Praise is the first word of Laudato si’. Literally the first word. Nor is this praise an opaque and misty compliment to existence. No: praise be to you, Lord, the encyclical begins, citing a famous prayer from St. Francis. In other words, the pope begins with the words of someone in particular (St. Francis) to someone in particular (Christ, the Lord), and these are the highest words possible for human beings to speak – the praise of worship. Worship is that word beyond words that humans sing rather than speak. So it is that Pope Francis’s encyclical begins in the attitude of worship. An attitude that, like all Catholic worship, is articulated through what is specific, bodily, shared: here a saint; elsewhere water, oil, bread. Everything material in the world is from God and exists to the glory of God.
And who is this God?
God is the Creator of absolutely everything (73-75), and here Francis recovers the radical claim of early Christianity, which is that God created ex nihilo, out of nothing. This was at the time and remains now a major element of Christianity. God created everything that exists. Everything. This makes God very different from his creation because he was never, ever created. It also makes God very deliberate about creation. This Creator-God loves his creation. God is not only Creator, but also Father. According to Pope Francis, this awareness of God is given to us especially by Jesus: “Jesus took up the biblical faith in God the Creator, emphasizing a fundamental truth: God is Father (cf. Mt 11:25)” (96). Francis gestures toward the very heart of Christianity in the very heart of Christ, and indeed the opening lines of its most important ancient creed (the Nicene Creed). The Father, Creator of all, is praised.
All of creation praises the Father. We human beings are a part of this praise, and as part of this cosmic liturgy, it is our role to care for the fragile creation of which we are a part (67-68). Pope Francis describes these attitudes, rooted in faith in a loving Creator, as a necessary aspect of being human. We must not forget who we are. The pope’s claim deepens:
A spirituality which forgets God as all-powerful and Creator is not acceptable. That is how we end up worshipping earthly powers, or ourselves usurping the place of God, even to the point of claiming an unlimited right to trample his creation underfoot. The best way to restore men and women to their rightful place, putting an end to their claim to absolute dominion over the earth, is to speak once more of the figure of a Father who creates and who alone owns the world. Otherwise, human beings will always try to impose their own laws and interests on reality (75).
Knowing our place in the complex network of relationships between ourselves and creation, among ourselves, and with God helps us to be more whole. Helps us to remember who we are. Helps to heal something rather wrong with us. And there is something very wrong with us. Pope Francis is entirely willing to be blunt, and his most basic metaphors for this wrongness revolve around violence, fracture, wounds. He is willing to describe devastating violence, and also small acts of disregard, a violence against love. Human beings, we with that strange heart of immensity and cruelty, find expression in the particular and simple. “Saint Therese of Lisieux invites us to practise the little way of love, not to miss out on a kind word, a smile or any small gesture which sows peace and friendship. An integral ecology is also made up of simple daily gestures which break with the logic of violence, exploitation and selfishness” (230).
So Francis posits several ecologies that he wants to draw together into an “integral ecology” (above). As he has expanded our notion of human beings, so he expands our notion of ecology. The logic of being in creation is a logic of loving creation, a love that takes a particular shape, that is tender about the details of existence. So it is that Francis includes a general ecology of nature with special concern for water (27-31), acknowledging climate change (25-26), and more. He adds to this ecology another necessary ecology, a kind of ecology of human beings with one another (see esp. Chapter IV). It makes sense, thoroughgoing sense, in his mind to therefore include abortion as a ecological harm in the world (120). The details of existence. Every detail. Loved.
So to love all life means not only loving human beings – all of them – but also loving the trees and shadows that welcome us. All of them. For Francis, our “gaze” is to be the “gaze” of Jesus, who shows us how to look integrally at the world.
The Lord was able to invite others to be attentive to the beauty that there is in the world because he himself was in constant touch with nature, lending it an attention full of fondness and wonder. As he made his way throughout the land, he often stopped to contemplate the beauty sown by his Father, and invited his disciples to perceive a divine message in things (97).
Instead of attending to beauty, we are distracted, rushed, often violent. We are neither self-aware nor aware of others, and this is especially so in the crush of cities, in the pull of digital communication. Pope Francis praises technology, but also expresses concern over how we use it. Our use of our power hurts the poor most of all. Not everything is identical in Francis’s vision, and while all should be loved, not all are to be loved in the same way. His ecological logic continues with powerful coherence. It means that the poor are to be loved most of all. (This is what Catholic social teaching calls “the preferential option for the poor.”) They are instead the worst victims of pollution, of technological wars, of economic domination. Pope Francis reserves his angriest words for what happens to the poor, whom he definitely loves most of all.
In the absence of objective truths or sound principles other than the satisfaction of our own desires and immediate needs, what limits can be placed on human trafficking, organized crime, the drug trade, commerce in blood diamonds and the fur of endangered species? Is it not the same relativistic logic which justifies buying the organs of the poor for resale or use in experimentation, or eliminating children because they are not what their parents wanted (123)?
To lack relativism is to throw away domination over others, and it is to cease to see anyone as exchangeable or replaceable. As useable. Pope Francis is devastated by the acts of domination that characterize the human heart, especially as our hearts act in modernity. The “market” and “progress” are not good enough excuses to overthrow the common good. Pope Francis’s perspective is frequently grim, dismal. It is not as if goodness has won out, as if it simply will without us. Christians are not supposed to flinch at evil. Not supposed to shut their eyes to it. If the way is truth, it demands honesty.
And Francis is honest. He doesn’t particularly think we have it in us to fix this unless we enter into a real spirituality that acknowledges God, who made all things, and that loves all the things God made. Harmony – a well-played, differentiated key – is one of Francis’s themes. We’re supposed to live a beautiful music of sorts, one aware of the variety of notes in creation. Each with its own sound. So, weirdly, perfectly, this praise of the Lord rests at the very heart of Pope Francis’s integral ecology. Caring for the environment requires the hope of faith. It is God, really, who makes all things new. God made all things in the first place. We are nearer to all things the nearer we are to God. So God is the one who gives Francis hope that we might change. Or rather, be changed. To the glory of God.
In union with all creatures, we journey through this land seeking God, for “if the world has a beginning and if it has been created, we must enquire who gave it this beginning, and who was its Creator”. Let us sing as we go. May our struggles and our concern for this planet never take away the joy of our hope (244).