Which Papal Document will Renew the Earth?

It was my intention to offer a fulsome commentary and critique of Laudato Si. However, as I commenced my third and closest reading of the document, I found myself overwhelmed by its voluminous nature, meandering and mixture of solid proclamation of Christian teaching with incoherent detours into all manner of political controversy.

My principal concerns with Laudato Si are its limited focus on Jesus vis-à-vis rival isues and how he is interpreted when he is mentioned. Francis barely makes mention of the name of the Lord until 70 pages into the document, where, in paragraphs 96 through 98, the pope deploys references to the Gospels in an attempt to paint the Lord as exhorting his followers “to recognize the paternal relationship that God has with all his creatures” (para. 96). While it is surely true, as Francis says, that Jesus “lived in full harmony with creation” (since, as the Logos, he caused creation), there is really no basis to support Francis’ implication that the Lord connected sanctity and redemption with one’s treatment of the environment.

The pope’s citations at paragraph 96, for example, to passages in Luke and Matthew wherein the Lord mentions birds, are hardly grounds upon which to cast Jesus as an “environmentalist.” In Luke 12, the Lord is preaching about judgment and salvation, simultaneously warning his listeners of God’s wrath and reminding them of his solicitude, for “you are worth more than many sparrows” (Lk. 12:7). Similarly, the reference to Matthew is taken from the Sermon on the Mount in which the Lord speaks of our dependence on God, urging us to put away anxiety and frivolous concerns because man is more “important” to God than the birds of the air (Mt. 6:26). (Ironically, such passages are best employed against environmentalists who devalue human life in favor of lesser animals.)

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The same can be said of the citations the pope uses in paragraph 97 to the parable of the mustard seed and to Jesus’ mention of the harvest to the Apostles in chapter four of John’s Gospel, following the encounter with the woman at the well. The pope does not discuss the withering of the fig tree.

For the purposes of teaching on ecology, it should have been well enough for Francis to proclaim, as he does admirably throughout the document’s second chapter, that God’s creation of the natural world is a gift to man, worthy of respect and care. As all creation is from God, and, because Christ is the Logos and Author of all life, man owes his fellow creatures and the natural world certain duties. Man is obligated to respect that which God has given him. Period.

But the pope went well beyond, over the course of 184 pages, and now people inside and outside the Church will exhaust themselves arguing over the merits Francis’ views of market economies, technology and the efficacy of man-made global warming.

With respect to the pope’s opinions on these topics, I confess, I care little. The good sections of Laudato Si reaffirm that which is not in question—for example, that abortion is evil; that God is the Master of creation and placed man at its center. The rest of it offers pronouncements and prescriptions on topics ranging from the preservation of “microorganisms” (¶34), to saving the rain forests (¶38), to urban planning (¶44) to evils of “[t]echnology … linked to business interest” that recklessly pollute the earth (¶20), will likely have small effect on the Church and virtually none on the secular world.

And yet, while the spotlight presently shines on the encyclical, another document, far less noted by the secular world, continues to work its power within the inner life of the Church, Summorum Pontificum.

At the beginning of this month, more than 350 people, mostly young, approximately a third of which were priests and seminarians, gathered in New York for the four-day Sacra Liturgia Conference. Here came clergy low and high, academics and lay people, to discuss the recovery of the Sacred Liturgy and to participate (actively of course) in the liturgical and devotional life of the Church. On the last day, the Solemn Feast of Corpus Christi, a long line marched in a magnificent Eucharist procession through the streets of the Upper East Side that culminated with the celebration of Solemn High Mass in the Extraordinary Form, offered by Joseph Perry, Auxiliary Bishop of Chicago.

About a week later, Rome hosted the fourth Summorum Pontificum Conference. Like Sacra Liturgia, this conference was marked by presentations from Roman Cardinals, clergy and laymen, all of whom offered worship to God according to the ancient rite of the Church.

Finally, on June 12, 2015, Cardinal Robert Sarah, Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, penned a remarkable piece for L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican’s semi-official newspaper. This piece appeared shortly after the Cardinal sent a letter to the Sacra Liturgia organizers in which he stated that Pope Francis, upon appointing Sarah to the prefecture, asked him to continue Benedict XVI work on the Liturgy.

In his brief article, Cardinal Sarah stressed the importance of ad orientem worship in the Ordinary Form, urging local churches to adopt the practice, especially in the cathedral parishes. He also discussed a possible “appendix” to the new edition of the Roman Missal that would permit the use of the traditional penitential rite and Offertory prayers in the Ordinary Form.

Such reforms would be a logical, and major, step in the project of “mutual enrichment” that Benedict proposed with Summorum Pontificum and might, over time, correct some of the least defensible of the liturgical reforms (the Offertory prayers of the new rite, invented circa 1969, for example).

The movements associated with Summorum Pontificum are organic—they are not imposed from Rome or devised by bureaucrats in the offices of national bishops’ conferences. They place Christ at the center, seeking to offer to God through ancient and beautiful rites, that which he is due “always and everywhere,” our praise and thanksgiving. The power of Summorum Pontificum is apparent in high profile figures like Cardinal Sarah and Cardinal Burke and in small, localized happenings. In my own diocese (hardly a traditionalist stronghold), the Extraordinary Form is regularly offered at several parishes and its use is growing around the diocese, particularly amongst the newly ordained. That the young clergy and laity know and love the Mass of the Ages is surely the work of the Spirit, as “old Mass” was not exactly promoted in schools, parishes and seminaries over the past 50 years.

The most urgent mission of the Church today is the so-called New Evangelization. In truth, the Church does not propose a “new” evangelization so much as a re-evangelization of much of the world, especially the West. And evangelization is nothing other than the introduction of an individual to Jesus Christ. The principal manner in which the Church does so is through his Word and his sacraments, both of which disgorge their riches most abundantly via the Sacred Liturgy.

As the Lord instructs, the first and greatest Commandment mandates the total love of God. There is no higher means by which to offer him love and praise than through the Holy Sacrifice. Flowing from this love of God comes the love of neighbor. The two are linked; and one precedes from, and fosters, the other. Hence there is no greater tool for re-evangelization, Christian piety and moral conduct than Summorum Pontificum. 

Regardless of their merits, the vast array of proposals and exhortations in Laudato Si will mean nothing to the average layman. They will do nothing at all to assist him in following Christ daily, in finding his discipleship in the ordinary circumstances of family, work and the myriad social interactions that shape the lives of most of the Faithful. In short, they will not alter his interaction with God’s creation if his daily life is deprived of spiritual sustenance.

Teach them again the lessons of the Sermon on the Mount. Bring them back to the source and the summit so that they may obtain the Grace to live as true followers of Christ. Such well-formed Catholics would need no lecture on Christian stewardship of the earth, let alone instruction on the environmentally responsible operation of air conditioners.

Editor’s note: In the image above, His Eminence Raymond Cardinal Burke, then Prefect of the Apostolic Segnatura, celebrates a Pontifical Mass in St Peter’s Basilica for those participating in the Populus Summorum Pontificum pilgrimage,  October 2014.


  • Christian Browne

    Christian Browne is a practicing attorney in New York state. A board member of the Nassau County Catholic Lawyers Guild, he earned his J.D. from Fordham University in 2004.

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