading of two papal paragraphs for Earth Week

A close reading of two papal paragraphs for Earth Week

John S Farnsworth

Ecojesuit shares this Earth Week reflection by John Farnsworth, Senior Lecturer in Environmental Studies and Sciences, Emeritus, published in Illuminate, Santa Clara University’s thought leader blog. He focused on two paragraphs by Pope Francis that reflected a persistent reminder of our relationship with nature and “that without other creatures, our lives are both incomprehensible and unsustainable.” He mentions that in Laudato Si’, “the pope proposed that there could be no integral ecology without ‘an adequate anthropology.’… And in Laudate Deum, we see what this anthropology will look like, especially when the pope writes that ‘human life is incomprehensible and unsustainable without other creatures.’”

Over the years, one of the things I’ve most enjoyed about Santa Clara University’s efforts in sustainability and environmental education is how interdisciplinary they are, drawing in scholars from various disciplines and constituencies. One such effort was the morning the encyclical Laudato Si’ was published in June of 2015.

Along with two other SCU faculty members, Dr Ed Maurer from the School of Engineering and Dr David DeCosse from the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, we hoped to be the first Californians to not only read the encyclical, but also to publish an op-ed article about it in the next day’s edition of the San Jose Mercury News.

The week prior to the encyclical’s release, I had an email conversation with Mike Engh SJ, who was then president of SCU, speculating about what points the pope might make in the forthcoming encyclical. We guessed some elements correctly, like the fact that the text would reflect a Franciscan perspective on environmental justice, as well as reflecting the core Jesuit value of finding God in all things. But neither of us had a clue how comprehensive the encyclical’s critique of environmental degradation would be. The so-called “letter” ran 40,000 words – that’s half a novel!

Miraculously, our SCU faculty article, Pope Francis’s ‘Common Home’ Encyclical is a Game Changer, made the next edition of the Mercury News, and its multiple newspaper partners.

And I decided that the next time the pope published a bit of environmental theology, which he calls “Integral Ecology,” I’d get a chance to read it more slowly. That next piece, Laudate Deum, took eight years to come along by the time it was released on October 4, 2023. Even though it was only 8,000 words long, I have perused it with great interest, and with the benefit of more time!

Of the 72 paragraphs in this apostolic exhortation, two stand out in my mind: numbers 67 and 68. I read this section with the understanding that Vatican documents often contain dense language that must be analyzed on a phrase-by-phrase basis, especially when a change is forthcoming regarding longstanding teaching or emphasis. For example, the simple addition of a conjunction such as “but” can signal significant departures from traditional thought.

Paragraph 67 begins with a sentence that stands as a case in point: “The Judaeo-Christian vision of the cosmos defends the unique and central value of the human being amid the marvelous concert of all God’s creatures, but today we see ourselves forced to realize that it’s only possible to sustain a ‘situated anthropocentrism.’” (Emphasis added.)

There is no indication in the footnotes as to why the phrase “situational anthropocentrism” appears in quotes, nor is there any contextual clarification as to the phrase’s meaning. It’s hard to escape the inference that anthropocentrism only makes sense in the historical context of how it was situated in scripture. If this is the case, I would suspect that any ambiguity was intentional in order not to detract from the document’s environmental discourse with questions regarding scriptural inspiration.

In Laudato Si’, the pope had proposed that there could be no integral ecology without “an adequate anthropology.” And now, in Laudate Deum, we see what this anthropology will look like, especially when the pope writes that “human life is incomprehensible and unsustainable without other creatures.” My interpretation here is that while the pope is not willing to abandon the time-worn perspective of the creation story in the Book of Genesis, a grand narrative which situates humanity at the center of creation, now we must recognize that all those other living species are of commensurate importance.

As a child in Catholic school, I was taught that we humans were created in the image and likeness of God. But now the pope is instructing us that without other creatures, our lives are both incomprehensible and unsustainable.

In other words, we are very special, but without the rest of the biosphere, we’re nothin’. Further, the pope writes that all creatures “are linked by unseen bonds and together form a kind of universal family, a sublime communion which fills us with a sacred, affectionate and humble respect.” In essence – and this is purely my interpretation – we must get over the ethic that “we have dominion over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” (Genesis 1:28)

As an environmentalist whose greatest concern is with wildlife diversity, this blows me away. My respect for my non-human family members such as the western redcedar, or the short-eared owl, should be filling me with a sacred, affectionate, and humble respect. Wow. And I can’t help note that what Pope Francis calls “integral ecology” is remarkably similar to what many of my environmentalist colleagues call “deep ecology.” Just a bit more catholic.

In paragraph 68, this integral line of thought continues, and the pope quotes a sentence he originally wrote in the 2013 encyclical Evangelii Gaudium – a line that he’d also quoted in Laudato Si’, which adds to the sentence’s significance – that we are joined so closely to creation that we should be able to “feel the desertification of the soil almost as a physical ailment, and the extinction of a species as a painful disfigurement.”

In other words, to truly understand his vision of an integral ecology, we must go beyond intellectual conjecture and truly feel environmental loss as our own personal loss, a loss that is corporal and familial.

But this is not the endpoint for his train of thought. He concludes these two paragraphs with the gentle exhortation, “Let us stop thinking, then, of human beings as autonomous, omnipotent and limitless, and begin to think of ourselves differently, in a humbler but more fruitful way.”

One final observation: when reading papal pronouncements, it’s interesting to note what is not being said. What parts of the conventional discourse have fallen by the wayside?

In this regard, I find it fascinating that there’s not one mention of environmental stewardship in the entire document. In the process of perceiving ourselves in a humbler way, rather than conceiving of ourselves as divinely appointed stewards of creation, it’s time to realize that we’re members of a multi-species family for whom we should feel a humble, affectionate, and sacred respect. Once we do that, our ecological concerns will become integral, and we will modify our consumptive behaviors accordingly.

Now that’s a game changer.


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