Pope Francis and Our Common Home

Pope Francis at Congress

(Photo credit: AP/Carolyn Kaster)

Editor’s note: Pope Francis just completed his first visit to the United States. In light of all the commentary it generated, Professor Charles Arand offers these first thoughts on Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si’. The full review will appear in the upcoming Fall 2015 issue of Concordia Journal.

Francis of Assisi’s famous “Canticle of Brother Sun,” or “Canticle of the Creatures,” opens with the line, “Praised be you, my Lord, through all your creatures.” This famous canticle praises God by extolling the wonders of his creation. Over the centuries, it has provided the inspiration for hymns such as, “All Creatures of Our God and King.” And now, the opening words, “Blessed be” supplies the title for the first encyclical issued by Pope Francis that can be considered entirely his.

The much anticipated new papal encyclical, Laudato Si’, made its appearance on June 18, 2015. But should conservative Lutherans pay any attention to it, and if so, why? I would suggest that we should for several reasons.

First, the pope is the one person in the world who is able to attract a hearing from both Christians and non-Christians alike. This is in part because he shepherds a flock of nearly 1.2 billion people worldwide. And it is in part because he is recognized as person who carries a great deal of moral authority. And in Francis’ particular case, he carries a great deal of personal respect for his humility and generosity.

Second, an encyclical is one of the more authoritative teaching documents that a pope can issue (only an Apostolic Constitution ranks higher). Popes usually issue an encyclical to provide a moral foundation on topics of great significance. So when Cardinal Jorge Mario Begoglio adopted the name Francis in honor of Francis of Assisi, it soon became rumored that he might issue an encyclical on the environment.

Third, we are a church that confesses and adheres to all three articles of the creed. We have irreconcilable differences with Rome on the second and third articles related to the work of Christ and justification by faith alone that date back to the sixteenth century. But we share a number of common convictions regarding the first article of the creed as it relates to the moral issues of society and God’s continuing work in creation (creatio continua).

Finally, the encyclical has received widespread publicity in the media and around the world. The themes and issues of this encyclical have especially resonated with many in the southern hemisphere. As one of my colleagues put it, many of the young people in Latin America have cheered Laudato Si’. Here was a pope who was addressing their concerns and issues. And on top of that, he was doing so in language that they understood and with a smile rather than out of anger.

In the United States, its reception has been more of a mixed bag as the document is frequently viewed through the lens of Democratic and Republican politics. It would be wrong, however, to evaluate the document through the lenses of American politics. Laudato Si’ cannot easily be cast into the camp of liberal or conservative politics. If one side finds support on the issue of climate change, it should also take to heart what the pope says about life issues. And if on the right, one grimaces at the pope’s critique of an unfettered free market, one can welcome his arguments for life issues.

In addition, it would be a mistake to think the document signals a significant shift in Roman Catholic teaching. It is true that it may be the first encyclical that focuses entirely on the stewardship of creation. But as Francis indicates at the outset, he is building on statements of his immediate predecessors. The document reflects a long tradition of catholic social teaching as it draws upon principles such as the dignity of work, the common good, subsidiarity, and the preferential option for the poor, etc. But what is new is the way Francis brings all of these together as interconnected issues while addressing matters related to the environment.

So what might we take away from the document? I would suggest several things. First, Francis provides a way of engaging those who do not share our beliefs in a post-Christian world. Second, the document provides some helpful lines of direction toward a more robust theology of creation and its use within the church. Finally, Francis encourages us to expand our horizons and embrace a comprehensive vision of the world. He challenges the church to take a global perspective in which a practical commitment to human beings and the environment take priority over a commitment to nationalities, ideologies, economic theories and politics.

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6 Comments

  1. Joel Dieterichs October 1, 2015
    Reply

    Much needed article! The tenor of your response is extremely important, I believe, for the new century and what we will face. I think many more non-Christians overhear us talking than we want to admit overhear us. But they are secretly watching us quite intently–how we react to world events such as this Pope’s visit. And, if they have blindness and we have sight, they need us to step forward and be leaders in areas such as reconciliation, debate, and civilized argumentation.

    I am happy to say his visit stimulated correspondence with an old friend of mine and law professor at a Jesuit university, whom I met on vicarage. Though he always cites Apology XXI.27 against me to say that Lutherans can pray to St. Mary, we did agree in prayer to the Lord Jesus for all faithful and Trinitarian churches worldwide.

    God save us in this crazy age!

    • Charles Arand October 2, 2015

      Thanks, Joel!

      I agree with your observation about non-Christians overhearing us. I tend to be interested in how they perceive us and what we say (as well as why they perceive us in this way). I thought Francis’ approach to discussion was intriguing. For what its worth, this post is part of a longer article in the Fall Concordia Journal in which I provide further reflections on the pope’s encyclical, Laudato Si.

      Chuck

  2. Rev. John George Huber October 8, 2015
    Reply

    Dear Dr. Arand,

    Thank you for your significant article on “Pope Francis and our Common Home.” It is encouraging to read such a positive expression of appreciation for a statement by Pope Francis, in light of our church body’s previous emphasis, years ago, insisting that the pope is the Anti-Christ. Your comments are also in keeping with the agreements that have been reached in the U.S. Lutheran-Roman Catholic dialogues. I regret that The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod is no longer a participant in these ecumenical conversations.

    Even though the Encyclical Ut Unum Sint of Pope John Paul II (1995) may seem a bit dated, I wonder if this strong affirmation of Christian unity might also deserve commentary. While a Master of Ecumenical Studies student at the Bossey Ecumenical Institute of the World Council of Churches in 2000-2001, it was my privilege to include a chapter on this document in a research paper. I would be happy to share it.

    Blessings on your important vocation. I have such fond memories of my days at the Sem. Am especially grateful to Drs. Piepkorn, Caemmerer, and Franzman. Graduated in 1958! Wrote a B.D. (M.Div.) thesis on “Areas of Agreement in the Three World Conferences on Faith and Order.”

    Together in Christ,
    John George Huber, Pastor Emeritus,
    University Lutheran Church, La Jolla, California
    Cell: 619-507-0768
    Member of the Board of Directors of the North American Academy of Ecumenists; member of the Faith and Order Commission of the Southern California Christian Forum; Chair of the Faith, Order and Witness Committee of San Diego; Coordinator for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity of the Coronado Council of Churches.

    • Charles Arand October 9, 2015

      Thanks John. I appreciate your kind words. You raise a worthwhile point about whether other statements like the Encyclical Ut Unum Sint of Pope John Paul II (1995) deserve some reflection or commentary. I think that they do deserve more consideration and it would be helpful for us to understand better the thought of the contemporary Roman Church as sometimes we may view it only through the lens of the sixteenth century.

      I agree with your lament about our active participation as full members in the bi-lateral dialogues with Rome. I believe that we still have observers involved who do have voice even if not vote in the meetings. If you don’t mind, send me a copy of your research paper (arandc@csl.edu).

  3. John Karle October 8, 2015
    Reply

    Thanks for the summary of Laudato Si’.

    I do a ridiculous amount of long driving these days and have taken to books on tape to help make the time pass in a constructive way. I recently listened to the biography by Austen Ivereigh, The Great Reformer: The Making of a Radical Pope. It was read in its entirety by the author, a special bonus.

    I’d encourage others to carefully examine Jorge Bergolio’s upbringing and formation as a basis for understanding what he says and writes. It’s fascinating, and incarnational Lutherans will find much in common.

    • Charles Arand October 9, 2015

      Thanks, John! It’s great to hear from you. I appreciate the resources you mentioned. Hope all is well with you.

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