(Getty/Vatican Pool)

(Getty/Vatican Pool)

U.S. politicians who happen to be Catholic in the age of Pope Francis display a knack for religious privatization that would impress even the most avowed secularization theorists. “I don’t get economic policy from my bishops or my cardinals, or from my Pope,” shrugged Catholic convert Jeb Bush on the campaign trail. “I think religion ought to be about making us better as people, and less about things that end up getting into the political realm.” Slightly less blunt was Catholic-Baptist hybrid Marco Rubio’s assessment that the pope speaks with moral authority on humans’ obligation to care for the environment—but economic well-being remains a politician’s domain. Why the fuss?

Pope Francis’s encyclical, Laudato Si’: On the Care of our Common Home, offers significant and trenchant critiques of contemporary economic assumptions that beguile U.S. political leadership. While environmental degradation is a moral problem, it argues, ecological paroxysms are also linked to failures of the world’s dominant economic paradigms. Laudato Si’ lays out a case that, while economic and technological prowess have certainly improved the living circumstances of millions of people, these paradigms also contain internal dynamics that benefit the few at the expense of the vulnerable. Thus, in the encyclical’s introduction, Francis writes: “The urgent challenge to protect our common home includes a concern to bring the whole human family together to seek a sustainable and integral development, for we know that things can change” (13).

It is this Catholic moral concern for protecting the dignity of the vulnerable—in this case, people living in poverty and the planet’s life support systems—that has given U.S. politicians occasion to pontificate on where the Pope’s domain ends and theirs begins.


THE VATICAN IS CLEAR that environmental problems, social inequities, and economic paradigms are linked—and that addressing that intersection is the proper purview of moral leadership. “Morality has to do with the decisions and choices we make in certain concrete situations, including economic situations,” said Cardinal Peter Turkson, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, in a recent interview with journalist Christiane Amanpour. (He also noted how surprising and unfortunate it is that political leaders would deny such an obvious connection.)

In fact, this idea—that moral principles can and should be brought to bear on contemporary social and economic realities, and therefore bear political implications—is at the heart of the Catholic Church’s social doctrine, a tradition that began in 1891 with Leo XIII’s encyclical on the rights of laborers. Encyclicals written throughout the past forty years by Paul VI, John Paul II, and Benedict XVI have consistently raised questions about economic practices and their resulting inequalities, while laying out the requirements of an “authentic” or “integral” development (an idea that points to the pursuit of multi-dimensional well-being for every person as an individual, and for all people around the world—not merely on the sole metric of economic growth).

In their encyclicals, John Paul II and Benedict XVI highlighted linkages among economic globalization, social injustice, and environmental degradation. Both leaders talked about climate change as a moral problem and about the obligation to care for creation, while clarifying that biblical injunctions to have “dominion” over nature should not be interpreted as “domination.”

Benedict XVI’s 2009 encyclical, Caritas in veritate was promulgated within a year of the global financial crisis and critiqued excessive speculative finance while also calling for super-developed nations to take up considerable duties in light of global inequalities and ongoing environmental problems. These themes percolate throughout Laudato Si’, which (unsurprisingly) draws heavily upon the teachings of Francis’s predecessors, as its quotations and footnotes indicate. But Francis’s ecology encyclical is new in that it centralizes environmental themes and raises the level of moral analysis and exhortation.

Something else is new: more people in the U.S. are taking note of these teachings than ever before. The body of Catholic social doctrine is no longer out of sight and out of mind. Thus, the Pope’s encyclical has evoked some consternation: Is it, or is it not, a political document?


THE POPE BEGINS Laudato Si’ by addressing himself not just to Catholics but also to “every person living on the planet.” Chapter 1 details some of the most egregious planetary shifts that have resulted from human misuse of the earth’s goods (including climate change, biodiversity loss, water scarcity, and economic inequality). Chapter 2 recalibrates Christian biblical understandings of human beings and creation.

But it is Chapters 3 and 4 that hone in on how humans have become an earth-altering force; it is here that Francis analyzes the moral fissures wrought by our industrial, technological, and economic powers.

Among Francis’s concerns is what he sees as a misplaced faith in economic structures, which he also refers to collectively as a “technocratic paradigm.” He sees contemporary, political and economic leaders and their institutions as focused on market efficiencies, profit and growth, and technological solutions—but without sufficient accountability to the people or environments that bear the burdens of these structures.

Such an approach makes some North American pundits nervous. Some commentators have charged Francis with a blithe “catastrophism” that refuses to recognize the benefits of economic and technological progress. Such an analysis may be politically appealing in the U.S. context, but it is overly simplistic and simply incorrect.

As Francis sees it, technology and economics are proper expressions of the unique human capacities for reason, creativity, and sociality. His worry, however, is that these products of human ingenuity can be perpetuated in ways that bring significant harm to vulnerable forms of life. (These ideas appear consistently in the encyclicals of John Paul II and Benedict XVI as well.) It is irrational for human beings to behave “as if reality, goodness and truth automatically flow from technological and economic power as such,” says Francis, but this is precisely the assumption built into contemporary forms of political economy (105).

But let’s be clear on two things that the encyclical is not doing. Francis’ line of critique is not endorsing socialism or communism (see para. 104 for critiques of those specters). Nor is Laudato Si’ a simplistic exhortation to return to an imagined, nostalgic pre-industrial pastoralism: “Nobody is suggesting a return to the Stone Age,” the pope writes, “but we do need to slow down and look at reality in a different way, to appropriate the positive and sustainable progress which has been made, but also to recover the values and great goals swept away by our unrestrained delusions of grandeur” (114).

Instead, Francis calls for a dynamic, global moral conversation that entails conversion and transformation on all levels of scale, from the individual to the societal. In this way, Laudato Si’ can be read as a summons to rectify widespread moral confusion over means and ends. What goals are being sought through economic and social relationships? Are those goals worthy and just? Have political economic arrangements become ends in themselves, instead of means to integral development?

Francis’ constructive upshot is to put forward an idea of “integral ecology,” which he develops in chapter 4. Humanity must reinvigorate a broader, moral vision of what it means to be embodied, dependent, and in healthy relationship—with God, other people, and the earth that sustains all life.

Certainly, the notion of integral ecology has distinctly Catholic tones in this encyclical. But it is also a notion that appears in ecological theory, environmental and social activism, and constructive political and economic efforts (including, for example, attempts by environmental leaders like James Gustav Speth to re-integrate human and ecological values into a “new economy” that conduces to the good of all people and the planet, now and in the future).


WHAT IS THE upshot for citizens and politicians in super-developed nations like the U.S.? Is there a moral imperative for us?

This encyclical on environmental, economic, and social ethics is a call to action, both in the concrete lives of individuals and in the functioning of societies. It is a dialogue that must include everyone—and “dialogue” implies more than a congenial chat. “Dialogue,” here, is the first step in setting ethical goals and then pursuing a noble, just course of human affairs. Such a trajectory, Francis insists, requires leaders (in business and in politics) to re-evaluate and revalue their actions.

Protection of the planet for current and future generations, and pursuit of dignified living circumstances for all people, requires people in power to attend to big-picture concerns. A renewed commitment to truly moral leadership means eschewing “the myopia of power politics” and remembering that “true statecraft is manifest when, in difficult times, we uphold high principles and think of the long-term common good. Political powers do not find it easy” (178).

This is not an easy task in contemporary U.S. society, obsessed as we are with election cycles and fiscal quarters. Laudato Si’ continues:

Results take time and demand immediate outlays which may not produce tangible effects within any one government’s term. … To take up these responsibilities and the costs they entail, politicians will inevitably clash with the mindset of short-term gain and results which dominates present-day economics and politics. (181)

Granted, Laudato Si’ doesn’t name names of particular nations that need to come to the table. But it is not hard to read between the lines. As Benedict XVI put it in 2009, these critiques apply in particular ways to “super-developed” nations like the United States. And Francis offers numerous, specific, and exquisitely salient challenges to the interpretative biases of pundits and politicians in the United States, as the following three examples show.

First, there is Francis’s acceptance of scientific consensus on climate change and other environmental problems. He has little patience for those who would denigrate or ignore the facts: “Obstructionist attitudes, even on the part of believers, can range from denial of the problem to indifference, nonchalant resignation or blind confidence in technical solutions” (14). Surely, James Inhofe’s infamous presentation of a snowball to the Senate—part of an attempted argument against global warming—is but one example. Even so, politicians are merely the most visible face of the American denial problem, which is not only an intellectual failure but also a spiritual malaise. “This is the way human beings contrive to feed their self-destructive vices,” writes Francis later in the encyclical: “trying not to see them, trying not to acknowledge them, delaying the important decisions and pretending that nothing will happen” (59). Denial, obstructionism, and indifference must give way to real conversation about global responsibilities.

Second, consider how Francis insists that wealthy/industrialized nations owe an ecological and social debt to other countries, as a result of disproportionate consumption of the earth’s resources. The pope speaks of common but “differentiated responsibilities” for social and environmental justice, an oft-invoked term in global geo-diplomacy: industrialized nations and developing nations all share in responsibility for planetary realities, but not every nation’s obligations are the same.

With his papal predecessors, Pope Francis insists that highly developed nations should bear most of the costs (economic and otherwise) of remediating environmental ills from which they have disproportionately benefited. In the case of global warming, “reducing greenhouse gases requires honesty, courage, and responsibility, above all on the part of those countries which are the most powerful and pollute the most” (169). With a fraction of the world’s population but a dramatic share of its carbon emissions, the U.S. is directly in this line of critique.

Finally, Francis critiques the history of “weak international political responses” to problems of poverty and environmental degradation. He notes, too, how “economic powers” (presumably including strong U.S. lobbies and multinational corporations of many types) “continue to justify the current global system where priority tends to be given to speculation and the pursuit of financial gain,” while ignoring negative “effects on human dignity and the natural environment” (54, 56).

Here, Francis delivers a succinct rhetorical salvo for super-developed nations: “We believers,” Francis writes, “cannot fail to ask God for a positive outcome to these present discussions, so that future generations will not have to suffer the effects of our ill-advised delays.”

Of course, the responsibility to act is not God’s. It is ours.


Christiana Z. Peppard is an assistant professor of theology, science, and ethics at Fordham University and the author of Just Water: Theology, Ethics, and the Global Water Crisis. Follow her @profpeppard.