ANYONE WHO has been reading this series of columns on Pope Francis’ encyclical “Laudato Si’” knows how enthusiastic I am about the letter and also about Pope Francis.
The best essay that I have read about the encyclical was written by Anglican Archbishop Rowan Williams, a theologian and poet, who served as archbishop of Canterbury, England, from 2002 to 2012. The essay, entitled “Embracing Our Limits: The Lessons of Laudato Si’,” appeared in the Oct. 9, 2015 issue of Commonweal.
In the early days of his pontificate, Pope Francis seemed to be very different from his papal predecessors. Of course, like everyone else, Pope Francis is a unique personality and to some extent, he reveals a little of that personality in everything he says and does. But in terms of his teaching, I don’t think he has ever said anything that contradicts any doctrine taught by any previous pope. What may seem different in his teaching, I believe, is a question of emphasis. At the beginning of his essay, the Anglican prelate writes the following:
“Perhaps the first thing that needs to be said about Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment is that it is an entirely natural development not only of the theology of Evangelii gaudium but also – as the extensive citations show – of the theology of Pope Benedict, especially as found in Caritas in veritate. Both the pope’s critics and his supporters have often missed the point: Benedict’s Christian humanism, his consistent theology of the dignity of the human person, his concern for a culture in which there is no longer a viable understanding of any given order independent of human will – all this is reiterated with force and clarity by Pope Francis.”
He goes on to say that we live in a culture that seems to be deaf to any sense of natural law and that some seem to think that mere personal desire is the only ‘given’ in the universe. They think that the only source of morality is what we desire so that nothing else informs us or binds us.
I agree with Pope Francis’ and Archbishop Williams’ indictment of a culture that has lost any sense that ethical meanings can be found by reflecting on human nature. Archbishop Williams is both strong and clear in his indictment of the view that we are the total source of meaning, that the universe is subject to our wishes and whims. He writes the following:
“The material world tells us that to be human is to be in dialogue with what is other: what is physically other, what is humanly other in the solid three-dimensionality of other persons, ultimately what is divinely other. And in a world created by the God Christians believe in, this otherness is always communicating: meaning arises in this encounter, it is not devised by our ingenuity. Hence the pope’s significant and powerful appeal to be aware of the incalculable impact of the loss of biodiversity: it is not only a loss of resource but a diminution of meaning.” (p. 13)
Building on Benedict
Archbishop Williams’ insistence that Pope Francis’ teaching is a development of Pope Benedict XVI’s teaching is important. Catholic teaching always involves mystery and so we can always go more deeply into Christian truth. The deeper we go, the more marvelous the truth about God and the truth about us seems. I believe that everything we believe about God ultimately tells us something about the mystery of love.
I was delighted to read Archbishop Williams’ references to Pope Benedict’s Christian humanism. I first came in contact with the term in my first year in the major seminary. At the time, I read Jacques Maritain’s book “True Humanism.” That period in my life marked a dramatic turn in my studies. The goal of all my studies was to become a Christian humanist. What I meant by that was to see all of culture – literature, art, theater, poetry and film – under the light of Christian faith. I had a friend and a professor in college who were Christian humanists, and I took them as my role models.
From that time in my life right up to now, that has been my goal: to view reality as a Christian humanist. I try to allow Christian faith to be at the center of any knowledge and truth I embrace. I don’t know to what extent I have succeeded but I believe the effort is worthwhile. Certainly Pope Benedict and Pope Francis are wonderful role models of what it means to be a Christian humanist.
Father Robert Lauder, philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica, is the author of “Pope Francis’ Spirituality and Our Story” (Resurrection Press).