Acton Institute Powerblog

Salt of the Encyclical: A Call to Culture

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pope plant“Laudato si, mi’ Signore!” Both the title and first line of the most recent papal encyclical come from St. Francis’ canticle which looks at nature as a great gift, but you all know that. Every news source worth its salt made that clear before the encyclical was released (either time); yet, we as Christians are called to be salt of the Earth. This entails more than a brief glance at the word on the street about the ecological pronouncement. What is at stake here is the central call of humanity: to till and keep the gifted garden (Genesis 2:15). The first human was placed in this role of cultivation of the earth even before being told to not eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. There was a promise to act and a law to keep. The Bible is divided into two halves: law in the Old Testament and promise in the New Testament. The call to be salt of the earth is about the Christian life fulfilling that promise. Note that the law followed the promise in the order of our creation. Core to human being was first the love of the life of the world–the greatest commandment as Christ said. So, then why is the reactionary focus of the encyclical even before it was released surrounded upon the policy, the law, that it would inspire and not the call to promise?

Surely within the encyclical there is language that leads to law being created. What Pope Francis has seen in the world directly articulates the life he leads–one unaccepting of a “globalization of indifference” for any child of God’s in need. Francis draws on Pope John Paul II for elaboration that there is a responsibility that comes with wealth and power that demands a service to others for “it is not in accord with God’s plan that this gift be used in such a way that its benefits favour only a few” (sec 93). His solution: “public pressure has to be exerted in order to bring about decisive political action. Society, through non-governmental organizations and intermediate groups, must put pressure on governments to develop more rigorous regulations, procedures and controls” (sec 179). The Pope makes clear that “a global consensus is essential for confronting the deeper problems, which cannot be resolved by unilateral actions on the part of individual countries” (sec 164). Currently, there is a clear set of contrasting extremes of beliefs on if the environment is a problem and how to go about fixing the problem. Calling for a collaborative effort from all nations and peoples “makes a variety of proposals possible, all capable of entering into dialogue with a view to developing comprehensive solutions” (sec 60). At the heart of Francis’ support of policy-based solutions is a belief that action must be taken and a trust in governments to advocate and enact a civil, ideal solution.

the-lawAs an Acton Intern, reading Bastiat’s The Law was required. In The Law, law is described as force. In regards to applications of force on the property of people, the operation of that force is called plunder. Pope Francis said that our relational problem to the Earth is that “we have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will” (sec 2); yet, the Bible is clear on “not returning evil for evil or insult for insult, but giving a blessing instead; for you were called for the very purpose that you might inherit a blessing” (1 Peter 3:9). A global consensus of legal action is returning plunder for plunder. Instead, a blessing in the form of a changing global schema must be forged not by societal imposition of law, but by the fullest realization of the law written on our hearts. Despite the media focus on the advocacy for a governmental solution, the heart of the encyclical is a focus on the vocation of man and how individuals must live for the preservation of the environment ultimately for the life of the world.

The center of Francis’ argument is not a policy push, but an increased “awareness of the gravity of today’s cultural and ecological crisis must be translated into new habits” (sec 209). The key to the solution is in a culture of concern for God’s creation– “to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor” (sec 49). Thus, repentance for our apathy and our contribution to the harm done to the planet calls us to a penance of–in the words of Patriarch Bartholomew–trading “consumption with sacrifice, greed with generosity, wastefulness with a spirit of sharing”” (sec 9). While on one hand Francis insists that businesses should include consideration of environmental impact from the beginning, the process is best carried out in a manner “transparent and free of all economic or political pressure” (sec 183). This is both a bolstering of the truly cultural call he puts forth and a point towards ensuring consideration for the human ecology problem: poverty. To that end, Francis shows an understanding of the importance of private property, “technical education, credit, insurance, and markets” in the alleviation of the plight of the poor (sec 94). These institutions of justice are vital according to the Acton mission line within PovertyCure. His suggested means are different to aid the acquisition of these key rights, but there is certainly a shared end in mind. Note that “markets” are a source of solution for poverty. The point is that the environmental care the world needs need not come from coercive oversight in market regulation.  What has been an understanding as man as lord and master having dominion “over the universe should be understood more properly in the sense of responsible stewardship” (sec 116). Finally, Francis leaves room for less-centralized solutions when he frames the prioritization of the cultural change over any additional rule of law:

“We should not think that political efforts or the force of law will be sufficient to prevent actions which affect the environment because, when the culture itself is corrupt and objective truth and universally valid principles are no longer upheld, then laws can only be seen as arbitrary impositions or obstacles to be avoided” (sec 123).

The encyclical, while painted as simply anti-capitalist, looks seriously at a holistic approach based within an attitudinal change in people. The culture is the key to the solution. What is indicted in the encyclical is the corruption of both the state and the market.

Within the encyclical there are points of contempt for capitalism; however, the condemnation truly only extends to the degenerate form of the free market: consumerism. Any betterment of the ecological issues at hand will incur a cost; yet, the greater cost comes from “economic dysfunctions [which] always involve human costs…[which is] bad business for society” (sec 128). Pope Francis questions the actions of abusive businesses which endanger people for profits; he asks if “is it realistic to hope that those who are obsessed with maximizing profits will stop to reflect on the environmental damage which they will leave behind for future generations?” (sec 190). Despite his inquiries, Pope Francis believes in an economy “which favours productive diversity and business creativity” (sec 129). Economic development and free market capitalism are not in the encyclical an extreme evil, they are just a limited good in the sense they need limits. Francis states that “when nature is viewed solely as a source of profit and gain, this has serious consequences for society”; yet, Francis knows not all profit is simply monetary gain (sec 82). He has observed that “increase in power…has not been accompanied by a development in human responsibility, values and conscience” (sec 105). This holds true in all cases be it economics or politics. Even “laws [that] may be well framed [can] yet remain a dead letter.” That is to say that policy-solutions in ineffective systems accompanied by a fallen culture are as impotent as the ineffective cultivation of proper ecology of crony capitalists and their selfish market actions as both have “negative consequences, such as injustice, violence and loss of freedom” (sec 142). Pope Francis chides that “we forget that “time is greater than space”, that we are always more effective when we generate processes rather than holding on to positions of power” (sec 178). A final exhortation Francis holds both government and market accountable:

“Politics and the economy tend to blame each other when it comes to poverty and environmental degradation. It is to be hoped that they can acknowledge their own mistakes and find forms of interaction directed to the common good.” (sec 198).

Although there is here support for a centralized response inspired I think simply by the deep desire to do good, the argument as put forth in a holistic look at the encyclical is not one-sided. In fact, the encyclical looks to a unified front to facing the environmental, human, and moral ecology problems present in the world. The end of the world and its people is communion with God. We are the salt of the Earth, “but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet” (Mt 5:13). To be the salt, we cannot lose our flavor and get walked on. Instead we must take a stand and curb the taste for power and material-gain by grounding our society in a virtue which cultivates the given garden and keeps for generations to come.

Ryan Kerr