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Political Theology

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Laudato si': Rethinking Politics

Anna Rowlands

To cite this article: Anna Rowlands (2015) Laudato si': Rethinking Politics, Political Theology,
16:5, 418-420

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Published online: 02 Sep 2015.

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political theology, Vol. 16 No. 5, September, 2015, 418 –420


Laudato si’: Rethinking Politics

Anna Rowlands
Durham University, Durham, UK

“Climate scientists do not appreciate that their science represents a politics. They are
surprised to be called lobbyists by climate denialists when they are simply reporting
on climate models and data. They believe that their climate change theory,
observations, and data are unmediated by social or political worldviews or belief
systems; for them, climate change is physics and not politics,” writes British political
theologian Michael Northcott. One of the many remarkable achievements of
Laudato Si’ is to expose the layers of cognitive dissonance involved in this view. As
Northcott rightly argues data for or against climate change is always both science
and politics: to explore this “data” is to enter into deep questions about human and
ecological purpose: to enter deep anthropological and theological terrain.
Laudato Si’ is able to show that any science that gets close to acknowledging our
radical interdependence and thus challenges the dominant ideas of competitive
individualism is already uttering a kind of politics and a kind of theology, even if
it can not itself recognize this. And thus, it challenges powerful interests.
The encyclical pulls no punches in making explicit the ways in which vested
interests prevent progress toward a hoped for “global ecological conversion.”
Francis is frankly excoriating about the state of contemporary political life.
Some have suggested that this social encyclical represents a turn away from
Augustine and toward Eastern Orthodoxy. I suspect that this concerns the portrayal
of sin, because Augustinian thought is traceable right the way through the
document. Its most profound presence is in the fundamental insight that the root of
the ecological crisis lies in the failure to accept the idea of limits, and the truth of a
Creator –creature relation. Unless and until we can accept the notion of politics and
economics marked by an acceptance of limits – understood as a substantive
practice of love rather than just a logic of deprivation – then, it will be difficult to
turn away from our current course of ecological travel. But privation in the truly
Augustinian sense does also figure in this document: the writing is shot through
with the insights of the privatio boni tradition. The evil at the root of the ecological
crisis is based on a refusal of the substantive good, a turning toward a politics and
economics rooted in lack and a consequent libido dominandi. Francis seems to have
high on his agenda the desire to bring a pastoral and political theodicy back into the
heart of catholic social teaching (CST). His intervention on migrants has been the

ß W. S. Maney & Son Ltd 2015 DOI 10.1179/1462317X15Z.000000000166


most striking example of this prior to Laudato Si’. In so doing his political theology
also challenges the dominant cultural assumption that suffering is evil: simply
coterminous with evil. Francis pleads for a more mystical political theology in
which “Our goal is [ . . . ] to become painfully aware, to dare to turn what is
happening to the world into our own personal suffering and thus to discover what
each of us can do about it.” In this regard, it is perhaps a little surprising that the
authors of the encyclical did not make such a connection in their deployment of
St Francis of Assisi’s Canticle of the Sun, itself a hymn of joy to nature composed in
intense suffering.
Much pre- and post-encyclical critique has come from conservative, neoliberal,
and libertarian Catholics who feel that Francis is variously too optimistic about the
human capacity for politics to express caritas, too naı̈ve in channeling rather than
challenging the tendency toward apocalyptic anxiety that marks the age, and too
pessimistic about technology and markets as mechanisms for poverty alleviation.
However, and perhaps more surprisingly given their embrace of CST to date, this
document is not an entirely straightforward read for post-liberals either. On the one
hand, political post-liberals will be delighted that the document does appear to
argue that the ecological crisis is a crisis of liberalism itself, stemming from its
underlying dualisms of nature and culture and consequent refusal to accept the
notion of political and economic limits. However, Laudato Si’ continues to talk in
relatively expansive terms about the role of the state as a positive agent for
facilitating ecological change. The document focuses repeatedly on the relation of
doctrine and law, calling for a renewal of jurisprudence in conversation with
Christian theology. And in relation to the tendency to reintroduce categories of
contributive justice and reciprocity into debates about welfare and the social
contract, Laudato Si’ makes clear that a Christian account of reciprocity is rooted in
unscripted and noncontrolling forms of reciprocity between citizens and between
rich and poor. The encyclical also has some relatively sharp words for forms of
“green” politics, which fail to see the relation between ecology and forms of
political and economic exclusion: “tranquil” gated green spaces in cities that
exclude rather than embrace; green campaigning that forms no inherent connection
with issues of poverty, justice, power, and peace. The observations on human
ecology – as much as climate – should give pause for thought to all major forms of
contemporary organized politics. This encyclical baptizes no form of politics we
currently see on offer.
Above all, Francis seems to envisage this document as an urgent and universal
call to dialog. He draws widely from Eastern Orthodox sources, some secular
philosophy as well as regional bishops’ conference documents. And for the first
time, we have a document that seeks to use inclusive language. Cardinal Turkson
trialed some of the encyclical’s key ideas through public speeches before its
publication, and the Vatican seemed to be genuinely fishing for engagement and
feedback to help them finesse the final document. Since its publication, there has
been criticism of the failure to deal adequately with the agency and subjectivity of
women and children – a long-term failure in CST. Remarkably the Vatican have
responded by suggesting that they will consider amending the document in this
light. While many will also want to raise more challenging questions about the

theologizing of sexuality and gender in the document, nonetheless it does feel that
in tentative ways we see not just a call for dialog but something of a fragile new
theopolitical practice of dialog emerging from the Vatican with regards the
construction of its social teaching.
In this light and given Laudato Si’s uncompromising call for political renewal
rooted in a Christian theological account of creaturely relations, it is essential that
political theologians from all backgrounds and traditions are involved in this
dialog. Francis says of his authorial intention:
I will point to the intimate relationship between the poor and the fragility of the planet,
the conviction that everything in the world is connected, the critique of new paradigms
and forms of power derived from technology, the call to seek other ways of
understanding the economy and progress, the value proper to each creature, the human
meaning of ecology, the need for forthright and honest debate, the serious responsibility
of international and local policy, the throwaway culture, and the proposal of a new

Laudato Si’ presents the political theologian with a dazzling, trenchant, and urgent
invitation to dialog in the interests of a transformed ecological praxis.

Notes on contributor
Anna Rowlands is Lecturer in Contemporary Catholic Theology and Deputy
Director of the Centre for Catholic Studies in the Department of Theology and
Religion, Durham University, UK. She is the founding Chair of the Centre for
Catholic Social Thought and Practice and the author of the forthcoming book
Catholic Social Teaching: A Guide for the Perplexed (Bloomsbury, 2016).
Correspondence to: Anna Rowlands. Email: