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Receiving Laudato Si': remember no encyclical is released in a vacuum

Sebastian Gomes

Thursday, June 25, 2015

(Pope Francis greets Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI in the Vatican gardens in 2014. With the publication of Laudato Si', Francis has joined Benedict in issuing an encyclical that addresses the ecological crisis and integral human development. Caritas in Veritate was issued by Benedict in 2009. Photo courtesy of CNS.)
With the release of Laudato Si’, Pope Francis’ new encyclical on ecology and the care of our common home, a new chapter in the ever-growing Magisterium of the Catholic Church has been written. This encyclical, the second of Francis’ pontificate (Lumen Fidei was published in June of 2013), is the first ever to deal solely with the environmental question, its ramifications for people of faith, and indeed the entire human family.
Within minutes of its publication, quotes from it were being shared on social media along with various summaries and the always popular lists, “(insert random number here) things you need to know about Laudato Si’”. Even critiques of certain themes in the document were being issued.
Of course this kind of popular and immediate response is typical of our culture. I wonder if the level of enthusiasm for discussing, sharing and even debating or critiquing Laudato Si’ will continue in the coming weeks and months once the initial novelty of the text wears off. I hope it will.
In any case, in this initial release phase it’s worth reflecting on the question of how we receive this document; by that I mean, with what attitude are we approaching Laudato Si’ and, perhaps, with what narrow perspective and ideological baggage?
Immediate reactions or responses to things are typically not well thought out. The most intense and emotional responses to Laudato Si’ on the Internet have come from people who find in the text either a strong affirmation or a harsh critique of their own, firmly held opinions. But a papal encyclical is not meant to offer a definitive ruling on this or that issue. And while the countless tweets of those folks do serve to raise awareness of the document, they end up saying more about the tweeter than the tweeted.
We might say that an encyclical is the opposite of a tweet. Encyclicals are dreadfully long (Laudato Si’ is 230,398 characters... with spaces), dense and require intense and prolonged reflection. They are written by one pope (with the exception of Lumen Fidei that was written by Pope Francis and Pope Benedict), but only as part of an established body of magisterial teachings. Even when one deals with a particular theme, like Laudato Si’, an encyclical is not released in a vacuum.
A good example of this is the encyclical Caritas in Veritate, on integral human development issued by Pope Benedict XVI in 2009. Many people are already putting this encyclical in conversation with Laudato Si’, and Pope Francis himself references Caritas in Veritate to make his arguments. But beyond this, Caritas in Veritate is a tribute to an older encyclical Populorum Progressio, on the development of peoples written by Pope Paul VI in 1967. From the outset Pope Benedict states:
“I intend to pay tribute and to honour the memory of the great Pope Paul VI, revisiting his teachings on integral human development and taking my place within the path that they marked out, so as to apply them to the present moment.” (Caritas in Veritate 8)
There have been other cases of popes writing encyclicals to mark an anniversary of an older encyclical or to re-present its fundamental principles in light of a new social or cultural situation. This is the practice of what Pope John XXIII called “reading the signs of the times,” that is, applying the fundamental truths and principles of the Catholic faith to the current reality. This is what Pope Benedict did with Caritas in Veritate and this is what Pope Francis has done with Laudato Si’.
Today, the temptation to see only what is immediately in front of us hinders a proper reception of an important teaching like Laudato Si’. Twitter is not helpful in this regard. We cannot understand, process or reflect on everything immediately. On top of that, ignorance of the historic and thematic thread running through the modern encyclicals, especially the social encyclicals, is an injustice to the organic process of development within the body of magisterial teachings. It seems to me that this organic process is a constitutive quality of Catholicism and cannot be dismissed or ignored for ideological purposes. As Pope Benedict stated clearly in Caritas in Veritate:
The Church’s social doctrine is “a single teaching, consistent and at the same time ever new. It is one thing to draw attention to the particular characteristics of one Encyclical or another, of the teaching of one Pope or another, but quite another to lose sight of the coherence of the overall doctrinal corpus.” (12)
When receiving and reading Laudato Si’ it would be good to ask, “what do I see here?” If the answer is merely “an acknowledgement that climate change is real,” or “a particular economic perspective,” or another singular issue that tends to draw attention and create controversy—something that can be tweeted—then perhaps greater appreciation is needed for what an encyclical is. Though it requires time and reflection, in reading Laudato Si’ we should see, not only Pope Francis’ enormous contribution to the ecological discussion, but also Caritas in Veritate, Populorum Progressio, Pope John Paul II’s consistent call for greater ecological action, Gaudium et Spes, the spirituality of St. Francis of Assisi, the Gospel.
The beauty of Catholic teaching, which is really Catholic Tradition, is that it is organic and dynamic. It is alive. As Pope Benedict said, it is consistent and ever new. Because of this, Pope Francis can read the signs of the times in light of the Gospel. He can adopt the most up-to-date and authoritative science as part of his analysis of the ecological crisis. He can critique what is in reality an unjust economic system that excludes millions of people. He can show that creation is interconnected, theologically, biologically and socially.
Pope John XXIII famously said, “It is not that the Gospel has changed: it is that we have begun to understand it better.” The contribution of the papal encyclicals to our understanding of the human person, the created world, modern civilization, the reality of God, the challenges we face together, is a living testament to that statement. Here we find Laudato Si’, the latest in a long line of reflections on the signs of the times, and one that will require of everyone a lengthy commitment to read, discuss, understand, and ultimately live.

SebastianGOn Further Reflection
In the complex world of the 21st century there are more questions than answers. The challenge for the Church is to find new and effective ways of bringing the Gospel message into the conversation.  For her part, the Church can act as a much needed voice of dialogue, reason and charity. On Further Reflection invites readers to go beyond the headlines to see the deeper realities affecting the church and society.  Sebastian Gomes is a producer and correspondent for S+L TV.

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