At the beginning of June, around 120 delegates from Britain’s ten Jesuit parishes met at the Hayes Conference Centre in Swanwick for the Jesuit Pastoral Conference 2017. The topic for the conference was the three key texts of Pope Francis Evangelii Gaudiam, Laudato Si and Amoris Laetitia. Here is a link to the slides for my workshops on “living out Laudato Si”
The harvest is rich but the labourers are few?
Few would deny the importance of farming to Europe’s identity. The intricate patchworks that make up our rural landscapes result from centuries of careful interaction between humans and nature. Throughout the ages, the countryside has nourished bodies and souls alike. In recent years we have also become acutely aware that responsible stewardship of our farmland ensures water quality, reduces flood risk, and helps protects wildlife.
But the European farming sector is in crisis.
A rural exodus
Farmers are finding it increasingly difficult to make a living from the land. This reality is borne out by a few statistics. In the 1960s a fifth of Europeans worked in agriculture. Today the figure is below 4%. Between 2000 and 2012, approximately 4.8 million jobs were lost in the European agricultural sector. And the hardest-hit group are those under the age of 35. This age group currently represents a mere 6% of farm workers. Put simply, the countryside is undergoing a population implosion.
This bleak situation has led to increased demands for reform of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), a scheme that hoovers up a hefty 40% of the EU’s annual budget. In spite of its immense expense, farmers throughout Europe are deeply unhappy with the CAP. It is significant that even though the average UK farm receives over half its income from CAP subsidies, farmers in England and Wales voted overwhelmingly in favour of BREXIT.
Small is beautiful?
The main source of discontent is that smaller and more labour-intensive farms have suffered under the CAP’s focus on food production. It is estimated that between 2005 and 2010, over 2.5 million small farms were shut down. Given that 10% of the largest farms receive nearly 75% of CAP payments, critics argue that the EU is effectively subsiding large farms.
This is where the French Socialist MEP Éric Andrieu enters the stage. Andrieu is responsible for a report entitled ‘How the CAP can improve job creation in rural areas’. A leading critic of the EU’s obsession with export competitiveness, Andrieu argues that the alarming haemorrhaging of young people from farming must be tackled. His report, which MEPs narrowly voted in favour of on 27 October 2016, sets out a raft of proposals, including measures to boost training for young famers, financial help for new entrants into the farming sector, and a fairer distribution of direct payments to farmers. Subsidies should be favourable to smaller farms and direct payments should be withdrawn from those who simply own (but do not farm) agricultural land. The MEPs also accepted measures to encourage shorter supply-chains and promote more organic food production.
The CAP: a behemoth to be slain?
Whereas Andrieu’s proposals are premised on the basis that it is possible to readjust the CAP to make it more equitable to smaller farmers, others propose the abolition of what they regard to be an inherently flawed ‘behemoth’, incapable of reform. This is the view of Professor Dieter Helm, an economist at Oxford University. Helm believes that BREXIT provides an opportunity for the UK to ‘reset’ farming policy and learn from the mistakes of the CAP. Whilst belonging to a free-market economic tradition, Helm nevertheless accepts that rural activities will always need public funding. However he argues that public money should be used to incentivise what he calls ‘public goods’, rather than simply subsidise food production. For Helm, there needs to be a public debate about what should be considered a ‘public good’. This would certainly include the environmental and recreational value of non-urban contexts.
More than just crops
Despite their different methodological starting points, both Helm and Andrieu agree that the ‘capital’ of the countryside consists of much more than simply the financial value of the physical goods farmers produce. They are critical of European economic policy that characterises the countryside’s value purely in commodity terms. The CAP has overlooked the role that small farms plays in providing employment, and as a means to protect the traditional character of rural landscapes. According to Andrieu and Helm, public funding, whether through subsidies or incentives to promote ‘public goods’, should be indexed to wider social benefits and environmental sustainability, and not simply used to reward production.
At this point it is worth pointing out that there is a third figure who has something to contribute to the debate. Pope Francis has often spoken of the dangers of economic systems that favour large-scale production models, especially in the agricultural sector. For this reason, Laudato Si’ affirms that civil authorities have a duty to ‘adopt clear and firm measures in support of small producers and differentiated production’ (LS, 129). In the philosophical language of the encyclical, such measures are necessary to avoid destructive instrumental and technological uses of the natural world, but also to protect opportunities for work: ‘we were created with a vocation to work’ (LS, 128).
In each of these different voices advocating reform of agricultural policy, we can hear a desire to acknowledge the countryside as a multi-faceted common good. The ‘harvest’ consists not simply of crops, but also the intrinsic value of the land, and indeed the intrinsic value of its workers.
I recently delivered a paper at Campion Hall in Oxford to a group of Jesuits who are involved in academic teaching and research. Among the group were Philosophers, Historians, Sinologists, and of course, Theologians. Using the overarching subject of “what does being human mean today?”, we each tackled the question from the point of view of our respective disciplines. The following is an outline of my efforts!
Laudato Si with two legs? Attempting to redefine the Common Good
Laudato Si’ is often referred to as Pope Francis’ ecology encyclical’. But is this an accurate description?
Certainly it deals with a host of ecological issues, including climate change, biodiversity loss, and the social costs of environmental destruction. And yet I would like to propose that at its heart Laudato Si’ is really an encyclical about humanity. In the face of enormous environmental change, much of which is anthropogenic, Laudato Si’ asks the question: How do we define the anthropos? The encyclical demonstrates that the causes of ecological degradation are rooted in anthropological presuppositions. Likewise, its vision for ecological conversion entails a process of redefining what it means to be human. To my mind the theological ‘ingenuity’ of Laudato Si’ is its extension of the principle of the Common Good to include a cosmic dimension. In a post-Laudato Si’ world, Catholic Social Teaching can no longer regard the Common Good as a fundamentally anthropocentric concept. Instead it must include the interests of all created entities. Humans are constituent of a ‘wider whole’.
Let me explain this new understanding of the relationship between humans and their environment by means of reference to three prominent themes running through the rather long and sometimes dense text of Laudato Si’.
Theme 1 – All creatures possess intrinsic dignity
The use of St Francis of Assisi’s Canticle of the Creatures in the opening paragraph of Laudato Si’ draws on an ancient stream of Christian thinking to poetically affirm the inherent value of all created things. The earth is not a resource but a common home, ‘a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us’ (LS, §1). As the encyclical makes clear, Pope Francis did not need to go back to a thirteenth century saint to find support for this idea. His two immediate papal predecessors promoted respect for the non-human world by developing notions of responsible stewardship, the role of humans as co-creators, and the need to preserve the divinely ordained ‘grammar’ of the natural world.
And yet the ‘green theology’ of St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI is premised on a sharp ‘separation’ between humans from the non-human world. They are reluctant to make any claims that imply non-human entities possess an intrinsic value. Why? Because, particularly in Benedict’s case, there is a fear that it would give credence to pantheistic beliefs that God is somehow confined to the totality of creation.
Francis brushes aside such concerns! According to Laudato Si’, humans ‘are not disconnected from the rest of creatures’ (LS, §220) but are joined by ‘unseen bonds and together form a kind of universal family, a sublime communion which fills us with a sacred, affectionate, and humble respect’ (LS, §89). Francis even refers to the intrinsic dignity of the world (LS, §115) – a radical move given that until now, Catholic Social Teaching has only used the term ‘dignity’ in relation to human beings.
So what gives Francis the confidence to speak about the intrinsic dignity of non-human entities? In other words, what are the sources influencing Laudato Si’? The text does not give us any immediate clues. Yet it is highly relevant that the only twentieth century theologian referred to in the document are Romano Guardini and Teilhard de Chardin. A Guardinian critique of the instrumentalisation of the natural world is a central theme in Laudato Si’. More controversially, is the way it alludes to Chardin’s idea that all creatures are propelled by an internal principle that Chardin calls, ‘life’s zest’. Hence Laudato Si’s statement that ‘the ultimate purpose of other creatures is not to be found in us. Rather, all crea¬tures are moving forward with us and through us towards a common point of arrival, which is God’ (LS, §83). Can we also see the influence of two of Teilhard’s disciples, Thomas Berry Leonardo Boff? Berry and Boff posit an intrinsic value of all entities on the basis of their possessing a subjectivity or interiority that enables them to participate in the cosmos-creating endeavour. There is more than echo of this in Laudato Si’s claim that ‘the Spirit of God has filled the universe with possibilities and therefore, from the very heart of things, something new can always emerge’ (LS, §80).
Theme 2 – Integral Ecology
The second strand of Laudato Si’s strategy for redefining a concept of humanity that is better equipped to respond to ecological challenges lies in its emphasis on the reciprocal relationship between humans and nature. ‘Integral ecology’ shows that the cosmos is a single interdependent life system, of which we are a constituent part. The title of the encyclical testifies to this. The planet is a ‘common home’, a place inhabited by humans and other creatures alike. As Pope Francis puts it ‘the universe as a whole, in all its manifold relationships, shows forth the inexhaustible rich¬es of God’ (LS, §86). Furthermore, ‘our insistence that each human being is an image of God should not make us overlook the fact that each creature has its own purpose. None is superfluous. The entire material uni¬verse speaks of God’s love, his boundless affec¬tion for us. Soil, water, mountains, everything is, as it were, a caress of God’ (LS, §84).
But why the term integral ecology rather than simply human ecology as championed by John Paul II and Benedict XVI? The answer is that the essentially anthropocentric concept of ‘human ecology’ does not capture truly dynamic nature of the relationship between humans and the rest of the world. Integral ecology on the other hand conveys a sense that human ecology should be understood within a wider cosmic common good. The term also reveals the possible influence of those creative interpreters of the Teilhardian tradition, Berry and Boff, who speak of there existing between all creatures, communion and connectedness.
The language of communion enjoys a prominent position in Laudato Si’ and its associated notion of ‘care for creation’ replaces that of stewardship imagery. The word ‘stewardship’ is used just twice in the Encyclical. Here we can see a shift in the guiding environmental ethics. Explaining the transition, Cardinal Turkson, one of Laudato Si’s key architects, comments ‘Good stewards take responsibility and fulfill their obligations to manage and to render an account. But one can be a good steward without feeling connected. If one cares, however, one is connected. To care is to allow oneself to be affected by another, so much so that one’s path and priorities change’. A duty-based ethic has been replaced by a more affective, virtue-based ethic.
It is interesting to note that the shortcomings in the doctrine of stewardship and the attractiveness of a more ‘affective’ virtue-based model of care for creation were identified by Berry as far back as 1989.
Theme 3 – The Cosmic Common Good
We thus arrive at the third strand under consideration. I believe that the way Laudato Si’ develops intrinsic value and integral ecology is part of a bigger project to formulate a principle of the Cosmic Common Good. In contrast to his papal predecessors, Pope Francis is not anxious to ascribe to non-human entities a role and value that is tightly bound to humans. The Laudato Si’ vision of integral ecology expands the Common Good to encompass not simply the human good, but as the common good of the cosmos containing humans and other beings alike. Within the ‘wider whole’ of creation, elements of the non-human world possess not simply an instrumental value, but an intrinsic value too. Thus Francis posits ‘The universe unfolds in God, who fills it completely. Hence, there is a mystical meaning to be found in a leaf, in a mountain trail, in a dewdrop, in a poor person’s face’ (LS, §233).
But wait, is this pantheistic or at least panentheistic? I think Laudato Si’ steers a middle path between ‘deep ecology’ or what we might call ‘thick panentheism’ on the one hand, and an unhelpful confrontational anthropocentrism, on the other. There are many instances in the Encyclical where Francis upholds an understanding of God as ultimately transcendent and of human beings as possessing a unique worth and having a distinctive role in ‘shepherding’ other creatures to their creator. Here therefore, he parts company with the bio-centrist and panentheist outlook of Berry and Boff for whom human beings do not necessarily have a privileged salvific position within creation. Nevertheless what we might regard as Laudato Si’s ‘thin’ version of panentheism follows a Teilhardian and essentially Pauline conception of all crea¬tures ‘moving forward with us and through us towards a common point of arrival, which is God’ LS, §83).
Conclusion – An expansive concept of the Common Good
To conclude, what does Laudato Si’ tell us about what it means to be human today? It demonstrates that ecological conversion is a process of recognising the inherent worth of all created entities, each possessing an intrinsic value. It shows us that the empirical reality of the interdependence of all living entities has a theological and spiritual significance with an ethical dimension. In summary, it leads us to an expansive and cosmic conception of the Common Good.