The Pope, the Poor and the Plankton: Reasons to Read Laudato Si

This article began as “ten reasons you should read Laudato Si, Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment”, although it descends into a more rambling analysis. I hope nevertheless it contains some useful insights and pointers for my environmentalist and Christian friends alike, and encourages you to read the whole thing. I have deliberately written it before any of the other commentary on it (which I now look forward to doing with interest), so I don’t know whether it will echo much which is already being said, or provide a fresh alternative angle. Like all my recent articles, I’ve written it with dictation software, which occasionally inserts howlers of mishearings, so if I have failed to fish all of these out they might provide amusement.

It is written to you. “I wish to address every person living on this planet” (3).

From the start, Francis makes it clear that nature has a value qualitatively equivalent to humanity, and emphasises that humanity is part of nature: “The earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor… We have forgotten that we ourselves are dust of the earth; our very bodies are made up of her elements” (2).

There is no sense of religion-science debate: rather, religious insights emerge from the scientific knowledge. “We have forgotten is that man is not only a freedom which he creates for himself. Man does not create himself. He is spirit and will, but also nature” (6). Francis explains the four-tier structure of the encyclical. First, “the best scientific research available today … provide[s] a concrete foundation”. His analysis of the problems, possibilities and myths surrounding GM crops struck me as particularly balanced and well-informed (133). Then, “principles drawn from the Judeo-Christian tradition … can render our commitment to the environment more coherent”. This ancient sociological wisdom provides a key to understanding the “deepest causes” of the scientific environmental crisis, and to developing a modern “approach to ecology which respect our unique place as human beings … and our relationship to our surroundings”. Finally, built on this, are the solutions, rooted in education, “Convinced as I am that change is impossible without motivation and a process of education”. (15) Francis points out that divisions are often not between religion and science, but within them: it is necessary for “religions to dialogue among themselves for the sake of protecting nature”, and “dialogue among the various sciences is likewise needed, since each can tend to become enclosed in its own language” (201).

It has moments of poetry. “It is our humble conviction that the divine and the human meet in the slightest detail in the seamless garment of God’s creation” (9). “An authentic humanity … Seems to dwell in the midst of our technological culture, almost unnoticed, like a mist seeping gently beneath a closed door” (112). “There is a mystical meaning to be found in a leaf, in a mountain trail, in a dewdrop, in a poor persons face” (233).

Things you thought were modern ideas turn out to have been mediaeval catholic practices. For example, did you know St Francis was a wildlife gardener? “Francis asked that part of the friary garden always be left untouched, so that wild flowers and herbs could grow there, and those who saw them could raise their minds to God, the Creator of such beauty” (12).

A theme running throughout Laudato Si is the human injustice caused by the environmental crisis. For example, migrants fleeing “poverty caused by environmental degradation… are not recognised by international conventions as refugees” (25). “Our world has a grave social debt towards the poor who lack access to drinking water, because they are denied the right to a life consistent with their inalienable dignity” (30). “We have to realise that a true ecological approach always becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor” (49).

Yet Francis also emphasises throughout the intrinsic value of nature, and the sinfulness of our destruction of it, independent of any human involvement. “Because of us, thousands of species will no longer give glory to God by their very existence, no convey the message to us” (33). “We seem to think that we can substitute and irreplaceable and irretrievable beauty with something which we have created ourselves” (34). “Where profits alone count, there can be no thinking about the rhythms of nature, its phases of decay and regeneration, or the complexity of ecosystems… Biodiversity is considered at most a deposit of economic resources available for exploitation, with no serious thought for the real value of things” (190).

A third theme is the spiritual necessity of nature to humanity. “We were not meant to be inundated by cement, asphalt, glass and metal, and deprived of physical contact with nature” (44). “Jesus worked with his hands, in daily contact with that matter created by God, to which he gave form by his craftsmanship. It is striking that most of his life was dedicated to this task … which awakened no admiration at all” (98).

These religious insights reflect back on the need for science: “Greater investment needs to be made in research aimed at understanding more fully the functioning of ecosystems … Because all creatures are connected, each must be cherished with love and respect … Each area is responsible for the care of this family. This will require undertaking a careful inventory of the species it hosts, With a view to developing programs and strategies of protection” (42). Good news for the IUCN red list; and is it coincidence that this paragraph number is the answer to life, the universe, and everything? In assessing environmental impacts of project “it is essential to give researchers are there do you roll, to facilitate their interaction, and to ensure broader academic freedom” (140). Francis has no time for a backward-looking, anti-technological approach: “it is right to rejoice in [technological] advances and to be excited by the immense possibilities which they continue to open up before us … How can we not feel gratitude and appreciation for this progress, especially in the fields of medicine, engineering and communications?” (102). The problem with technology is when it becomes an end in itself. “It has become countercultural to choose a lifestyle whose goals are even partly independent of technology” (108). I like this kind of insight, which liberates the reader to examine their own lifestyle and values. “A decrease in the pace of production and consumption can … give rise to another form of progress … It is a matter of openness to different possibilities which do not involve stifling human creativity and it ideals of progress, but rather directing that energy along new channels… To find every new ways of despoiling nature, purely for the sake of new consumer items… would be, in human terms, less worthy and creative, and more superficial” (191-2).

None of this requires believe in a Christian God, or indeed a God at all. When Francis writes about Christian theology, he deals with the question of its relevance head on: “why should this document, addressed to all people of goodwill, include a chapter dealing with the convictions of believers?” (62). His answer is certainly not, because Catholics are right and other people are wrong. Rather, it is that is it distinctive insights of catholicism form one piece of the patchwork of human wisdom: “solutions will not emerge from just one way of interpreting and transforming reality. Respect must also be shown for the various cultural riches of different peoples, their art and poetry, their interior life and spirituality” (63). “Is it reasonable and enlightened to dismiss certain writing is simply because they arose in the context of religious belief? It would be quite simplistic to think that ethical principles present themselves purely in the abstract, detached from any context … The ethical principles capable of being apprehended by reason can always reappear in different guise and find expression in a variety of languages, including religious language” (199).

I was struck by the thoughtfulness with which he treats potential secular readers: having explained why he prefers the word “creation” to “nature”, he nevertheless speaks of “nature” throughout, aware that the word “creation” would jar on a secular reader every time. Francis is not hoping that by reading this you will be converted to Christianity, but that you will learn something interesting. He encourages readers to turn the light of sceptical thinking with which they might critique religion onto the assumptions of scientific rationalism: “Modern anthropocentrism has paradoxically ended up prizing technical thought over reality” (115). “The fragmentation of knowledge and the isolation of bits of information can actually become a form of ignorance, unless they are integrated into a broader vision of reality” (138). If you don’t believe in God, you will disagree with Francis suggestion that “our relationship with the environment can never be isolated from our relationship with others and with God”; However, you might agree with the problematic attitude he identifies: “romantic individualism dressed up in ecological garb, locking us into a stifling immanence”, and you might be prompted to ponder your own solutions (119).

When it comes to global politics, Francis does not mince words. “It is remarkable how weak international political responses have been” (54). “An outsider looking at our world would be amazed at such behaviour” (55). Yet the psychology of our irrational behaviour is explicable: “as often occurs in periods of deep crisis which require bold decisions, we are tempted to think that what is happening is not entirely clear” (59). He subtly explores the power dynamics of the local and global to identify levers for change, to explain how “all it takes is one good person to restore hope!” (71). His comment “there can be no ecology without an adequate anthropology” (118) comes from a Christian perspective, but states in different words the insight I heard from a practical ecologist describing how to achieve conservation ends: “Conservation is 20% biology and 80% public engagement”. This chimes in with something I have been pondering for a while, that conservation organisations could benefit greatly by learning from the methods of the missionary church, and relying less on business models – not in doctrine, but in people organisation. The tiny, individual action might seem unlikely to “change the world”, but “they call forth a goodness which, albeit unseen, inevitably tend to spread” (212). There is a dynamic of change which it sets up in ourselves and in those around us.

Francis is equally uncompromising when it comes to the Christian contribution to environmental destruction: “We Christians have at times incorrectly interpreted the Scriptures … 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” (67). He quotes texts from throughout the Bible to demonstrate that, “clearly, the Bible has no place for tyrannical anthropocentrism unconcerned for other creatures” (68). Religion is no use if it merely serves itself: “More than in ideas or concepts as such, I am interested in how such a spirituality can motivate us to have more passionate concern for the protection of our world. A commitment this lofty cannot be sustained by doctrine alone, without a spirituality capable of inspiring us” (216). Christians require “an ecological conversion, whereby the effects of their encounter with Jesus Christ become evident in their relationship with the world around them” (217). People who call themselves Christians yet fail to care for nature have not really encountered Jesus Christ? That’s pretty radical stuff. I love it.

These virtues and right relationships are often contrasted with romanticism: “a sense of deep communion with the rest of nature cannot be real if our hearts lack tenderness, compassion and concern for our fellow human beings” (91). “We have only one heart, and the same wretchedness which leads us to mistreat an animal will not be long in showing itself in our relationships with other people” (92). St Francis’ love for nature, which cannot love us back, was no more “romantic” than Jesus commandment to love your enemies: “fraternal love can only be gratuitous; it can never be a means of repaying others for what they have done or will do for us” (228), So we can and should “love” the natural world.

The crux of Laudato Si, it seems to me, is Francis’ call for “an integral ecology, one which clearly respects its human and social dimensions” (137). He further explains separate elements of this “integral ecology”. There is the need for a threefold balance of “environmental, economic and social ecology” (138) – a political trinity I have admired elsewhere. There is “cultural ecology”, a section which puts into words why it makes sense for me to be a historian and an ecologist: “it is not a matter of tearing down and building new cities, supposedly more respectful of the environment yet not always more attractive to live in. Rather, there is a need to incorporate the history, culture and architecture of each place, thus preserving its original identity. Ecology, then, also involves protecting the cultural treasures of humanity in the broadest sense” (143). Integral ecology has a kind of fractal structure: at one end, “it is essential to devise stronger and more efficiently organised international institutions” (175); at the other, there is the “ecology of daily life”, the tiny detail of human society: the “admirable creativity and generosity… shown by persons and groups who respond to environmental limitations by alleviating the adverse effects of their surroundings” (148). Francis loves the word “subsidiarity”.

An “integral ecology” will take into account all these elements. Francis demonstrates the application of these principles in some down-to-earth examples: “environmental impact assessment should not come after the drawing up of a business proposition … It should be part of the process from the beginning” (183). “In any discussion about a proposed venture, a number of questions need to be asked in order to discern whether or not it will contribute to genuine integral development. What will it accomplish?… For whom? What are the risks? What are the costs? Who will pay these costs and how?” (185). All this requires and the emphasises the need for “a path of dialogue which requires patience, self-discipline and generosity, always keeping in mind that realities are greater than ideas” (201). The key leave it for a change is the one Francis mentioned in the introduction: education.”If someone has not learned to stop and admire something beautiful, we should not be surprised if he or she treats everything as an object to be used and abused without scruple” (215).

A commentator I heard on the radio commended Francis for telling Catholics to turn to the heating down and stop driving. He doesn’t. Francis, unlike the commentator, understands the difference between law and grace: “we are speaking of an attitude of the heart, one which approaches life with serene attentiveness” (226). He does not command changes in action, but in attitude, and predicts that different behaviour will flow from changed hearts: “a person who could afford to spend and consume more but regularly uses less heating or wears warm clothes, shows the kind of convictions and attitudes which help to protect the environment. There is a nobility in the duty to care for creation through little daily actions … Reusing something instead of immediately discarding it … can be an act of love which expresses our own dignity” (211). At present, “a constant flood of new products can exists with a tedious monotony. Let us refuse to resign ourselves to this, and continue to wonder about the purpose and meaning of everything” (113). A consequentialist morality, says Francis, will be insufficient to motivate people to action: it leads too easily to a passive “gaia” approach. “What need does the earth have of us? It is no longer enough … simply to state that we should be concerned for future generations. We need to see that what is at stake is our own dignity” (160).

At the same time, there is no ambiguity about what needs to be done: “technology based on the use of highly polluting fossil fuel – especially coal, but also oil and, to a lesser degree, gas – need to be progressively replaced without delay” (165). There is no question that the Pope is knocking the heads of states’ heads together: “international negotiations cannot make significant progress due to positions taken by countries which place their national interests above the global common good. Those who will have to suffer the consequences of what we are trying to hide will not forget this failure of conscience and responsibility” (169).

I don’t like everything in Laudato Si. In particular, the patriarchal paradigm jars on me: “The best way to restore men and women to their rightful place, putting an end to their claim to absolute dominion over the earth, is to speak once more of the figure of a Father who creates and who alone owns the world” (75). But such passages, in awakening my indignant disagreement, do more to inspire my own creative thinking than the passages I agree with. If I don’t like Francis’ “figure of a Father”, how would I solve the problem instead? I thought he was a bit romantic about “indigenous peoples”, as if they were a better type of people than us – an unfortunate implication since Christianity affirms that every individual is equal in the sight of God. I would have preferred “indigenous cultures” (179). But these are minor points, and I mentioned them only to show that I was reading critically.

Francis’ title for Laudato Si comes from St Francis’ famous song of praise with all of nature. At the end of his encyclical, Francis restates this reference to end on a note of hope: “in union of all creatures, we journey through this land seeking God … Let us sing as we go” (244). Sounds a good plan to me.

St Johns Edinburgh and the Battle of Waterloo

The congregation of Bishop Sandford in Edinburgh, the subject of my PhD research, built their striking new chapel of St Johns in 1818. So it is not surprising that a few years earlier, when still meeting in their little classical Charlotte Chapel in Rose Street, they should have some Waterloo connections.

Charlotte Chapel, Rose Street, Edinburgh

Mary McLeod, daughter of the chief of clan McLeod, came from Skye to marry David Ramsay, a Royal Navy captain. Now in their sixties, they lived at 24 Dublin Street, a house with “an excellent dining room… an elegant drawing-room… a large room lighted from the street, well-suited for a writing-chamber”,  and “a three-stalled stable and coach house”. Between 1793 and 1808 David had commanded the Queen, the Agreeable, the Pomona, and the Euridice. Since then he had been responsible for overseeing the defence of the Port of Leith, and organising the press-gang. Trinity House presented him with a silver snuff box in recognition of his work in 1813.

Major Norman Ramsay Galloping his Troop Through the French Army
to Safety at the Battle of Fuentes d’Onoro, 1811

Yet, the following years were ones of tragedy. Their daughter Catherine died in October 1814, and was buried by Bishop Sandford. The following February they gave up the house in Dublin Street. In January 1815 their second son Alexander, a Lieutenant in the Royal Artillery, was killed at New Orleans, although news did not reach Edinburgh until March. On 19 June 1815, their eldest son William was killed at Waterloo. finally, on 31 July 1815, their youngest son David, a Lieutenant in the Royal Navy, died in Jamaica. David himself died in November 1818. Mary, who still had three surviving daughters, outlived him by ten years. The pride they took in their gallant sons is demonstrated by the monumental tomb they commissioned for them in Inveresk churchyard.

Part of the family of Ramsay of Balnain, David was related to Bishop Sandford’s successor, Edward Bannerman Ramsay, Dean of Edinburgh and St John’s most eminent Rector. However, this was not just a church for those in high society, as its other Waterloo connection demonstrates.

Margaret Mitchell gave birth to a daughter in March 1813, a fortnight before her husband John joined as a Private in Captain Miller’s Company in the Rifle Brigade. The daughter, Eleanor, was baptised by Bishop Sandford the following June. As fans of the Sharp novels know, the Rifle Brigade were an innovative part of the British Army, in which soldiers were highly trained, armed with the accurate Baker Rifle, dressed in close-fitting green uniforms, and expected to operate independently ahead of the main army, with officers and men working closely together. John was wounded at Waterloo, but was invalided home to Margaret and little Eleanor.

A Rifleman’s uniform

Waterloo was, however, a long way from the west end of Edinburgh, where members of Charlotte Chapel were engaged in church wars and canal wars. Bishop Sandfords congregation had recently begun discussing the construction of the new chapel, and on 8 June proposed to the neighbouring episcopal congregation that they unite to build one splendid church. On 12 June, a week before Waterloo, the proposal was rejected by the Cowgate Chapel. The ostensible reason was that one large chapel might “create jealousy against us in the established [Presbyterian] church”, but one suspects that the “very respectable number” of the congregation who were “decidedly of the opinion that the union… is inexpedient” were thinking more about the fact that Bishop Sandford’s congregation contained a lot of riflemen and sea captains, not to mention shopkeepers, nabobs, and suchlike. The Cowgate Chapel congregation was, as its Rector Archibald Alison explained in 1820, “of a peculiar kind… composed almost entirely of persons in the higher ranks, or in the more respectable conditions of society”. It seems likely that the Cowgate congregation, which built St Pauls in York Place, wished to retain its exclusivity. The two churches raced to complete their new chapels in 1818, a little ecclesiastical battle which St Paul’s won, thanks to a huge storm which blew the newly-erected Gothic pinnacles of St Johns tower through its roof, just before it was due to open.

St John’s Chapel, opened 1818

Meanwhile, on the day of Waterloo itself, one of those St John’s nabobs and a future vestry member, Robert Downie, convened a meeting of the Subscribers to the Union Canal. The “Union Line” which Downie was promoting with the support of various members of the Whig party, was fiercely opposed by the Tory city council who preferred an alternative “Upper Line”. Downie, whose immense wealth made his proposals difficult to argue with despite his humble social origins, so the Union Canal through to a successful completion, and gave his name to Downie Place, the section of Lothian Road which overlooked the canal’s terminus, Port Hopetoun.

Downie Place and Port Hopetoun

For the west end of Edinburgh, Waterloo symbolised far more than military victory. After twenty-five years of war, it signified a moment of social, technological, institutional and cultural advance (an anonymous member of the community had just published Waverley and Guy Mannering). The following years witnessed social unrest, economic depression, and ultimately the eclipse of Edinburgh by Glasgow and other industrial cities. Yet, 200 years ago, in Bishop Sandford’s congregation, it might have felt like the optimistic dawn of the modern world.

“Box, presented to Captain David Ramsay”, National Museums of Scotland
George Caldwell and Robert Cooper, Rifle Green at Waterloo
Caledonian Mercury newspaper
Minutes of St John’s vestry
Sermons of Archibald Allison
Letters of Walter Scott