The Theocentric Perspective of Laudato Si’: A Critical Discussion

In: Philosophia Reformata
View More View Less
Full Access

In this article, I focus on Pope Francis’s “green” encyclical, Laudato Si’. After outlining some of its characteristics, I single out the pope’s engagement with anthropocentrism for critical discussion. The pope criticizes anthropocentrism (the view that human beings alone have intrinsic value), seeing it as a root cause of ecological destruction. Instead, he proposes what I would call a theocentric conception of nature. I criticize this view. First, I suggest that the pope is insufficiently critical in adopting a theocentric approach to the common creation story. Secondly, I argue from both a biblical-theological and a philosophical perspective against the pope’s resistance to the anthropocentrism of Genesis 1:26. Thirdly, I argue that because the pope opts for non-anthropocentrism, the encyclical falls short of offering a constructive way forward in relation to functioning in a technocratic society. Through these comments, I seek to strengthen the powerful and important message of this encyclical.


In this article, I focus on Pope Francis’s “green” encyclical, Laudato Si’. After outlining some of its characteristics, I single out the pope’s engagement with anthropocentrism for critical discussion. The pope criticizes anthropocentrism (the view that human beings alone have intrinsic value), seeing it as a root cause of ecological destruction. Instead, he proposes what I would call a theocentric conception of nature. I criticize this view. First, I suggest that the pope is insufficiently critical in adopting a theocentric approach to the common creation story. Secondly, I argue from both a biblical-theological and a philosophical perspective against the pope’s resistance to the anthropocentrism of Genesis 1:26. Thirdly, I argue that because the pope opts for non-anthropocentrism, the encyclical falls short of offering a constructive way forward in relation to functioning in a technocratic society. Through these comments, I seek to strengthen the powerful and important message of this encyclical.

1 Introduction

On 24 May 2015, Pope Francis published his second papal encyclical, entitled Laudato Si’ (Francis 2015) and subtitled On Care for Our Common Home. The phrase Laudato Si’ is a reference to the opening line of a prayer by Saint Francis, whose name the pope chose on accession to the papacy, and whose life he tries to emulate in his pontificate. More precisely, it is a quotation from Saint Francis’s “Canticle of the Sun” (Francis of Assisi 1999). Amongst other things, this medieval saint became famous for the sustained attention he gave to non-human creatures. The story of him preaching to the birds, for example, is well known. Pope Francis deliberately invokes this saint at the start of Laudato Si’, which is noteworthy in three specific respects.

First, the encyclical is remarkable because of what Lorenzo Orioli calls its “absolute novelty.” As he explains: “For the first time ever, an official document of the Catholic Church is exclusively dedicated to social and environmental issues” (Orioli 2016, 933). This is indeed the case, and it has been noted by others.1 As Celia Deane-Drummond points out, while the attention to environmental and—particularly—social issues is no novum in papal encyclicals, she also notes that usually the ecological dimension would be “built out of Catholic concerns for social justice” (Deane-Drummond 2016, 394). Laudato Si’ deliberately reverses that order, giving primacy to a discussion of the ecological crisis—even though it by no means ignores the crucially important social dimension of this crisis.

Second, because by its very nature a papal encyclical is rather definitive in its formulation, it is noteworthy that Laudato Si’ conveys a great openness. Rather than just (Catholic) Christians, its intended public is “every person living on this planet” (Francis 2015, 4). And although most citations are from Catholic theologians, such as Francis’s predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI (ibid., 82), or from church documents, such as those produced by the Pontifical Council of Justice and Peace (ibid., 114, 127), the encyclical also makes deliberate reference to other Christian traditions, for example, by mentioning in a brotherly spirit the statements of the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew (7–9). And Pope Francis goes further still when he approvingly quotes from the Sufi mystic Ali al-Khawas (168n159).

Instances such as these make it clear that Pope Francis deliberately seeks to address two audiences simultaneously: Catholic Christians, primarily, but secondly “all who believe in a God who is the all-powerful Creator” (178). This is made most explicit towards the end of the encyclical when Francis concludes by offering two prayers: one general “prayer for our earth” (178–179), which can be prayed by all who share a general belief in God as Creator; and “a Christian prayer in union with creation” (179–180), specifically intended for (Catholic) Christians. This “double focus” strongly informs the structure and language of the encyclical; for example, while there is a specific mention of Mary as “Queen of all creation,” this is contained in a short section of only two paragraphs (175–176).

A significant scholarly discussion surrounds Laudato Si’. In this article, I want to contribute to this ongoing discussion, specifically by focusing on one of its key dimensions, namely, its resistance to anthropocentrism, and the pope’s choice of what can be labeled a theocentric conception of nature. In what follows, I will first describe the pope’s position in this respect and will then make three critical comments. I will argue, in the first place, that the pope’s theocentric appropriation of the common creation story has a number of problematic consequences. Secondly, I will point out some biblical-theological as well as philosophical problems with his advocacy of non-anthropocentrism. Thirdly and finally, I will argue that the pope’s criticism of anthropocentrism makes it difficult for him to explicate a moral approach to technological developments. The closing section of this article offers a conclusion.

2 The Theocentric Perspective of Laudato Si’

One of the encyclical’s defining features is Pope Francis’s criticism of anthropocentrism. Before explicating Francis’s thoughts on this issue, it is important to give some context to the debate about the position of human beings in nature. This is the most important debate in environmental ethics since its inception in the 1960s. There are two main positions in this debate, namely, anthropocentrism and non-anthropocentrism.

The first position, anthropocentrism, holds that only human beings are bearers of intrinsic value. Other-than-human nature does not share this intrinsic value—while other species, or non-organic parts of nature may have deep—indeed: vital—value for human beings, this value is always ascribed and can therefore be called instrumental. A consequence of this posture is that human beings always take precedence when, in ethical considerations, a choice has to be made, for example, between the life of an animal and that of a human being. In such cases, the life of the human being—no matter how old or sick—takes precedence.

Anthropocentrism is the default position in Western philosophy; a position, moreover, which historically has been closely associated with Christianity. A famous claim made by Lynn White asserts that “especially in its Western form, Christianity is the most anthropocentric religion the world has ever seen” (White 1967, 1205). Christian anthropocentrism, as White observes, goes back to Genesis 1:26, where God charges humankind with dominion over the entire non-human world. This task has become known in the history of theology as the dominium terrae. On the basis of these and other texts the classical Christian position developed, putting human beings in an exalted position over nature. This has also been the dominant interpretation in at least recent Roman Catholic theology (see Capitano 2005).

As awareness of the ecological crisis has grown, this anthropocentrism has been increasingly criticized, and as a result, various forms of non-anthropocentrism have developed. One example is zoocentrism, which claims that it is not just human beings but all animals that have intrinsic value. This is the position of Tom Regan, for instance (Regan 2004). Another non-anthropocentric theory is biocentrism, which claims that the biosphere as a whole has intrinsic value. This perspective has been famously formulated by Aldo Leopold, who argued that “a thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise” (Leopold 1949, 262).2 These and other non-anthropocentric approaches currently carry much of the day in the debate over anthropocentrism. Most approaches in environmental ethics adhere to one or another variant within this overall approach.

In his encyclical, Francis takes an unexpected and somewhat independent position. First, he seems to nuance the mainline position the church generally takes in this debate. As we saw, the church embraces anthropocentrism. In chapter 3, Francis is outspoken in blaming the ecological crisis on what he calls a “misguided anthropocentrism” (Francis 2015, 90). This criticism is formulated most fully in a section entitled “The Crisis and Effects of Modern Anthropocentrism” (ibid., 86–101). The pope argues that “modernity has been marked by an excessive anthropocentrism which…continues to stand in the way of shared understanding and of any effort to strengthen social bonds” (87). However, Francis does not opt for biocentrism (nor cosmocentrism) either. He says: “A misguided anthropocentrism need not necessarily yield to ‘biocentrism,’ for that would entail adding yet another imbalance, failing to solve present problems and adding new ones” (88).

Instead of these—in his view misguided—alternatives, the pope refers to a third way of understanding the value of human and non-human life that can be described as theocentrism, even though Francis does not use this term himself. He develops this perspective most strongly in chapter 2. There, he argues that “God is intimately present to each being, without impinging on the autonomy of his creature” (59). Further on, he argues that “the ultimate purpose of other creatures is not to be found in us. Rather, all creatures are moving forward with us and through us towards a common point of arrival, which is God, in that transcendent fullness where the risen Christ embraces and illumines all things” (61). This egalitarian view seems to bump up against the biblical assertion that it is human beings alone who are created in the imago Dei (Gen. 1:26–27).3 Pope Francis recognizes this; he argues, however, that our unique position “should not make us overlook the fact that each creature has its own purpose. None is superfluous. The entire material universe speaks of God’s love, his boundless affection for us. Soil, water, mountains: everything is, as it were, a caress of God” (Francis 2015, 61).

This line continues throughout the remainder of chapter 2. For example, in citing from the deuterocanonical book Wisdom (11:26), he argues that it is God who owns everything—not human beings. This allows him to present God as the preserver of the rights of all that exists. It gains practical applicability further on in the encyclical, when the pope addresses the diminishing biodiversity: “Because of us [as human beings], thousands of species will no longer give glory to God by their very existence, nor convey their message to us. We have no such right” (Francis 2015, 25).4

The pope’s choice of a theocentric approach to nature represents a change of tone from what has long been an important strand of Catholic doctrine. While the encyclical refers approvingly to Saint Aquinas, it differs from him in the choice of a theocentric starting point—Aquinas’s thinking on other-than-human nature is clearly anthropocentric (on this, see McLaughlin [2012]).5 At the same time, in this choice of theocentrism Pope Francis can refer to a strong minority position within Catholic thinking, one that developed especially in the early church and the Middle Ages (see Schaefer 2009). A theocentric approach is also dominant in the theology of the Orthodox Churches, with whom Francis actively seeks increased alignment. Furthermore, by opting for theocentrism, the pope links up with some prominent voices in contemporary eco-theology (see Northcott [1996, 141–147] and Van den Brom [1997]). An example is Jürgen Moltmann, who developed a theocentric viewpoint in his often-referenced book God in Creation (Moltmann 1993).6

3 The Pope’s Uncritical Appropriation of the Common Creation Story

While in vogue, the pope’s choice of theocentrism presents some problems. In the first place, it leads to a misrepresentation of the ecological problems that bedevil the world. Francis describes these problems in the first full chapter of Laudato Si’, entitled “What Is Happening to Our Common Home” (Francis 2015, 16–44). This chapter is one of the reasons that Laudato Si’ is regarded as remarkable, for it engages thoroughly with the field of ecological science, and many commend the pope for the freedom and open-mindedness that he displays in this regard.7 From the outset, the pope makes clear that the ecological crisis is anthropocentric in origin; he begins by describing how human-induced pollution of air, water, and soil has increased rampantly.8 He blames this specifically on the wasteful ways of human living and contrasts them to the intrinsic pattern of “recycling” found in ecosystems. He is also outspoken in claiming that “a very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climate system” (ibid., 18). Moreover, he recognizes humanity as culpable, and this leads him to urge us to change both our needs and our lifestyle “in order to combat this warming or at least the human causes which produce or aggravate it” (18–19). Francis’s presentation of the process of climate change is well informed and, as he earlier indicates, in line with the broad consensus in climate science.

A tendency in the pope’s presentation of ecological problems is to sharply contrast a rich and harmonious natural life on the one hand, and the destructive behavior of humankind on the other. This becomes clear, for example, in the third section of chapter 1 that focuses on the human-induced loss of biodiversity. Once again, the pope’s description of this dimension of the ecological crisis is scientifically informed: Francis moves comfortably from describing the importance of the Congo basins to the significance of the coral reefs. He blames human shortsightedness for the staggering loss of biodiversity taking place, and, in order to remedy it, he suggests the development of long-term conservation strategies, alongside deeper study into the functioning of ecosystems.

The pope’s presentation of the richness of biodiversity is one of the ways in which he appropriates the cosmic story. This refers to the presentation of the fascinating story of the wonderful evolution of life, all the way from the Big Bang until the emergence of homo sapiens, weaving together insights from different disciplines in the natural sciences. This provides a very powerful narrative, allowing us, for example, to confidently say that as human beings we indeed originate from stardust, and to explain principles such as autopoiesis and communion against the backdrop of nature’s long evolutionary history (for an example, see Rasmussen [2013, 16–17]). Recounting the cosmic story in this way is seen as a powerful means of convincing people of the value of non-human life. A famous and popular example of how this works is the 1980 TV series Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, written and presented by the famous cosmologist Carl Sagan.

In theological circles, Thomas Berry is an important advocate for an appropriation of the cosmic story, and he provides it with a theocentric foundation (see Berry 1988; Berry 1998; see also Hart 2006). While the pope does not refer to Berry, Laudato Si’ includes elements from the cosmic story as developed by Berry and others.9 This adds depth, particularly to Francis’s call to preserve biodiversity—after all, a large mass of biodiversity was a crucial factor in the development of humankind. In this connection, Francis refers approvingly to an important precursor to the earth story, namely, the work of the Jesuit priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (Francis 2015, 61n53). Teilhard de Chardin put forward passionately his understanding of evolution as a consistently forwards-and-upwards-moving process, seeing Christ as the inaugurator of a new phase in evolutionary self-consciousness.

The views of Teilhard de Chardin have been regarded with mistrust by the curia in Rome, for some time. In 1962, a warning was issued concerning his work. But those days are clearly over: the pope consciously takes the legacy of Teilhard de Chardin into account and seeks to build further on it. In this Teilhardian vision, Christ is the Omega point, the end point of the natural evolutionary process. Teilhard de Chardin wrote: “Christ is the end point of evolution, even the natural evolution, of all beings; and therefore evolution is holy” (Teilhard de Chardin 1965, 133). Pope Francis shares this conviction, even though he formulates it slightly differently as follows: “As part of the universe, called into being by one Father, all of us are linked by unseen bonds and together form a kind of universal family, a sublime communion which fills us with a sacred, affectionate and humble respect” (Francis 2015, 65–66).10

There are several problems with this theocentric reading of the common creation story. First, it presents a too-harmonious picture of the natural world, undisturbed by humans. The natural harmony that the pope speaks of (see Francis [2015, 49], for example) is often no harmony at all—that there are self-regulating ecosystems does not do away with the fact that this self-regulation often takes place by predation and a brutal fight over resources. Nature is “red in tooth and claw” (Tennyson 1850, canto 56), as evolutionary scientists tell us over and over again (one well-known example is Dawkins [1976]).

Secondly, it smooths over too easily the pain and suffering caused by the process of evolution. It sees suffering as a necessary prelude towards the final consummation of all life in Christ. But how can the promise of bliss for future beings provide meaning and comfort to persons suffering and dying right now? This point is raised by, among others, Abraham van de Beek (1996). This may lead to the further charge that the common creation story amounts to little more than a Christian “baptizing” of a secular concept in which the fallenness of creation (Rom. 8) is insufficiently recognized.11

Thirdly and finally, the optimism expressed by the pope that all will be consummated in Christ’s glory is also questionable. Ernst Conradie, reacting to earlier proposals of sacramental harmony, argues that “the story of the universe is also a lengthy ‘saga’ with vast epochs of redundancy and mere repetition, but, with great patience, also of continuous experimentation with novel forms of order. Nature itself is inherently restless, refusing to acquiesce in trivial forms of (sacramental) harmony” (Conradie 2005, 139).

4 Theological and Philosophical Problems with the Pope’s Theocentric Approach

Not only does the pope’s theocentric approach skew his representation of ecological problems, it also runs into biblical-theological and philosophical problems. To start with the biblical-theological problems: the pope’s emphasis on the equality of all creatures as being on a common path to God is problematic in light of the traditional exegesis of Genesis 1:26 mentioned above. This locus classicus of the doctrine of the imago Dei reads as follows: “Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth’” (NRSV). I have referred to the pope’s insistence that this text does not negate the intrinsic purposefulness of each creature (Francis 2015, 61); that is, however, a rather weak argumentum ex silentio. But even if it were true, it would still fail to address the central claim in Genesis 1:26, namely, that it is the unique prerogative of human beings to have dominion over all other creatures.12

Many eco-theologians find this text problematic, and, as a result, several attempts have been made to reinterpret the text. A suggestion that is often made in this regard is that “dominion” in this text ought to be understood more in the sense of stewardship. It is argued that in our postlapsarian state, we have misunderstood dominion to mean violent subjugation. This is supported by Francis. He describes the task of human beings vis-à-vis other-than-human nature as follows: “Human beings, endowed with intelligence and love, and drawn by the fullness of Christ, are called to lead all creatures back to their Creator” (Francis 2015, 61).

While at first sight an attractive solution, such a reading is not supported by a close reading of the biblical text. As eco-feminist Rosemary Radford Ruether concludes in her exegesis of Genesis 1:26, “we should acknowledge that the language used in the bestowal upon humans of dominion over the earth in Genesis 1 is one of dominating power and sovereignty. The words translated ‘subdue’ and ‘have dominion’ are those of a militarist trampling down and subduing a foe” (Ruether 2003, 226). This is not just Ruether’s opinion; rather, she expresses the majority position among biblical theologians on this subject. Conradie, who summarizes the discussion surrounding this text, states that “despite…attractive efforts to offer ecological reinterpretations of Genesis 1:27–8, the exegesis of this text remains deeply problematic. The Hebrew words kabash (‘subdue’) and radah (‘have dominion’) cannot be completely ‘pacified’” (Conradie 2006, 78).

There are three further considerations that are relevant to this issue. First, while Conradie, alongside many others, regards the violent connotation of the dominium terrae to be inherently problematic, it can be asked whether this is not merely reflecting a Western (post)modern mindset and represents an anachronistic reading of the greater part of human history. After all, for most of human history, our ancestors have been engaged in a life-or-death struggle with nature, fighting the sea, the climate, wild animals, insects, et cetera, and for many indigenous and poor people, especially in the Global South, this is still the case. Therefore, the biblical command to human beings to have dominion over the earth was current and relevant for a long period of human history, and still to an extent remains current.

Secondly, the choice of instrument with which one seeks to “subdue” nature, exercising one’s dominion over it, makes a big difference: for example, the consequences of using a shovel are different from the consequences of using a modern combine harvester. The instruments made available through industrialization fundamentally changed the relationship between human beings and nature. The conclusion from this observation is that it is modernity, rather than the biblical notion of the dominium terrae, that paved the way for the ruthless exploitation of nature which has resulted in the current ecological crisis (see Pattberg 2007).13 The pope’s criticism of this destruction is justified—but his subsequent reinterpretation of the dominium terrae as such goes too far.

Thirdly, it can be asked what practical value there is in seeking to discover the roots of the ecological crisis in a philosophical conception of the place of human beings in nature. The great many efforts in this area are all underpinned by the presupposition that if people recognize the value of nature (either understood intrinsically, as in non-anthropocentrism, or as deriving from God, as in theocentrism), they will behave in a more ecologically friendly way. The problem, however, is that despite the enormous trust in this “behavioral thesis,” it has hardly ever been properly tested. This is pointed out by Andrew Brennan and Yeuk-Sze Lo (2011), among others (see also Colyvan et al. 2009). In fact, there is anecdotal evidence that there may be a very weak link, or even no link at all, between one’s view of nature and one’s environmental behavior. This is pointed out by Northcott, who cites the Japanese, almost all of whom adhere to a form of Shintoism that is deeply nature-centered, saying that “Japan as a nation is one of the most ecologically rapacious in the modern world” (Northcott 1996, 161).

There is no doubt that a shortsighted, hedonistic approach towards nature is wrong. However, that is not the only necessary interpretation of anthropocentrism. Bryan Norton (1984) makes an important distinction between strong and weak anthropocentrism. Strong anthropocentrism is the hedonistic and shortsighted plundering of nature’s resources that is rightfully criticized by the pope as dangerously irresponsible and unsustainable. Weak anthropocentrism, on the other hand, recognizes human beings as the only ones with intrinsic value, but also recognizes that we are utterly dependent on non-human nature and therefore strives for limitations in our use of it. This latter option helps to develop a way forwards by recognizing the importance of retaining anthropocentrism while at the same time being sensitive to environmental concerns.

It is important to further clarify that the anthropocentrism argued for here is to be understood in a narrow sense, namely, only with regards to the human-nature relationship. It is not to be equated with the wider paradigm of Enlightenment rationalism, which posits the human being as the only source of value—that would, in fact, go against the Christian claim that God exists and reveals himself to human beings. I therefore do not share the argument of the ecologist J. Baird Callicott, for example, who states that “there can be no value apart from an evaluator,…all value is, as it were, in the eye of the beholder. The value that is attributed to the ecosystem, therefore, is humanly dependent or at least dependent upon some variety of morally and aesthetically sensitive consciousness” (Callicott 1989, 27).14

The anthropocentrism that I argue for, in contrast, is open to the transcendent; I understand the human person as a being that is made for communion with God (along the lines of Berkhof [2007]). From this perspective, human beings are indeed over against nature, as valuators vis-à-vis that which is valued, but they are not themselves the only source of the values they discern; these also come from divine revelation, which is communicated in various ways. And it is precisely through this revelation of God (in Scripture) that we come to recognize that non-human creation relates to God differently—namely, primarily through us as human beings, as the earth has been given to us (see for an elaboration of this position Nullens [1995]).

5 Guiding Technological Developments According to “Authentic Humanity”

Finally, the pope’s discussion of technology, which is part of Francis’s discussion of anthropocentrism, remains underdeveloped, precisely due to his non-anthropocentrism. The discussion of anthropocentrism in the encyclical stands in the wider context of the discussion in chapter 3, which predominantly deals with what Pope Francis calls the “technocratic paradigm.” He starts off by recognizing that “technology has remedied countless evils which used to harm and limit human beings” (Francis 2015, 76), mentioning modern medicine, electricity, and new forms of communication and transport, amongst other things. He claims that “technoscience, when well directed, can produce important means of improving the quality of human life” (ibid., 76). However, in reality, the pope argues, the enormous increase of technological power has extraordinarily privileged a small elite, to the detriment of the vast majority of the world’s population, who have to deal with the ecological consequences. A further problem that the pope recognizes regarding technology is that it creates problems it cannot solve. Referring to pollution, he argues: “Technology, which, linked to business interests, is presented as the only way of solving these problems, in fact proves incapable of seeing the mysterious network of relations between things and so sometimes solves one problem only to create others” (ibid., 16–17).

In his somber evaluation of technology, Francis makes some references to Romano Guardini’s important book Das Ende der Neuzeit (Guardini 1950). He echoes Guardini’s deep concerns about the way in which technology gives power, not just to humankind over nature, but also to a select number of human beings who are in control over many. Another source of the pope’s thinking is hinted at in paragraph 106 where he argues that technology develops “according to an undifferentiated and one-dimensional paradigm” (Francis 2015, 79; italics in original). This statement echoes the title of Herbert Marcuse’s well-known book One-Dimensional Man (Marcuse 1964), as well as one of the book’s core ideas, namely, that modern industrial society, aided by technology, makes human lives one-dimensional.

In analyzing the pope’s posture towards technology, I first of all detect a confusion in the way the encyclical speaks about technology. On the one hand, as the citations above suggest, Francis seems to adhere to technological neutralism, in which the products of technological development themselves are regarded as neutral; according to this paradigm, we can only judge the way people use these products. However, at the same time, the pope asserts that “science and technology are not neutral; from the beginning to the end of a process, various intentions and possibilities are in play and can take on distinct shapes” (Francis 2015, 85–86). The position that technology is neutral, although also defended by others, such as Joseph Pitt (2000), is a contested minority position in the contemporary debate on technology. The majority of authors agree with the pope’s second statement, namely, that technological developments are inherently goal-oriented (although that does not yet speak to whether these goals are good or bad). Many philosophers of technology would also agree with the pope’s negative assessment of some technological developments. This includes a variegated set of thinkers, such as the existentialists Martin Heidegger and Jacques Ellul, but also Marxist thinkers such as Jürgen Habermas.

However, the question of how we can reverse the negative direction of many technological developments remains open. The pope recognizes that this is possible. He refers to an “authentic humanity” which according to him “seems to dwell in the midst of our technological culture, almost unnoticed, like a mist seeping gently beneath a closed door” (Francis 2015, 84–85). This seems to create an opening for an anthropocentric ethic in which the norms for technological development (which is another way of referring to humankind’s dealings with nature) are found within the structures of human morality. However, Francis does not further describe this “authentic humanity,” nor does he outline how that can manifest itself and give shape to new technological development.15 Regarding this tantalizing and important issue, then, Laudato Si’ ends with an unresolved cliff-hanger, seemingly due to the pope’s unwillingness to develop an anthropocentric ethic of nature/technology.16

6 Conclusion

In this article, I have focused on the pope’s criticism of what he calls a misguided anthropocentrism, as well as on his subsequent efforts to arrive at what I consider to be a theocentric alternative. I have indicated that his presentation of the cosmic story raises a number of serious questions. Furthermore, I criticized his theocentric approach as biblically and philosophically unsound. Thirdly and finally, I pointed to Francis’s underdeveloped account of how technological developments should be guided, tracing this back to his hesitance about adopting a robust anthropocentrism.

Despite these criticisms of Laudato Si’, it is nevertheless important to consider the bigger picture and to recognize that the concerns raised by me are overshadowed by the merits of this encyclical: the document gives an important and authoritative stimulus to ecological action from a broad, Christian point of view. This stimulus is important for two reasons in particular.

First, it is worth repeating how significant it is for Pope Francis to have written an encyclical focused on the care of creation. While, as noted, it is a further development of the attention paid to the theme by previous popes, the strong focus on ecology in this encyclical is clearly a new development. As many observers have noted, this represents a gust of fresh air from the Vatican towards the Catholic Church as a whole. It is a deliberate attempt by the pope to put the power of faith at work in a fast-changing world seriously threatened by climate change and other environmental problems. It also promises to renew the resolve of the church to focus its energies in making a contribution to the public debate.

The other reason that this encyclical is important lies in its (geo)political significance. The promulgation of Laudato Si’ was deliberately timed to coincide with the important United Nations COP 21 in Paris as well as with the United Nations Sustainable Development Summit, and came at a time characterized by lack of progress on the issue (on this, see Orioli [2016, 931–932]). In this context, the encyclical aims to inspire more government action on the environment (see Stinson 2015). Jeffrey Mazo recounts how Stalin famously derided the then-pope by asking the cynical question: “How many divisions has he got?” (quoted in Mazo [2015, 203]). In fact, the church has many “divisions:” it has a prominent place in the hearts and minds of many Catholics the world over. And it is because of this “soft power” that the pope’s words have global clout and can influence world leaders. In light of the immensity of the ecological crisis, such an audience is more important than ever.17


  • Berkhof H. (2007). Christelijk geloof. Kampen: Kok.

  • Berry T. (1988). The Dream of the Earth. San Francisco: Sierra Club.

  • Berry T. (1998). The Great Work: Our Way into the Future. New York: Harmony.

  • Brennan A. , and Lo Y.S. (2011). Environmental Ethics. In: Zalta E.N. , ed., The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Autumn 2011).

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Bryant M.D. (1995). The Modern Myth of Mastery and the Christian Doctrine of Creation: A Journey in Ecology and Creation Theology. Dialogue & Alliance 9 (2), pp. 5668.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Byrne B. (2016). A Pauline Complement to Laudato Si’. Theological Studies 77 (2), pp. 308327.

  • Callicott J.B. (1989). In Defense of the Land Ethic. Albany: State University of New York Press.

  • Capitano W.E. (2005). A Study of the Anthropocentric Nature of Roman Catholic Church Teaching on the Environment from Vatican II to 2003. Ph.D. dissertation, University of St. Michael’s College and University of Toronto.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Colyvan M. , Linquist S. , Grey W. , Griffiths P. , Odenbaugh J. , and Possingham H.P. (2009). Philosophical Issues in Ecology: Recent Trends and Future Directions. Ecology and Society 14 (2), art. 22.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Conradie E.M. (2005). An Ecological Christian Anthropology: At Home on Earth? Aldershot: Ashgate.

  • Conradie E.M. (2006). Christianity and Ecological Theology: Resources for Further Research. Study Guides in Religion and Theology 9. Stellenbosch: Sun.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Dawkins R. (1976). The Selfish Gene. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

  • De Tavernier J. (2016). Laudato si’: De ecologie van paus Franciscus. Tijdschrift voor Theologie 56 (3), pp. 218243.

  • Deane-Drummond C. (2016). Laudato Si’ and the Natural Sciences: An Assessment of Possibilities and Limits. Theological Studies 77 (2), pp. 392415.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Francis (2015). Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home. Vatican City: Vatican Press.

  • Francis of Assisi (1999). The Canticle of the Sun. In: Armstrong R.J. , Hellman J.A.W. , and Short W.J. , eds., Francis of Assisi: Early Documents—Volume 1, New York: Franciscan Institute, pp. 113114.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Guardini R. (1950). Das Ende der Neuzeit. Basel: Heβ Verlag.

  • Hart J. (2006). Sacramental Commons: Christian Ecological Ethics. London: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers.

  • Leopold A. (1949). A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

  • Marcuse H. (1964). One-Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society. Boston: Beacon Press.

  • Mazo J. (2015). The Pope’s Divisions. Survival 57 (4), pp. 203212.

  • McLaughlin R.P. (2012). Thomas Aquinas’ Eco-Theological Ethics of Anthropocentric Conservation. Horizons 39 (1), pp. 6997.

  • Moltmann J. (1993). God in Creation: A New Theology of Creation and the Spirit of God (The Gifford Lectures: 1984–1985). Translated by Kohl M. . Minneapolis: Fortress.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Northcott M.S. (1996). The Environment and Christian Ethics. New Studies in Christian Ethics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

  • Norton B.G. (1984). Environmental Ethics and Weak Anthropocentrism. Environmental Ethics 6 (2), pp. 131148.

  • Nullens P.A. (1995). Leven volgens Gaia’s normen? De verhouding tussen God, mens en aarde en de implicaties voor ecologische ethiek. Ph.D. dissertation, Evangelische Theologische Faculteit.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Orioli L. (2016). Laudato sì and the New Paradigm of Catholic Environmental Ethics: Reflections on Environmentalist Movements in Italy. Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics 29 (6), pp. 931943.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Pattberg P.H. (2007). Conquest, Domination and Control: Europe’s Mastery of Nature in Historic Perspective. Journal of Political Ecology 14 (4), pp. 19.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Peppard C.Z. (2016). Hydrology, Theology, and Laudato Si’. Theological Studies 77 (2), pp. 416435.

  • Pitt J.C. (2000). Thinking about Technology: Foundations of the Philosophy of Technology. New York: Seven Bridges Press.

  • Primavesi A. (2000). Sacred Gaia: Holistic Theology and Earth System Science. London: Routledge.

  • Rappel S. (1996). “Macht euch die Erde untertan”: Die ökologische Krise als Folge des Christentums? Abhandlungen zur Sozialethik 39. Paderborn: Ferdinand Schöningh.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Rasmussen L.L. (2013). Earth-Honoring Faith: Religious Ethics in a New Key. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

  • Regan T. (2004). The Case for Animal Rights. 2nd ed. Berkeley: University of California Press.

  • Ruether R.R. (2003). Ecological Theology: Roots in Tradition, Liturgical and Ethical Practice for Today. Dialog: A Journal of Theology 42 (3), pp. 226234.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Ryan P.F. (2006). Secularist and Christian Views of Human Nature and Its Fulfillment: Implications for Bioethics and Environmentalism. In: Robinson D.N. , Sweeney G.M. , and Gill R. , eds., Human Nature in Its Wholeness: A Roman Catholic Perspective, Washington: The Catholic University of America Press, 5779.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Schaefer J. (2009). Theological Foundations for Environmental Ethics: Reconstructing Patristic and Medieval Concepts. Washington: Georgetown University Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Scruton R. (2012). Green Philosophy: How to Think Seriously About the Planet. London: Atlantic Books.

  • Stinson P. (2015). Pope’s Encyclical Inspiring Government Action. Environment: Science and Policy for Sustainable Development 57 (6), pp. 2425.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Teilhard de Chardin P. (1965). Hymn of the Universe. Translated by Vann G. . London: Collins.

  • Tennyson A. (1850). In Memoriam A.H.H . London: Edward Moxon.

  • Thompson C.J. (2016). Laudato Si’ and the Rise of Green Thomism. Nova et Vetera 14 (3), pp. 745756.

  • Trist E.L. , and Bamford K.W. (1951). Technological Content of the Work System. Defences of a Work Group in Relation to the Social Structure and of Coal-Getting: An Examination of the Psychological Situation and Some Social and Psychological Consequences of the Longwall Method. Human Relations 4 (3), pp. 338.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Van de Beek A. (1996). Schepping: De wereld als voorspel voor de eeuwigheid. Nijkerk: Callenbach.

  • Van den Brom L.J. (1997). The Art of a “Theo-Ecological” Interpretation. Nederlands Theologisch Tijdschrift 51 (4), pp. 298313.

  • Van den Heuvel S.C. (2016). Laudato Si’: Enkele kritische opmerkingen. Radix 42 (2), pp. 130139.

  • Van den Heuvel S.C. (2017). Bonhoeffer’s Christocentric Theology and Fundamental Debates in Environmental Ethics. Princeton Theological Monograph Series 217. Eugene: Wipf & Stock Publishers.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Verkerk M.J. (2004). Trust and Power on the Shop Floor: An Ethnographical, Ethical, and Philosophical Study on Responsible Behaviour in Industrial Organizations. Delft: Eburon.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Verkerk M.J. , Hoogland J. , Van der Stoep J. , and De Vries M.J. (2007). Denken, ontwerpen, maken: Basisboek techniekfilosofie. Amsterdam: Uitgeverij Boom.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • White L.T. (1967). The Historical Roots of our Ecologic Crisis. Science, New Series 155 (3767), pp. 12031207.


Christopher Thompson, for example, calls Laudato Si’ an “extraordinary encyclical” because it “teaches, in a manner not previously specified, a central thesis of the Christian faith” (Thompson 2016, 745).


A description of the different positions is offered by Northcott (1996, 86–123) and by Brennan and Lo (2011).


In paragraph 90, for example, Francis argues that he does not intend “to put all living beings on the same level nor to deprive human beings of their unique worth and the tremendous responsibility it entails” (Francis 2015, 66).


In light of these citations, it is hard to understand why Bernard Byrne says that “Laudato Si’ is frankly anthropocentric, originating ultimately from the anthropocentric pattern set out in Genesis 1–3” (Byrne 2016, 326).


It also differs from other contemporary Catholic thinking on ecology. An alternative Catholic view is offered, for example, by Peter F. Ryan, who adopts an anthropocentric position, arguing that “if…one rightly judges that nature should be disturbed to meet human needs, then far from violating the inherent value of subpersonal reality, such use fulfils nature by humanizing and personalizing it, while also fulfilling human persons” (Ryan 2006, 75).


While the pope does not mention Moltmann, it is interesting to see a close parallel between the two, not just in their choice of theocentrism, but also in their use of the Pauline concept of Christ’s kenosis, developed in Philippians 2:5–11, in the context of ecology. Francis applies this concept to the way God relates to the world, arguing that “creating a world in need of development, God in some way sought to limit himself in such a way that many of the things we think of as evils, dangers or sources of suffering, are in reality part of the pains of childbirth which he uses to draw us into the act of cooperation with the Creator” (Francis 2015, 58).


Celia Deane-Drummond connects this confidence on the side of the pope to the fact that before he became pope, Bergoglio was trained as a chemist (Deane-Drummond 2016, 396).


The focus the encyclical puts on water is particularly interesting. On this, see Peppard (2016).


This is contra Deane-Drummond, who claims that Laudato Si’ does not refer to the creation story (Deane-Drummond 2016, 410).


Formulations such as these may seem to border on attempts to divinize the earth; and regularly, this is also what theological appropriations of the common creation story end up doing (see, for instance, Primavesi [2000]). The pope, however, deliberately blocks such a route (Francis 2015, 66).


On this, see also De Tavernier (2016).


This commandment to have dominion over the earth is, moreover, consistent with other biblical texts, such as Psalms 115:16: “The heavens are the LORD’s heavens, but the earth he has given to human beings” (NRSV).


This point is made by a number of authors, such as Bryant (1995), Nullens (1995), and ­Rappel (1996).


For more on this point, see Van den Heuvel (2017, 154–157).


There is only a hint of this in what the pope says about architecture: “If architecture reflects the spirit of an age, our megastructures and drab apartment blocks express the spirit of globalized technology, where a constant flood of new products coexists with a tedious monotony” (Francis 2015, 85). Although formulated negatively, one can discern the positive contrast, namely, architecture that is at once distinctive and also cut to human size—such as one finds in the beautiful town of Poundbury, designed by Leon Krier. See Scruton (2012).


One way in which the pope could have further developed the normative evaluations of technology, in line with the morality of “authentic humanity” for which he pleads, would have been through an appropriation of sociotechnical systems. This entails a new approach to the design of complex workplaces, with a particular concern for the interaction of people and technology. The sociotechnical systems approach goes back to a foundational article by Eric Trist and Ken Bamford (1951). There are different schools within the sociotechnical systems approach—see for an overview Verkerk et al. (2007, 210–223) and especially Verkerk (2004).


I would like to thank two anonymous reviewers for their comments on an earlier version of this article. I also want to express my gratitude to Kay Caldwell for providing language editing for this article. I furthermore would like to note that this article is an extension of an earlier, less academic article I wrote on Laudato Si’ (Van den Heuvel 2016).

Content Metrics

All Time Past Year Past 30 Days
Abstract Views 773 289 5
Full Text Views 288 48 9
PDF Views & Downloads 286 216 52