The Pope’s encyclical is no Communistic, anti-life screed

Day-of-release blog posts are likely not the best place to attempt – or look for – considered commentary on so significant a magisterial event as a papal encyclical. (Though you’ll be pleased to learn that London’s Catholic university is planning a conference this autumn to provide just that…). Nevertheless, here are five hopefully not wholly ill-informed immediate impressions:

1. Those fearing (hoping?) that Laudato Si’ would be a Communistic, anti-life screed, scrawled in red and green ink, must be very relieved (disappointed?). Calls for a “cultural revolution” (LS 114!) aside, the Holy Father is as loyal a son of the Church here as he ever is. The illogicality of caring for endangered animals while bilthely ignoring the most at risk, “deemed unwanted” (LS 91) human beings is a frequent theme: “concern for the protection of nature is… incompatible with the justification of abortion” (LS 120). Short shrift is likewise doled out to those blaming the world’s ills on overpopulation (LS 50).

So… it turns out the Pope is Catholic after all. In other news, Francis is also keen to safeguard the traditional defecation habitats of bears (cf LS 31).

2. As many people have noted, not least Francis himself (LS 3-6), Laudato Si’ echoes a great deal of what the Bishops of Rome have been saying for decades. Yet that observation should in no way be taken to undermine the encyclical’s present import. As Blessed Paul VI could tell us, sometimes the most radical encyclicals are those that reiterate at just the right moment.

3. There’s a disorienting moment at the start of chapter two, where we see a Pope, and in an encyclical letter no less, feeling the need to justify his use of religious language and ideas: “Why should this document… include a chapter dealing with the convictions of believers?” (LS 62)

A moment’s reflection, however, solves the mystery. Francis knows full well he has a keen readership, along with a unprecedented degree of good will and trust, among many who “firmly reject the idea of a Creator, or consider it irrelevant” (LS 62). This is, therefore, a golden opportunity for evangelisation. What follows is a sustained, attractive, and theologically rich account of the hope that is in us, told with gentleness and reverence (cf. 1 Peter 3.15).

4. The footnotes, as ever, make for absorbing reading. Perhaps most interesting is the extent to which the statements of national and regional bishops’ conferences are used here to inform the Church’s universal magisterium. Catholic voices hailing, like the Pope’s, from the ends of the world – Bolivia, Mexico, Argentina, Brazil, New Zealand, Australia, the Philippines, among others – all make an appearance.

It’s also always nice to see a shout-out (or five) to Romano Guardini, whose stock among Rome’s bishops clearly remains high.

5. Finally, modern encyclicals are long and dense documents. (NB: it was not ever thus.) I have barely had time to read it all, let alone reach a considered opinion as to “my take” on Laudato Si’ – still less the ways in which it might challenge me to live my life differently. I’m going to take my time on this one, and I suggest that you do so too.

Throughout all my readings both of and about the encyclical, though, a bit of wisdom from Newman’s Idea of a University has kept leaping to mind. So I’ll sign off now with the words of Blessed John Henry, not a man normally known for his arch-ultramontanism:

St Peter has spoken, it is he who has enjoined that which seems to us so unpromising. He has spoken, and has a claim on us to trust him […] If ever there was a power on earth, who had an eye for the times, who has confined himself to the practicable, and has been happy in his anticipations, whose words have been facts and whose commands prophecies, such is he in the history of the ages, who sits from generation to generation in the chair of the Apostles, as the Vicar of Christ and the Doctor of His Church.