Laudato Si' (Praise be to you)

Laudato Si' (Praise be to you) - is far from being anti-business. But as we peruse it let us allow ourselves to be led gently through the metaphorical woodlands of the encyclical where the Holy Father Pope Francis’s spiritual economy is buoyant.

by Luigino Bruni

published in Avvenire on 24/06/2015

Terra 300The cries of many victims, of many who have been 'discarded', raises a question of justice which weighs heavily upon our capitalist system;  a question that is all the more serious because it is no longer being seen or heard. Pope Francis is the only figure of authority on global moral issues, who due to his particular charism, is giving recognition and ear to today's pressing ethical question (corporate social responsibility), in the face of which he is not afraid to raise radical questions (generated by his fraternal concern and love -  agape ). 

No other 'world organisation or body' exists that is as free as he is from powerful economic and political forces, a freedom that not even the United Nations or the European Commission can lay claim to, let alone politicians at national level, who continue on in their practice of "selling a poor person for a pair of sandals - (Book of Amos), as indeed Italy is at risk of doing with its introduction of new gambling laws.

A number of commentators, self-professed supporters of the free market economy, claim that the Encyclical Laudato si'  is opposed to it ; that not only is it a statement against modernism, but a reflection of the Pope's own Marxist views, going almost as far as predicting a global environmental catastrophe. But far from it. In fact, it does just the opposite.  Pope Francis focuses on reminding us that both markets and business enterprise are precious allies of the common good as long as they do not become the 'only rule'; or that the 'part' (the market) does not try to become the whole (life itself).  The global market is a necessary part of the life of society which contributes to the common good (there are many examples quoted of responsible business owners and technology being used at the serving of the economy and providing employment).   However, it is not the full story, nor the most important.

Pope Francis also seeks to remind all participants of the global economy of their vocation to reciprocity and "mutual benefit". It is on this basis that he criticises companies who exploit (all too often) people and land;  by doing so, they negate the very nature of what the global economy is supposed to be, increasing their wealth at the expense of impoverishing other weaker players.
 
On a second level, Pope Francis raises an issue that has been systematically neglected:  the notion of "efficiency", globalization’s new "in-word", as being solely about technology and therefore ethically neutral, cannot be upheld (34).  The calculation of cost-benefits (cost justifications), which underpin every 'rational' decision by companies and public administration, depends precisely upon what we choose to include in the costs and perceive in the benefits.  For decades we have considered companies 'efficient' who neglected to include in their costs any damage done to the sea, rivers or atmosphere.  The Pope invites us to enlarge our calculations to all types of species, including them as part of our cosmic fraternity,   extending this reciprocity to all creatures, giving them a voice in our economic and political budgets.

But there is still a third level.  Even after acknowledging "mutual benefit " as the fundamental law of civil society, extending it to include our relationship with all living species and with the earth, it cannot and must not be regarded as the only law in respect of life.  Though important, it is not all there is.  Indian economist and philosopher Amartya Sen, refers also to “duties of power". We have a responsibility towards creation because technology is new form of power, the outcome of which can have unilaterally serious consequences for other living creatures to which we are all linked.  The universe is filled with living things and this calls for responsibility. Moreover, there are times when moral duties come before benefits; the concept of "mutual benefit" does not cover the full spectrum of responsibility and justice.  Even the best market, if it becomes the only criteria, may grow into a monster.  There is no economic logic that convinces us to leave forests intact for those to come in thousands of years’ time, and yet we have moral obligations towards the future generations who will inherit and inhabit our earth.

The question of 'ecological debt' (51), is one of the most significant and most prophetic passages of the whole Encyclical. The widespread indiscriminate accumulation of national debt can bring entire nations to their knees (as in the case of Greece), and hold many others to ransom.  Much aggression is used in the name of debt and credit.  Yet a great 'ecological debt' exists between North and South, between the 10% of humanity which has increased its wealth, whilst burdening everyone with the cost to the atmosphere, and continuing to contribute to "climate change".  

The term "climate change" is itself misleading, as it is ethically neutral. The Pope, instead, speaks of "pollution” and the deterioration of that common good which is our climate (23). Climate deterioration contributes to the desertification of entire regions, having a direct impact on poverty, causing deaths and the migration of peoples (25). It is this 'debt of ecology and justice’ that we fail to take into account when we close our borders to the many thousands who arrive because we have burned their houses as a result of our actions. This ecological debt seems to count for nothing in the political world order, there is no Troika to condemn one country for polluting or causing the desertification of another country and so the 'ecological debt' to which the great and the powerful are increasingly indifferent, continues to rise.

Lastly, a word of advice, to whoever has yet to read this wonderful encyclical, do not be tempted to read it sitting at your desk or relaxing on the sofa.  Go out into the middle of a field or into the woods, to begin your meditation on this canticle of Pope Francis. The earth he speaks of is real and tangible, filled with the sights, sounds and scents of an earth that is loved.  Then, go to a poor area on the margins of society, to conclude your reading, surrounded by poor people, and look at the world with its rich and greedy living, with poor beggars on its doorstep and embrace at least one of them, like Pope Francis.  It is from such places as these that we will learn once again to be 'in awe' (11) of the marvels of the earth and of fellow human beings. Perhaps then we will understand and pray the words "Praise be to you".

 

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