Cleansing Fire

Defending Truth and Tradition in the Roman Catholic Church

Laudato Si — Overview — Part II

July 9th, 2015, Promulgated by Diane Harris


In preparing to read Pope Francis’s Encyclical, Laudato Si, I had made a list of 10 questions under which the content would be considered (Part I of this series).  I have read the entire Encyclical, in its British English translation; obviously, any discussion will be affected by the limitations of the translator, who is not identified, and therefore we are without a “track record” against which to evaluate the likely accuracy of the translation, not only in content but also in tone.  But we have seen the disastrous track record for the Synod translations, so who would be surprised to find the same?  There are certain statements which would benefit from comparison to the Italian and Spanish content and there would be benefits from reading the footnote references too; however, for the sake of disclaimer, regarding this particular commentary, neither has been done.

Furthermore, although many articles keep appearing in print and on line, regarding various commenters’ reactions to the Encyclical, reading those articles was deferred (and remains deferred) until after completing this writing series, so as to keep to an independent review.  Of necessity, therefore, the insights of others are not being considered, but should be consulted for a reader’s broader view.  Not citing others’ comments on the encyclical neither supports nor opposes those comments through deliberate silence.  An encyclical deserves not only a thorough reading and digestion before commenting, but also some prayer for guidance.  I hope I have done enough of both.

To the reader: if you are intending to read the Encyclical, may I please suggest you do so before reading this series of posts, so that you too can form your opinion independently?

Footnotes and Framework

There are 246 paragraphs in the Encyclical; all references here and in the next installments will be to those paragraph “#” numbers, not to page numbers.  Many of the footnotes are to Pope Francis’s own encyclicals or to those of his predecessor popes, or to papal ‘catechesis’, or to Bishops’ meetings in various parts of the world.  Those original texts might lead to better understanding the context of the present Encyclical, but it is unnecessary to explicate those materials here, since Pope Francis made each reference his own by using it in his Encyclical, attributing his own interpretation. Since he indicated no disputes with the content he referenced, it may be unnecessary to evaluate whether the references actually do or do not support Laudato Si.

In contrast to the footnotes to other papal teachings or footnotes to a variety of hierarchical meetings, there is a virtual dearth of references and footnotes regarding scientific claims, studies or broad allegations; e.g. global warming and climate change are claimed as if they had already been proven.  While consensus or its appearance is claimed, consensus has virtually no value in determining truth.

After several weeks of asking a number of faithful Catholics whether or not they have read the Encyclical, hoping to promote some of the “dialogue” which Pope Francis requested 22x in the text, but with no responses that those asked have actually read the whole Encyclical (most have said “just a few pages” and that they stopped, or seemed unwilling or unable to enter into further discussion), rather than delay it seems appropriate to at least give my personal reactions and opinions, trying to rely always on Canon 212 and the superlative of TRUTH.

My overall reaction to the Encyclical is deep disappointment.

I am disappointed as a Catholic, as an American, and as a person trained in science.  The document reads more like a rambling and haphazard declaration of opinions, almost to the point of aggressive rant, admixed with a few facts, dipped in startling Marxist or socialist ideology (e.g. challenges to private property rights #93), yet with very little that is actionable, from a practical point of view.  That is not a judgment on Pope Francis,  which I am not empowered to do, but only of the fruit of his efforts, which we are always invited to judge. Matthew 7: 16-20 states: “You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles? So, every sound tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears evil fruit. A sound tree cannot bear evil fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will know them by their fruits.”

An Encyclical should, above all, have the care of souls in mind.

Even after completing reading the entire encyclical, and pondering the papal words and intent, I am at a loss to explain “Why an encyclical?”  Why not an Apostolic Exhortation or some other vehicle of communication?  The document seems more like a thesis for a course in environmental activism.  It appears to reflect the author’s deep-seated concerns and emotional reactions about environmental and ecological issues and, of course, he has used a vehicle he had at his disposal.  But, sadly, it runs the risk of denigrating the seriousness and stature of an encyclical in the hearts of faithful Catholics, and of “turning off” those who would otherwise be open to considering a serious response, by using more of a diatribe format than by engaging through acknowledging contrary opinions, and building to insights consistent with the Gospels.

Clearly, the care of the physical world is an objective of the Encyclical.  By writing such an Encyclical, it is implicitly asserted that this is among the most important things which a Pope could be doing with his time, with his efforts, and with his bully pulpit to the world.  And this Encyclical is addressed to the world.  Many Catholics, deeply concerned about the tyranny of secularism, generally do not place these ecological and environmental issues anywhere near the concern level that they do for abortion, euthanasia, same-sex unions, ISIS persecution, abuse of Religious Freedom, human trafficking, the likelihood of martyrdom in current times, and the silence on such matters which reverberates from the pulpit. There seems to be no effort in the Encyclical to place the subject matter appropriately to these secular urgencies, or to clarify the overarching priority of souls. Environmental issues have some importance, but not at the expense of leaving the greatest needs undone. If homilies begin to center on the content of this encyclical, in an environment that already short-changes so much which should be taught, it cannot help but impact credibility of the teaching office, in my opinion, and therefore adversely impact souls.

There also is, at times, an uncomfortable wording that brings me to a halt over many sentences, asking “Do I believe that?  Is it true?”  I have already noted, in comments to Part I, an Encyclical statement with which I strongly disagree: “It is no longer enough, then, simply to state that we should be concerned for future generations. We need to see that what is at stake is our own dignity . Leaving an inhabitable planet to future generations is first and foremost, up to us. The issue is one which dramatically affects us, for it has to do with the ultimate meaning of our earthly sojourn.” (#160) Our dignity? first and foremost? is it the “ultimate meaning of our earthly sojourn?”  In no way do I believe that the condition in which we leave the planet is the “ultimate meaning of our earthly sojourn.”  That very sentence touches on several areas of concern, and will be covered more in future posts in this series.

Difficulty in Reading

Perhaps there might have been a way, with a different tone or in a shorter document to convey the Pope’s personal concerns on matters close to his heart, but that clearly did not happen with the Encyclical.  The very length of 40,593 words, including footnotes, all unindexed, makes it difficult for readers to absorb or refer to the content in a meaningful way.  A word search (which is approximately correct but may miss an occasional derivative word, or a hyphenated word) indicates the appearance of the word or root “environment” 155x, “techno” 96x, “ecologic“ 79x, “poor” 61x, and the hot button word (un)sustainable 25x.  On the other hand, there is reference but once to abortion and 2x to embryos, and not at all to euthanasia. There is a meaningful lack of New Testament references to many of the arguments and opinions set forth in the Encyclical although, it should be noted, a number of issues have no reference at all in the Gospels.

There are also coined words (like “rapidification” and “deified market”) and sentences which seem not to make sense. For example, what are we to make of “A misguided anthropocentrism need not necessarily yield to “biocentrism”,  for that would entail adding yet another imbalance, failing to solve present problems and adding new ones.” (#118)  or “Humanity has taken up technology and its development according to an undifferentiated and one-dimensional paradigm.” (#106).  There are many words that scientists might make some reasonable guess at their meaning if not in fields of their own specialization, but which may stump the non-scientific laity.  Although taking them out of context may not be helpful and it may be better to skip over those items rather than belabor, such words do become stumbling blocks to absorbing the meaning of the Encyclical, e.g.:  “desertification”, “biological corridors”, “monocultures”,  “bioaccumulation,” “techno-economic paradigm”, and “human ecology,” all without definition. Other references may be outside the experience of some readers, like “”campesino”, or “blood diamonds.”  Where possible, we might see poor translation as a possibility.

The undefined term “poor”

In the entire New Testament (RSV) the word “poor” occurs 37 times (26x only in the Gospels), compared to 61x in this Encyclical.  Among the quotes left out are Christ’s words in Mark 14:7 “For you always have the poor with you, and whenever you will, you can do good to them; but you will not always have Me.”  (Briefly also contained in Matthew 26:11 and John 12:8.)   While the word “poor” seems to be worked into the Encyclical text at every opportunity, sometimes as a non-sequitur, it is not a defined term.  Does poor refer to lack of money? power? family? food? education? health? friends? job? Faith?  Even Christ used the word in several senses, including “poor in spirit.” (Matthew 5:3).  So, the main thesis, which seems to be that the poor take the brunt of the world’s not caring properly for, even abusing, the environment, turns precipitously on the undefined term “poor”.


The first 5 chapters constitute nearly 80% of the Encyclical.  There is a bit of a strange juxtaposition in that Chapter 6 seems to be a brief summary of Christian Faith.  It has a different tone, and I could speculate that it was delegated to a different writer, and that there is interest in being able to separate the environmental cause from subjects of doctrine, such as the Eucharist, Trinity and “Mary,” i.e. Our Blessed Mother.

It is not my intent to rehash the chapters, or to critique line by line, but rather to deal with some macro issues, pointing out with supporting statements, some places where the Encyclical skates dangerously close to contradiction.  The next sections (Part III & IV) will attempt to cover the theme of pantheism, and then the subject of Syncretism. Perhaps following those, we might explore how the Church seems to be playing into the control of world powers, and address the cultural tone issues, then decide how to wrap up the subject and maybe promote some dialogue.  This is all a bit tentative, but please stay tuned, and share your thoughts.

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7 Responses to “Laudato Si — Overview — Part II”

  1. annonymouse says:

    Thank you, Diane, for this thoughtful piece.

  2. christian says:

    Thank you Diane for all the work you have done in examining “Laudato Si” at length and writing a well-thought out, detailed, concise, organized piece.

    I am very much in agreement with you.

  3. JLo says:

    Bless you, Diane… all that work you have done and continue to do!
    It all comes down to one thing in the end, at least for me… confusion.
    Why dissect confusion? What does that give us beyond more confusion. In all the charity I can muster… our pope lacks either plain speak or wisdom, and that is so sad for the billion he leads.
    Never saw this before in my many years on earth. Listening to the man, reading his words, gives me unease, not the sense of Truth I’ve always had in experiencing our popes. That’s a new experience for me coming from a pope.
    I’ll jump off this thread because I don’t see the benefit in dissecting that work… or any of the strange reportings of things said coming from the Vatican these days.
    Prayers for this Holy Father as my hope is that it is I who misunderstand and that the scales will fall off my eyes if I pray hard enough. For now, I’ll just keep to what we’ve always had pre-2013…. can’t go wrong as I clutch my CCC and pray for our leaders. +JMJ

  4. JLo says:

    I meant to post this link, too. It’s an article by George Weigel which is very instructive. Would that people in the Vatican read it and learn!!


  5. Diane Harris says:

    Thank you, JLo. You make a very good point about questioning why should this Encyclical be dissected when it has so much confusion? Yes, it is confusing, repetitive and also contradictory — (more to come on that!) And I can totally appreciate why it isn’t being read, and why any analysis may not be read. However, in conscience and for the sake of TRUTH, I cannot NOT do anything, and I hope that maybe my own scientific background can contribute a bit of understanding.

    I came to love Pope Benedict through his writing. Though I doubt I will ever get to know the man in this lifetime through personal meeting and discussion, I have met him in his books, like The Ratzinger Report and Spirit of the Liturgy and Jesus of Nazareth, among others. These were not necessarily easy reads but were very illuminating. I came to know Pope Benedict through his mind, and to be in awe of his knowledge, his reverence, his logic and his gentleness.

    For that reason, and without offering any conclusions at the moment, I simply want to know who is this man who has been elected Pope? I see these nearly 200 pages as exposing the person. Of course, others may have written part or even all of the Encyclical, but I take it at face value since it is not inconsistent with the way off-the-cuff discussion has often been reported and, I am afraid, that we may be looking at a hastily composed off-the-cuff Encyclical too, that nevertheless makes its author more know-able. And I do want to KNOW who is at the head of my Church, for the protection of my own soul.

    Please understand that this reasoning is in NO WAY an expectation of others, only what I feel called to do at this time, and in accordance with Canon 212.

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts. Diane

  6. snowshoes says:

    Thank you for your masterful analysis of the Pope’s encyclical. I have only read the brief summary of the parts at the FOCUS site, which is good, but only positive. I have also read bits and pieces of it, and also a few articles, esp from Crisis authors. Having spent 8 years in Jesuit schools, such as they were at the time, I get the DeChardinisms, (rolls eyes). How could we sophs be so much smarter than the teachers? What was in the residence water that made them think like that?

    Many were enamored with the existentialist philosophers, and did not give a good analysis of how to read and critique the good and bad ideas of modern philosophy as Catholic believers. (We would tell eachother, “Don’t tell your parents about the crazy politics he’s spouting, they won’t let you come back to school!”) Nobody told… Not that there weren’t still some holy, wise priests, but they were old.

    Among some of the younger Jesuits, there was an imperious judgmentalism of the System, it was the Viet Nam era. Things were bad, yes, but we didn’t so much get the “this is how to analyze current political events as young Catholic men”, but rather: they’re wrong! Very little Biblical, moral or philosophical underpinning of their politics. The more traditional Jesuits went through Catholic teachings, but didn’t apply it to the issues of the day… So that’s my bit of context. As Americans, it’s hard for us to calmly accept the irritation of the rest of the world for our economic system, even while they admire it. I think this irritation is evident in the Holy Father’s document, and in his homilies and speeches during his Latin America visit. We do need to be sensitive to this, even while our influence is shall I say, waning…

    I agree with your interpretation of your analysis to date, that the overall impression is one of sloppiness in organization, sentence structure, and ultimately, the idea our Holy Father is attempting to convey, and this is sad. Let me just say that I very much admire your slogging through the trenches for us. It IS the way to do analysis as a Master, without the influence of any other writer. Looking forward to your next post, God bless you.

  7. annonymouse says:

    Brain dump. Not you, Diane, the encyclical.

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