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Pope Francis's Vision of a Moral Ecology Will Challenge Both Republicans and Democrats

His encyclical almost dares politicians to politicize it

Buda Mendes / Getty Images

Jeb Bush wants you to know he won’t be taking marching orders from Pope Francis when it comes to political or economic matters. “I don’t get economic policy from my bishops or my cardinals or my pope,” Bush said at a campaign stop Tuesday. "I think religion ought to be about making us better as people and less about things that end up getting in the political realm.” Bush’s comments echo similar statements made by Rick Santorum, who said in a June 7 interview that the Church should stay away from matters of science and policy and stick to “theology and morality.” As election season commences, questions about Pope Francis will likely surface repeatedly in candidate question-and-answer sessions, in no small part because the Republican primary field is stocked with Catholics: George Pataki, Bobby Jindal, Marco Rubio (who also doubts Francis's capacity to contribute to political matters), along with Bush and Santorum.

The categories Bush and Santorum rely on to restrict religious reasoning to convenient subjects are, of course, porous and unstable. Bush has shown no signs of attempting to exclude religion from politics per se; during the ugly, protracted 2005 struggle over the life of Terri Schiavo, a Florida woman on life support in a persistent vegetative state, Bush campaigned fiercely to keep Schiavo alive. As governor of Florida, Bush was also a reliable anti-abortion advocate. The same is true of Santorum. Both have linked their pro-life politics to their faith. These politicians appear to have no principled objection to religious reasoning governing aspects of political action; the objection that church and state should scarcely mingle only arises when religion becomes inconvenient to capital, as in the case of Francis’s entire papacy.

Through various accidents of history, American democracy has split down the middle, producing two increasingly acrimonious parties with diverging interests. The trouble for Catholics is that each party claims a share of morally upright positions. Thus we tend to either prioritize or, as in the cases of Bush and Santorum, invent specious disqualifiers for the pieces of Catholic moral theology that don’t mesh with our partisan preferences.

It is this tendency more than any other that Laudato Si: On Care for Our Common Home challenges, through its articulation of a robust moral ecology.  

In the 1980s, with the Cold War underway and fears of nuclear war spreading alongside concerns about rapid cultural change, Cardinal Joseph Bernadin, Archbishop of Chicago, helped popularize the “seamless garment” approach to Catholic public deliberation. Bernadin campaigned relentlessly against nuclear proliferation, and paid equal attention to abortion, capital punishment, and other forms of pervasive violence: His vision of a “seamless garment” advanced the idea that in order to be effective, Christian ethics must be coherent. As he remarked at a 1984 lecture, “A consistent ethic does not say everyone in the Church must do all things, but it does say that as individuals and groups pursue one issue, whether it is opposing abortion or capital punishment, the way we oppose one threat should be related to support for a systemic vision of life.” In other words, though individuals and organizations within the Church might pursue specific political goals, their ethos must be wholly synchronized around the valuation of human life. There is no room in such an approach for creation care (a Christian term for environmental action) or welfare to be ruled out of the purview of Catholic moral theology: There is one morality, and it informs all principles.

In the opening paragraphs of Laudato, Pope Francis invokes the language of the “seamless garment” ethos to frame the 100-page letter that follows: “It is our humble conviction that the divine and the human meet in the slightest detail in the seamless garment of God’s creation, in the last speck of dust of our planet.” Francis deftly guides the metaphor of the garment from a consideration of ethics alone to a consideration of creation itself: In every aspect of the created order, he suggests, there is a single purpose, a single plan at work. Our task as humanity is to follow it, and to flourish.

Unity is the organizing principle of Laudato. Francis opens his encyclical with a brief consideration of former popes, saints, and scholars who have established Catholicism’s interest in creation care, thereby establishing continuity between his concerns and those of the historical Church. He maintains this dialogue with his predecessors in the pursuing chapters. In doing so, Francis demonstrates his commitment to the Church’s tradition, and gracefully disposes of any grumbling about his break from prior teaching. Laudato treats novel issues—like genetically modified crops, biological warfare agents, and global development problems—because they are new, but the logic of his treatment is firmly rooted in the Church’s conventional theology.

After demonstrating his own relationship to the Church’s historical teaching on creation care, Francis proceeds to enumerate the details of our environmental crisis, along with its origins and moral implications, before proceeding to suggestions for response and education. In each chapter, themes of unity and disunity thread disparate issues together. “We have forgotten that we ourselves are dust of the earth; our very bodies are made up of her elements, we breathe her air and we receive life and refreshment from her waters,” Francis writes. Our distance from the creation that supports us spirals into many different iterations of estrangement: The example of Saint Francis, the Pope writes, demonstrates how “inseparable the bond is between concern for nature, justice for the poor, commitment to society, and interior peace.” They all come together because they are all of a single moral piece. Neglect one, and the rest fall into disrepair.

Francis’s unified vision comes most powerfully to fruition in the encyclical’s fourth chapter, where he explores “integral ecology”—that is, the interrelation of humanity, creation, society, and politics. “If everything is related,” Francis writes, “then the health of a society’s institutions has consequences for the environment and the quality of human life.” From here his analysis expands to consider consumerism, which “has a leveling effect on cultures”; colonialism (“it is essential to show special care for indigenous communities and their cultural traditions,” Francis argues); the right to dignified housing and safe systems of transport; and intergenerational care. “Men and women of our postmodern world run the risk of rampant individualism, and many problems of society are connected with today’s self-centered culture of instant gratification,” Francis concludes.

Laudato is, at last, much more about ecology than it is about the environment specifically. Its moral vision unifies seemingly disparate realms of life with its ecological frame, which obliterates the possibility of splitting its moral observations into the relevant and irrelevant. There are segments that will earn Francis the kind of bitter censure he has earned throughout his papacy, such as a blunt reaffirmation that “the Christian tradition has never recognized the right to private property as absolute or inviolable, and has stressed the social purpose of all forms of private property.” But it will be difficult for anyone hoping to dispute the Pope’s account of property to simultaneously endorse his view of, say, fetal life. “How can we genuinely teach the importance of concern for other vulnerable beings,” Francis wonders, “however troublesome or inconvenient they may be, if we fail to protect a human embryo, even when its presence is uncomfortable and creates difficulties?”

As we look toward our next national election, it is evident that neither major political party in America is a natural home for the kind of moral ecology Francis envisions. This is not a new observation, but perhaps Francis’s success at commanding the attention of the media combined with his interest in reaching out to young people will press the issue to the forefront.