Yesterday, Pope Francis released his long-awaited encyclical Laudato si’. I haven’t had time to read it all yet, but I am curious as to why commentators on the political left and right (who likely have not read it either) have described it as some variant of “radical.” Many among them Catholic conservative politicians in the United States who center their faith on a small set of social issues (namely opposing gay marriage and abortion). Their theology lies close to white Protestant fundamentalism, with its strong focus on the individual seeking a direct relationship with God.
I grew up in southwestern Louisiana, which was in the early 1980s (as it was since the 1760s) largely white, Catholic, and poor. Both my parents came from poor farming families, and my brother and I had a lower middle class upbringing. I went to college and got two degrees in history (PhD is still a WIP). My scholarly interests lie with the history of the Catholic Church in the Americas, often at intersections with race, gender, and nationalism, mid-1700s to early 1800s.
From that perspective, what Francis is arguing ain’t that radical. Since the mid-eighteenth century, the Church has taken a stance against individualism in favor of focusing on community action. The community is saved or lost together, however you define “community.” It is one of the strongest things that Catholicism has going for it.
In economics, individualism (which the Church often calls modernism) is expressed in liberalism–more recently in neoliberalism and trickle-down economics. The nineteenth century saw in the bastions of Catholicism, western Europe and Latin America, the (sometimes quite literal) breakdown of communal property (both secular and ecclesiastical) in favor of individual ownership, often with disastrous results for local social and political life.
So I would argue that within that historical context, what Francis is presenting is a return to basics (a different kind of fundamentalism, based on the community rather than the individual, if you will). The human race is one people, the Earth our common home.
He is, not incidentally, a Jesuit. His order was one of the great communitarian movements to come out of post-medieval Europe, and one of the great losers in the rise of modernity throughout the Catholic world. Between the late 1750s and mid-1760s, the Jesuits were all but destroyed as an order, expelled from Brazil, Spanish America, Portugal, Spain, France. The “Black Robes” were among the great thinkers, scholars, and teachers of the preceding centuries, and the major bulwark in these aforementioned countries against modernism in its various forms.
So I would challenge you to read the encyclical in its entirety and keep in mind the historical context of what he is saying. In short, it is a challenge to radical individualism that do great harm to most of humanity and benefit a small minority. Indeed, the strongest advocates of these ideas (which were indeed radical in the eighteenth century) put whole species (including our own) and our shared home at considerable risk. Whatever your religious beliefs, I hope that you will consider what he has to say. You need not buy it wholesale of course. Individualism has its benefits, but needs to be moderated with a consciousness that embraces everyone affected by the changes that are well underway around us, climate change and political unrest among them.
Let us move forward together towards a brighter future that belongs to everyone on the only planet that we have.