The Terrible Problem with Laudato Si’

The Terrible Problem with Laudato Si’ June 19, 2015

“Living our vocation to be protectors of God’s handiwork is essential to the life of virtue; it is not an optional or secondary aspect of our Christian experience.”

Laudato Si’ 217

The difficulty, the dreadful, unspeakable, shield-your-eyes difficulty with the Pope’s new encyclical on the environment comes down to one nasty problem: The man is right.

For the popular press, hoping all this time that Pope Francis would be something new and different, created in the image of The Today Show, there’s an unavoidable reckoning.  Dammit, Jim, the Pope really is Catholic. See if you can book Honey Boo Boo or something.

For Catholics it’s even worse.  The man has gone and summed up the entirety of Catholic social teaching, folding in Rerum Novarum and Humanae Vitae and the Church Fathers and everything, and then done the unthinkable and pointed out that this actually requires us to change the way we live.  Christianity is something more than a Jesus-flavored quest for the American Dream.

It’s love your neighbor as yourself, in 246 paragraphs of shoulder-shaking and slaps on the cheek.  Wake up you indolent slobs!  Do you not notice the people you’re crushing? The people who are dying to support your coddled bubble-world?

Here are some things to know before you get started:

1. It’s written for the whole world.  So when there are paragraphs that you can honestly say, “This does not apply to me,” that might be because those paragraphs don’t apply to you.  Don’t get your pants in a bunch because not all the paragraphs are your personal paragraphs.

2. It’s not an apologetic. The Holy Father doesn’t set out to prove his points, he states his points.  That’s a distinction you absolutely must understand or you’ll go mad.  If you need proof that environmental degradation causes immense suffering, book a spot on a mission trip.  Pope Francis has already been on the mission trip, and he’s telling you what he’s seen.

3. It takes the Catholic faith for granted. It is important to understand this going in, because over the last fifty years or so, many of things the Pope talks about in this encyclical have been borrowed by dissenters to create a para-faith that’s basically a waxy shield of spiritual-sounding words around a ball of nothingness.

Laudato Si’ is not Sister Patricia at the helm.  But this encyclical is about something other than carefully laying down thousands of caveats to demonstrate orthodox bona fides.  The proof of orthodoxy is in there, to the chagrin of many; but don’t expect every other sentence to be a defense before the Inquisition.

4. The complexity of the Pope’s analysis unfolds over the course of the entire document, so you have to read the whole thing. This is not a simple issue.  Indeed a measure of the man’s orthodoxy and the soundness of his thinking is precisely in the fact that he spent 200-some paragraphs laying everything out, rather than whipping off a few quick notes.

As a result, as you read, if you are knowledgeable of the issues at hand, you may find yourself saying, “Well, this situation A is perhaps a concern, but we must also remember situation B that has a significant impact as well.”  Keep reading.  He takes up situation B deeper in.  By the end he’s thrown a rock at everyone, no worries there.

5. If you don’t know the Catholic faith, and economics, and history, and environmental issues, and international politics, and conditions on the ground in chronically-disastrous parts of the world . . . you might get lost.  There’s a mountain of backstory behind this encyclical, and if you walk in cold, good luck.  It’s readable.  It’s well-written.  There’s nothing obscure or esoteric about it.  And you can certainly use this as an outline of topics to study, so it’s not useless to the neophyte.  But if you haven’t already given serious, serious thought to these topics, every single paragraph is going to give you questions, not answers.

But if you have given serious thought to these topics, if you’ve genuinely done the school of classical economics and stacked it up against the reality of the human condition and studied the failed and not-failed efforts of businesses and aid workers and environmentalists to figure out how things really happen?  Every single paragraph is going to have you nodding your head.

The man is right.

And this stinks, because on the one hand, yay, he mentions the virtues of going hunting (THANK YOU!), but on the other hand he points out maybe we rely on our air-conditioners a little too much?


This is the terrible problem.  When a pope writes about the Trinity, we can nod and smile and adjust our prayers to make sure we’ve got three Persons with one Divine Nature and our work is done.  But when he says, rightly, that actually we need to change the way we live all the other hours of the week, that gets uncomfortable.  Because either we have to change the way live, or we have to decide we’re not going to do the Catholic thing after all.

Related Links:

File:Annibale Carracci - Domine quo vadis? - WGA04444.jpg

Artwork: Annibale Carracci [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.  For a quick history behind the painting, here’s Wikimedia on the expression Quo Vadis?

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