Laudato Si is the most recent encyclical issued by Pope Francis this year, which deals with the environment. Its theme is set by the subtitle “On Care for Our Common Home”, and it has been widely praised for its absolute commitment to the duty of taking responsibility for the damage humans are doing to the earth.
And from the start we are up against the usual difficulty Catholics find in talking to people outside the Church – the enormous, highly developed, incredibly specific technical vocabulary we use. Here is the definition of an encyclical:
A Papal Encyclical is the name typically given to a letter written by a Pope to a particular audience of Bishops. This audience of Bishops may be all of the Bishops in a specific country or all of the Bishops in all countries throughout the world.
A more complete description can be found in the Catholic Encyclopedia entry Encyclical:
“According to its etymology, an encyclical (from the Greek egkyklios, kyklos meaning a circle) is nothing more than a circular letter. In modern times, usage has confined the term almost exclusively to certain papal documents which differ in their technical form from the ordinary style of either Bulls or Briefs, and which in their superscription are explicitly addressed to the patriarchs, primates, archbishops, and bishops of the Universal Church in communion with the Apostolic See. By exception, encyclicals are also sometimes addressed to the archbishops and bishops of a particular country.”
From the website http://www.papalencyclicals.net/encyclical.htm
Most encyclicals are extremely technical, often academic, and pretty hard to read and understand if you are a lay person. They are full of references to other Church documents, theological terms and Canon law. I’ve read a fair few in my time, and believe me, they are not the stuff for light reading over breakfast. Pope Francis is different. They are still learned, and the footnotes are on every page, but the language is clear and direct, not exactly chatty and informal, but like a really good expert lecturer. Definitely readable. And he doesn’t pull any punches. To use a local phrase, Pope Francis has got the bishops tellt.
But the most startling thing to me at first, was the title. Encyclicals are first published in Latin, and then translated into all the local languages, and they are usually known by their Latin title. Francis’ first encyclical is called Evangelii Gaudium, for instance. But Laudato Si is not Latin; it’s Italian. More specifically it is the Umbrian dialect which St Francis of Assisi used to compose the Canticle of the Sun, an extract of which is below:
Be praised, my Lord, through all your creatures,
especially through my lord Brother Sun,
who brings the day; and you give light through him.
And he is beautiful and radiant in all his splendour!
Of you, Most High, he bears the likeness.
Praise be You, my Lord, through Sister Moon
and the stars, in heaven you formed them
clear and precious and beautiful.
Praised be You, my Lord, through Brother Wind,
and through the air, cloudy and serene,
and every kind of weather through which
You give sustenance to Your creatures.
Praised be You, my Lord, through Sister Water,
which is very useful and humble and precious and chaste.
Praised be You, my Lord, through Brother Fire,
through whom you light the night and he is beautiful
and playful and robust and strong.
Praised be You, my Lord, through Sister Mother Earth,
who sustains us and governs us and who produces
varied fruits with coloured flowers and herbs.
This came from the US website of the Third Order Franciscan Friars .
St Francis is such an iconic saint that it might seem surprising that no Pope up till now has taken his name, but in fact the institutional church has had a much more ambivalent relationship with his legacy than you might expect. The friars’ commitment to poverty was much more radical than the average religious order, because it was not only personal, but institutional. You can see the result of this at the dissolution of the monasteries. When the monastic orders were dissolved, court favourites profited enormously from grants of land, houses and the sale of treasures. When the friars were dissolved they got some modest town houses and a few books.
Some of Francis followers were more radical yet, and some of them were lay people, and the political establishment (among whom, we must admit were several influential Church officials) got understandably nervous about enthusiastic anarchic groups who complained about the wickedness of the property-owning classes, especially the ones following one Joachim of Flore, who had an apocalyptic world-view that wouldn’t have been out of place in the recent Occupy movement. The Franciscans survived – and some of them are very establishment figures indeed – but there has always been a certain hesitation or caution about Franciscan ideas of poverty. When Pope Francis took the name, there was no doubt that what we call our ‘preferential option for the poor’ was going to be much more significant. And the title of this encyclical shows that we are about to a Pope who is not afraid to make changes.
One of the more devious and manipulative things about the environmental question is that we are often told we can’t be environmentally responsible because our measures will hit the poor hardest. Another is that a religious perspective requires us to despise the things of the earth, because our home is in heaven. And another is that people of faith must reject science, so that we cannot possibly understand or act upon a scientific perspective. Laudato Si has no time for any of this nonsense. Over the course of Advent I hope to come back to this, in the hope that people of faith will be encouraged to use it and work on its teaching, and that people of no faith will understand where we are coming from and feel able to work together without misunderstanding.