“The most significant feature of Pope Francis’ encyclical on environmentalism…is not about climate change. It is that the document represents a sea change in Catholic – indeed, Western religious – thinking on the relationship between human beings and the earth.”
(Jay Michaelson, “Pope Francis’ environmental encyclical is even more radical than it appears (COMMENTARY),” Washington Post, 19th June 2015)
Laudato Si’ marked a historic moment in the tradition of Catholic Social Teaching. Ecological concern was brought to the forefront of the Catholic imagination in what was widely perceived as a radical change. The subtitling “On Care for Our Common Home” indicated a shared vulnerability between humanity and nonhuman creation, which affirmed the intimate link drawn by liberation theologian Leonardo Boff, cry of the earth and cry of the poor. Laudato Si’ is a call to human action primarily, indicative of the task of Catholic Social Teaching. Yet the encyclical also reinforces the value of nonhuman life. Nowhere is this more clear than Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s choice to be named after Saint Francis of Assisi.
Laudato Si’ offers a readily apparent critique of anthropocentrism : nonhuman creation or ‘Mother Earth’ must be included in the moral imagination of the Church. Yet the envisioned audience of the encyclical indicates that integral ecology is a social and political issue for all men and women of good will. By definition integral ecology is harmony with creation (§225) ; the disruption of violence, exploitation and selfishness (§230) ; it takes us to the heart of what it means to be human in the world (§11) ; and it insists upon the interconnectedness of the created order (§137). Where Rerum Novarum – the birth document of Catholic social teaching – focused upon the dignity of the human being in the rights and duties of capital and labour, Laudato Si’ updates the principle of human dignity to the context of ecological welfare : how ought the human vocation for responsible dominion present itself in the context of irreparable climate change ? Where Rerum Novarum insisted that the human being is so “wholly different” from nonhuman creation that nature belongs to humanity as a possession, Laudato Si’ embeds human existence in the created order : humanity is distinctive but is not set apart. Where Rerum Novarum concerned itself with the cry of the poor, Laudato Si’ intimately connects the cry of the poor with the cry of the Earth. This cemented into the Church’s social body that the cries of the poor and the Earth are one : the vulnerable in the created order cry out at the misguided notion that to have is more important than to be. In short, integral ecology affirms that the vocation to be a human being is to seek true knowledge of our place within the created order in relationship to God as our source and our end.
The foundation of integral ecology is a shared vulnerability between humanity and nonhuman creation : the poor and the Earth share an experience of suffering. A truly integral approach to ecological concerns understands the deep interconnections of reality, between human beings, nonhuman creation, and God. Yet nonhuman animals are explicitly mentioned just 13 times throughout Laudato Si’. Their references are contextualised by sustainability, biodiversity, decrees of how humans ought to use creation, biotechnologies and inferior comparisons to human culture. The closest Laudato Si’ comes to espousing an ethic of no harm toward nonhuman animals as individual creatures is via Thomistic indirect duties of care. Why does Laudato Si’ fail to attend to individual animals in their suffering ?
In his landmark Volume One edition of On Animals, David Clough suggests that those who begin with a concern for ecological systems and those who begin with a concern for nonhuman animal lives may “occasionally result in ethical disagreement,” This originates from the locus of value in each ethical system : where animal ethics locates value in each individual as a creature of God, ecological ethics prioritises systems and entities. The ecological tone of Laudato Si’ follows this patters : the cry of the poor and the cry of the Earth make up the web of relations in integral ecology. Individual animal creatures are subsumed into the Earth, whereas individual human creatures maintain their platform in their particular relationship to God.
This subsummation of nonhuman animals suggests that Laudato Si’ might not be so radical as it appears. This is the line of argument I take. Let us take one example of ‘radical’ change in the document : the critique of anthropocentrism. Francis laments tyrannical anthropocentrism, modern anthropocentrism, excessive, distorted, and misguided anthropocentrism. His criticism is applicable to those qualifications only. Francis does not suggest a move away from anthropocentrism per se, but offers a critique of broken relationships and power imbalances which has arisen in the demise of ecological welfare. This is notable when Francis critiques biocentrism as a viable alternative framework :
“for that would entail adding yet another imbalance, failing to solve present problems, and adding new ones. Human beings cannot be expected to feel responsibility for the world unless, at the same time, their unique capacities of knowledge, will, freedom and responsibility are recognized and valued.” (§118)
These criticisms have been interpreted as a move away from anthropocentrism in Catholic social teaching, yet statements such as these confirm a rooted anthropocentrism. The body of Catholic Social Teaching consistently gives moral privilege to human beings according to unique capacities. The difference made by Laudato Si’ is that such capacities need not come at the expense of nonhuman creation. Traditional teaching makes anthropological statements about humanity’s relationship to God by differentiating humanity from nonhuman creation. Humans are exceptional, superior, and teleologically oriented toward God as their final end. Francis’ statement clearly indicates human beings are unique creatures, but we have misused these capacities. His criticisms of tyranny, excess, misguidedness and distortion seems to me to offer the following conclusion on the place and future of anthropocentrism in Catholic Social Teaching. First, it is here to stay. Yet integral ecology insists upon an anthropocentrism that recognises creaturely relationships constituted by differences and commonality. Integral ecology insists upon an anthropocentrism fuelled by love not use, stewardship not unbridled dominion. Francis’ vision of a ‘right’ anthropocentrism moves away from dominant modes of anthropomonism : all creatures are oriented towards God as their ultimate end :
“Each creature possesses its own particular goodness and perfection…Each of the various creatures willed in its own being, reflects in its own way a ray of God’s infinite wisdom and goodness. Man must therefore respect the particular goodness of every creature, to avoid any disordered use of things.”
This leads me to the overarching issue of Laudato Si’. The insistence upon a diverse creation makes no room to hear the individual voices of nonhuman animals. Francis points towards a future in Catholic social teaching which can include nonhuman lives : their presence is implied in integral ecology, subsumed into Mother Earth as a diverse entity, but without their explicit inclusion they hold the same value as organisms, cells, bacteria, even viruses. Without explicit reference to nonhuman animals, the particular goodness and perfection of every creature privileges human beings only as moral creatures, and allows nonhuman animals to receive indirect consideration as members of an ecological web.
Catholic Social Teaching is premised on the concepts of continuity, change, contingency, and development. This is noticeable in the difference between Laudato Si’ and Rerum Novarum : radical change is noticed over a generation, but the differences noted between Rerum Novarum and Mater et Magistra, for example, is less radical and more continuous. Change and development is promised in the social life of the Church : She must update Herself to the current major problems facing men and women of good faith across the world. The world of Rerum Novarum did not face the ecological problems currently in force. What is now promised to future generations is a solid ecological dimension to Catholic social teaching. It no longer represents a minor feature under private property or a way to differentiate human beings from nonhuman creation for the purposes of dominion. Pope Francis has added to the Magisterium a serious concern for the way in which human beings responsibly live in connection with the Earth.
Pope Francis’ continuity of anthropocentrism places a particular responsibility on human beings. This is a development of previous papal teaching on the primacy of vocation to Christian life. If we take seriously his criticism of qualified anthropocentrism it seems to me that a ‘right’ anthropocentrism must be located away from claims of supremacy, exceptionalism, and even anthropomonism, and must root itself in particularity. The uniqueness of human beings is located in this particularity and not in their access to dominion or superiority : they are unique in their capacity for care.
The question of nonhuman animals still remains. The particularity afforded to human beings privileges human individuals to collectively act together. It affords a transformation from “cry of the poor” to the “cry of poor people”. Particularity predicates the goodness of individual human creatures : even Aquinas affirmed that a human being is first of all a person. Yet without extending this particularity to include the Cry of the Earth, the particularity of all beings is lost and subsumed into the whole and we inevitably end up with a biocentrism which Francis’ denies. What can be done ?
I suggest that the future of Catholic social teaching must incorporate the cry of the animals. Of course, this might seem radical, yet it has already been noted that radical change occurs across an era. How then might Pope Francis gradually attend to nonhuman creatures in their own right ? Responsibly enacting human particularity must account for the billions of nonhuman creatures who suffer needlessly every day at the hands of ill-gotten human gains. One way to account for this would be a recognition of the harms done by factory farming and industrialised animal agriculture.
In a policy framework published by the group Christian Ethics of Farmed Animal Welfare in 2020, David Clough et al note that in the animal farming context, ecology is fundamentally about maintaining respectful and health-giving relationships between humans and humans, humans and animals, and humans and the natural world, and correcting these when they become unhealthy. Animal farming impacts environmental, global, human, climactic and nonhuman animal survival. There is a disproportionate reliance on animal farming by wealthy nations and particular wealthy people which reduces food availability for poorer nations and particular people. They state that there is a pressing imperative to reduce global consumption of meat, fish, and dairy products, and to replace these with non-animal protein sources that are less carbon-intensive and less polluting.
Recognition of this in future Catholic social thought would non-competitively include nonhuman animal concerns to its ecological teaching. It would respect human dignity through differentiated responsibility, the recognition that climate action demands more from economically, socially, and geographically privileged people. It would attend to the ecological health of the planet : reducing the production and consumption of meat products would free up valuable natural resources and end needless suffering. But most importantly it would begin to attend to those particular nonhuman animals who have been left wanting in the tradition of modern Catholic social teaching.
The call to human action in Laudato Si’ is fundamental to the survival of the created world. Yet it must include particular lives, and particular responsibility must be enacted, in order to account for the interconnectedness which makes up the integral whole. The privilege of food choice involves an imperative of responsibility, to enact our particularity for the sake of other particular lived creatures. There is no integral ecology without particular human beings, the particular Mother Earth, and particular nonhuman creatures, and human beings must protect this through their privileged standing as particular, responsible, creatures of God.
Ruby R. Alemu is a PhD researcher at the University of Aberdeen. Her thesis focuses on establishing the cry of the animal as a missing third interlocutor to the integral ecology conversation after Laudato Si’. One of her main concerns for nonhuman animal theology is how to reconcile particular creatures with an ecological focus which privileges systems rather than individual lives. You can catch her on Twitter at @RR_Alemu.