In Evangelii Gaudium
, what can be described as the programmatic statement for his pontificate, Francis introduces four principles that he suggests are derived from the pillars of Catholic social teaching: time is greater than space (EG, §222–25); unity prevails over conflict (EG, §222–25); realities are more important than ideas (EG, §231–33); and the whole is greater than the part (EG, §234–37).18
One can argue that these principles are implicit
in Catholic social teaching—that the concept of the common good is at the heart of the Bergoglian principles—but nowhere in that body of thought are these principles explicitly defined or discussed.19
This section on what Francis calls his “social criteria” is drawn directly from his unfinished doctoral thesis on Romano Guardini’s dialectical philosophical anthropology. Guardini, a major figure of twentieth-century Catholic theology, was expelled from his post at the University of Berlin by the Nazis in 1939 due to his cautious but courageous stance, as an academic and a pastor, against National Socialism in Germany.
On first reading this section of Evangelii Gaudium
, it was difficult to appreciate the significance of these ideas; indeed, it seemed to be the least convincing part of the document. However, since then, more material has become available on Bergoglio’s thought, especially in Spanish, and the significance of these principles in understanding Francis’ political thought has become clearer. The first record we have of his use of these principles is in a 1974 address to a gathering of the Jesuits in Argentina where he outlines three Christian principles or criteria for discernment: unity before conflict, the whole before the part, and time before space.20
In 1980, Bergogolio added a fourth priority—that of reality before ideas.21
Scannone and others say these are explications of implicit principles found in a 1834 letter of the Argentine dictator Juan Manuel de Rosas on the organization of governance.22
The Bergoglian principles have also been described as “maxims for peacemakers”,23
“criteria for discernment”, and “anti-ideological principles”.24
They were to shield against what Bergoglio saw as the temptation for politics—and theology—to become captive to ideology.25
Thomas Rourke observes that Bergoglio, from the time he served as the leader of the Jesuits in Argentina, would always “distance himself” from any theology that would result in political and social change becoming the central concern of Jesuit life or that would “overemphasize ideological elements drawn from outside”.26
In relation to the former, the distancing was not from the social justice imperative of political and social change, but because of a concern that a commitment to ideology could replace a commitment to people. This concern that “faith becomes an ideology among other ideologies” was expressed strongly in his first interview as pope, although the ideological reference here is to “exaggerated doctrinal certainty”.27
Bergoglio saw these principles not simply as anti-ideological but as “the axis around which reconciliation can revolve”.28
These principles are key to understanding Francis’ political thought and also key to the difficulty of clearly locating him on the political spectrum. While many of his positions are definitively illiberal, Francis is not in full communion with conservative thinkers, in either secular or ecclesiastical politics.
3.1. Time Is Greater Than Space
This, Francis argues, is a “first principle for progress in building a people” (EG, §222). Commenting specifically on socio-political activity—but referring also to the work of evangelization—he notes that space and power are sometimes given preference over time and processes. The result is a short-term, present-centric perspective that inevitably results in efforts “to possess all the spaces of power and of self-assertion” (EG, §223) and institutions thus becoming ends in themselves. Francis proposes that priority be given to actions, “which generate new processes in society”, and to engagement with people who can help these processes bear fruit.
Francis draws on a rich tradition of discernment from the Ignatian tradition to the Second Vatican Council’s concept of “reading the signs of the times”. As Scannone notes, “The spiritual sense of the proper time for the right decision, whether it be existential, interpersonal, pastoral, social, or political, is part of the Ignatian charism and is closely connected with the discernment of spirits.”29
This spiritual sense of discernment is linked, in Francis’ thought, with a historically conscious approach that sees the responsibility the Church carries as that of reading the signs of the times—an echo of Matthew 16: 3–4—and interpreting them in the light of the Gospel. Deductive reasoning from an immutable natural law shifts, at Vatican II, toward a prudential discernment of the present reality in the light of the Gospel. Francis is all too aware, from his own background in Argentina, that reading the signs of the times is a risky and fallible enterprise: one risks being wrong, not so much in terms of ethical principles, but in concrete situational analysis and the development of normative responses. The call to be readers of the signs of the times is a reminder that the specific demands of justice, peace, and human dignity cannot be defined a priori
. Discernment about timing and process is not a caution against urgency in the face of injustice, for the denial of space and the exclusion from power are forms of oppression. Time is only experienced in space; space matters and power matters. This principle of the priority of time over space is fundamentally a reminder that settling for space and power results in self-referential institutions—religious and secular—that, in the long term, inhibit real progress in human flourishing.
Francis questions the real commitment in contemporary politics to generating processes that enable human flourishing “as opposed to obtaining immediate results which yield easy, quick short-term political gains” (EG, §224). Drew Christiansen describes this first principle as “a counsel against impatience and for (selfless) generativity’.30
What Francis describes as the “tension between fullness and limitation” is a challenge of any social ministry or transformative politics. It is a tension that involves keeping an eye to the goal while also being responsive to human need as it manifests itself on a quotidian basis.
The only reference in Francis’ discussion of this principle in Evangelii Gaudium
is from Romano Guardini’s Das Ende der Neuzeit
—a text that he quotes from again in later writings. Guardini offers a single, clear criterion for assessing socio-political decisions and movements: “to ask to what extent it fosters the development and attainment of a full and authentically meaningful human existence…”31
This criterion, for Francis, is the one by which history will judge current short-term politics. While he could possibly be accused of a certain idealism, detached from Realpolitik
, in his discussion of these Bergoglian priorities, it is this specific principle of prioritizing time over space that Francis cites in his 2015 address to the Joint Session of the United States Congress. “A good political leader is one who, with the interests of all in mind, seizes the moment in a spirit of openness and pragmatism. A good political leader always opts to initiate processes rather than possessing spaces (cf. Evangelii Gaudium
Francis also cites this priority in Laudato Si’
(2015) in his critique of myopic power politics that, under the influence of consumerist interests, choose short-term growth rather than “a far-sighted environmental agenda” and the “long-term common good” (LS, §178).33
In his 2013 encyclical on faith Lumen Fidei,
Francis refers to this principle of the priority of time over space when concluding a section on the theme of hope in the midst of suffering. He writes of a refusal “to be robbed of hope” by facile answers to suffering and conflict, which fragment time and change it into space: “Time is always much greater than space. Space hardens processes, whereas time propels toward the future and encourages us to go forward in hope”.34
This principle is also mentioned twice by Francis in the much-debated 2016 apostolic exhortation on familial love, Amoris Laetitia
. The first reference brings the principle into the context of doctrinal politics internal to the Catholic Church:
Since ‘time is greater than space’, I would make it clear that not all discussions of doctrinal, moral or pastoral issues need to be settled by interventions of the magisterium. Unity of teaching and practice is certainly necessary in the Church, but this does not preclude various ways of interpreting some aspects of that teaching or drawing certain consequences from it. This will always be the case as the Spirit guides us towards the entire truth (cf. Jn
16:13), until he leads us fully into the mystery of Christ and enables us to see all things as he does. Each country or region, moreover, can seek solutions better suited to its culture and sensitive to its traditions and local needs.35
It is outside the scope of this article to adequately treat the implications of this particular use of the principle of the priority of time over space, but it does offer an interesting insight into Francis’ understanding of the interpretation of doctrine. His carefully qualified statement about unity not precluding “various ways of interpreting some aspects
of that teaching or drawing certain
consequences from it” seems to suggest that culture—“the immense variety of concrete situations”36
—will be the principle guiding these interpretations. However, in this short, theologically tantalizing, passage, Francis is consistent with the parts of the theological tradition that remind us that fides quaerens intellectum
is a provisional process in which our certainties about the interpretation of the Word of God can be pneumatologically undermined. The practice of the priority of time over space requires devolved—from the universal and global to the particular and local—theological discernment.
The second reference to this principle in Amoris Laetitia
is in the context of internal domestic politics within families. Treating the educational role of families, and the importance of not focusing on control of children but enabling them to grow in freedom and real autonomy, Francis cites the priority of time over space. He then offers a pithy summary of this principle, whether operative in domestic politics or international conflicts: “In other words, it is more important to start processes than to dominate space”.37
In terms of the shadow side or weakness of this principle, Margaret MacLeish Mott argues that it “allows for extraordinary powers to achieve a new society”,38
which is almost akin to suggesting that this principle would justify the imposition of a state of exception, a dangerous justification in a world where, as Giorgio Agamben argues, such a state risks becoming the dominant paradigm of government.39
Discussing the four Bergoglian principles in relation to the very specific issue of Francis’ views on tackling drugs, Mott further argues that each principle “can be interpreted to legitimize a brutal authoritarian rule”. However, she also acknowledges that “these same priorities can be interpreted in favour of the spiritual powers of a people”.40
Mott tends to emphasize the authoritarian roots of la teología del pueblo
, seeing therein a populist theology that “follows a populist corporatist framework”.41
Nevertheless, her caution about the uses of these principles, albeit in the very specific context of the ‘war on drugs’, highlights the need to critically engage with them and to truly discern their use in the concrete situations of injustice, conflict, and division or in decision-making related to important ethical and political issues.
Although this first Bergoglian principle is an attractive one for political theology, it is also a difficult one to interpret. At heart, it seeks to express that prioritizing time over space commits to the urgent demands of the now, softens processes that a fixation on space hardens, and thus orients us with hope toward the future. Theologically, time, in this principle, is read eschatologically; not ours but God’s, time is interpreted in terms of the already-but-not-yet character of the Reign of God. Practically, prioritizing time over space in the often crisis-ridden world of socio-political action is not so much about pace as about disposition. For the powerful, it cautions against seeking “to possess all the spaces of power and of self-assertion”. For those working for social and political transformation, it serves as a reminder about the importance of devolved discernment and the importance of hope in difficult struggles between fullness and limitation. Whether operative in domestic politics or international conflicts, “it is more important to start processes than to dominate space.”42
3.2. Unity Prevails over Conflict
Political scientist Anne Marie Cammisa considers Francis’ address to the United States Congress to be an example of the second Bergoglian principle of prioritizing unity over conflict.43
Francis directs his address not only to the politicians but also, through them, to “the entire people of the United States”. He defines the “chief aim of all politics” as the defense of human dignity and “the tireless and demanding pursuit of the common good”.
He frames the address on a number of occasions in terms of dialogue—with blue-collar workers, the elderly, young people, with all people about the environment—“through the historical memory of your people”.44
Francis proposes a type of politics that draws upon the “deepest cultural reserves” of the United States, a remembering of great Americans—Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., Dorothy Day, and Thomas Merton—who “offer us a way of seeing and interpreting reality” even in the midst of conflict. These four figures, in different ways with different views of the relationship between religion and politics, were rigorous political and social activists, challenging conflict and injustice on the basis of a dream: “Lincoln, liberty; Martin Luther King, liberty in plurality and non-exclusion; Dorothy Day, social justice and the rights of persons; and Thomas Merton, the capacity for dialogue and openness to God.” Francis presents a rich socio-political heritage that can be drawn upon to heal the many wounds of the contemporary world, including new global forms of slavery, hostility to refugees, environmental degradation, and extreme poverty.
We see here echoes of Johann Baptist Metz’s understandings of the role of memory in political theology. Memory operates as both a category of salvation of identity and a category of liberation. Memory becomes a source of opposition and imaginative resistance to any form of refusal of the subjectivity of the human person. Memory offers political life a new moral imagination, challenging politics to move toward “uncalculating partisanship on behalf of the weak and underrepresented”.45
Cammisa observes, however, that while the pope calls for dialogue as part of the enactment of this principle in politics, on the specific question of the death penalty, he does not invite dialogue but uses the word “advocate”:46
This conviction has led me, from the beginning of my ministry, to advocate at different levels for the global abolition of the death penalty. I am convinced that this way is the best, since every life is sacred, every human person is endowed with an inalienable dignity, and society can only benefit from the rehabilitation of those convicted of crimes. Recently my brother bishops here in the United States renewed their call for the abolition of the death penalty. Not only do I support them, but I also offer encouragement to all those who are convinced that a just and necessary punishment must never exclude the dimension of hope and the goal of rehabilitation.47
Francis’ focus on the human person in his/her deepest dignity bypasses the call for dialogue when advocating for those who cannot speak for themselves or those whose dignity is undermined by violence, both innocent and guilty. The prophetic voice is called for when human dignity is undermined.
A new moral political imagination forged by redemptive historical memory must enable the prioritizing of unity over conflict, understanding that this prioritization is a complex, pragmatic, and often costly, decision. In Evangelii Gaudium, Francis describes three ways of responding to conflict: looking away, embracing it to the point of self-destruction, and “the willingness to face conflict head on, to resolve it and to make it a link in the chain of a new process … In this way it becomes possible to build communion amid disagreement, but this can only be achieved by those great persons who are willing to go beyond the surface of the conflict and to see others in their deepest dignity” (EG, §227–28).
This principle of the priority of unity over conflict is woven throughout Bergoglio’s work. Rafael Luciani notes that the promotion of unity emerged as a Bergoglian priority in the context of the political and ecclesial conflicts of 1970s Argentina. He “proposed the promotion of a greater unity
at this juncture, understanding that the common good is more important than each position and each individual option, which he refers to as the ‘parts’”.48
The complex analysis of Bergoglio’s role as the Jesuit leader in Argentina during the period of the ‘Dirty War’ (1976–83), when the country was ruled by one of the most repressive of the Latin American dictatorships, often centers around his willingness “to face conflict head on”. Assessments run a continuum from the hagiographical to the hostile, but what is clear is that Bergoglio was not complicit in the oppression.49
In a country where, as Gustavo Morello argues, “political violence was a socially accepted political practice, and most Argentinian institutions supported the coup d’état”,50
Bergoglio quietly protected and supported individual victims of the military junta, carrying out what Paul Vallely describes as “clandestine” acts of resistance. However, even those who offer sympathetic analyses of Bergoglio’s role indicate that he may have been insufficiently courageous. It is evident that those years in leadership and the desolate years afterward have formed the self-critical dimension of Francis’ person. He is a man who has been shaped by his courage and by his silence and by acknowledged failure: “I lived a time of great interior crisis when I was in Córdoba. … I have never been a right-winger. It was my authoritarian way of making decisions that created problems.”51
Francis forged his reflections on unity prevailing over conflict in the context of real, violent political conflict and his subsequent deep reflection on responses to that. The strength of this principle is its focus on hope, which orients both courage and endurance toward unity in conflictual situations. However, it also risks sacrificing victims of conflict for the sake of a version of unity that lacks real solidarity. Nonetheless, the later exposition of the principle is explicit about the demands and possibilities of solidarity:
Solidarity, in its deepest and most challenging sense, thus becomes a way of making history in a life setting where conflicts, tensions and oppositions can achieve a diversified and life-giving unity. This is not to opt for a kind of syncretism, or for the absorption of one into the other, but rather for a resolution which takes place on a higher plane and preserves what is valid and useful on both sides (EG, §228).
Is this reference to “resolution on a higher plane” reflective of a Hegelian dialectical vision of reality? The last paragraph of this discussion of the priority of unity over conflict refers to peacemaking as a pneumatologically founded enterprise that “overcomes every conflict by creating a new and promising synthesis” (EG, §230). By synthesis, Francis seems to mean that, out of conflict, we can, with the help of the Spirit, make peace toward a “reconciled diversity”. We noted Bergoglio’s desire to write a doctoral thesis on Guardini’s understanding of the dialectical dynamism of opposites (Scannone argues, “not in the Hegelian or Marxist sense”),52
its application in history, and its relationship with Christ. However, it is impossible to say categorically that Bergoglio’s original conception of these principles is completely uninfluenced by Hegelian idealism or even by Marxism. Nonetheless, his reflections on dialectics are profoundly theological and also grounded in reality. He leaves the final words in this discussion (EG, §230) to a citation from the bishops of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, who write about the priority of unity over conflict, not in a theoretical framework, but in a context where it is said that 5.4 million people have died since 1998 as a result of conflict and the resulting humanitarian crises: “Our ethnic diversity is our wealth… It is only in unity, through conversion of hearts and reconciliation, that we will be able to help our country to develop on all levels”.53
In Laudato Si’, this principle is cited in the discussion of the relationship between politics and economics (LS, §198). While each has their own legitimate autonomy, conflicts between them often obscure the urgent issues of caring for the environment and protecting those most vulnerable. In light of the crisis affecting “our common home”, Francis calls for “forms of interaction directed to the common good”.
In this principle, Francis shows the influence of la teología del pueblo
, which, while acknowledging class conflict as a reflection of structural injustice in Latin America, did not allow that to become the defining hermeneutic for reading and responding to reality. Scannone argues that Francis is not just influenced by the priority of unity in the theology of the people, “but [he] also gives it a more profound, more evangelical, and more theological meaning.”54
The theological and anthropological unity of this principle is articulated in Lumen Fidei
. The theological conviction “that goodness is always prior to and more powerful than evil” renders forgiveness possible.55
The anthropological conviction that conflict can be faced, resolved, and form “part of progress towards unity” renders peace possible. Forgiveness and peace are the potential fruits beyond pragmatic political synthesis.
The shadow side or weakness of this principle consists in the danger that prioritizing unity could result in discouraging or suppressing difference and dissent, or the suffering of victims could be obliterated or minimized in the name of peace and unity. Post-conflict situations, for example, require not only peace agreements but also robust and comprehensive systems of transitional justice. Francis’ emphasis on unity is not about giving unity priority over conflict in such a way that negates or minimizes the reality of conflict, but it is about the hope that unity will prevail over conflict—that in the midst of conflict this hope will shape the priorities of those involved. Francis describes unity as “diversified and life-giving”. Thus, it is not simply unity as defined by the majority, the powerful, or the victors.
3.3. Realities Are More Important Than Ideas
Scannone, writing on the relationship of these principles to the theology of the people, notes that he does not see “an immediate connection” between this priority and la teología del pueblo
, “except perhaps for the criticism it levels against ideologies”.56
An immediate connection with classical epistemology may not also be obvious. It can be argued that this principle is, in fact, an example of the fusion between liberation theology and the theology of the people—a fusion that is insufficiently acknowledged in the analysis of Francis’ thought. Anyone who has worked in Latin America knows the emphasis on engagement with la realidad
that is central to theological reflection there. Liberation theology is not only concerned with reality as manifested at the macro level of economics and politics but also with the micro-reality of daily life and struggle—lo cotidiano
—particularly of the poor and marginalized. It is this emphasis that shapes Francis’ conception of the priority of reality over ideas.
His fellow Jesuit, Ignacio Ellacuría, the martyr philosopher and theologian of the Universidad Centroamericana in San Salvador, offers the most incisive philosophical justification for this method of liberation theology. He was influenced by the primacy of the concept of reality in the philosophy of historical realism of the Spanish philosopher Xavier Zubiri. Ellacuría emphasized that the formal structure of understanding necessitates facing reality, ethically appreciating reality, and responding practically to the demands of that reality. He offers a threefold methodological description of our confrontation with and prudential discernment of reality: realizing the weight of reality (el hacerse cargo de la realidad
), shouldering the weight of reality (el cargar con la realidad
), and taking charge of the weight of reality (el encargarse de la realidad
The epistemological realism of Francis is in line with this Zubirian historical realism, as interpreted theologically, by Ellacuría.
Francis’ discussion of the primacy of reality includes a caution regarding the “various forms of masking reality” (EG, §231). The only Platonic allusion in the document—to the dialogue in the Gorgias where Socrates says that cookery simulates the disguise of medicine and pretends to know what is best for the body—is cited in the discussion about ideas disconnected from realities and the consequent manipulation of the truth: “Ideas disconnected from realities give rise to ineffectual forms of idealism and nominalism, capable at most of classifying and defining, but certainly not calling to action. What calls us to action are realities illuminated by reason” (EG, §232). Ultimately, for Francis, ideas are at the service of communication, understanding, and praxis (EG, §232). Ellacuría’s methodology of historical realism points toward a practical way of implementing this principle of the primacy of reality over ideas.
This principle is also cited in Laudato Si’
when Francis writes of the importance of dialogue between the various ecological movements, which are sometimes divided by ideological conflicts: “The gravity of the ecological crisis demands that we all look to the common good, embarking on a path of dialogue which demands patience, self-discipline and generosity, always keeping in mind that ‘realities are greater than ideas’” (LS, §201). Christiansen argues that this principle of the primacy of reality over ideas is where Francis’ pragmatism—evident in all four principles—"comes decisively into play”.58
In 2001, at a time of deep economic crisis, Bergoglio, as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, supported the formation of the Argentine Dialogue Board (Mesa del Diálogo Argentino
), a dialogue that engaged politicians, trade unionists, business people, and social groups about the pressing problems of the country. Rourke describes Bergoglio as constructing “a wide tent of participation bringing in a broad array of social sectors, different churches and other faiths”.59
This broad-based dialogue was oriented toward the common good, and Francis now invites an even wider tent of participation oriented toward a common good that extends to future generations.
There is a necessary dialogical tension between ideas and realities, and without this dialogical tension, this principle could be evoked in dangerous suppression of new insights and ideas. Mott’s criticism is that “the priority of reality over ideas delegitimizes human rights”; this is less convincing than her criticism of the first principle, but it does serve as a caution about the importance of maintaining that dialogical tension between ideas and realities. However, the more prevalent vulnerability is that of faith and politics becoming reduced to rhetoric. Theologically, this principle “has to do with incarnation of the word and its being put into practice”, with the performance of works of justice and charity (EG, §233). Without the performative dimension, incarnation itself remains in the realm of pure ideas.
Without the performative dimension—praxis—ecological ethics, theories of justice, or political visions remain in the realm of pure ideas.
3.4. The Whole Is Greater Than the Part
The political challenge to focus on the interests of the whole rather than on the individual parts is common in the political vision of this pope. This principle is framed in Evangelii Gaudium
in terms of the creative tension between the global and the local. A global perspective guarantees breadth of vision but risks static abstraction; a local perspective guarantees groundedness in la realidad
and lo cotidiano
but risks narrow localism.60
The call to broaden horizons and “see the greater good which will benefit us all” liberates us, Francis suggests, from obsession with “limited and particular questions” (EG, §235). This greater good, of course, is not utilitarian, because it has a place for everyone and is not simply the greatest good of the greatest number.
As a model for this principle, Francis offers the image of the polyhedron, “which reflects the convergence of all its parts, each of which preserves its distinctiveness. Pastoral and political activity alike seek to gather in this polyhedron the best of each” (EG, §236). Geometric allusions are not common in papal documents, but Francis used this image before becoming pope in his published interreligious dialogues with Rabbi Skorka.61
The polyhedral image, while not unproblematic, is, perhaps, more pneumatologically appropriate than a sphere. It allows for differential relations between the elements and with the center and is, therefore, potentially more fecund for the exploration of unity in diversity.
Scannone sees this principle, with its focus on the tension between the global and the local, as a convergence “with the historical and cultural roots of the theology of the people”.62
Rourke argues that “it would be difficult to overemphasize the centrality of the theme” of inculturation in Bergoglio’s thought.63
He discusses how Bergoglio’s views on evangelization were influenced by his interest in the Jesuit missions set up among the Guaraní people in Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay in the seventeenth century—the reducciones
made famous in the film The Mission
. Rourke observes that Bergoglio saw the destruction of these missions, not only as a historical injustice, but also “as a paradigmatic event in which played out a pattern that continues to the present day …”.64
This gives us a crucial insight into Francis’ operative understanding of diversity of culture and inculturation and the importance of the hermeneutic of culture in his work.
In Evangelii Gaudium
, Francis offers a beautiful reflection on cultural diversity and the Gospel, grounding it in Trinitarian theology. Unity in diversity within Christianity is derivative of the very nature of God godself: “When properly understood, cultural diversity is not a threat to Church unity… While it is true that some cultures have been closely associated with the preaching of the Gospel and the development of Christian thought, the revealed message is not identified with any of them; its content is transcultural” (EG, §117). The Special Assembly of the Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazonian Region (6–17 October 2019) on the theme ‘Amazonia: New Pathways for the Church and for An Integral Ecology’ was viewed with some concern by those who considered this attention to local culture and re-appropriation of a heritage permeated by ancestral wisdom to be a divergence from Christian orthodoxy.65
This synod, and some of the opposition its perspective generated, highlights the importance of this Bergoglian principle for understanding the transcultural nature of the Gospel and the constructive potential of the polyhedral image for pastoral and political activity.
This fourth principle, the whole is greater than the part, first articulated in the 1970s, is discussed in a radically broader context in Laudato Si’. Discussing an integral ecology and calling for a new kind of humanism with “a more integral and integrating vision”, Francis refers to the interrelationship between ecosystems and social ecology as “demonstrating yet again that ‘the whole is greater than the part’” (LS, §141). The whole in question is Earth, our common home, and this becomes a locus theologicus. This priority reorients the relationship humanity has with other creatures and systems—a reorientation that presents significant ethical, political, and technological challenges that need to be faced. The encyclical has deep theological roots, translated into philosophical language for a broader audience, with special appeal, as is common in Catholic social teaching, to human dignity—reshaped by recognition of the intrinsic value of nonhuman creatures and ecosystems—and the common good. There is no reference to ‘ideology’ in this encyclical and just two uses of the term ‘ideological’. The first refers to “politico-economic or ideological” interests, which withhold important information that inhibits prudential decisions about new developments in biotechnology (LS, §135), and the second refers to the abovementioned ideological conflicts between the various ecological movements (LS, §201).
Francis offers a stinging critique of politics in the contemporary world, for example, arguing that “politics itself is responsible for the disrepute in which it is held, on account of corruption and the failure to enact sound public policies” (LS, §197). He rebukes the enmity between politics and economy, the subjection of politics to technology and finance (LS, §198, 54), and the fueling of lifestyles based on a misguided anthropocentrism. He emphasizes the dysfunctional aspects of capitalism, the commodification of natural resources, and compulsive consumerism. Although “we are always capable of going out of ourselves towards the other … we fail to set limits on ourselves in order to avoid the suffering of others or the deterioration of our surroundings” (LS, §208). As Anna Rowlands observes, “this encyclical baptises no form of politics we currently see on offer…”.66
Francis challenges oppositional politics by asking all forms of politics to face the question of limits for the sake of the long-term common good—a common good more broadly conceived than ever before in Catholic social teaching.
The reception of Laudato Si’
has been largely positive, but criticisms of the encyclical have come from a broad range of positions—economic, political, and theological. Some see Francis as not understanding the need for technological innovation and being too critical of its benefits. William D. Nordhaus argues that the encyclical “overlooks the central part that markets, particularly market-based environmental policies such as carbon pricing, must play if countries are to make substantial progress in slowing global warming.”67
Strong on critique and weak on solutions is one strand of assessment of the eco-politics of Francis. “The real source of these criticisms”, argues Dale Jamieson, “is that it is surprisingly difficult for economists and social scientists to find a place for values and moral change in their models.”68
Francis’ challenge to the hubris of unlimited development and acquisition, with the consequent catastrophic impacts, especially on the poorest of the poor, is at the heart of the solution he proposes.
Alynna J. Lyon describes Francis as a “global policy entrepreneur” who “provides a moral global perspective that transcends political and ideological boundaries”.69
Lyon focuses not just on the environmental encyclical itself but on what she sees as a public and focused campaign by Francis. Francis framed the debate “to move it beyond the simple oppositions of liberals and conservatives, developed states versus developing states.”70
He nudged and networked, across a range of constituencies, in advocacy of environmental stewardship.
The weakness or shadow side of this principle lies in the potential for marginalization of individuals and groups who do not conform to a particular version of the whole. While this principle offers a helpful criterion for discernment of priorities and praxis in response to the ecological crisis, it would be problematic when dealing with abuse and human rights violations. It cannot be used to trump individual liberties. In response to the child abuse crimes and sins, a distorted understanding of the priority of the ‘whole’ (the institution of the Catholic Church) over the ‘part’ (the victims) was profoundly damaging to so many people and undermined the reputation of the Church. The dialectically conceived priority of the whole over the part refers not just to individuals but involves all kinds of ‘parts’—governments, political philosophies, interest groups, science, business, and the Church itself. Francis’ focus on devolved discernment, on the importance of the dialectic between the global and the local, and on a polyhedral image of the relationship of the parts to the whole stands as a caution against oppressive implementation of this principle.