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Is encyclical's clear, timeless message accessible to all?

The drive for social mobility overrides man's search for meaning
Is encyclical's clear, timeless message accessible to all?

This February 2014 photograph shows cleared trees in a forest land concession in Indonesia’s Central Kalimantan province. (Photo by Bay Ismoyo/AFP)

Published: August 31, 2015 03:08 AM GMT
Updated: August 30, 2015 05:14 PM GMT

Laudato si' begins with a Franciscan exaltation that recalls humanity's union with the rest of creation.

In a manner with which even New Age spiritualists would resonate, Francis of Assisi's canticle declares that "Mother Earth ... sustains and governs us".

But the pope wastes no time in sounding the alarm. Immediately in the second paragraph, the encyclical brings our attention to an urgent matter. Mother Earth, who is also humanity's sister, "now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her".

Pope Francis, known for his lifelong work with the oppressed, now speaks for battered creation. In this encyclical, Christians are called to an "ecological conversion" in which a genuine encounter with Christ must be accompanied by conscientious stewardship of creation. Thus the bulk of the encyclical is devoted to theological reflections on creation, stewardship, and the relationship between God, humanity and the environment.

But the power of Laudato si' is not only in calling for ecological conversion. It is also a powerful critique of the state of affairs in the world today.

To Pope Francis, the ecological crisis in water, biodiversity and climate change finds its roots in a technocratic paradigm and misguided anthropocentrism. In spite of its promise of progress, this paradigm is at its core more exploitative than caring. Its view of nature is one whose resources ought to be extracted. And it has consequences on economic and political life.

He critiques, too, the view that market growth is adequate in solving the problems of global hunger and poverty. He even suggests that proponents of this view have "no interest in more balanced levels of production, a better distribution of wealth, concern for the environment and the rights of future generations".

Pope Francis greets survivors of Typhoon Haiyan during his visit to Tacloban City in January. The pope's encyclical, Laudato si', calls for an "ecological conversion" accompanied by a conscientious stewardship of creation. (Photo by Joe Torres)

A common enemy

Although he does not discount the contributions of technological advancement, he wonders if enough questions are being asked on the moral dimension of "environmental degradation, anxiety, a loss of the purpose of life and of community living". Workers, for example, are easily replaced by machines.

Laudato si' is therefore not just about the environment but the fundamental dissonances of human existence today.

In a way, then, Laudato si' is a good sociological document. It enfleshes the Harbermasian assessment of how the lifeworld is being colonized by the system. The lifeworld is the space where human existence naturally develops based on shared cultural and practical understandings. It is our everyday life with all its cultural richness and human relationships.

The system is that part of society whose operations are governed by instrumental rationality — corporations, the bureaucracy and even the scientific enterprise. The system colonizes the lifeworld when instrumental rationality trumps every other way of thinking, speaking, and behaving in everyday life: culture, traditions, religion, and morality. In this light, Pope Francis is justified in claiming that there are no "genuine ethical horizons to which one can appeal".

The care for our common home therefore should recognize that there is a common enemy. Without moral grounding, biological technologies, the free market and labor can all be exploited without regard for the dignity of human beings, especially the poor. The irony is that where advancement in knowledge is premised on progress, in the end it can benefit only a few.

The worst part is that the exploitation of our environment has backfired.

For the sociologist Ulrich Beck, technological advancements have in fact created environmental risks now experienced by everyone but from which only the affluent can be protected: pollution, disease, social inequality, and even war. And as far as the encyclical is concerned, without a moral drive, humanity's vision of a bright future would remain elusive. All humanity's efforts would be an endless cycle of palliative care.

Sociologists like myself thus stand with the pope on the principle of the common good, "a summons to solidarity and a preferential option for the poorest of our brothers and sisters".


An accessible message?

Encyclicals are powerful documents. Their circulation is wide, especially among Church leaders, policy elites and opinion makers. Like many of its predecessors, Laudato si' received tremendous coverage in the media and will most likely be part of the canon in theology classes.  

But ironically, its status as a regal document can limit its potential to speak to all people of good will. Although its message is clear, it is hefty and may not be readily accessible to the general public.

Its message is timeless, too: "We must regain the conviction that we need one another, that we have a shared responsibility for others and the world, and that being good and decent are worth it." Powerful institutions of society including the Church, education, and the family have a role in making its message clear and real in everyday life.

But I wonder if it is a message that ultimately resonates with the everyday person. For it to happen, growth in neoliberalism necessarily rests upon the logic of competition among economies, corporations and individuals.

In the fast-changing societies of Asia, I wonder if there is space for people to pause and question the very ethos that now fuels daily existence. The drive for social mobility, among other aspirations, places the search for meaning only secondary to everything else. Can Laudato si' speak to them too?

My worry is that the encyclical, although strongly worded, would merely be one of those feel-good writings that in the end only give momentary inspiration.

And so I can only say amen to Pope Francis' prayer: "Enlighten those who possess power and money that they may avoid the sin of indifference, that they may love the common good, advance the weak and care for this world in which we live. The poor and the Earth are crying out."

Jayeel Serrano Cornelio is a sociologist and director of the development studies program of the Ateneo de Manila University. He is a member of the Board of the Philippine Sociological Society. He conducts research on religion, youth, education, and the city. Follow him on Twitter.

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