A Theologian's Look at "Laudato Si'"

An Interview with Elizabeth Johnson, C.S.J, by James P. McCartin

So much has been said about Pope Francis’ “Laudato Si’.” But is there some aspect of the encyclical that you think is overlooked or under covered in all the attention it has attracted?

The religious value of plants and animals in their own right has not received sufficient attention.I think this is at the root of the encyclical’s spiritual vision and ethical challenge. For centuries Catholic teaching placed humans at the pinnacle of creation with the God-given right to have dominion over other creatures who were made for our use. Utilizing the classical idea of the great chain of being, this teaching took the world to be hierarchically ordered from inanimate matter at the base, then upward to plants, to animals, to human beings at the peak. In the Enlightenment era of the 16th and 17th centuries, when European nations began to colonize other continents, their aggressive entrepreneurial culture turned especially destructive to the natural world. The classical view allowed imperial cultures to interpret dominion as domination without ecclesial protest.

In very strong language, “Laudato Si’” criticizes the traditional view as “inadequate” and frankly “wrong.” Why? Because it passes on a Promethean vision of human mastery over the world. Today, however, we need to envision a new way of being human that will enhance rather than diminish the life of other creatures with whom we share a common home. Instead of dominating nature, we need to see that all creatures share life together on this planet in “one splendid universal communion” - “una stupenda co-munione universale” (No. 220).

In light of this old paradigm of human dominion over creation,what would you say is the most noteworthy theological contribution of the encyclical?   

In view of the church’s long acceptance of matter-spirit dualism and the paradigm of dominion, Pope Francis recognizes that he is contributing something new to Catholic teaching by emphasizing the community of creation. “Laudato Si’” states that even if “we Christians have at times incorrectly interpreted the Scriptures, nowadays we must forcefully reject the notion that our being created in God’s image and given dominion over the earth justifies absolute domination over other creatures” (No.67). Instead, he writes, “we are called to recognize that other living beings have a value of their own in God’s eyes” (No.69). He continues, “In our time the Church does not simply state that other creatures are completely subordinate to the good of human beings, as if they had no worth in themselves and can be treated as we wish” (No. 69).Rather, “They have an intrinsic value independent of their usefulness” (No. 140). And why? Be-cause God loves them. “Even the fleeting life of the least of beings is the object of God’s love, and in its few seconds of existence, God enfolds it with affection” (No. 77).

Professor Elizabeth Johnson, Ph.D., C.S.J 

Professor Elizabeth Johnson, Ph.D., C.S.J 

Other species, furthermore,are bearers of revelation. Each one“reflects in its own way a ray of God’s infinite wisdom and goodness” (No. 69). Each is a place where we can encounter God;since the Spirit of life dwells in them, they are a “locus of divine presence,” calling us into relation-ship with God (No. 88). Ultimately, we human beings have the responsibility to care for all other species because “the final purpose of other creatures is not to be found in us. Rather, all creatures are moving forward, with us and through us, towards a common point of arrival, which is God”(No. 83). “Laudato Si’” carries the community motif all the way to the eschaton: “At the end we will find ourselves face to face with the infinite beauty of God”; “resplendently transfigured,” other creatures “will share with us inun ending plenitude” (No. 243). 

If taken seriously by scholars, the paradigm shift Pope Francis proposes would have profound consequences, wouldn’t it?

Absolutely. Shifting the model of human-nature relationship from pyramid to circle, from a human-dominated hierarchy to creation as a community, has radical, far-reaching consequences. “Other living beings have a value of their own in God’s eyes”:  philosophers and theologians have much work to do here, to reconceive anthropology, ethics, and spirituality in this more inclusive vein.

Critics have accused the pope of wading into scientific debates that lie outside his realm of spiritual authority. What does this kind of criticism tell us about how people currently understand the relationship between science and faith? And what’s your own view on how the encyclical integrates science?

his criticism reveals a mentality that separates faith from reason, or religion from science, setting them in watertight compartments that have little to do with each other. But the Jewish-Christian understanding of God as Creator resists such division. If the whole world is God’s creation, then everything under the sun (and beyond) is matter for theological reflection for everything has its origin, history, and goal within the embrace of divine love. This theocentric perspective calls for mutually respectful dialogue between religion and science, the latter figuring out how the world works and the former affirming its deep meaning as a whole.

The encyclical makes good, intelligent use of current science. I find especially powerful its presentation of biological diversity and the disaster of the extinction of species.

Your 2014 book, Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love, has been recognized as a milestone in bringing Christian theology into a deep and sustained dialog with ecology and environmental science. How have colleagues speaking from the scientific side of the dialog responded to your book?

Not too many scientists have engaged the book, but those who have are quite positive, to date. Case in point: one science professor at the University of Kansas who reviewed the book said he was going to use it in a course, since students would benefit from its clear account of Darwin’s theory of evolution as well as its demonstration that far from being opposed to religion, evolutionary theory can spur religion to ethical action.

Do you have a sense of how students are reacting to “Laudato Si’”or to your own writing on ecology and theology?

Graduate theology students seem to be taking to this subject like fish to water; ecological themes are working their way into a diverse array of papers and dissertations. Undergraduate business majors have a hard time with the economic sections of “Laudato Si’,” finding it hard to imagine how a successful business or the global economy can be run without profit as the main goal. Many other undergraduates resonate with the encyclical’s spirituality. They simply take for granted that everything is connected, and enjoy the beauty of the vision as a whole. 

Beyond ecology, what area of scientific inquiry do you think is most crucial for theology – and the humanities more broadly, for that matter – to engage in the years ahead?

Genetic research into the brain has tremendous potential to shift the meaning of what it means to be a human person with memory, understanding, and will. Every discipline in the humanities, theology not least of all, has a stake in making meaning of the outcomes of this research.

What are you yourself working on right now? What’s your current project?

Diving deeper into one chapter of Ask the Beasts, I am currently researching the biblical idea of cosmic redemption for a monograph tentatively entitled “Creation and the Cross.” The hope would be to develop further ecological theology’s understanding of how the whole natural world will find its ultimate future in God, and “will share with us in unending plenitude.”

Elizabeth Johnson, C.S.J., is Distinguished Professor of theology at Fordham University and former president of both the Catholic Theological Society of America and the American Theological Society. She is the author or editor of 10 books, including Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love (Bloomsbury, 2014). James P. McCartin is associate professor of theology at Fordham University, director of the Fordham Center on Religion and Culture, and a former member of the National Seminar on Jesuit Higher Education.

The photo of Elizabeth Johnson is courtesy of Fordham University. The cover photo is courtesy of Bridget McKenzie of the Flickr Creative Commons