AS I BEGIN TO write this series of columns on Pope Francis’ encyclical, “Laudato Si’”, I almost don’t know how to begin. The encyclical is so important that I want to say everything I believe about it in one column. This is impossible because the encyclical deserves a book. Due to its length, the encyclical took me several hours to read. Having finished reading it, I wonder if there could have ever been a better way of spending those hours. Though demanding, the encyclical is absolutely beautiful.
As enthusiastic as I am about the encyclical, I was slightly surprised when I recently heard an outstanding Catholic theologian comment, “I think this is the most important encyclical ever.”
I thought of some of the great social encyclicals from the past and also Pope Benedict’s marvelous encyclical on love. When questioned to explain the comment, the theologian said, “Because it involves the lives of millions of people,” meaning that millions will die if we don’t take care of the environment.
In paragraph five of the encyclical, Pope Francis writes:
“Authentic human development has a moral character. It presumes full respect for the human person, but it must also be concerned for the world around us. … Accordingly, our human ability to transform reality must proceed in line with God’s original gift.”
I was surprised by some of the comments from Catholics indicating that they could not see how morality extended to how we treat the environment. Such comments are discouraging because they reveal that much education about the role of the Church in the world still has to take place.
The pope’s teaching in the encyclical and in other statements has given me a new and deeper understanding of what it means to say that to be a human person is to be relational, to be in dialogue with another, present to another, open to another. I have come to see through the Holy Father that not only how we relate to other persons is important, but that it is also important how we relate to other creatures.
With this broadening of my understanding of how humans should be relating, I recall my undergraduate education. I don’t think that in any of my undergraduate philosophy or theology courses there was a great emphasis on the meaning of person as relational. There also was a lack of emphasis on how we experience ourselves and others. I think the word “experience” during the four years that I studied undergraduate theology was used once in a theology class. Theology, like any other study engaged in by human beings, either improves and deepens or unfortunately, perhaps becomes shallow and narrow.
I think that the words “a human person’s nature is to be relational” sums up as well as any other expression the nature or essence of a human person. What the Holy Father has done for me – and I hope for many – is to point out that how we relate to nature is important.
Commenting on St. Francis of Assisi, Pope Francis writes:
“…Saint Francis is the exemplar par excellence of care for the vulnerable and of an integral ecology lived out joyfully and authentically. He is the patron saint of all who study and work in the area of ecology, and he is also much loved by non-Christians. He was particularly concerned for God’s creation and for the poor and outcast. He loved, and was deeply loved for his joy, his generous self-giving, his openheartedness. He was a mystic and a pilgrim who lived in simplicity and in wonderful harmony with God, with others, with nature and with himself. He shows us just how inseparable the bond is between concern for nature, justice for the poor, commitment to society, and interior peace.” (p. 12)
One of my goals in life, at least since my college years, has been to integrate all my experiences around my religious faith. As a college student I met a Catholic who I thought had succeeded in doing that in his life. I was deeply impressed and wanted to imitate him. Though I probably have failed more than I have succeeded, Pope Francis has now offered a profound understanding of Catholic faith as an integral force in a person’s life.
I believe that the Holy Father is correct in claiming that there is a bond between concern for nature, justice for the poor, commitment to society and interior peace. His wonderful vision of reality inspires and encourages me to continue to seek a profound integrity in my life with my Catholic faith as the central integrating force.
Father Robert Lauder is a philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica, and author “Pope Francis’ Spirituality and Our Story” (Resurrection Press).