The most important encyclical in the history of the church?



On Laetare Sunday, my experience of Lenten joy included attending an event at Fordham Prep in the Bronx exploring Pope Francis’s encyclical Laudato Si’ and its relevance for environmental stewardship in the contemporary world. The panelists included Elizabeth Johnson, distinguished professor of theology and a personal mentor and friend, Father James Martin, S.J., from America Magazine and Stephen Colbert show fame, and Gilbert Martinez, CSP, a former park ranger who is today pastor of the most successful young adult ministry in the Archdiocese of New York at St. Paul the Apostle Church at Lincoln Center.

Professor Johnson opened the discussion with a remarkable statement. She claims that Laudato Si’ is the most important encyclical in the history of the Catholic Church. She gave three reasons for this powerful assertion: One, the subject matter is timely and universal in scope. We are living at a time of ecological crisis with species becoming extinct at an alarming rate. Two, the science employed, whether in the natural “hard” disciplines, or the “social” ones of politics, sociology, and economics is, for her, remarkably sound, convincing and explicit in linking the suffering of the world’s poorest with the degradation of the environment and, three, the theological depth and vision proffered is one emphasizing the common community of the human family and a shared theological anthropology unrivaled in other papal writings.

Her claim is, I’m convinced, not one readily accepted in every quarter, whether ecclesial or otherwise. Yet, her compelling views were complemented by similar comments by Father Martin (who is, like Donald Trump, a Wharton School of Business grad at UPenn) and Father Martinez (who holds a degree in Natural Conservation from the University of California at Berkeley). Both talked of the pastoral implications of the text and the full authority the pope has put behind addressing these issues, as well as their conviction that its teachings are sound from the perspectives of their own academic expertise.

Though the encyclical’s call for integral ecology is its most widely circulated warrant, there is also a stunning array of intertwining themes investigated. The document has implications for Christology, ecclesiology, spiritual and practical conversion (whether individual or corporate), ethics, technology, Catholic Social Teaching, Biblical interpretation, and the inter-connection of all creation. The revolutionary critique of thoughtless and ravenous consumerism and the cultivation of key papal priorities like accompaniment, encounter and discernment, continued to arise throughout the afternoon. The reemergence of the thought of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, the Jesuit theologian and paleontologist. in theological circles was also discussed at length.

I spent a few minutes afterward with Johnson and Father Martin discussing their newest books, which I brought home with me: her “Abounding in Kindness: Writings for the People of God” and his “Seven Last Words: An Invitation to a Deeper Friendship with Jesus,” a reflection perfectly timed for the coming weeks, meditating on the utterances of Jesus as he hung upon the cross during the Passion. I’m excited to delve into both, and to continue to draw connections between them and the writings of this “pope of surprises.”

Collingswood native Michael M. Canaris, Ph.D., teaches at Loyola University, Chicago.