Colloquim on Pope Francis' Encyclical Laudato Si'

Colloquim on Pope Francis' Encyclical Laudato Si'

“As a faithful Catholic University, Ave Maria wants to listen to the teaching of our Holy Father Francis and learn from it.” With these words, Dr. Susan Waldstein, Adjunct Professor of Theology, opened the colloquium on Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home. “This event provides an opportunity to think about nature, and,” she continued, “modern man’s relationship with ‘our common home.’” The colloquium was organized to discuss and better understand Pope Francis’ encyclical on ecology, which was published last May. Waldstein, whose academic specialty lies in the interface of philosophy, theology and science, was a natural fit as the event organizer. A spirit of receptive and open dialogue—so perfectly captured by Waldstein’s opening comments—reigned throughout the event.

Dr. Susan Waldstein spoke first, giving an address on “The Connectedness of All Things on Earth.” Weaving together the words of Pope Francis with the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas, she spoke on the hierarchy of beings in nature and how the “order of nobility among creatures on earth” contributes to the “representation of divine beauty.” The greater the variety of species is, the more aspects of God’s perfection are reflected. Advances in science, Waldstein went on, have greatly added to our understanding of the web, the nexus of dependent relationships between created things. Quoting Pope Francis, she said: “Everything is interconnected, and this invites us to develop a spirituality of that global solidarity which flows from the mystery of the Trinity” (Laudato Si, §240). These two things—the variety and the connectedness of created things—show us the harmony and solidarity in nature. Waldstein concluded by suggesting that our response to created beings—most of all to fellow men, “the most important members of the universe,”—should be one of care, rooted in relationships of “need and fulfillment.”

Susan Waldstein was joined in discussion by two additional AMU professors. Dr. Michael Waldstein, Max Seckler Professor of Theology, spoke on “Science and Our Image of the World.” Dr. Michael Pakaluk, Chair and Professor of Philosophy, followed with his thoughts on the idea of “Justice to Future Generations.”

Waldstein began by focusing on a critique Pope Francis makes in the encyclical. Before going on, he took pains to make clear that in his critique, Francis is in “complete continuity” with his predecessors; what St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI said in more abstract and general terms, Pope Francis says more concretely. The critique Francis makes, particularly in Chapter Three of Laudato Si’, is of a certain way of thinking largely born of the Scientific Revolution, namely, the pitting of the practical against the speculative. This idea is encapsulated by mankind’s ambition, in the words of Descartes, to be “masters and possessors of nature.” Pope Francis warns against the belief that any increase of power—of technology—is likewise an increase in progress. Waldstein spoke of the divisiveness caused by this worldview and the need to recover a way of looking at the world which has been lost. In the encyclical, Francis says: “Nobody is suggesting a return to the Stone Age, 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 the great goals swept away by our unrestrained delusions of grandeur” (LS, §114).

Dr. Michael Pakaluk followed after Waldstein, offering his thoughts on the idea of justice to future generations which Pope Francis brings up in the encyclical. First, Paklauk raised questions about the responsibility involved: What is the object of this duty (to whom is it owed)? What is the subject (who owes it)? And finally, what exactly is owed (what are the goods involved)? Pakaluk went on to offer two arguments, one formulated by C.S. Lewis, and the other by Thomas Jefferson. In The Abolition of Man, C.S. Lewis writes a critique of technology, painting a picture of technology being blindly advanced until some men have the power to make changes to all future generations (e.g., eugenics). Thomas Jefferson, in a letter to Madison, argues that it is not possible to impose a debt on future generations and that the world is given to the human race as a whole. The world is “on loan” to each generation over the span of their lifetime. With these two ideas in hand, Pakaluk offered some thoughts on Laudato Si’. We do not own the world, and so we cannot owe it to anyone. There is no natural duty to future generations, but it is possible to speak of a  negative duty “not to harm” future generations. Pakaluk suggested that the idea of justice should be understood along the lines of the “logic of the gift”—we should make use of the world in our own time and return it in a state equally good or better than the one we received it in.

Before the floor was opened for questions, Pakaluk offered a final thought. It is possible to read the encyclical with critical eyes, he said, but the “apostolic upshot” of the encyclical—namely, that people are reading Francis’ words and seriously thinking about the purpose of life in this world—is far more important. “Don’t smugly dismiss them,” he warned. “They are the converts of the next generation.” Don’t be left behind in the dust. “Think of what these people are going to be like, and then become one of them yourself.”

Pope Francis closes Laudato Si’ with a final prayer that Christians become channels of God’s love for the earth, for her creatures, and for their fellow men. 

God of love, show us our place in this world
as channels of your love
for all the creatures of this earth,
for not one of them is forgotten in your sight.
Enlighten those who possess power and money
that they may avoid the sin of indifference,
that they may love the common good, advance the weak,
and care for this world in which we live.
The poor and the earth are crying out.
O Lord, seize us with your power and light,
help us to protect all life,
to prepare for a better future,
for the coming of your Kingdom
of justice, peace, love and beauty.
Praise be to you!