By Lazarus' Side

Pope Francis - Laudato si’. Taking care of the planet with prophecy and without demonization

by Luigino Bruni

published in pdf Il Regno (1.52 MB) n.7/2015

Logo Il Regno 2Our era, the beginning of the twenty-first century will be remembered for the end of the critique of capitalism, which characterized much of the twentieth century. Capitalism has become the environment in which we live and move, and we are so immersed in it that we no longer have the cultural ability to look at it in order to analyze or criticize it, neither to ask it some fundamental questions of equality, justice and truth.

The various forms of responsible enterprise or the economy of the non-profit sector itself were conceived within the same capitalist system and are functional and increasingly essential to it. In Italy, for example, about half of the large non-profit organizations - including some prominent Catholic movements - receive direct or indirect funding from gaming multinationals.

In this serious shortage of critical thinking the value and historical importance of Laudato si’ is clear, which itself is also a lucid and prophetic critique of financial and technological capitalism. And it works on various levels that are all essential.

First of all, the Pope Francis' Laudato si’ is a great concrete discourse of the common good. It is not a discourse "on" common good as a category (there are far too many of these, even among Catholics), but it is an exercise of common good - were we to look at it through the standards of the ancient world (Classics) we should say that in this encyclical, the common good is not the material but the formal object discussed: it takes a look at the world from the perspective of the common good, which becomes the ethical criterion for global assessment.

Today, especially in the West, we cannot see the global ethical issue precisely because we lack the category of the common good - and also that of the common goods that are closely linked to the former one - which is the great absentee of our society of consumption and finance.

Yet our generation has experienced in its own flesh what the common evils are: world wars, atomic danger, epidemics and, in our days, globalized terrorism. We have learned what it means to be a body when the bombs were falling on the houses of both the rich and the poor, when suicidal-homicidal madness was killing managers and workers alike; but we have not learned the wisdom of the common good from the experience of the common evil.

We have collectively failed to learn that the primary good of a society (primary in the sense that if it is missing, the real secondary goods are threatened, too) is the common good, that of all and every single one. And so, day after day, law after law, no-law after no-law, we are creating the "civilization of private interest". It is supported by more and more sophisticated ideologies so as to convince everyone that 'waste' is a price to pay for the welfare of the elite, and that it is normal and inevitable that 10% of the world's population uses energy for air conditioning in their apartments and for their SUVs, and 90% that has neither air conditioning nor SUVs are doomed to suffer the consequences of a planet that is increasingly polluted by those above them.

Yet again, human history confirms and amplifies the truth of the Gospel: not only Lazarus is left to stay under the table of the rich man to pick up the crumbs of his wealth, but from that same table which is laden with more and more products coming from the exploited lands of the world's many poor there is also waste, sludge and dirt now dripping on the head of Lazarus, making those few crumbs of bread inedible.

 

An integral humanism

Pope Francis can see all this and tell about it to all, to make us at least a little less comfortable in our opulent banquets. And he does so with the freedom that comes from those who only serve the interest of truth that does not depend on the funding of multinationals and financial policies, and so he can give voice to those who do not have it, and denounce the economy of the new rich men, generators of polluted and unfair crumbs with an unrepressed force and courage. A better take on the common good, perhaps the only one paying it justice, is that of those who position themselves under the table next to Lazarus, and look upwards from there.

Another topic that determines the entire thought of the encyclical is the relationship between man and earth seen as reciprocal relationship between equals, because man and earth are both "creation" (ch. II ), hence the reciprocity between human beings and between us and the earth. There is only one guardianship: that of the other man ("Am I my brother's keeper?": Gen 4,9), and custody of the earth (Adam has to preserve the garden and make it fruitful; cf. Gen 2,15). The author of Genesis used the same word (shamar) in both cases - even if it was denied later - so as to remind us that if I don't take care of the other man, of every other man and woman, I will not be able to take care of the land or even myself (unless I take care of the other, I soon become incapable even of taking care of myself: all that remains is only nihilistic hedonism).

Where there is no custody, fratricide takes the place of brotherhood and the earth is stained by blood - but God and his true friends who are not adulators can still smell the blood of the victims ("The voice of your brother's blood is crying to me from the ground.": Gen 4,10). And it is for this reason that the "integral ecology" (ch. IV) that Laudato si’ talks about can only come from an "integral humanism" (ch. III).

"Distorted" anthropocentrism - as the Pope defines it - is also fuelled by some partial Christian theologies and sees the entire universe as a function of the well-being of human beings. It is the first error to be corrected in order to build a proper relationship with the earth and with nature, a relationship that Francis (in a Franciscan way) calls fraternity: “when our hearts are authentically open to universal communion, this sense of fraternity excludes nothing and no one” (par. 92).

At the same time, man really stands in the heart of the process of the deterioration life the planet is suffering at present, a deterioration that does not call the survival of the earth into question (which has survived some far more devastating "crises" than the one we are producing) but the survival of homo sapiens. Furthermore - and the Pope emphasizes this in many passages of his letter - instead of "taking care" of it, man's irresponsible behaviour is ransacking land and producing a significant loss of biodiversity on the planet and the death of many species.

Some Italian and other commentators, self-appointed lovers of the free market - without explaining what they mean by "market" and "free" - wrote that Pope Francis is against the market and against economic freedom, and they see this as an expression of his anti-modernism and even Marxism. Actually, if we read the text without ideological glasses, we find some very important things about the market and the economy. Francis reminds us that the market and the enterprise are valuable allies for the common good if they do not become an entirety. The market is a dimension of good social life, which is essential today for every common good. But the words of the economies are neither the only nor the first ones.

 

The rule of mutual benefit

First, the Pope denounces the distortion of the market. If it is true that the golden rule of the market is that of the "mutual benefit" - as Adam Smith, Antonio Genovesi and the best traditions of economic thought remind us - and not the advantage of one side at the expense of the other, that also means that when companies prey on people and the earth (as they often do), they are denying the very nature of the market. What the Pope does is call the economy and the market to return to their real vocation: mutual benefit or, in the words of Genovesi, "mutual assistance" (in Lezioni di economia civile - Lessons of Civil Economy-, written between 1765 and 1767).

Finally, if we recognize mutual benefit as a fundamental law of the civilian market, and perhaps extend it also to the relationship with other living species and the earth (many experiences in the relationship between man and the earth can also be read in this sense), it still must not be the only law of life. In this the Pope is in tune with the great contemporary economists, including the Nobel Prize laureate A. K. Sen.

In his works on justice Sen speaks of the obligations of power, and he does it with some of his inspiration coming from the Indian religious tradition. The obligations of power compel us to go beyond mutual benefit and the contract - which is its main instrument. Mutual benefit and the contract are not sufficient for the construction of a just society. There are moral and civil obligations that cannot be brought back to the principle of mutual benefit. In particular, the obligations of power are critical when we're dealing with children or with other, non-human species.

When we are in a position to exercise power over other living beings that are weaker than us and definitely depend on our power, we must act on the basis of the recognition of the asymmetrical ability we have to do things that have grave consequences for the lives of others (cf. A. Sen, The Idea of Justice, Harvard University Press, Harvard 2009).

We need to act with responsibility towards creation because technology has put us in the objective conditions of being able to produce very serious consequences unilaterally to other living things with which we are connected to each other. Everything in the universe is alive and calls us to responsibility.

Finally, the question of "ecological debt" is very important, too (par. 52). It is discussed in one of the highest and most prophetic passages of the encyclical. The ruthless logic of the debts of the states that dominates the earth pushes entire populations onto their knees (just like Greece, but not only), and keeps many others at bay. A lot of power in the world is exercised in the name of financial debt and credit. But there is also a large "ecological debt" the South could claim from the North: 10% of humanity has built their welfare discharging costs into the atmosphere of all, and they continue to produce "climate change" with devastating effects on many of the poorest countries.

The term "change" is misleading because it is ethically neutral. The Pope speaks of "pollution" and the deterioration of the "common good" called "climate" (par. 23). The deterioration of the climate contributes to the desertification of entire regions that have a great effect on the many forms of misery, the deaths of children, women, men, and on migration (cf. n. 25).

This immense "ecological debt" and global justice is not taken into account in the tables of the powerful, and there is not the slightest ethical consideration in the closures of our borders to those who come to us because we have burned their homes. This ecological debt does not weigh at all in the political world. No Troika condemns a country because it has polluted and made a desert of another. And so the ecological debt continues to grow amidst the indifference of the great and powerful.

Our global civilization has an extreme and vital need of prophecy. Prophecy has always been the first food of the common good, in and outside of religions. But where are the prophets today? And those few who listen to them?

Pope Francis is one of the few prophets of our time, and, thank God, he is also listened to. He is certainly listened to and loved by the many Lazarus'. Let us hope that he is also heard by some rich men: "If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead." (Lk 16,31).

 

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