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Saint Mary's Press
Published Aug 31, 2022
By Nancy M. Rourke
On the surface, Pope Francis’sLaudato si’does not look like a call for an ecological virtue ethics. ¹ Large-scale social change seems to be the main point. In two hundred and forty-six paragraphs, the word “virtue” appears only five times. The word “vice” appears once. Yet virtue ethics is the fuel that powers this encyclical. The call for an integral ecology and its repeated reminders that “everything is connected” are rooted in the particular wisdom specific to virtue theory. This chapter will explore the role of virtue ethics inLaudato si’.
Virtue ethics is a moral theory concerned with moral character. Its main focus is not social systems or the morality of actions (although both are nevertheless important). Instead its main concern is us. It examines what we (human beings) are like, the sorts of people we should strive to be, and the ways we can realize this anthropological vision.² Virtue theorists imagine the “parts” of a person’s moral character, looking for things like virtues and vices. Virtues and vices are habits of being in certain ways. Because they are habits, virtues and vices are formed by practicing them. Virtues are good traits or tendencies. Traditionally, virtue ethics calls each virtue a specific “excellence.” Virtues are like well-balanced habits. Imagine a kind person as a person who has a habit of being kind and who tends to be good at being kind. This means, of course, a kind person also has other virtues (like patience, frugality, or attentiveness). All these virtues work together to make up a person’s moral character.
A moral character has vices. Vices are habits or tendencies that are out of balance, like greed, apathy, or wastefulness. This means a trait that is either too weak or too powerful. For example, one person might have developed the virtue of temperance, which means a tendency to enjoy good things in good amounts and for good reasons.³ Another person who never practiced being temperate could have a tendency to go overboard with sensory pleasures. That person could have developed a vice like gluttony. A third person might not understand that balanced enjoyment is actually good and, having failed to practice balanced enjoyment, now has a vice like stinginess, or a sour suspicion of all good experiences. A good moral character is made up of many well-balanced traits, or virtues, all working in a well-balanced way together.
The explanation of virtue ethics offered above uses hypothetical people to explain what virtues and vices are. This says something else about virtue ethics: it relies on role models, actual and fictional, to help us direct our moral growth in good directions. Think about it: can you imagine any moral virtue or vice without imagining an example of it, embodied in a person? Role models help anyone who is interested in becoming a better person to identify what virtues they need to practice and what these embodied habits look like.
Virtue theory’s best insight is that we (humans) can better ourselves. We shape ourselves through practice. Practice means both participating in large-scale actions (like joining a school’s efforts to get solar energy) and doing small actions (like growing a tomato plant for food). According to virtue theories, people become who they want to be by practicing being that way, in big ways and small. Even before governments and organizations offer the programs and structures that help people to live gently on earth, persons and communities can practice participating in the integral ecology vision of Pope Francis’sLaudato si’(see especiallyLS180–81).
Laudato si’shows why systemic changes are needed, but it also demonstrates that small actions are important. Our actions have the power to changeusas people. What we do can change our hearts. Practicing ecologically sustainable habits is the way to sustainable and ecologically aware lifestyles. There are many kinds of virtue theories (Catholic, philosophical, Buddhist) and all of them help to demonstrate that persons’ actions all have a way of seeping inwardly into their selves and, in turn, shaping future actions.
Laudato si’models virtue ethics. It does not preach it, but it does presume it. The encyclical does not say that virtue ethics will help our ecological problems, and it never lists the virtues one must cultivate. It does assume virtue theory’s understanding of morality, and it uses that to help change human attitude and character (LS107).
Attitudes and other character traits like virtues are the narrow, deep, and quiet streams that feed human action and lifestyles. They come from a less carefully monitored source than the intention or the will, which are the traditional foci of much of Catholic ethics. But asLaudato si’shows, we ride the surge of these unwatched tributaries and wealwayscarry with us the quality of their water. The things we do when we are not acting deliberately are important because they have consequences⁴ and because, through them, we practice being a certain kind of people. This is the very soul of virtue thought. It is also exactly whatLaudato si’means when it speaks of an integral ecology.
- Do you agree with virtue ethics’ way of thinking about morality? Explain one way in which it seems right and one way in which it seems to miss the mark.
- What virtues seem to you to be important for environmental sustainability?
- What exactly is an “integral ecology,” and how is it related to virtue ethics?
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This article is an excerpt from “Calling Forth the Invisible, Spreading Goodness: Virtue Ethics inLaudato si’” by Nancy M. Rourke, inAll Creation Is Connected: Voices in Response to Pope Francis’s Encyclical on Ecology, ed. Daniel R. DiLeo (Winona, MN: Anselm Academic, 2018). Copyright © 2018 by Anselm Academic. All rights reserved.www.anselmacademic.org
- Nancy M. Rourke has a PhD in theology from Saint Patrick’s Pontifical Institute of Maynooth (Ireland). She is associate professor of religious studies and theology at Canisius College in Buffalo, NY. She teaches courses in moral theology and religious studies and writes in areas of environmental ethics, health care ethics, and meta-ethics.
- Pope Francis,Laudato si’: On Care for Our Common Home, June 18, 2015,http://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/encyclicals/documents/papa-francesco_20150524_enciclica-laudato-si.html.
- Alasdair Maclntyre,After Virtue(Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007).
- Diana Fritz Cates, “The Virtue of Temperance,” inThe Ethics of Aquinas, edited by Stephen Pope (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2002), 321–39.
- Habitual and routine actions often have a greater ecological impact than the kinds of actions people carry out after careful deliberation. For example, people may spend several minutes and research carefully while choosing an herbicide for their lawn. But all available herbicides pollute water runoff. This environmental damage is habitually inflicted simply for the purpose of complying with a morally dubious aesthetic — a purpose that does not merit the damage caused. See David Cloutier,Walking God’s Earth: The Environment and Catholic Faith(Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2014) and Rachel Carson,Silent Spring(Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1962).
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What is the main message of Pope Francis concerning his book Laudato Si? ›
Laudato Si' is an encyclical of Pope Francis published in May 2015. It focuses on care for the natural environment and all people, as well as broader questions of the relationship between God, humans, and the Earth. The encyclical's subtitle, “Care for Our Common Home,” reinforces these key themes.What are three main points from Pope Francis encyclical Laudato Si? ›
They suggest that human life is grounded in three fundamental and closely intertwined relationships: with God, with our neighbour and with the earth itself. According to the Bible, these three vital relationships have been broken, both outwardly and within us.What are the two most important concepts in Laudato Si? ›
The key idea behind it is that of “integral ecology”, i.e. that people and planet are part of one family where the Earth is our common home. It invites people to protect God's creation for future generations, to embrace a lifestyle change for their own good, and to take care of people who are poor and more vulnerable.What is Chapter 4 of Laudato Si about? ›
responsibility to reduce consumption of non-renewable resources and should help poorer nations develop in sustainable ways. Injustices abound and many people are deprived of basic human rights and are considered expendable.What are the values of Laudato Si? ›
the value of all creatures and the importance of humans to ecology. the need for forthright and honest debate and dialogue. the serious responsibility of international and local policy. the throwaway culture.What is the summary of the first chapter of Laudato Si? ›
The first chapter of the encyclical is a frank look at the facts of our world so that the reader might “become painfully aware” of the ways we have not been providing protection and care of the very place we call “home.” This chapter is not meant to be abstract analysis but to “turn what is happening to the world into ...What do the 7 Laudato Si goals mean? ›
The seven goals, grounded in the Laudato Si's concept of integral ecology, include: response to the cry of the Earth; response to the cry of the poor; ecological economics; adoption of simple lifestyles; ecological education; ecological spirituality; and emphasis on community involvement and participatory action.What is the 7 goals of Laudato Si? ›
The seven goals of Laudato Si are: the Cry of Earth, the Cry of the Poor, Ecological Economics, Simple Lifestyles, Ecological Education, Ecological Spirituality and Community Involvement and Participation.What are the 7 pillars of Laudato Si? ›
The plan outlines seven broad goals: Response to the Cry of Earth; Response to the Cry of the Poor; Ecological Economics; Simple Lifestyles; Ecological Education; Ecological Spirituality; and Community Involvement and Participatory Action that will focus our common journey.What are the key points and challenges in Laudato Si? ›
The challenge of Laudato Si' is not simply that of environmental destruction but of a kind of idolatry of progress, which has slowly moved the human family away from love toward an insatiable desire to consume.
What does Laudato Si stand for? ›
The title is taken from the first line of the encyclical, "Laudato si', mi Signore," or "Praise be to you, my Lord." In the words of this beautiful canticle, Saint Francis of Assisi reminds us that our common home is like a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us.What is Chapter 3 of Laudato Si about? ›
The third chapter, “The Human Roots of the Ecological Crisis”, examines the twin notions of what it calls the “technocratic paradigm” and a “modern anthropocentrism” borne out of a view that sees nature as a mere given, devoid of any spiritual or transcendental value.What is Chapter 5 of Laudato Si about? ›
The fifth chapter, “Lines of Approach and Action”, sets out various international collective actions needed. It highlights the imperative to switch from fossil fuels to renewables, with the use of government subsidies where appropriate.What is Chapter 2 of Laudato Si about? ›
A story that places before us the basic goodness of all creation and the fundamental relationships that are ours — to God as our loving Creator, to each other as having the same creator and to creation as a gift given to us by our Creator. Recognizing God as our Creator is central to how we treat creation.What is Laudato Si Chapter 6 about? ›
Chapter Six: Ecological Education and Spirituality
“It seeks also to restore the various levels of ecological equilibrium, establishing harmony within ourselves, with others, with nature and other living creatures, and with God.” (210) Laws and regulations only work up to a point.
Papal encyclical Laudato si'
Pope Francis calls for a renewed emphasis on the dignity of the human person as the basis of all action, advocacy and global solidarity and care and consideration for our fellow human beings.
- (1) We must be neither exploiters of nature, nor worshipers of it. ...
- (2) The need to change structures and change hearts. ...
- (3) A paradigm shift is needed. ...
- (4) A return to ethics and moral realism. ...
- (5) The connection between social issues and environmental issues.
Latin for "Praised Be," Laudato Si' is the name of Pope Francis' encyclical on caring for our common home — planet earth. The letter is addressed to "every person living on this planet" and calls for a global dialogue about how we are shaping the future of our planet through our daily actions and decisions.