Last week Pope Francis published his widely anticipated encyclical Laudato Si. It is a considered yet impassioned plea for new attitude and action towards our planet and environment – ‘Care for our Common Home’. It is adressed not just to Catholics or the wider Christian communion, but to everyone. Immediate comment was almost universally warmly receptive, though tended to focus on particular statements or to extract highlighted ‘soundbites’ from within the lengthy sweep of its 186 pages. But its great strength is to be found in the very breadth and depth that the Encyclical allows itself. Before suggesting changes of political and personal attitude and behaviour, Laudato Si surveys a Biblically-informed theological discussion of science, technology and our responsibility to nature. Since this is also the essential foundation of Faith and Wisdom in Science, I rather think it the task of this column to look hard at the theology of science that the encyclical builds on, before reacting to its recommendations.
The very title of the document, and of course the author’s assumed pontifical name, are both taken from the founder of the movement to which he belongs – St. Francis of Assisi. The endearing honesty of the message is stamped on the introductory pages, which remind us of Francis’ especial love of nature, of all creatures, and the human care to which God entrusts the world. The very language of ‘Brother Sun’ and ‘Sister Earth’ prepares us for the deeply relational thinking that pervades the document, which later (§65 and §66) identifies the vital ‘relationship of human beings to the world’ as a broken one, as damaged as those with our neighbour and with God. The language used of this relationship with the natural world is
covenantal and reciprocal throughout. In Faith and Wisdom I found just this astonishingly profound category of relationship to emerge from the Wisdom tradition of the Old Testament – Job, for example, is assured that his anger and suffering, and also his questioning of nature itself, can become a pathway to a time when he is ‘in covenant with the stones’. Biblical affirmation of the goodness of physical reality, and our vital relation to it, really is that strong.
Francis likewise takes a Biblical reading informed by the Wisdom tradition to move away from a naive opposition of science and faith. On the contrary, he draws on science explicitly to inform theology: ‘the best scientific research available today touch[es] us deeply and provide[s] a concrete foundation for the ethical and spiritual itinerary that follows.’ (§15). That itinerary passes, as it did symbolically for Job, and as it does for St. Paul’s reflection on our relation with creation in Romans chapter 8, though a necessary pain: ‘Our goal is not to amass information or to satisfy curiosity, but rather to become painfully aware, to dare to turn what is happening to the world into our own personal suffering and thus to discover what each of us can do about it.’ (§19) If Francis feels pain, and also anger, at the current misshapen framing of that relationship as one of exploitative domination (‘Clearly, the Bible has no place for a tyrannical anthropocentrism unconcerned for other creatures §68), he expresses continual hope that a new and very different approach might follow (‘Instead, our “dominion” over the universe should be understood more properly in the sense of responsible stewardship’ – §116). This is authentic Biblical encounter with the natural world – there is only one place in Old or New Testaments where human relationship with nature is not within the context of pain, and that is within the hope of the new creation (Revelation 22).
The Faith and Wisdom story reaches yet more radical conclusions of our responsibility to use scientific knowledge with wisdom, identifying humans ‘in the image of God’ as participative co-creators in a universe which has not finished the work of creation. This is a vital point – we have the care of something growing and developing, not simply of a finished product. We
are able to harm a future, not just deform a present. Laudato Si draws on a remarkable passage from the celebrated medieval thinker St. Thomas Aquinas to explore and apply this idea. It might even be called a ‘theology of self-assembly! In his Summa Theologica Thomas illustrates the phenomenon of natural emergence: “Nature is nothing other than a certain kind of art, namely God’s art, impressed upon things, whereby those things are moved to a determinate end. It is as if a shipbuilder were able to give timbers the wherewithal to move themselves to take the form of a ship” (§80). The world is pregnant with possibility. I wonder what Thomas would make of today’s theories of self-assembling cell-membranes, an example I used in Faith and Wisdom to illustrate how the apparent chaos of the molecular world is necessary for order and a structure to emerge.
The science and the theology of Laudato Si work powerfully together. Under the surface of its language lie not only the analytic toolkit of science, which informs us of the dominant human causes of global warming, but also the integrative, holistic methods of complexity and the science of systems. The rain-forests are the ‘lungs of the planet’ (§40); A fully interdisciplinary approach is needed to address the ‘deepest problems of the global system’ (§111). Both science and faith create global communities – and an attentive reader will not miss the explicit acknowledgement of reflective contributions from church leaders in Japan, Brazil, New Zealand, Bolivia, USA, Paraguay, Germany, Canada and more. Sufi and Jewish thought is welcomed as well as Christian. This is connectivity embodied as well as urged.
There are of course places where I hesitate to affirm everything Francis says. I rather wish he had said explicitly that science is a gift of God, rather than the one-stage removed ’emerged from the gift of creativity’. But disagreement in some p art will be true of most readers. But living with those differences is also part of living and serving together in a connected and responsible way.
Laudato Si is not only a thoughtful document, it is a beautiful one. It is stern – it needs to be. It is painful. But it is not depressing or despairing. The prayers with which if finishes are full of praise and resurrection hope. It is surely right to suggest a song as we take on the urgent task of mending our ways, rediscovering simplicity, caring for the poor, receiving and using science as God’s gift, and stewarding our world for those who come after us.