I am not a Church historian and cannot say whether it has already happened that a Pope writes two encyclicals on the same topic a few years apart, as Francis did with “Laudate Deum,” eight years after “Laudato si,” two encyclicals (or “apostolic exhortations” as they may be) that even start with the same word. But this is precisely the hermeneutic criterion to understand them both: they say it is pointless to praise God if the Earth is destroyed.
This is indeed the greatest possible contradiction, which radically denies the definition of man as a “rational animal”: no, the beauty of man is not reason, if everything is done against reason, from war to the globalization of suicide.
So here are two encyclicals written in an attempt to save the world, almost saying that words are not enough if facts do not follow, if words are then torn. Isn’t the announcement of salvation the very thing of Christianity and every religion? But salvation is played out here on Earth, indeed “in terris” as John XXIII said, and here are the lands, which are from everyone, believers and non-believers, thrown to ruin.
Therefore, it seems to me that this “letter,” which, as Brazilian theologian Fernando Altemer Junior writes, is, to read it, “like receiving a punch in the stomach,” somehow represents the climax of Pope Francis’s pontificate, not because it adds a stone to the monument of his magisterium, but because it reveals the true nature of the Petrine ministry. Because he does this, he is detested by many: the demonized right, envious of the Gospel, says that the pope “between Synod, climate, and politics forgets about God”; on the contrary, in this text as in the previous one, he announces God’s love to all his creatures; he does not forget, but indeed remembers also to other religions, that “the universe develops in God, who fills it all, so there is a mystery to contemplate in a leaf, in a path, in the dew, in the face of a poor person”, that is, in all of nature.
I remember a Mexican bishop, who was also a wonderful Conciliar Father, Sergio Mendez Arceo, to whom, using the language of the time I asked “how many souls” his diocese of Cuernavaca counted, and he answered me: “And where do you put the bodies?”
So, “Laudate Deum” seeks to save the bodies, bodies and souls together, according to an undivided anthropology; it seeks to save “the heart of matter,” the “cosmic Christ” in the language of Teilhard de Chardin; and this is precisely what “caring for souls” means, which is the priest’s job.
And this letter from the Pope takes a step forward compared to “Laudato si”: because in that encyclical he wanted to “share with all sisters and brothers” his concerns for “our suffering planet,” but eight years later he must realize that nothing has been done, that the world “is crumbling and perhaps approaching a breaking point” (and wars are also involved), and it is no longer simply an “ecological” problem that someone thinks can be solved with technique alone or, with even more hybris, with “the growing technocratic paradigm,” but “a global social problem that is intimately linked to the dignity of human life.”
Well, this cry of the Earth and this demand for dignity, do not appeal only to the need for a conversion, but refer to the question of power. This is precisely the novelty of “Laudate Deum,” which strongly proposes the problem of power; not that this was not already evoked and discussed in “Laudato si,” but here it becomes the central and conditioning problem of everything. In a philosophical and theological sense, it is about the power of man as such, which is claimed to be unlimited, and translates into a “runaway human intervention on nature,” when it is not unlimited; indeed, – and thus concludes the Papal Exhortation – “a human being who pretends to replace God becomes the worst danger to himself.” In fact, pretending to have the power of God means having no power, means becoming an idol: and idols, it is known, “have a mouth and do not speak, have eyes and do not see, have ears and do not hear, have nostrils and do not smell, their hands do not feel, their feet do not walk”; the powers that are destroying the Earth in reality do not see it, do not hear its cry, do not smell its scents, do not support it so that it does not fall out of their hands, and the same is done by those who trust in them.
And here is the Pope calling the powers to judgment, “the real power,” national and international, and adds that “if citizens do not control political power – national, regional, municipal – neither is it possible to counter environmental damage.”
But it is not enough to point out power as the ultimate responsible for the fate of the Earth, and expect it to take care of it; the Pope goes further, and denounces why power does not and, if it does not change, cannot even do so. He does not mention the name of capitalism, so as not to offend pious ears, but this is what he talks about when he says that the great economic powers (and not only, because it is all the actors and makers of this system) “care about getting the maximum profit at the lowest cost and in the shortest possible time”; and it is clear therefore why they cannot take care of the Earth, but neither the “souls” and the bodies that inhabit it. Nor will they be able to do so, if “economic powers continue to justify the current world system, in which speculation and the search for financial return tend to ignore every context and the effects on human dignity and on the environment.”
And it is not only about evils attributable to the political and economic leaders of society, but about a culture and practice that have spread to all levels of social life. “The poor themselves – the Pope writes – sometimes fall into the deception of a world that is not built for them.” And everyone is thrown into a competition imposed by the gospel of “meritocracy”: “There is an increase – the Pope writes – of wrong ideas about the so-called ‘meritocracy,’ which has become a ‘deserved’ human power to which everything must be subjected… One thing is a healthy approach to the value of commitment, to the growth of one’s capacities and to a commendable spirit of initiative, but if a real equality of opportunity is not sought, meritocracy easily becomes a screen that further consolidates the privileges of a few with more power.” These are not new denunciations in the Church, at least in that Church that has been able to listen to the voice of the poor and make the feet walk on the way of peace. A book by Enrico Mauro has been published these days, “Against the Society of Overtaking, the Anti-Meritocratic Thought of Don Tonino Bello.” In a letter for Christmas 1985, that holy bishop of Molfetta warned not to make the “back of one’s neighbor an instrument of your climbs,” and denounced “the inhuman economy. the exasperation of economic parameters reduced to the supreme criterion of human coexistence, the logics of war (that) from the battlefields have moved to the tables of an economy that penalizes the poor, the absolute dominion of the logic of profit (that) is the true cause of the serious imbalances of the contemporary world (…) that gives birth to the exodus of millions of ‘damned of the earth’ towards our opulent societies.”
All this says that the cause of the Earth must have many defenders, at the top and the base of the entire human community. The method can only be that of multilateralism, a revisited multilateralism, which involves international and local communities, which is supported by the UN, which does not claim a global government but realizes the principle of subsidiarity, which unites global and local, which is aimed at a world constitutionalism, which comes “to a bottom-up multilateralism, and not simply decided by the elites of power.”
A prophetic vision and a historical realism that could only come from a pope named Francis.
Raniero La Valle