Pope Francis, while not usually viewed by the media as an intellectual, is clearly an intellectual as well as a scholar. Nor is he widely assessed as a world-class theologian. Again, he nonetheless ranks among minds like Pope John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Simply read, reread and try to comprehend Francis’ latest Encyclical, known in Italian as Laudato Sí; in English, “Praise be,” with the subtitle On Care for our Common Home (24 May, 2015).
The formal title, Laudato Sí, constitutes the two opening words of this masterpiece; it was taken from Saint Francis of Assisi’s Canticle of the Creatures. (Although classical Italian was given to us by Dante Alighieri, especially in the supreme epic poem of Christianity, La Divina Commedia, Saint Francis also occasionally wrote in what is now recognized as Italian.) The words, Laudato Sí, in Saint Francis’ poem, are followed by mi Signore. Thus the entire line in English reads, “Praise be to you, my Lord.”
The stewardship with which we embrace Planet Earth constitutes a form of praise or thanksgiving for what Dante describes in the final line of the Paradiso; namely “the Love that moves the sun and the other stars.” (Canto XXXIII)
From the very start, therefore, the Holy Father is issuing an open invitation to embrace our Planet Earth as stewards of a common home that is “like a sister with whom we share our life, and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us.” Earth, the stars, the farthermost galaxies, the almost incomprehensible universe which is ever expanding with the speed of light and with unimaginable beauty, is being driven by a Creator overflowing with love for his creation, supremely for the human beings who are destined in principle to be drawn to his infinite embrace forever.
Thus the Encyclical proceeds from a position of faith and reason, albeit by modality of an invitation to persons of goodwill everywhere. Despite some critiques and/or protestations, it carefully avoids any efforts to “teach” the human sciences; Pope Francis is too brilliant an intellect and too prudent a scholar to allow for such an approach. His thrust is principally Biblical, and his reasoning bears the illumination that Revelation provides. (Citing the Galileo controversy against the document is hardly understandable here; the Encyclical is too sophisticated. Physical sciences do change, after all; yet the prevailing theme is, again, faith-generated.)
The adverse comments we have seen or heard mirror a basic misunderstanding of the Biblical and rational premisses. Furthermore, stewardship of the planet, so magnificently defined philosophically by Aristotle, and refined by Saint Thomas Aquinas in our Catholic Tradition, is the key to comprehending the central message of Laudato Sí.
Especially welcome in the Encyclical, moreover, is the Holy Father’s insistence that all creation finds ultimate unity in Christ, the Word of God, in and through whom all that is exists. Pondering the document, one is drawn to the manner in which the great British homilist, Msgr. Ronald Knox, once expressed that unity in a Holy Thursday sermon. The Lord, having led his Apostles from the Upper Room of beautiful memories, then compared himself and the Twelve to a vine and its branches. Our usual approach toward understanding this metaphor is to take it so literally as to see the vine as the reality. But is it not actually the other way around? In other words, the reality is the Word of God Incarnate; vines only exist because when the Father first willed to express himself outside himself, his first thought – Word – was the Logos, the Word Incarnate, Jesus of Nazareth. All that exists, therefore, exists because of Christ, in whom and through whom creation was realized. The world, therefore, Planet Earth, reflects the Word Incarnate; hence, it is God’s gift and must be safeguarded as such.