BOOK REVIEW: POPE FRANCIS, Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home — August 2015

Jane TompkinsBy Jane Tompkins

When I read the newspaper stories a few weeks ago about the Pope’s encyclical, Laudato Si’, I suspected I wasn’t getting the whole story and decided to read it for myself. It was a good decision. The power and passion of this document cannot be conveyed by any report or commentary. The difference between reading the thing itself and reading someone’s account of it is like the difference between reading Wordsworth’s “Ode: Intimations of Immortality” and reading a Cliff Notes summary. You can’t begin to understand what it is unless you read it for yourself.  My advice to you is: stop reading this review right now, and go, instead, to your computer and in the search box type in:  And read.

But if you’re still with me: the title of the encyclical, Laudato Si’, means “praise be to you,” the opening words of the great hymn to nature composed by the saint whose name Pope Francis took upon being elected.  “Praise be to you, my lord, for brother sun,” it begins, and goes on to rejoice in various features of the natural world. The encyclical offers a unifying vision of how we might address the world’s outward condition—the needs of the earth and its people—and in so doing be at peace with our own souls. “He shows us,” the Pope is speaking now of St. Francis but the words apply equally to him, “he shows us just how inseparable the bond is between concern for nature, justice for the poor, commitment to society, and interior peace.”

The Pope’s perspective is both global and moral, as befits the spiritual leader of 1.2 billion of the world’s people. The thread that runs throughout, which also happens to be a founding principle of New Age thought, is “everything in the
world is connected.” I started counting the number of times the statement appears and stopped when I got to seven. For example, Francis affirms that our relation to nature cannot consist solely of “intellectual appreciation”: “it consists of awe and wonder, affection, care, and union.” Yes, you read it right, union. We are not separate from nature, but one with it. Or, again, elucidating the idea of universal connection, he says, while discussing environmental pollution that causes sickness and death: “Technology, which, linked to business interests is presented as the only way of solving these problems, in fact proves incapable of seeing the mysterious network of relations between things and so sometimes solves one problem only to create others.” For Francis, the only approach to such problems is holistic.

He uses the concept of an ecosystem as a blueprint for thinking about the structure of the world’s economy. An animal in nature eats plants and then, through its own waste and, eventually, the decomposition of its own body, becomes a source of nourishment for other plants, which feed other animals in a self-sustaining cycle. But we humans, he says, “have not yet managed to adopt a circular model of production capable of preserving resources for present and future generations, while limiting as much as possible the use of non-renewable resources, moderating their consumption, maximizing their efficient use, re-using, and re-cycling them.”  The Pope is worried not only about us but about those who will come after.

Championing the cause of the environment is, of course, the great new feature of this encyclical, but it would be a mistake to think that that emphasis constitutes its central message. He is more inclusive than that. Trained as a chemical engineer, the Pope is comfortable with scientific discourse, as well as with the discourse of the social sciences, especially economics. And, miraculously, he believes in the importance of the aesthetic dimension of human experience, too. For instance, speaking of over-development, he observes: “We seem to think we can substitute an irreplaceable and irretrievable beauty with something we have created ourselves.”

Preventing further spoliation of the planet—though it looms large in his thinking—is only one part of the story; he believes that our models of production and consumption have to change not only in order to forestall environmental disaster which is having a crushing effect on the lives of the poor, but, environmental issues aside, because current economic structures treat the poverty that results from them as “collateral damage.”  He attacks the concept of free markets as the solution to economic injustice and calls into question the primacy of private property. “To ensure economic freedom from which all can effectively benefit, restraints occasionally have to be imposed on those possessing greater resources and technical power. [The immediate frame of reference here is the way agribusiness squeezes out small producers.] To claim economic freedom while real conditions bar many people from actual access to it, and while possibilities for employment continue to shrink, is to practice a doublespeak which brings politics into disrepute.”  Francis takes no prisoners.

He calls for a new way of looking at things, a new way of thinking, new “politics, an educational programme, a lifestyle and a spirituality which together generate resistance to the technological paradigm.” Technology must be “put at the service of another type of progress,” one that is social and integral. Nor is tunnel vision restricted to the tech experts; it’s practiced notably  by “the professional policy-makers, people who control the media, and those at the centers of power [who] live far removed from the poor and have no firsthand knowledge of their problems. . . . Yet they are a majority of the planet’s population, billions of people.”

The perspective of the poor informs this document from beginning to end.  One illustration: “Access to safe drinkable water is a basic and universal human right, since it is essential to human survival and, as such, is a condition for the exercise of other human rights.” This had never occurred to me before because I, like those policy-makers he speaks of, have never been poor and have never lived where safe drinking water was a commodity available only to those with means.

Laudato Si’ contains one shocker after another. I’ve relayed a few of those that hit home for me. But don’t take my word for it. Go to  and read. You won’t be sorry you did.~