Criticisms of Reno’s reading of Laudato Si’

by C.S. Lammer-Heindel

In “The Weakness of Laudato Si’,” R.R. Reno claims that the second chapter of Pope Francis’s recent encyclical “makes a strong claim that the failure to acknowledge God is the root cause of the ecological crisis and our captivity to the technocratic mentality” (Reno 2015). This interpretation is, on the face of it, implausible. Many of the people who have contributed to the present ecological crisis and the development of the modern technocratic mentality have been and are believers of one variety or another. Moreover, this interpretation stands in opposition to Francis’s stated view that the ecological crisis has “multiple causes” (Francis 2015, sec. 63). Indeed, he explicitly rejects the tendency to oversimplify this crisis by looking for some single, easily identifiable cause: “Given the complexity of the ecological crisis and its multiple causes, we need to realize that the solutions will not emerge from just one way of interpreting and transforming reality” (Francis 2015, sec. 63). It is in this context that Francis calls on us his audience to be receptive to the insights and unique contributions of religion: “If we are truly concerned to develop an ecology capable of remedying the damage we have done, no branch of the sciences and no form of wisdom can be left out, and that includes religion and the language particular to it” (Francis 2015, sec. 63). But this cuts the other way as well. “[S]cience and religion,” he writes, “with their distinctive approaches to understanding reality, can enter into dialogue fruitful for both” (Francis 2015, sec. 62; emphasis added).

Rather than arguing that, as Reno puts it, “the failure to acknowledge God is the root cause of the ecological crisis” (Reno 2015), Francis states that the aim of Chapter Two is “to show how faith convictions can offer Christians, and some other believers as well, ample motivation to care for nature and for the most vulnerable of their brothers and sisters” (Francis 2015, sec. 64). Francis acknowledges that people of faith have neither universally nor adequately recognized the implications of creation theology as they bear on our response to the ecological crisis. It is, presumably, with that in mind that he writes, “It is good for humanity and the world at large when we believers better recognize the ecological commitments which stem from our convictions” (Francis 2015, sec. 64).

To be sure, Francis does go on to articulate the Christian conviction that human life flourishes when we are in proper relation with God. However, his summary of the biblical account of creation is intended to enrich and expand our understanding of the “fundamental relationships” upon which human life depends:

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 neighbor, 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. (Francis 2015, sec. 66)

Reno’s mischaracterization of Francis’s project in Chapter Two is significant precisely because it ignores the central teaching that is being presented. The trite reduction of the ecological crisis to a problem of godlessness overlooks Francis repeated attempts to highlight that Christians themselves are implicated in promoting a false interpretation of the Bible, a false conception of the world, and a false anthropology.

Although it is true that we Christians have at times incorrectly interpreted the Scriptures, nowadays we must forcefully reject the notion that our being created in God’s image and given dominion over the earth justifies absolute dominion over other creatures. (Francis 2015, sec. 67)

In our time, the Church does not simply state that other creatures are completely subordinated to the good of human beings, as if they have no worth in themselves and can be treated as we wish. (Francis 2015, sec. 69)

None of this is to suggest that Francis would deny that failure to acknowledge God is an important dimension of the present crisis. That would be absurd. Rather, the suggestion here is that we must take him seriously when he claims that each of the three fundamental relationships that he is concerned with—relation with God, relation with neighbor, relation with the earth itself—are genuinely fundamental. This is why he can claim,

A spirituality which forgets God as all-powerful and Creator is not acceptable. That is how we end up worshiping earthly powers, or ourselves usurping the place the God, even to the point of claiming an unlimited right to trample his creation underfoot. The best way to restore men and women to their rightful place, putting an end to their claim to absolute dominion over the earth, is to speak once more of the figure of a Father who creates and who alone owns the world. Otherwise, human beings will always try to impose their own laws and interests on reality. (Francis 2015, sec. 75)

Works Cited

Francis (2015). Laudato Si’. Encyclical Letter on Care for Our Common Home.

Reno, R.R. (2015). “The Weakness of Laudato Si.” First Things. Accessed July 1, 2015.