Laudato Si’ and Me: How Up to the Task Is It (and Am I)?


Rode roos, Carel Adolph Lion Cachet, 1874 – 1945.  Courtesy Rijks Museum, Amsterdam. 

By Michelle Self

Each time I reflect on the call of Pope Francis for inclusive dialogue as the path that leads to discernment of and commitment to the common good, I find myself asking a central question: Is this tool up to the task, given how it’s been forged and bent by users and abusers of dialogue?  Public voices often set the tone, so I find myself looking carefully at what they’ve said.

Since the encyclical was issued in June of 2015, this is what the resisters of Laudato Si’ whom I’ve kept track of have had said — and what I’ve virtually been saying to them:

Claim: The causes of climate change are too complex to warrant any deep change to our behavior. Because we don’t know precisely how much is human-caused, we should pretty much do nothing.
Response: Of course, we can point to the overwhelming scientific evidence of human complicity.  But why is doing nothing the better choice?  Is it better to proceed on the hypothesis that we can or cannot impact our future?  What is the best working hypothesis either for those who doubt the science or doubt our ability to do anything about the problem?  Who, upon seeing an unconscious man in a swimming pool would argue against trying to save him because we cannot rule out death by natural causes?  Don’t we regularly ask firefighters, teachers, social workers, psychologists, and scientists to respond as if they have the power to solve problems—even when causes are complex and results are uncertain. Isn’t “we can and should respond” the best working hypothesis?

Claim: The pope’s emphasis on altruism is misguided.  Utilizing profit-making incentives to affect change and achieve communal goals is the best approach, given the reality of human selfishness. We must marry the “innocence of the lamb” with the “wisdom of the serpent” and allow the free market to work its magic.
Response: We might find supporting evidence for this claim in the efficiency and creativity of capital markets — and take it as far as it goes.  But we also might imagine circumstances in which market-driven solutions are inappropriate or unsustainable. Doesn’t common sense tell us that resources are finite and infinite growth is impossible? Isn’t blind faith in technology on a par with, or beyond, that of the most demanding religious belief?  (Further, doesn’t this suggest that the natural world and the claims of future generations inhabit a region well beyond the reach of Adam Smith’s invisible hand?)  In a zero-sum game of this sort, won’t the world need the “soft” values of altruism, connection, and dialogue to avoid savage war?

Then there are what I call the “off-topic responses” that resisters (including plenty of public officials) use to deflect and confuse.  I hear these:

Claim: The pope is a hypocrite for questioning modernity while relying on Carrier, Inc. to air-condition the Sistine Chapel and to preserve its art treasure.
Response:  Yes, indeed, the pope is only human, and finding his way forward into the uncharted territory of what “integral ecology,” as he calls it, means.  Many Americans drive SUVs and power-up Carrier air-conditioners even as they come to grips with the question of sustainability.  It’s called the human condition.  Typically, don’t we tend to change our minds and imagine new solutions long before we change our habits?

Claim: The pope is just a lefty in clerical garb.  Rep. Paul Gosar (and Roman Catholic) from Arizona said almost exactly this when he announced that he would boycott Pope Francis’s speech to the U.S. Congress in 2015 with these words: “[W]hen the Pope chooses to act and talk like a leftist politician, then he can expect to be treated like one.” (1)
Response: What to say?  When public figures forego dialogue and substitute bluster, it lethally thwarts the process of democratic engagement  — and the discernment needed to save the planet.

Laudato Si’ has now been published for almost two years.  I still can get emotionally captured by its tone — meek and mild, graceful and understated. The pope describes an integral ecology in which all things are deeply connected — not in fickle sentiment but in the basic physics (and metaphysics) of the universe. He offers a welcome paradigm and brings salvation down to Earth.

Those with hearts that can enfold the planet are thankful for this beautifully crafted call of unity and oneness with all things.  I am thankful for the pope’s humility and inclusive invitation to dialogue — which is most needed and surely will serve as a model for our age.

MIchelle Self is CEO of the Bay Area technology firm, CAD Masters.  She is webmaster of Pando Populus. 

(1)   Ramesh Ponnuru, “Puzzling Out Pope Francis”,  National Review, (September 7, 2015).