Yesterday, Pope Francis released his encyclical letter, Laudato Si, “Praise be to you, my Lord,” on the theme of “care for our common home.”
For weeks, partisans in the press have driven expectations that this would be a major missive on climate change. I’ve read all 180 pages of it, and it’s about much more fundamental realities.
The pope’s most basic insight on these and all other policy challenges is that they ultimately hinge on culture—on the values that can sustain a healthy ecology: physical, spiritual, social and moral ecology. In John Paul II’s words, quoted by Francis, we must be concerned to “safeguard the moral conditions for an authentic human ecology.”
The encyclical isn’t primarily about policy and it isn’t just for Catholics: Francis seeks to “enter into dialogue with all people” about human values. Its main theme is the change of heart that we all need: toward greater care of creation, purer intentions in its use and the rediscovery of a true humanism.
This theme has political as well as personal import. As Francis notes, the environmental challenges we face are at root a result of disordered desires—the misuse of technology with a technocratic mindset disconnected from moral truths, an embrace of conspicuous consumption where having more is seen as being more, and the creation of a “throwaway culture” where everything (and everyone) is disposable. Only if we address these failures of character and culture will any larger ecological reform be possible.
The Primacy of Culture
Culture is central because it affects everything else. Francis highlights that a “throwaway culture” harms both social and physical ecology: “When we fail to acknowledge as part of reality the worth of a poor person, a human embryo, a person with disabilities—to offer just a few examples—it becomes difficult to hear the cry of nature itself; everything is connected.” Later he connects this throwaway culture to the plague of abortion:
[C]oncern for the protection of nature is also incompatible with the justification of abortion. How can we genuinely teach the importance of concern for other vulnerable beings, however troublesome or inconvenient they may be, if we fail to protect a human embryo, even when its presence is uncomfortable and creates difficulties?
A culture of care for all creation will help us overcome the tendency, which Francis bemoans, to divide our concerns: “It is clearly inconsistent to combat trafficking in endangered species while remaining completely indifferent to human trafficking, unconcerned about the poor, or undertaking to destroy another human being deemed unwanted.”
What does a unified culture of care for creation look like? It’s a culture that encourages us to guide our use of technology by moral norms, to ensure that it respects human dignity and promotes human flourishing.
This is true for biotechnology as much as transportation and food production: “There is a tendency to justify transgressing all boundaries when experimentation is carried out on living human embryos. We forget that the inalienable worth of a human being transcends his or her degree of development. In the same way, when technology disregards the great ethical principles, it ends up considering any practice whatsoever as licit.” Morality must govern technology.
It’s a culture in which we care both for the environment and for the people who inhabit it. Francis has stern words for those who “can only propose a reduction in the birth rate” or who “blame population growth, instead of extreme and selective consumerism on the part of some.” Properly stewarded, the earth can sustain a growing population.
Finally, a culture of care for creation depends first of all on the family: “social ecology is necessarily institutional, and gradually extends to the whole of society, from the primary social group, the family, to the wider local, national and international communities.” Francis continues:
“I would stress the great importance of the family, which is “the place in which life—the gift of God—can be properly welcomed and protected against the many attacks to which it is exposed, and can develop in accordance with what constitutes authentic human growth. In the face of the so-called culture of death, the family is the heart of the culture of life.” In the family we first learn how to show love and respect for life; we are taught the proper use of things, order and cleanliness, respect for the local ecosystem and care for all creatures.”
For this reason, attempts to remake the family—like attempts to remake the human body—threaten a sound ecology.
Francis highlights that the attitude which thinks the earth is infinitely malleable, up to man to refashion however he pleases, is linked to a similar attitude when it comes to the human body, male and female:
“The acceptance of our bodies as God’s gift is vital for welcoming and accepting the entire world as a gift from the Father and our common home, whereas thinking that we enjoy absolute power over our own bodies turns, often subtly, into thinking that we enjoy absolute power over creation. Learning to accept our body, to care for it and to respect its fullest meaning, is an essential element of any genuine human ecology. Also, valuing one’s own body in its femininity or masculinity is necessary if I am going to be able to recognize myself in an encounter with someone who is different. In this way we can joyfully accept the specific gifts of another man or woman, the work of God the Creator, and find mutual enrichment. It is not a healthy attitude which would seek “to cancel out sexual difference because it no longer knows how to confront it.”
The Role of Religion in Public Life
Some people may ask why anyone should care what a bishop in Rome thinks about these issues. To them, Francis rightly highlights “the rich contribution which religions can make towards an integral ecology and the full development of humanity.” As he puts it, “no branch of the sciences and no form of wisdom can be left out, and that includes religion and the language particular to it.”
Nevertheless, Francis is clear that “the Church does not presume to settle scientific questions or to replace politics.” Everyone concerned with the values Francis highlights will need to investigate the relevant empirical facts and consider, in light of them, which policies will best promote those values.
Francis seeks “to encourage an honest and open debate so that particular interests or ideologies will not prejudice the common good.” Just so.
Now is the time to renew an honest and open debate about which policies will best serve to protect and promote a healthy ecology in all of its dimensions.
Ryan T. Anderson, Ph.D., researches and writes about marriage and religious liberty as the William E. Simon senior research fellow in American Principles and Public Policy at The Heritage Foundation. He also focuses on justice and moral principles in economic thought, health care and education, and has expertise in bioethics and natural law theory. He's the author of the forthcoming book, "The Future of Marriage and Religious Liberty."
Editor's Note: This piece was originally published by The Heritage Foundation.