Lord Williams of Oystermouth on Laudato Si’: Part 2

Because of the eagerness of some commentators to stir the pot of controversy over the causes of climate change, this appeal for cultural revolution has been pushed to one side in a predictable flurry of what it is tempting to call counter-pontification. Some have said indignantly that the Pope has no charism of authoritative teaching on scientific matters, and so have excused themselves from thinking about the underlying theological point.

In fact, of course, no one, least of all the Pope, has claimed or would claim such a magisterium; but what the Pope actually says on this subject is grounded, entirely justifiably, in two things: first, a massive professional consensus on the rate of climate modification; and secondly, the direct experience of those living in the world’s most vulnerable environments, who will bear witness to the measurable effect of desertification or rising sea levels.

In such a situation, if it is rationally arguable (as it unquestionably is) that certain modifications in human behaviour can alter the situation, even marginally, for the better, and if it is theologically arguable (as it unquestionably is) that our habits of consumption reveal a spiritually disastrous condition, then it is frankly a diversionary tactic to make debating points about the Pope’s non-infallibility on scientific affairs.

Also striking is the encyclical’s consistent emphasis on solidarity as a rule-of-thumb test for the moral defensibility of this or that policy. In Chapter IV especially, Pope Francis reflects on the inseparability of social health and cohesion on the one hand and harmony with the environment on the other (yet again, there is conspicuous reference to Pope Benedict’s thought). Pope Francis comes back here to the question of law: in many settings, the rule of law is a sorry fiction, with an administrative elite exploiting public process to advance private interest; and even in less corrupt environments, the law loses credibility when the social order manifestly fails to protect the poorest.

In a passage clearly marked by Pope Francis’s experience as a pastor in Latin America, he lays out the connections between a lawlessly drug-abusing culture in a wealthy society, the toxic social and political distortions imposed by this on poorer societies, the economic and environmental degradation produced by the requirements of drug supply, and the resultant decay of the rule of law all round (142). The pope’s vision – crucially – holds together what the rule of law is about (the security of persons from harm and the possibility of equal access to redress for all) with the acceptance of a world of mutual respect and the understanding of limits.

Here, as at several points, Pope Francis makes it clear that his commitment to environmental justice is not in the least an advocacy of political primitivism or benign anarchy. Indeed, you could fairly say that he is suggesting that only when his ‘cultural revolution’ is in hand can we properly understand politics itself. If our thinking and sensibilities are wedded to the will and its dramas, politics slips toward that marketized condition that increasingly dominates electoral campaigns: tell us (aspirant politicians) what you want and we shall argue about which of us can give it to you most effectively; never mind what our social life might be for.

Solidarity with the world of which we are part and solidarity among us as its inhabitants belong together; environmental justice (justice for the poor, justice for the next generation, as spelled out in 159–60) teaches us about ordinary justice and lawfulness between citizens – and vice versa.

So it is no surprise that the argument returns more than once to the question of how local cultures are to be heard, respected, and given real agency (144); how we escape from the assumption that the discourse of the ‘developed’ world is the only unchallengeable orthodoxy around the globe today. Change involves valuing the local, and so valuing the apparently modest gesture, the symbolically weighty but practically limited action that simply declares what might be done differently. St Thérèse of Lisieux is invoked to good effect here (230), and this is a very significant issue if we are to avoid giving the impression of a crisis so intense that no small gesture is worthwhile. And it is with this in mind that the encyclical in its final pages (233–7) sets out a strong theology of the sacramental life, underlining not only the way in which the Eucharist reveals the inner energy of all material creation by the grace of the Incarnate Word but also the ‘sabbatical’ vision of time made spacious in the celebration of God’s gifts.

‘We are called to include in our work a dimension of receptivity and gratuity’ (237); and, strikingly, St John of the Cross is cited (234) as establishing the continuity in absolute difference that is God’s presence in the created order. Ignoring or distorting our responsibility in the material world is ultimately a denial of that eternal relatedness that is God’s own Trinitarian life: we need to discover a spirituality rooted in ‘that global solidarity which flows from the mystery of the Trinity’ (240).

In short, this is more than an encyclical on the environment: it has clear and provocative things to say about our environmental responsibility and our current cultural malaise in this regard, but, by grounding its environmental critique in a critique of the soul of the contemporary developed world, it presents a genuinely theological vision with implications in several distinct areas. It was, for example, good to read (149ff) a brief but penetrating reflection on the actual geography of our urban environments, on how we display what we think matters in the way we design our civic spaces. These paragraphs should be a powerful diagnostic tool for understanding better what has to be done to rescue urban society – not only what support services should be available but what absolutely practical considerations should enter into the design of shared space, even the materials used in building. And, again echoing things that have been said from the Vatican often enough in the past decade, the issues around environmental risk prompt some hard questions about how a world still passionately committed to a model of absolute state sovereignty (except where globalized finance is concerned, of course) devises effective instruments for international monitoring and sanctioning of ecological threats.

A final point: If I had a single reservation about the theology of Evangelii gaudium, it would have been that an understandable desire to avoid any churchy reciousness about liturgy made the brief remarks about the sacramental life in that document feel just a little perfunctory. This encyclical more than makes up for that in the eloquent reflections on the sacraments in its concluding pages. It is interesting that the theologian most often quoted in the document, apart from previous pontiffs, is Romano Guardini – not only a writer admired by Pope Benedict, but one who represents just that ecclesially and liturgically informed theology which came to fruition in Europe on the eve of Vatican II, presenting a coherent, imaginatively vivid, socially and politically critical worldview profoundly rooted in a highly traditional dogmatics, looking back to those patristic and monastic sources in which ethics, liturgy, spirituality, and doctrine were not separated.

It is this hinterland that makes Pope Francis so hard to categorize in the eyes of those who think only in terms of left and right as conventionally imagined. And that is, I believe, a very healthy place for a theologian, a pope, or indeed a church, to be. If we can lift our heads from the trenches of contemporary media-driven controversy, what we are being offered in this encyclical is, in the very fullest sense, a theology of liberation, drawing our minds and hearts toward a converted culture that is neither what T. S. Eliot called ‘ringing the bell backwards’, pining for a lost social order and a lost form or style of authority, nor a religiously inflected liberalism, but a genuinely ecclesial vision.

The Pope’s cultural revolution is about restored relationship with the creation we belong with and the Creator who made us to share his bliss in communion; it is about the unbreakable links between contemplation, eucharist, justice, and social transformation. It constitutes a major contribution to the ongoing unfolding of a body of coherent social teaching, and a worthy expansion and application of the deeply impressive doctrinal syntheses of Pope Benedict’s major encyclicals. ND

This article was first published in Commonweal on 23 September 2015, and appears here by permission.