Laudato Si and Farming: Agriculture as a Cooperative Art

Christopher Thompson, Academic Dean, St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity, St. Paul, Minn.


“Therefore every teacher of the law who has become a disciple in the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old.” (Matthew 13:52)

With the promulgation of Laudato Si, Pope Francis demonstrates that he is a teacher who heart is set on becoming a disciple in the kingdom, for Laudato Si brings out in a new and more full manner what has been only implicit in the ancient tradition: that we are created by a loving Father; that we inhabit an earth which is shared with other creatures who are created by that same Father; that the gift of this beautiful earth is not to be ignored or regretted; and that this world is the central setting in which Christian life is to be attentively lived and simply pursued.

Though the document does not mention the tradition of natural law explicitly, it is, in effect, an extended meditation on its very principles: namely, how do you and I, as rational creatures, as sons or daughters of the Father, flourish in His divinely arranged cosmos.

The context of Laudato Si is the real fact the people of God were faced with challenges in many ways unprecedented in the life of the Church. Our theological tradition of reflecting on the meaning of creation was largely crafted in the two millennia in which the earth was a vast “terra incognita,” a region of limitless possibility, promise, and peril. No less mysterious in its meaning and complexity, today the “world” is now more circumscribed in our consciousness. Few if any regions are left merely to the imaginative powers of poets and explorers. Now all of the regions of the globe are available to our direct knowledge and inspection — and thus our dominion or domination. The church in this “modern world” had to come to terms with the limits of the material order and thus the limits of our resources. In this changing sense of “nature,” a renewed understanding of a life of grace was demanded.

While it is possible from the outer regions of space to take in the entire earth within a single glance, Pope Francis says that it seems we lack a vision of the whole, a comprehensive understanding of creation and our mission within it. His aim is not merely to raise questions of material resources; it is to ponder the inherent dignity of humanity before the cosmos, a creature with a distinct vocation within it.

Laudato Si speaks about creation, or more precisely, each creature – drawing our attention to God’s extraordinary care for each creature and its place within the ordered cosmos. Special attention is given to the human creature as is appropriate, but the overall message is that each and every creature is the object of the Father’s tenderness. “Even the fleeting life of the least of beings is the object of his love, and in its few seconds of existence God enfolds it with his affection.” (77) It is more than an encyclical on climate change, though it does get important attention. Rather, the encyclical discusses many dimensions of ecological concern including, water, energy resources, urban planning, fossil fuels, and the importance of coral reefs.

Laudato Si is a magisterial exercise of the munus docendi of the church. It is more than an appeal to a singular figure or movement, though Francis does get special mention in several places. Instead, appeals are made to many other theological figures and sources as well, including prior Popes, Saint Bonaventure, Saint Thomas, John of the Cross, Therese of Lisieux, the Psalms, Leviticus, Genesis and the New Testament. Reference is made to the Orthodox and Protestant theological tradition as well as a Muslim scholar. Francis is summoning all of the great religious and ethical traditions around the subject of the care of creation.

Laudato Si repeatedly insists that “everything is connected”[1] under the Provident care of the Father. On eleven separate occasions, the encyclical speaks to the interconnectedness of all creatures, especially the human person within creation. All creatures great and small are connected, first and foremost because of the total dependence upon our loving Father who wills each of them into being. LS presumes full respect for the human person, but it also “takes into account the nature of each being and its mutual connection in an ordered system.” (LS, 5)

Laudato Si is a moral and spiritual document. Though there is ample attention given to policy matters of a regional and international sort, he intends his encyclical to be “a summons to a profound spiritual conversion.” (217) “Ecological virtues” will be called upon and demanded as an essential component of our Christian faith, including humility, gratitude, gratuitousness, and “the loving awareness that we are not disconnected to the rest of creatures, but joined in a splendid universal communion.” (217) We thus “have to redefine our notions of progress,” (194) and instill habits of contemplation and serene attentiveness (226).

Perhaps the most important contribution the encyclical has made is not so much on the level of policy and procedure (though that is likely to receive the bulk of the attention); rather, the significance lies in its unequivocal affirmation that the native habitat of the human person, precisely as a spiritual creature, is, nonetheless, the material cosmos of organic creatures, the earth as intelligently arranged by God and intelligibly contemplated by man. The human person, whose dignity lies within his spiritual destiny, is nevertheless a creature of earth, a living, organic being among living, organic beings, whose immortal soul by nature transcends the environment and yet by grace permeates it with eternal significance.

In this sense the encyclical signals the beginnings of a truly post-modern defense of physicalism. Not the physicalism of Descartes and Kant, or the reductive varieties they have propagated through the centuries, but the physicalism of the Saints: Laudato Si; Pange Lingua!

The new evangelization will come to naught if it does not include the unequivocal affirmation of the splendor of physis/natura/creatura upon which it depends. Christianity is not a philosophy, an abstraction nurtured in the intricacies of some curriculum; nor is it the private insight of a genius marooned on an island of self-preoccupation; nor, finally, is it a political agenda, nestled in the labyrinth of a peoples united to a cause. Christianity is, rather, the extraordinary exchange of one embodied person to another, the bold invitation of an eternal friendship between the Principium enfleshed in Jesus Christ and terminus of the human person. Our humanity is the instrument of our salvation; our embodiment, the hinge.

Christ, the Logos made flesh, is the One through whom all flesh, all things, are made. Made visible in the person of Jesus Christ, one and the same Logos remains veiled in His creation. The book of the Holy Scriptures and the Book of Nature are one, because the Divine Word is the serial author of each. Catholics cannot be indifferent to the preambula fidei writ-large that is our created universe, because we are not indifferent to the Word of which it speaks.   Christ, the Logos made flesh; Christ the Logos of creation. Christ the way of creation.

Re-affirming the integrity of creatures and calling for the contemplative gaze of faith upon the world, the Church should find ready partners in many (not all) circles within the environmental movement. For seen in its best light, this movement is at its core the un-thematic revolt of conscience among those generations of post-modernity who intuit that something is deeply flawed in our posture before the natural order, that our habits of treating nature as a mere raw datum of purposeless matter is not consonant with the facts on the ground.

It means that a new kind of ecological casuistry in which the creature is granted standing will be necessary in order to guide consciences in matters of the prudential use of things, especially living creatures and their contexts. It will not be a matter of simply turning to the “scientific community” for the answers, for in many ways the mechanistic reductions, the “technocratic paradigms,” that have given rise to our scientific achievements are the very origins which have given rise to the looming catastrophes. Ecological prudence is more than a mere consideration of efficiency. It will require a host of virtues, including scientific competency for sure, but also faith, a natural piety, humility, temperance, simplicity and justice.

The proclamation of a “gospel of creation” will mean much more than a passionate defense of green practices, though it is certain to include them. Embedded in the repeated calls for an “integral human ecology,” lies the re-appropriation of the natural law as the rational creature’s participation in this divinely ordered cosmos. Such participation unfolds in a distinctively human manner; in other words, as an embodied creature of earth. The natural law, at its core, is the summative answer to the question: how do I as an organic/rational being flourish within this cosmos.

The rediscovery of the dignity of creatures may also serve as a catalyst for the further development of the theology of the body — to blossom into a full fledged theology of embodiment – a theology of the body from the skin outward, of an enfleshed, organic creature among organic creatures, in which the body is not merely the medium by which the person expresses a gift of self, but is the welcoming threshold through which one receives the originative gift of being in all its splendor. Aligned with the trajectory of Humanae vitae, Pope Francis’ defense of omnis vita will complete what is lacking in the body of Christ.

It may allow the philosophical anthropology of the human person to take root once again in its native soil, namely, cosmology, and overcome the temptation to circumscribe the analysis of the human person within the horizon of interiority alone.

By granting creatures status within our ethical analyses, the Holy Father inaugurates nothing less than a revolution in the culture of life, especially agriculture. It is no longer morally sufficient for a farmer only to seek the most ecological manner in which he may achieve his end: namely profit. Instead, the polarity is reversed: he is called to discern the most sustainable means of achieving his proper end: the care of God’s creation. The challenge of LS is not to consider how I might run my business in a manner that happens to respect creatures and creation, but how do I care for creation in a manner that also makes possible a livelihood. Care for God’s creation, not profit, is the purpose of agriculture, for it emerges from the original command to till and to keep the earth.

Laudato Si re-envisions the farmer or agricultural leader as one who is responsible for the fruitfulness of the earth, its protection and sustainable development. Laudato Si moves the consideration of creation from the margins of concern, an option to be given due regard only when possible, to the center of justice before God and neighbor. To disregard this aspect of the human vocation of agriculture runs the risk of a grave sin of omission and is the occasion of an honest examination of conscience. Do my methods of production avoid the needless suffering of animals? Is my use of the land ordered to protect, nurture, sustain and enhance the fertility of the fields under my care?

Recognizing the intrinsic value of creatures means that the ethical agricultural leader will need some account of the proportionate good to be achieved in his or her actions and decisions. Failure to do so may constitute a grave sin of omission. In the absence of a proportionate good, the use of lower creation may constitute a sin of abuse, a species of theft, and in some instances, a kind of blasphemy against the Creator. Laudato Si makes clear that personal gain such as profit alone is no longer a compelling proportionate good when it comes to use of creatures and creation.

Laudato Si recovers the vision of agriculture as a cooperative art, the farmer as a minister in the temple of creation. They play an essential role in developing the common good are at the vanguard of an authentic and integral culture of life. Because agriculture is so closely united to the rhythms of God’s creation, farming is not merely a means of making an income; it is a vocation to care for creation as a cooperator with God. A successful farmer is a loyal steward of the household of God. Like the wise steward of a household, Pope Francis has drawn from the ancient resources of the church with a new and enlightening vision of agricultural leadership.


[1] “Connected” 5, 16 42 70 91 111 117 138 220 234 240