Rorate Caeli

The Holy See's New Alliances - I.
Behind Laudato Si: Meet the Irish dissident who was one of the chief advisors behind this encylical - and what he said about its theology

The New Yorker published last week a long opinion piece (A Radical Vatican?) by Naomi Klein, a radical eco-feminist (and abortion supporter who has publicly disparaged pro-lifers) who was specifically invited by the Vatican to be one of the four speakers at a major press conference held on July 1 in the Aula Giovanni Paolo II, organized by the Holy See Press Office and the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. The press conference's goal was to introduce the international conference “People and Planet First: the Imperative to Change Course” held in the Augustinianum on July 2-3. The conference was co-hosted by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace along with CIDSE, an international alliance of 17 Catholic Development Organisations; predictably it focused to a great extent on Laudato Si. Klein also served as a panelist during the conference at the Augustinianum.

"A Radical Vatican?" is noteworthy not only as an example of how secular figures that the Vatican itself considers as allies are treating the encyclical as an epochal break from Catholic tradition, but also for its passages about the theological intentions behind the encyclical. (See below; emphases ours.) Here we find Naomi Klein quoting Fr. Seán McDonagh, who is part of the "administrative team" of the ultra-liberal and theologically dissident "Association of Catholic Priests" (ACP) in Ireland -- and was involved in drafting the encyclical. McDonagh's role in drafting Laudato Si is trumpeted not just by the ACP's website (which calls him "one of the chief advisors to the Vatican in the composition of the encylical") but by his own congregation (the Columbans -- see this) and by Vatican Radio, which not only acknowledges that he was one of the theologians consulted for the encyclical, but also chose to interview him about its importance. (Keep in mind that it is exceedingly rare for any of the actual drafters or advisors for an Encyclical to be publicly identified by official Church sources.)

Cardinal Peter Kodwo Appiah Turkson—a major force behind the encyclical—delivers the first keynote. At sixty-six, Turkson’s temples are gray, but his round cheeks are still youthful. Many speculate that this could be the man to succeed the seventy-eight-year-old Francis, becoming the first African pope.

Most of Turkson’s talk is devoted to citing earlier Papal encyclicals as precedents for “Laudato Si’.” His message is clear: this is not about one Pope; it’s part of a Catholic tradition of seeing the earth as a sacrament and recognizing a “covenant” (not a mere connection) between human beings and nature. 

At the same time, the Cardinal points out that “the word ‘stewardship’ only appears twice” in the encyclical. The word “care,” on the other hand, appears dozens of times. This is no accident, we are told. While stewardship speaks to a relationship based on duty, “when one cares for something it is something one does with passion and love.” 

This passion for the natural world is part of what has come to be called “the Francis factor,” and clearly flows from a shift in geographic power within the Catholic Church. Francis is from Argentina, and Turkson from Ghana. One of the most vivid passages in the encyclical—“Who turned the wonderworld of the seas into underwater cemeteries bereft of color and life?”—is a quotation from a statement of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines.  

This reflects the reality that, in large parts of the global south, the more anti-nature elements of Christian doctrine never entirely took hold. Particularly in Latin America, with its large indigenous populations, Catholicism wasn’t able to fully displace cosmologies that centered on a living and sacred Earth, and the result was often a Church that fused Christian and indigenous world views. With “Laudato Si’,” that fusion has finally reached the highest echelons of the Church. 

Yet Turkson seems to gently warn the crowd here not to get carried away. Some African cultures “deified” nature, he says, but that is not the same as “care.” The earth may be a mother, but God is still the boss. Animals may be our relatives, but humans are not animals. Still, once an official Papal teaching challenges something as central as human dominion over the earth, is it really possible to control what will happen next? 

This point is made forcefully by the Irish Catholic priest and theologian Seán McDonagh, who was part of the drafting process for the encyclical. His voice booming from the audience, he urges us not to hide from the fact that the love of nature embedded in the encyclical represents a profound and radical shift from traditional Catholicism. “We are moving to a new theology,” he declares. 

To prove it, he translates a Latin prayer that was once commonly recited after communion during the season of advent. “Teach us to despise the things of the earth and to love the things of heaven.” Overcoming centuries of loathing the corporeal world is no small task, and, McDonagh argues, it serves little purpose to downplay the work ahead. 

It’s thrilling to witness such radical theological challenges being batted around inside the curved wooden walls of an auditorium named after St. Augustine, the theologian whose skepticism of things bodily and material so profoundly shaped the Church. But I would imagine that for the conspicuously silent men in black robes in the front row, who study and teach in this building, it is also a little terrifying.


For McDonagh, the changes at the Vatican are even more striking. “The last time I had a Papal audience was 1963,” he tells me over spaghetti vongole. “I let three Popes go by.” And yet here he is, back in Rome, having helped draft the most talked-about encyclical anyone can remember

McDonagh points out that it’s not just Latin Americans who figured out how to reconcile a Christian God with a mystical Earth. The Irish Celtic tradition also managed to maintain a sense of “divine in the natural world. Water sources had a divinity about them. Trees had a divinity to them.” But, in much of the rest of the Catholic world, all of this was wiped out. “We are presenting things as if there is continuity, but there wasn’t continuity. That theology was functionally lost.” (It’s a sleight of hand that many conservatives are noticing. “Pope Francis, The Earth Is Not My Sister,” reads a recent headline in The Federalist, a right-wing Web magazine.)

As for McDonagh, he is thrilled with the encyclical, although he wishes it had gone even further in challenging the idea that the earth was created as a gift to humans. How could that be so, when we know it was here billions of years before we arrived? 

I ask how the Bible could survive this many fundamental challenges—doesn’t it all fall apart at some point? He shrugs, telling me that scripture is ever evolving, and should be interpreted in historical context. If Genesis needs a prequel, that’s not such a big deal. Indeed, I get the distinct sense that he’d be happy to be part of the drafting committee.

In the coming days we will have more to say, with detailed and rigorous analysis, about Naomi Klein and the Vatican's newest "allies".  There can be no doubt that the Pope and his circles, in both word and deed, are attempting an institutional alignment of the Church with certain strains of "environmentalism" and with left-leaning "popular movements" -- a move that will have far reaching practical implications even for the day-to-day life of the Church.

What the media (both secular and Catholic) have reported about the "Communist crucifixes" is but the proverbial tip of the iceberg of what has been happening in the last few weeks. It is no exaggeration to say that the "deep", "total" and "irreversible" change of which some of the Pope's closest advisers (Cardinals Maradiaga, Braz de Aviz and Archbishop Tucho Fernandez) have spoken about since the beginning of the year, has begun to be implemented at a fierce and rapid pace.