Learning from the Pope’s Call for Climate Care: Laudato Si’ and Modern Society

December 12, 2019 / By: William Sipling, '20
Shadow Falls

The following is an adaption of a paper entitled “Laudato Si’ and Social Theory: Developing Catholic Social Teaching Alongside Critical Cultural Critique,” presented at the December 7, 2019 roundtable discussion of the Critical Theory Research Network.

Laudato Si’: On the Care for Our Common Home (“Praise be to You,” from St. Francis of Assisi’s “Canticle of the Sun”), was written by Pope Francis in 2015, and is often referred to as the “environmental encyclical.” Though it covers more than climate and ecology, a great deal of Francis’s focus is upon the systems and structures that allow for or even promote the utilitarian consumption of the planet—and ultimately, us as well. Among other topics, Francis critiques consumeristic throwaway cultures (beginning in paragraphs 20-22), the influence of “media and the digital world” (47), and the “technocratic paradigm” (109). For those in the public sphere—from lawyers to student activists—Laudato Si’ is one of the most robust Catholic sources for tackling major issues facing society and the planet.

Regarding consumerism, the Pope—citing Monsignor Romano Guardini—states that the impulse to “buy more” is driven by a misunderstanding of human freedom (203). A consumeristic culture believes itself to be at liberty if it has the ability to acquire and collect more things. However, Catholic thought can remind us that true human freedom is not bound by one’s purchasing power or to the branding by slogans and logos of various companies. Rather, proper freedom comes from an “openness to what is good, true, and beautiful” (205).

On the subject of mass media and digital communication, the Holy Father presents an “alternative paradigm” (according to Jonathan Cannon and Stephen Cushman) away from an “omnipresent” (74), always-on, and noisy internet-driven culture. While there is a “good” to be found in services like social media, because they can provide a greater awareness of cultural issues, Laudato Si’ emphases the need to be in the real world, forming real relationships, and doing our part in real local communities. It’s through these person-to-person, tactile conversations that deeper and more heartfelt interactions take place, mitigating a prevalent cultural sense of growing loneliness and isolation.

Lastly, Pope Francis usefully coins helpful terminology, referring to the emergence of the “technocratic paradigm” (101), described as the taking up of “technology and its development according to an undifferentiated and one-dimensional paradigm” (106). This unexamined use of technology has led to practices of mass resource depletion, without regard to conservation or sustainability. Laudato Si’ shines light at these industrial default norms of more speed and more productivity, reminding readers to interrogate practices which may not be to our world’s greater good.

Yes, those who have a say in public policy, community development, and business boardrooms should step in to be a positive force for the planet. However, Francis makes it clear that anyone can be involved in taking care of this “joyful mystery of creation,” as Dr. Christopher Thompson says. As a start, all one has to do is take a second glance at the world around, stopping and smelling the roses, and connecting with creation. It’s from this personal experience with God’s handiwork that one can be inspired to care for our common home.