“From the beginning, it was not so” (Matthew 19:8). With those words in response to a question about marriage and divorce, Jesus recalled to our attention that the world has not turned out as God originally intended. But he also held out the possibility that, with the help of grace, we could return to the original plan and live as God created us.
These words immediately came to my mind as I read the Holy Father’s new encyclical, Laudato Si. The secular media has generally portrayed it as the Pope’s “climate change encyclical”, or more accurately as his “environmental encyclical”. But this misses the most significant point in the Holy Father’s contribution to the Church’s rich social teaching.
More than any prior Church document, Laudato Si calls us to a personal and social conversion of heart, so that we can return to God’s original plan for humanity and all creation.
This central purpose of the encyclical is evident right at the beginning, when the Holy Father points out that the harms to our material world come from the sin in our hearts. And he notes that we have forgotten the fundamental truth that we are an intrinsic part of creation, formed from the “dust of the ground” (Gen 2:7), and that our lives depend on the material bounty of the Earth. This is evident to us, not just from divine revelation, but by a reasoned contemplation of nature itself.
The theme of returning to God’s original plan is then woven throughout the encyclical. Again and again, Pope Francis comes back to the idea that the troubles of our world are the result of our sinfulness, particularly our loss of a sense of the universal moral law and the abuse of our freedom. We see this in the underlying causes of environmental and economic exploitation and degradation — a utilitarian and technocratic way of treating each other and the absence of solidarity between people.
All these problems rest on a faulty understanding of the nature of the human person, which the Holy Father analyzes with great care and detail. Although he does not use this phrase, Pope Francis sees clearly that our modern world considers humanity to be “homo economicus” — a being whose entire existence is determined by self-interested material needs and pursuits, centered only upon themselves. In fact, much of the criticism of the encyclical that we have seen from conservatives rests on this very assumption. The Holy Father calls this an “excessive anthropocentrism”, a failure to understand our true place in this world, particularly our interlocking relationships with creation, or fellow beings, and our Creator.
It is in his discussion of these relationships that we see most clearly the Holy Father’s true Christian anthropology, and his perception that God’s original plan is the antidote to our modern world’s problems. In Chapter Two of the encyclical, Pope Francis sets forth an extended exegesis of the Scriptural passages that reveal God’s intentions for creation. The key passage, paragraph 66, is so important that it needs to be quoted in its entirety:
The creation accounts in the book of Genesis contain, in their own symbolic and narrative language, profound teachings about human existence and its historical reality. They suggest that human life is grounded in three fundamental and closely intertwined relationships: with God, with our neighbour and with the earth itself. According to the Bible, these three vital relationships have been broken, both outwardly and within us. This rupture is sin. The harmony between the Creator, humanity and creation as a whole was disrupted by our presuming to take the place of God and refusing to acknowledge our creaturely limitations. This in turn distorted our mandate to “have dominion” over the earth (cf. Gen 1:28), to “till it and keep it” (Gen 2:15). As a result, the originally harmonious relationship between human beings and nature became conflictual (cf. Gen 3:17-19). It is significant that the harmony which Saint Francis of Assisi experienced with all creatures was seen as a healing of that rupture. Saint Bonaventure held that, through universal reconciliation with every creature, Saint Francis in some way returned to the state of original innocence. This is a far cry from our situation today, where sin is manifest in all its destructive power in wars, the various forms of violence and abuse, the abandonment of the most vulnerable, and attacks on nature.
Later, in a very profound passage, Pope Francis explores how the nature of creation reflects the image of the Trinity itself. He cites St. Bonaventure, one of St. Francis of Assisi’s greatest followers, saying:
The Franciscan saint teaches us that each creature bears in itself a specifically Trinitarian structure, so real that it could be readily contemplated if only the human gaze were not so partial, dark and fragile. In this way, he points out to us the challenge of trying to read reality in a Trinitarian key…. The human person grows more, matures more and is sanctified more to the extent that he or she enters into relationships, going out from themselves to live in communion with God, with others and with all creatures. In this way, they make their own that trinitarian dynamism which God imprinted in them when they were created. Everything is interconnected, and this invites us to develop a spirituality of that global solidarity which flows from the mystery of the Trinity.
It is certainly important to view Laudato Si as a document intended to address the environmental and social problems of our day. But I believe that its true significance will only be known when we begin to absorb the Holy Father’s extraordinary treatment of Christian anthropology. This encyclical is a call to all of us to try to recapture the remnants of God’s original plan for humanity, so that we can live as God intended, in peace and harmony with all creation.
“From the beginning, it was not so”.