There is his proactive humility, his profound simplicity, his confident spirituality, and all served up to our little lost world in his mind-bogglingly perfect pitch. As both a lifelong friend of Jesus and a marketing professional of no little experience, I am truly astonished.
Perhaps, of course, it is all him. Perhaps he has always been this clever but simply went unnoticed down yonder at the “end of the earth,” as he put it. But contrasting his current radiance with his famously dour past (I’m reminded of Gandalf the Gray who became Gandalf the White), I rather suspect that he’s had a lot of help from the Holy Spirit (this is, after all, a blog in praise of angels). And, there is no doubt that, as far as he’s concerned, it is the Holy Spirit who gets the credit.
Day after day, his canny touch seems evident. First, he publishes Laudato Sii, his landmark letter on the environment. Then, within weeks, he arrives in the US and speaks to both a joint session of the US Congress and the United Nations General Assembly to underscore his message that “our common home” is in peril, and, lest they might have forgotten, on the very eve of the huge Paris “Climate Change Conference,” he flew into the heart of Africa – a place where the despoiling of natural resources for angry ends and the poaching of endangered wildlife for profit both run rampant – and triples down on his message with the entire planetary media swarm in tow.
But, just what is that message, exactly?
The initial coverage of the Pope’s encyclical was cursory, at best. As far as one could tell from watching the popular media, everyone seemed satisfied with the 140-character Twitter version: “Pope Francis thinks People caused climate change and says we have to stop burning fossil fuels. #ecopope”
Of course, this just riled up all the climate-change deniers, who were quick to pounce, and still are. As this quote from Talking Points Memo pointed out shortly before Francis arrived in the States: “They say that Francis has been hoodwinked by ‘climate alarmists’ that he has engaged in ‘fact-free flamboyance’ and that he is choosing to ‘to act and talk like a leftist politician.’”
But that was in the beginning, and I was sure that someone would take it on and really report on what the Pope had said. I was looking forward to reading a good synopsis – a Cliff’s Notes version, if you will – that would tell me what it is, exactly, that Pope Francis said. What was so important that he had decided to spend a huge portion of his personal political capital upon it, and why he had taken that decision? But, alas, hardly anything more informative was forthcoming.
Nevertheless, my desire to understand his thoughts did not abate; indeed, it only grew stronger as he continued to gain the world’s attention, so I finally decided that if nobody else was going to take it on, I might as well just do it myself.
Not, mind you, that I’m any more qualified than the next person to do this – and perhaps there are readers out there who are completely scandalized that I would even presume to paraphrase the pope – but I have already found much that reminds me of Jesus in Francis’s words and actions, so it matters to me. This is likely as close as we shall ever get, I suspect, to hearing what Jesus, Himself, would be saying to us if he were here in the flesh.
To begin with, what the press has said about Laudato Sii, and what it really is are vastly different things. It is easier to say what it isn’t that what it is. It is not a document about global warming, though that issue is among those addressed in detail; nor is it a treatise on the evils of fossil fuels, though self-evident truths demonstrated by known facts are mentioned. No, what it really is, more than anything else, is a good, old-fashioned fussing.
When I first moved to New York City and thought I knew everything, I worked for a marvelous woman named Martha Moore Sykes who would pull me aside from time to time and say, “Now, Tommy, I’m going to talk to you like your mother,” then launch into some concern or other she had about my shortcomings as the ideal employee.
Well, what the Pope has done is exactly the same thing, writ large. This encyclical, however high-falutin it may seem to be, is really nothing more than a good and proper scolding of grown children who should know better. It’s only a little bit about the warming, but a lot about pollution, and deforestation, and water resources, and mass extinction, and the destruction of habitats both on land and in the oceans. If ever there was a time and place where people needed a few sharp words, it is surely this time and this planet and we are those people!
That said, there was, from my point of view, one thing lacking with Laudato Sii, and that is a table of contents. You would think it would be an obvious point – a good table of contents is a very useful tool – but since encyclicals apparently do not have such a thing, I made one for myself simply by listing the chapter and section headings as they appear throughout, and have placed it at the beginning of my synopsis below.
All that said, I do wish I could have made this shorter. I found the original document to be so tightly written that I ended up using many direct quotes and was only able to reduce the size to about 25% of the 92 page original. Nevertheless, it is my hope that this post will make the Pontiff’s thoughts at least somewhat more accessible. Even so, it will take an hour or two of your time, so you might want to bookmark this page and come back to it.
Also, please note that both Pope Francis and I have added italics here and there for emphasis, but since most of these italics are mine, I have indicated those originating with him with the notation “emphasis F.”
OF THE HOLY FATHER
ON CARE FOR OUR COMMON HOME
TABLE OF CONTENTS
– Nothing in this World Is Indifferent to Us
– United by the Same Concern
– Saint Francis of Assisi
– My Appeal
CHAPTER I: WHAT IS HAPPENING TO OUR COMMON HOME
- Pollution and Climate Change
- Pollution, Waste and the Throwaway Culture
- Climate as a Common Good
- The Issue of Water
- Loss of Biodiversity
- Decline in the Quality of Human Life and the Breakdown of Society
- Global Inequality
- Weak Responses
- A Variety of Opinions
CHAPTER II: THE GOSPEL OF CREATION
- The Light Offered by Faith
- The Wisdom of the Biblical Accounts
- The Mystery of the Universe
- The Message of Each Creature in the Harmony of Creation
- A Universal Communion
- The Common Destination of Goods
- The Gaze of Jesus
CHAPTER III: THE HUMAN ROOTS OF THE ECOLOGICAL CRISIS
- Technology: Creativity and Power
- The Globalization of the Technocratic Paradigm
- The Crisis and Effects of Modern Anthropocentrism
- Practical Relativism
- The Need to Protect Employment
- New Biological Technologies
CHAPTER IV: INTEGRAL ECOLOGY
- Environmental, Economic and Social Ecology
- Cultural Ecology
- Ecology of Daily Life
- The Principle of the Common Good
- Justice Between the Generations
CHAPTER V: LINES OF APPROACH AND ACTION
- Dialogue on the Environment in the International Community
- Dialogue for New National and Local Policies
- Dialogue and Transparency in Decision-Making
- Politics and Economy in Dialogue for Human Fulfillment
- Religions in Dialogue with Science
CHAPTER VI: ECOLOGICAL EDUCATION AND SPIRITUALITY
- Towards a New Lifestyle
- Educating for the Covenant Between Humanity and the Environment
- Ecological Conversion
- Joy and Peace
- Civic and Political Love
- Sacramental Signs and the Celebration of Rest
- The Trinity and the Relationship between Creatures
- Queen of All Creation
- Beyond the Sun
“A Prayer for Our Earth,” to be shared with all who believe in an all-powerful Creator God
“A Christian Prayer in Unison with Creation,” to be shared with all believers in Christ
The Pope begins by quoting the song of Saint Francis of Assisi, Laudato Sii, which calls the earth our “sister” then Pope Francis goes on to say, “This sister now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her. We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will. The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life. This is why the earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor; she ‘groans in travail’ (Rom 8:22).”
– Nothing in this World Is Indifferent to Us
Here the Pope begins by including everyone, noting that his previous writing, Evangelii Gaudium, had been addressed the Catholics only, but that, faced with “global environmental deterioration” he wishes in this letter to address “every person living on this planet.” He then spends a few paragraphs quoting the views of both Saint John Paul II and Benedict XVI on environmental issues, noting that this letter is but a continuation of a long line of Papal thought.
– United by the Same Concern
And, here he adds to his growing choir the strong voice of Patriarch Bartholomew of the Eastern Orthodox churches who has, for some time, been actively drawing attention to “the ethical and spiritual roots of environmental problems, which require that we look for solutions not only in technology but in a change of humanity; otherwise we would be merely dealing with symptoms.”
– Saint Francis of Assisi
Here the pope introduces the phrase “integral ecology” which becomes a touchstone of the entire letter, and praises St. Francis of Assisi as the “example par excellance of and for the vulnerable and of an integral ecology lived out joyfully and authentically.” Saying further that St. Francis helps us see how an integral ecology calls for openness to things which transcend math and biology. “If we approach nature and the environment without this openness to awe and wonder,” the pope says, “if we no longer speak the language of fraternity and beauty in our relationship with the world, our attitude will be that of masters, consumers, ruthless exploiters unable to set limits on their immediate needs. By contrast, if we feel intimately united with all that exists, then sobriety and care will well up spontaneously. The poverty and austerity of St. Francis were no mere veneer of asceticism, but something much more radical: a refusal to turn reality into an object simply to be used and controlled.” Finally, the pope notes that St. Francis “invites us to see nature as a magnificent book in which God speaks to us and grants us a glimpse of his infinite beauty and goodness.” Noting that St. Francis always left a patch of garden untended “so that wildflowers and herbs could grow there, and those who saw them could raise their minds to God, the Creator of such beauty.” “Rather than a problem to be solved,” the pope concludes, “the world is a joyful mystery to be contemplated with gladness and praise.”
– My Appeal
It is not too late. “Humanity still has the ability to work together in building our common home,” says the pope, so he urgently appeals for a new dialogue that includes everyone, since the environmental challenges we face affect everyone. He notes that many organized efforts have been started to deal with these issues, but due to both powerful opposition and ennui have proved ineffective. “We require a new and universal solidarity.” All are needed to “cooperate as instruments of God for the care of creation, each according to his or her own culture, experience, involvements and talents.”
CHAPTER I: WHAT IS HAPPENING TO OUR COMMON HOME
Since our current situation is unprecedented in human history, the pope briefly turns “to what is happening to our common home.” Because the rapid pace of technological change is out of sync with the naturally slow pace of biological change, and because rapid change is “not necessarily geared to the common good or to integral and sustainable human development,” it can become a source of debilitating anxiety. But, thankfully, some sectors of society are waking up and following a more critical approach along with a growing concern, both genuine and distressing, for what is happening to our planet. The pope wants to review “those questions…which we can no longer sweep under the carpet. Our goal is not to amass information or to satisfy curiosity, but rather 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.”
- POLLUTION AND CLIMATE CHANGE
Pollution, Waste and the Throwaway Culture
Three points: 1) Pollution is a part of everyday experience, both in the air and in the soil, but technological solutions have proven incapable of seeing the “mysterious network of relations between things” and thus create new problems while solving old ones. 2) Hundreds of millions of tons of refuse are generated every year, much of it non-biodegradable, toxic or radioactive. “The earth is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth.” 3) Our “throwaway culture” affects the excluded just as it quickly reduces things to rubbish. Unlike nature’s cyclical utilization of materials, our industrial system has not developed the capacity “to reuse waste and by-products” and in spite of the obvious need, “only limited progress has been made in this regard.”
Climate as a Common Good
“The climate is a common good, belonging to all and meant for all…a complex system linked to many of the essential conditions for human life. A very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climate system. In recent decades this warming has been accompanied by a constant rise in the sea level and, it would appear, by an increase of extreme weather events, even if a scientifically determinable cause cannot be assigned to each particular phenomenon.” Changes of lifestyle are called for if we are to combat this warming, “or at least the human causes” that produce or aggravate it. The pope notes that there are also other possible contributing factors – volcanic activity, for instance – but that “a number of scientific studies indicate that global warming in recent decades is due to the great concentration of greenhouse gasses released mainly as a result of human activity” intensified by heavy use of fossil fuels and exacerbated by “an increase in changed uses of the soil,” i.e., deforestation for agriculture.
“Climate change is a global problem with grave implications: environmental, social, economic, political and for the distribution of goods. It represents one of the principal challenges facing humanity in our day.” And, sadly, the most negatively affected are those who can least afford it. “For example, changes in climate to which animals and plants cannot adapt lead them to migrate. This, in turn, affects the livelihood of the poor, who are then forced to leave their homes, with great uncertainty for their future and that of their children.” There has, even now, been a tragic rise in the number of such migrants, all the more tragic since those forced into such situations are unrecognized by the international community as refugees, so “they must bear the loss of the lives they have left behind without enjoying any legal protection whatsoever.” Sadly, this “is even now taking place throughout the world. Our lack of response…points to the loss of that sense of responsibility for our fellow men and women upon which” civilization rests.
Alas, many of those with the resources or power to do something are more interested in masking the effects or concealing the symptoms than actually fixing the problems. “There is an urgent need to develop policies so that, in the next few years, the emission of… polluting gases can be drastically reduced.”
- THE ISSUE OF WATER
Another barometer of the current situation is the rampant disappearance of natural resources! Among the more fortunate, the habit of wasting and discarding has reached unprecedented and clearly unsustainable levels. Planetary exploitation has already exceeded all rational limits yet we have still not even solved the problem of poverty. Water supplies used to be relatively constant, “but now usage far exceeds sustainability even in prosperous lands, and the water poverty affecting Africa, for example, where large sectors of the population have no access whatever to safe drinking water and desertification has stripped vast lands of agricultural production, has reached crisis proportions.” “One particularly serious problem is the quality of water available to the poor” which every day results in many deaths from water-related diseases. Dysentery and cholera are a significant cause of infant mortality, and even underground water sources in many places are threatened both by industrial operations and even household detergents.
“Access to safe drinkable water is a basic and universal human right since it is essential to human survival and as such, is a condition for the exercise of other human rights. Our world has a grave social debt towards the poor who lack access to drinking water, because they are denied the right to a life consistent with their inalienable dignity.” [emphasis F] “Some studies warn that an acute water shortage may occur within a few decades unless urgent action is taken. The environmental repercussions could affect billions of people; it is also conceivable that the control of water by large multinational businesses may become a major source of conflict in this century.”
- LOSS OF BIODIVERSITY
We are very shortsighted. “The loss of forests and woodlands entails the loss of species that may constitute extremely important resources in the future, not only for food, but also for curing disease and other uses. Different species contain genes that could be key resources in the years ahead.” But, “it is not enough to think of different species merely as potential ‘resources’ to be exploited while overlooking the fact that they have value in themselves. Each year sees the disappearance of thousands of plant and animal species that we will never know, that our children will never see… and the great majority become extinct for reasons related to human activity. Because of us,thousands of species will no longer give glory to God by their very existence, nor convey their message to us. We have no such right.”
The extinction of mammals or birds is disturbing, since they are more visible, but “good functioning of ecosystems also requires fungi, algae, worms, insects, reptiles, and an innumerable variety of microorganisms.” Some completely unseen species play critical roles in maintaining the equilibrium of particular places. And, when conditions reach a critical state, humans must intervene, though the cure is often worse than the disease. Consider bees that disappear due to agrotoxins, then requiring ever more exotic remedies to assure viable production economies. And, though we must be grateful to the efforts of scientists and engineers dedicated to cleaning up our man-made messes, a “sober look at our world shows that the degree of human intervention, often in the service of business interests and consumerism, is actually making our earth less rich and beautiful, ever more limited and grey, even as technological advances and consumer goods continue to abound limitlessly. We seem to think that we can substitute an irreplaceable and irretrievable beauty with something that we have created ourselves.”
No one looking for a quick and easy profit is truly interested in the preservation of ecosystems, “but the cost of the damage caused by such selfish lack of concern is much greater than any economic benefit to be obtained.” Certain places need greater protection because of their immense importance for the global ecosystem. “For example, those richly biodiverse lungs of our planet which are the Amazon and the Congo basins, or the great aquifers and glaciers. We know how important these are for the entire earth and for the future of humanity. The ecosystems of tropical forests possess an enormously complex biodiversity that is almost impossible to appreciate fully, yet when these forests are burned down or leveled for purposes of cultivation, within the space of a few years, countless species are lost and the areas frequently become wastelands.”
In addition, 1) the replacement of virgin forests with monoculture plantations can seriously compromise a biodiversity which the new species being introduced does not accommodate; 2) wetlands converted into cultivated land lose the enormous biodiversity they formerly hosted and in some coastal areas the disappearance of ecosystems sustained by mangrove swamps is a source of serious concern; 3) Oceans not only contain the bulk of our planet’s water supply, but also most of the immense variety of living creatures, many of them still unknown to us and threatened for various reasons; 4) marine life in rivers, lakes, seas and oceans, which feed a great part of the world’s population, is affected by uncontrolled fishing, leading to a drastic depletion of certain species as well as selective forms of fishing that discard much of what is caught; 5) particularly overlooked are threats to marine organisms like plankton, upon which species used for our food depend; and, finally, 6) “many of the world’s coral reefs are already barren or in a state of constant decline…” and this phenomenon is due largely to pollution that reaches the sea as the result of deforestation, agricultural monocultures, industrial waste and fishing methods using cyanide and dynamite, and is aggravated by the rise in ocean temperature. “All of this helps us to see that every intervention in nature can have consequences that are not immediately evident” and can prove immensely costly.
“Because all creatures are connected, each must be cherished with love and respect, for all of us as living creatures are dependent on one another.”
- DECLINE IN THE QUALITY OF HUMAN LIFE AND THE BREAKDOWN IN SOCIETY
Also, “we cannot fail to consider the effects on people’s lives of environmental deterioration, current models of development and the throwaway culture.” Unruly growth has many cities unhealthy to live in due to pollution, chaos, poor transportation, visual pollution and noise. Many cities are huge, inefficient and wasteful of energy and water and even recently built areas are congested and lacking in sufficient green space. “We were not meant to be inundated by cement, asphalt, glass and metal, and deprived of physical contact with nature.” In some places, privatization has restricted access to places of beauty and in others, “ecological” neighborhoods have been created – closed to outsiders – but that only make for artificial tranquility. Though green spaces in safer places abound, they are rarely found in the “more hidden areas where the disposable of society live.”
The social dimensions of global change must also include the great effects of technological innovation on employment, social exclusion, the inequitable distribution of resources, social breakdown, increased violence and a rise in new forms of social aggression, and the loss of identity, which confirm that two centuries of “progress” has not always resulted in an improved quality of living. “Furthermore, when media and the digital world become omnipresent their influence can stop people from learning how to live wisely, to think deeply and to love generously.” The great sages of the past risk going unheard amid such information overload. “Real relationships with others, with all the challenges they entail, now tend to be replaced by a type of internet communication that enables us to choose or eliminate [them] at whim,” resulting in a sort of contrived emotion that has more to do with devices and displays than with people and nature. Though we are enabled to communicate and to share our knowledge and affections, we are, at the same time, “shielded from the pain, the fears and the joys of others and the complexity of their personal experience.”
- GLOBAL INEQUALITY
“The human environment and the natural environment deteriorate together;” we cannot address the one without also addressing the other. In fact, both everyday experience and research show the gravest effects of all environmental issues are suffered by the poorest. For example, depleted fishing reserves especially hurt small fishing ports without other means of support; water pollution particularly affects those who cannot afford bottled water; and sea level rises mostly affect impoverished island populations with no place else to go. Generally speaking, there is little awareness of these problems of the poor, yet they are the majority of the planets population, billions of people. “One often has the impression that their problems are brought up as an afterthought, a question added only out of duty or in a tangential way, if not treated merely as collateral damage.” Much of this can be ascribed to the fact that nearly all people who are in positions to analyze or address such problems almost always live apart, in affluent urban areas, far removed from the poor in every way, which can lead to a “numbing of conscience and to tendentious analyses that neglect parts of reality. At times, this attitude exists side-by-side with a ‘green’ rhetoric. Today however, we have to realize that a true ecological approach always becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.” [emphasis F]
There are some who would say that the solution to these issues is simply to limit population growth, but “to blame population growth instead of extreme and selective consumerism” is one way of refusing to face the issues.” We already know that approximately one-third of all food produced ends up in the garbage, and “‘whenever food is thrown out it is as if it were stolen from the table of the poor.’”
“Inequity also affects entire countries and compels us to consider an ethics of international relations. A true ‘ecological debt’ exists, particularly between the global north and south, connected to commercial imbalances with effects on the environment, and the disproportionate use of natural resources by certain countries over long periods of time.” The export of raw materials to the industrialized north has caused local harms, as in mercury pollution where gold is mined, or Sulfur dioxide in copper mining. After citing many other examples, the pope concludes that unrestrained multinational companies get away with things in the third world that they could never do in their home countries. “Generally, after ceasing their activity and withdrawing, they leave behind great human and environmental liabilities such as unemployment, abandoned towns, the depletion of natural reserves, deforestation, the impoverishment of agriculture and local stock breeding, open pits, riven hills, polluted rivers and a handful of social works that are no longer sustainable.”
“In different ways, developing countries, where the most important reserves of the biosphere are found, continue to fuel the development of richer countries at the cost of their own present and future. The land of the southern poor is rich and mostly unpolluted, yet access to ownership of goods and resources for meeting vital needs is inhibited by a system of commercial relations and ownership that is structurally perverse.” The poorer countries cannot be expected to bear the costs of their rapacious northern neighbors; indeed “they lack the wherewithal to develop the necessary” responses. “We need to strengthen the conviction that we are one single human family. There are no frontiers or barriers, political or social, behind which we can hide.”
- WEAK RESPONSES
“These situations have caused sister earth, along with all the abandoned of our world, to cry out, pleading that we take another course. Never have we so hurt and mistreated our common home as we have in the last two hundred years. Yet, we are called to be instruments of God our Father, so that our planet might be what he desired when he created it and correspond with his plan for peace, beauty and fullness. The problem is that we still lack the culture needed to confront this crisis. We lack leadership capable of striking out on new paths and meeting the needs of the present with concern for all and without prejudice towards coming generations. The establishment of a legal framework that can set clear boundaries and ensure the protection of ecosystems has become indispensable; otherwise, the new power structures based on the techno-economic paradigm may overwhelm not only our politics but also freedom and justice.
It is remarkable how weak international political responses have been. The failure of global summits on the environment make it plain that our politics are subject to technology and finance. There are too many special interests, and economic interests easily end up trumping the common good and manipulating information so that their own plans will not be affected…. The alliance between the economy and technology ends up sidelining anything unrelated to its immediate interests. Consequently, the most one can expect is superficial rhetoric, sporadic acts of philanthropy and perfunctory expressions of concern for the environment, whereas any genuine attempt by groups within society to introduce change is viewed as a nuisance based on romantic illusions or an obstacle to be circumvented.”
There are some places, some countries, where incremental improvements in environmental policies can be seen. “These achievements do not solve global problems, but they do show that men and women are still capable of intervening positively.” However, at the same time, “we can note the rise of a false or superficial ecology that bolsters complacency and a cheerful recklessness. As often occurs in periods of deep crisis requiring bold decisions, we are tempted to think that what is happening is not entirely clear. Superficially, apart from a few obvious signs of pollution and deterioration, things do no look that serious and the planet could continue as it is for some time. Such evasiveness serves as a license to carrying on with our present lifestyles and models of production and consumption. This is the way human beings contrive to feed their self-destructive vices: trying not to see them, trying not to acknowledge them, delaying the important decisions and pretending nothing will happen.”
- A VARIETY OF OPINIONS
Here the pope recognizes that there are different opinions on how to deal with the problems he’s outlined. “At one extreme,” he says, “we find those who doggedly uphold the myth of progress and tell us that ecological problems will solve themselves simply with the application of new technology and without any need for ethical considerations or deep change. At the other extreme are those who view men and women and all their interventions as no more than a threat, jeopardizing the global ecosystem, and consequently the presence of human beings should be reduced and all forms of intervention prohibited. Viable future scenarios will have to be generated between these extremes” which should give rise to a healthy dialog.
And, frankly, he concludes, on many of these questions the church has no reason to offer a definitive opinion and serves best by encouraging debate among experts while respecting divergent views. “But we need only take a frank look at the facts to see that our common home is falling into serious disrepair.” We have hope, says the pope, “but still, we can see that things are now reaching a breaking point due to the rapid pace of change and degradation.” The pope concludes by quoting his predecessor, St. John Paul II, who said, “If we scan the regions of our planet, we immediately see that humanity has disappointed God’s expectations.”
CHAPTER II: THE GOSPEL OF CREATION
“Why should this document, addresses to all people of good will, include a chapter dealing with the convictions of believers? I am well aware that in the areas of politics and philosophy there are those who firmly reject the idea of a Creator, or consider it irrelevant, and consequently dismiss as irrational the rich contribution that religions can make toward an integral ecology and the full development of humanity. Others view religions simply as a subculture to be tolerated. Nonetheless, science and religion, with their distinctive approaches to understanding reality, can enter into an intense dialog fruitful for both.”
- THE LIGHT OFFERED BY FAITH
The complexity of the crisis we face requires ‘all hands on deck’ and respect must also be shown for the cultural riches of different peoples, their art and poetry, their interior life and spirituality. If we truly desire to develop an ecology that can remedy the damage we have done, no branch of sciences nor form of wisdom can be excluded, “including religion and the language particular to it. The church is open to dialog with philosophy, which has enabled various syntheses between faith and reason, including social issues; an approach now called upon again to take up these new challenges.” Furthermore, says the pope, “I would like from the outset to show how faith convictions can offer Christians – and some other believers, as well – ample motivation to care for nature and for the most vulnerable of us. If the simple fact of being human moves people to care for the environment of which they are a part, Christians in their turn ‘realize that their responsibility within creation and their duty toward nature and the Creator, are an essential part of their faith.’ It is good for humanity and the world at large when we believers better recognize the ecological commitments that stem from our convictions.”
- THE WISDOM OF THE BIBLICAL ACCOUNTS
For the next several pages, step by irrefutable step for believing Christians, the pope lays out just how the Bible – citing many chapters and verses – makes our responsibility for the health and care of the planet clear and indisputable; why it is inarguable that taking on our current environmental challenges is our clear and indisputable duty.
His first point, citing Genesis, is that we are all made purposefully by our Father, and “in his image.” “How wonderful is the certainty that each human life is not adrift in the midst of hopeless chaos, in a world ruled by pure chance or endlessly recurring cycles!… We were conceived in the heart of God, and for this reason, ‘each of us is the result of a thought of God, each of us is willed, each of us is loved, each of us is necessary.’” Secondly, our mandate, also in Genesis, to “have dominion over the earth” has been distorted by the sin of our “presuming to take God’s place and refusing to acknowledge our creaturely limitations.” But, thirdly, this is a misunderstanding; the quote must be taken in context, which tells us to “till and keep.” “’Tilling’ refers to cultivating, plowing or working, while ‘keeping’ means caring, protecting, overseeing and preserving. This implies a relationship of mutual responsibility between us and nature.” This means that we must “respect the laws of nature and delicate equilibria existing between the creatures of this world, for ‘he commanded and they were created….’” “In our time, the church does not simply state that other creatures are completely subordinated to the good of human beings as if they have no worth in themselves and can be treated as we wish.”
“The gift of the earth and its fruits belongs to everyone. Those who tilled and kept the land were obliged to share its fruits, especially with the poor, with widows, orphans and foreigners in their midst [emphasis F]: ‘When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field to the very border, neither shall you gather the gleanings after the harvest. And you shall not strip your vineyard bare, neither shall you gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner.’ (Leviticus 19:9-10)”
“A spirituality that forgets God as all-powerful and Creator is not acceptable. That is how we end up worshiping earthly powers, or ourselves usurping the place of God, even to the point of claiming an unlimited right to trample his creation underfoot. The best way to restore men and women to their rightful place, putting an end to our claim to absolute dominion over the earth, is to speak once more of the figure of a Father who creates and who alone owns the world. Otherwise, human beings will always try to impose their own laws and interests on reality.”
- THE MYSTERY OF THE UNIVERSE
The Judeo-Christian tradition gives “creation” a broader meaning than “nature.” Nature is seen as a system that can be studied, understood and controlled, whereas creation is a gift from a Father that is illuminated by the love that calls us together in universal communion. “By the word of the Lord the heavens were made” (Psalms 33:6). In other words, God made us on purpose. The universe is not “the result of arbitrary omnipotence, a show of force or a desire for self-assertion. Creation is of the order of love.” Even the momentary life of the “least of beings” is enfolded by their Creator.
At the same time, “nature” was demythologized by Judeo-Christian thought that continued to admire it but no longer saw it as divine, emphasizing all the more our responsibility for it, which also confers upon us a responsibility to cultivate our own abilities to protect it and help it reach its potential. And, so, if we “acknowledge the value and fragility of nature” as well as our own limited abilities, we can finally leave behind the modern myth of unlimited progress. “A fragile world entrusted by God to human care challenges us to devise intelligent ways of directing, developing and limiting our power.” We are free to direct progress in positive ways, or “toward adding new ills, new causes of suffering and real setbacks. This is what makes for the excitement and drama of human history, in which freedom, growth, salvation and love can blossom, or decadence and mutual destruction. Yet, even when we slip, God “can also bring good out of the evil we have done. ‘The Holy Spirit can be said to possess an endless creativity, proper to the divine mind, that knows how to loosen the knots of human affairs.’” Many of the things we think of as evils, dangers or sources of suffering are in reality God’s way of helping us learn to cooperate with him. “The Spirit of God has filled the universe with possibilities and therefore, from the very heart of things, something new can always emerge.”
Humans, even assuming evolution has taken place, also possess a uniqueness unexplainable by mere systematic progress. “To be inventive, to interpret reality and to create art, along with other not yet discovered capacities, are signs of a uniqueness that transcends the spheres of physics and biology. Yet, it would be wrong to see other living beings as mere objects subject to “arbitrary human domination. When nature is viewed solely as a source of profit and gain, this has serious consequences for society. This vision of ‘might is right’ has engendered immense inequality, injustice and acts of violence against the majority of humanity, since resources end up in the hands of the first comer or the most powerful: the winner takes all.” Which is just the opposite of “the ideals of harmony, justice, fraternity and peace as proposed by Jesus.” Finally, for Christians, the ultimate destiny of the universe is in the fullness of God. All creatures “are moving forward with us and through us toward a common point of arrival which is God, in that transcendent fullness where the risen Christ embraces and illumines all things.”
- THE MESSAGE OF EACH CREATURE IN THE HARMONY OF CREATION
No creature is superfluous. “The entire material universe speaks of God’s love, his boundless affection for us. Soil, water, mountains: everything is, as it were, a caress of God, who has written, as it were, a precious book whose letters are the multitude of created things.” “To sense each creature singing the hymn of its existence is to live joyfully in God’s love and hope. Alongside the sacred Scripture, there is a divine manifestation in the blaze of the sun and the fall of night.” “Saint Thomas Aquinas wisely noted that multiplicity and variety ‘come from the intention of the first agent’ who willed that ‘what was wanting in one in the representation of the divine goodness might be supplied by another’ inasmuch as God’s goodness ‘could not be represented fittingly by any one creature.’” As the Catechism teaches: “Creatures exist only in dependence on each other, to complete each other, in the service of each other.”
“When we can see God reflected in all that exists, our hearts are moved to praise the Lord for all his creatures and to worship him in union with them. This sentiment found magnificent expression in the hymn of St. Francis of Assisi:
Praised be you, my Lord, with all your creatures,
Especially Sir Bother Sun,
Who is the day and through whom you give us light.
And he is beautiful and radiant with great splendor;
And bears a likeness of you, Most High.
Praised be you, my Lord, through Sister Moon and the stars,
In heaven you formed them clear and precious and beautiful.
Praised be you, my Lord, through Brother Wind,
And through the air, cloudy and serene, and every kind of weather
Through whom you give sustenance to your creatures.
Praised be you, my Lord, through Sister Water,
Who is very useful and humble and precious and chaste.
Praised be you, my Lord, through Brother Fire,
Through whom you light the night,
And he is beautiful and playful and robust and strong.
- A UNIVERSAL COMMUNION
The created things of this world belong to God, which gives rise to the conviction that – as part of the universe created by one Father – we are all linked and form a universal family, a sublime communion that fills us with “a sacred, affectionate and humble respect.” But, this is not to imply that all living beings are on the same level nor to deprive human beings of their unique worth and thus their tremendous responsibility. Neither does it imply that the earth is so holy that we should not work on it to protect it in its fragility. Such notions would only create new problems.
That said, there are some who seem only concerned with the fate of other creatures without any concern at all for other human beings. “We fail to see that some are mired in desperate and degrading poverty, with no way out, while others have not the faintest idea of what to do with their possessions, vainly showing off their supposed superiority and leaving behind them so much waste which, if it were the case everywhere, would destroy the planet…” “It is clearly inconsistent to combat trafficking in endangered species while remaining completely indifferent to human trafficking, unconcerned about the poor, or undertaking to destroy another human being deemed unwanted. Everything is connected, including the environment, the needs of individual human beings, and the problems of society. “Moreover, when our hearts are authentically open” it excludes nothing and no one… We can hardly consider ourselves to be fully loving if we disregard any aspect of reality: “‘Peace, justice and the preservation of creation are three absolutely interconnected themes.’” “Everything is related and we human beings are united as brothers and sisters on a wonderful pilgrimage, woven together by the love God has for each of his creatures….”
- THE COMMON DESTINATION OF GOODS
Christian, or not, we surly all agree that the earth is essentially a shared inheritance whose fruits are meant for everyone. For believers, this is also a question of fidelity to God, himself, since he created the world for every one of his children. Thus, every ecological approach must also take into account the fundamental rights of the poor. “The subordination of private property to the universal destination of goods, and thus the right of everyone to their use, is a golden rule of social conduct and ‘the first principle of the whole ethical and social order.’” Saint John Paul II said “God gave the earth to the whole human race for the sustenance of all its members, without excluding or favoring anyone [emphasis F].” and that “a type of development that did not respect and promote human rights – personal and social, economic and political, including the rights of nations and of peoples – would not be really worthy of man…the Church does indeed defend the legitimate right to private property, but she also teaches no less clearly that there is always a social mortgage on all private property in order that goods may serve the general purpose that God gave them…It is not in accord with God’s plan that this gift be used such…that its benefits favor only the few.” “This calls into serious question the unjust habits of a part of humanity.”
The natural environment is a collective good, both the patrimony and the responsibility of all of us. If we make something our own, we must administer it for the good of all, otherwise we “burden our consciences with the weight of having denied the existence of others. That is why the New Zealand bishops asked what the commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’ means when ‘twenty percent of the world’s population consumes resources at a rate that robs the poor nations and future generations of what they need to survive?’”
- THE GAZE OF JESUS
Jesus, himself, was very conscious of the natural world around him, and the Gospels tell us that, more than that, this humble carpenter was nothing less than he who created the world in the first place. He was not an ascetic, and even said of himself, “the Son of Man came eating and drinking and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard!’” And, the New Testament not only tells us of the earthly Jesus with his tangible and loving relationship with the world around him, but also of Christ risen and glorious, present throughout creation through his Universal Lordship. Thus the creatures of this world are now to us more than simply natural. “The very flowers of the field and the birds that his human eyes contemplated and admired are now imbued with his radiant presence.”
CHAPTER III: THE HUMAN ROOTS OF THE ECOLOGICAL CRISIS
“It would hardly be helpful to describe symptoms without acknowledging the human origins of the ecological crisis. A certain way of understanding human life and activity has gone awry, to the serious detriment of the world around us. Should we not pause and consider” the dominant “technocratic paradigm and the place of human beings and of human action in the world?”
- TECHNOLOGY: CREATIVITY AND POWER
Our technical prowess has brought us to a crossroads. For two centuries – from steam engines right on through the latest bio- and nanotechnologies – technology has delivered great waves of change and much to be thankful for, for “science and technology are wonderful products of a God-given human creativity.” Technology has remedied countless evils that used to harm and limit humans and we must be grateful for progress, especially in medicine, engineering and communications and acknowledge scientists and engineers whose inventions make development sustainable. Technoscience can improves our lives from useful domestic appliances to great transportation systems, buildings and public spaces. It also enables artists to ‘leap’ into the world of beauty. “Who can deny the beauty of an aircraft or a skyscraper?” And, when art and music make use of new technologies, in the beauty intended by the artist and in the contemplation of such beauty, “a quantum leap occurs, resulting in a fulfillment that is uniquely human.”
That said, nuclear energy, biotechnology, information technology, knowledge of DNA and many other new abilities have also given us tremendous new powers, or rather, have allowed those with the knowledge and economic resources to use it “impressive dominance over humanity and the entire world.” Never have we had such power over ourselves, but nothing ensures wise use of it, especially when we consider atom bombs dropped or the technologies used to kill millions of our fellows by Nazism, Communism, not to mention increasingly deadly weapons available for warfare. Who has all this power? Where will it end up? It is extremely risky for only a few to have it. And, though we tend to think “an increase in power means an increase in progress itself, “an advance in ‘security, usefulness, welfare and vigor; …an assimilation of new values into the stream of culture,’ as if reality, goodness and truth automatically flow from technological and economic power as such.” But the fact is that contemporary man has not been trained how to use this power because our technological advances “have not been accompanied by a development in human responsibility, values and conscience. It is possible that we do not grasp the gravity of the challenges now before us… Power is never considered in terms of the responsibility of choice that is inherent in freedom and only takes its cues to limit itself in response to either utility or security.” But human beings are not God and our freedom disintegrates when that power is given to blind forces of “the unconscious, of immediate needs, of self-interest, and of violence. In this sense we stand naked and exposed in the face of our ever-increasing power, lacking the wherewithal to control it. We have certain superficial mechanisms but we cannot claim to have a sound ethics, a culture and spirituality genuinely capable of setting limits and teaching clear-minded self-restraint.
- THE GLOBALIZATION OF THE TECHNOCRATIC PARADIGM
But the real problem goes even deeper: the uncritical way humanity has swallowed up technology and development according to a mindset that is one-dimensional and undifferentiated and promotes a behavioral norm of “a subject (person or group) who, using logical and rational procedures, progressively approaches and gains control over any external object.” To make this acceptable, the “subject” uses scientific experimental methods that really are in themselves “techniques of possession, mastery and transformation” as if the object of its maneuvers was formless and utterly free to be manipulated. Now, people have always intervened – had a back and forth, if you will – with nature, but until very recently this was a case of receiving from nature only as nature was inclined to allow, “as from its own hand.” But now, by contrast, we have taken the upper hand, frequently ignoring the reality of common sense limits in front of us so that the relationship between people and nature is no longer friendly and reciprocal, but confrontational, which makes it “easy to accept the idea of infinite or unlimited growth,” which economists, financiers and technology experts find so attractive. “It is based on the lie that there is an infinite supply of earth’s goods, and this leads to the planet being squeezed dry beyond every limit.” The result is, of course, seen in the deterioration of our environment, “but this is just one sign” of this problem that affects “every aspect” of our lives.
And, for good or ill, the idea of promoting a different cultural paradigm in which technology is no longer the driver, but the driven, in which it becomes merely an instrument to be used, is nowadays inconceivable. These advances have become so dominant in our lives that it would be difficult for us to even try to do without them, and even more difficult to use them without being dominated by their internal logic. It has become antisocial to even try to create any separation, any independence of our lives from the technology that engulfs us with its power to globalize and make us all the same. And it is surely true that our capacity to make decisions for ourselves, to live our lives in genuine freedom and to command the space needed to express individual, alternative creativity are diminished.
“The technocratic paradigm also tends to dominate economic and political life. Every technological advance is seen by the economy as potential profit without concern for any potentially negative impact on humans. Finance overwhelms the real economy with the result that the lessons of the recent global financial crisis have not been assimilated, and the lessons of environmental deterioration at every hand are being learned much too slowly. Some of those in power maintain that current economics and technology are sufficient for solving all environmental problems, that “global hunger and poverty will be resolved simply by market growth.” They no longer defend “trickle-down” economics, but support it by their deeds with no regard whatever for more balanced levels of production, better distribution of wealth, the environment or the rights of future generations. Their behavior proves that, for them, maximizing profits is enough, even though the market, by itself, can hardly guarantee integral human development and social inclusion. Plus, in recent times, a sort of ‘super-consumerism’ of a greatly wasteful kind has developed that forms an unacceptable contrast with situations of where the poor are deprived of even the most basic resources of food, water and shelter, much less the dignity of useful employment. These are the deepest roots of our present failures which arise from the direction, goals, meaning and social implications of technological advances and economic growth.
Specialization that is inevitable in technological application also works against the whole since it makes it difficult to see the larger picture, and the relationships between things, and for the broader horizon, are irrelevant to whatever may be the specific job at hand. This fact makes it all the more difficult to solve the more complex problems facing us, “particularly those regarding the environment and the poor; these problems cannot be dealt with from a single perspective or from a single set of interests.” A science hoping to address such great issues would have to include data generated by other fields of knowledge, including philosophy and social ethics, but such inclusive analyses are ever more difficult to achieve today. Nor are there genuine ethical horizons to which one can appeal, as technology, itself, is increasingly viewed as the main key to the meaning of life! In the current situation, several symptoms make plain our plight: environmental degradation, rampant anxiety, a loss of purpose to our lives and of true community living. In spite of our great advances, once more we see that the realities on the ground are more important than abstract ideas. The temptation is to react to immediate problems of pollution, environmental decay and the depletion of natural resources with immediate, urgent responses, but to seek only a technical remedy to each environmental problem that comes up is to separate what is in reality interconnected and to mask the true and deepest problems of the global system. “There must be a new way of looking at things, a way of thinking, policies, an educational program, a lifestyle and a spirituality which together generate resistance to the assault of the technocratic paradigm.”
It is possible. We are capable of limiting and directing technology; we can put it at the service of another type of progress that is healthier, more human, more social, more integral. Liberation from the technological paradigm does happen sometimes, for example when cooperatives of small producers adopt less polluting means of production or opt for a non-consumerist model of life, recreation and community. Or, when technology is directly applied to resolving peoples concrete problems, truly helping them live with more dignity and less suffering. Or, indeed, when the desire to create and contemplate beauty manages to overcome reductionism. “An authentic humanity, calling for a new synthesis, seems to dwell in the midst of our technological culture, almost unnoticed, like a mist seeping gently beneath a closed door.” But will the promise last, in spite of everything? Will it be enough?
There is also the fact that people have lost confidence in a happy future, no longer trust in or assume a better tomorrow based upon our technical abilities. There is a growing awareness that science and technology cannot be equated with the progress of humanity and history; a growing sense that the way to a better future lies elsewhere. This is not to reject the gifts of technology, but the arrival of constant novelties give rise to a superficiality and it becomes difficult to pause and recover depth in life. “If architecture reflects the spirit of an age, our megastructures and drab apartment blocks express the spirit of globalized technology,” where not even a constant flood of new products can salve a tedious monotony. “Let us refuse to resign ourselves to this; let us continue to wonder about the purpose and meaning of everything. Otherwise we would simply legitimate the present situation and need new forms of escapism to help us endure the emptiness.”
All of this shows the urgent need for a bold cultural revolution. “Science and technology are not neutral; from the beginning to the end of a process, various intentions and possibilities are in play and can take on distinct shapes. Nobody is suggesting a return to the Stone Age, but we do need to slow down and look at reality in a different way, to appropriate the positive and sustainable progress which has been made but also to recover the values and the great goals swept away by our unrestrained delusions of grandeur.”
- THE CRISIS AND EFFECTS OF MODERN ANTHROPOCENTRISM
[Anthropocentrism: noun an·thro·po·ˈsen-tri-zem: considering human beings as the most significant entity of the universe – Merriam-Webster]
“Modern anthropocentrism has paradoxically ended up prizing technical thought over reality since the technical mind sees nature as an insensate order, as a cold body of facts, as a mere ‘given,’ as an object of utility, as raw material to be hammered into useful shape; it views the cosmos similarly as a mere ‘space’ into which objects can be thrown with complete indifference. The intrinsic dignity of the world is thus compromised.” The time has come to pay renewed attention to reality and its limits if we are to be able to generate a more sound and fruitful development of individuals and society.
Inadequate Christian teaching gave rise to a wrong understanding of the relationship between human beings and the world. Often, what was handed on was a Promethean vision of mastery over the world, which gave the impression that only the faint-hearted cared about the protection of nature. Instead, our “dominion” over the universe should be more properly as a duty to promulgate responsible stewardship. Our neglecting to monitor the harm done to nature or the impact to the environment of our decisions is only the most striking sign of a disregard for the message contained in the structure of nature, itself. When we fail to acknowledge as part of reality the worth of a poor person, a human embryo, a person with disabilities – to offer just a few examples – it becomes difficult to hear the cry of nature, itself. Everything is connected and once the human being declares independence from reality and behaves with absolute dominion, the very foundations of our life begin to crumble, for “‘instead of carrying out his role as a cooperator with God in the work of creation, man sets himself up in place of God and thus ends up provoking a rebellion on the part of nature.’”
This situation has led to a constant schizophrenia wherein a technocracy that sees no intrinsic value in lesser beings coexists with the other extreme, that sees no special value in human beings. “There can be no renewal of our relationship with nature without a renewal of humanity, itself. There can be no ecology without an adequate anthropology… Human beings cannot be expected to feel responsibility unless, at the same time, their unique capacities of knowledge, will, freedom and responsibility are recognized and valued”
“Nor must the critique of a misguided anthropocentrism underestimate the importance of interpersonal relations… Our relationship with the environment can never be isolated from our relationship with others and with God. Otherwise, it would be nothing more than romantic individualism dressed up in ecological garb, locking us into a stifling immanence.” Here the pope dips his toe into the abortion issue, “since everything is interrelated… How can we genuinely teach concern for other vulnerable beings, however troublesome or inconvenient they may be, if we fail to protect a human embryo?”
In other words, a new synthesis is needed that can overcome the false arguments of recent centuries. By reflecting on these issues in fruitful dialog with changing historical situations, Christianity, in fidelity to its own identity and the rich deposit of truth which it has received from Jesus Christ, reveals its eternal newness.
– Practical Relativism
“…When humans place themselves at the center, they give absolute priority to immediate convenience and all else becomes relative. Hence, we should not be surprised to find, in connection with the omnipresent technocratic mindset and the cult of unlimited human power, the rise of a relativism that sees everything as irrelevant unless it serves one’s own immediate interests. There is a logic in all this whereby different attitudes can feed on one another, leading to environment degradation and social decay.”
“The culture of relativism is the same disorder that drives one person to take advantage of another, to treat others as mere objects, imposing forced labor on them or enslaving them to pay their debts. The same kind of thinking leads to sexual exploitation of children and abandonment of the elderly who no longer serve our interests. It is also the mindset of those who say: Let us allow the invisible forces of the market to regulate the economy” and consider the negative impact of these forces on society and nature simply collateral damage. “In the absence of objective truths or sound principles other than the satisfaction of our own desires and immediate needs, what limits can be placed on human trafficking, organized crime, the drug trade, commerce in blood diamonds and the fur of endangered species? Is it not the same relativistic logic that justifies buying the organs of the poor for resale or use in experimentation, or eliminating children because they are not what their parents wanted? We should not think that political efforts or the force of law will be sufficient to prevent actions that affect the environment because when the culture itself is corrupt and objective truth and universally valid principles are no longer upheld, then laws can only be seen as arbitrary impositions or obstacles to be avoided.”
– The Need to Protect Employment
Any approach to an integral ecology that includes human beings, as it must, has to account for the value of labor. Workers and craftspeople “maintain the fabric of the world” and using our hands to care for and nurture our world, we become instruments of God in bringing out its fullest, God-intended potential. “The Lord created medicines out of the earth, and a sensible man will not despise them.” The example of the monks is instructive. In the early centuries, they always went to be alone in the desert, assuming it was the best place to encounter God, but it proved revolutionary when it was proposed that they live in communities where they could combine prayer and manual labor, because once work was seen as spiritually meaningful, it also gave rise to more a protective and respectful attitude toward our environment, our common home. And, when our capacity for revering it is impaired, it becomes easy to misunderstand the point and actuality of work, which should be the setting for this rich personal growth where many aspects of life inter into play: creativity, planning for the future, developing our talents, living out our values, relation to others, giving glory to God. And, it follows that it is essential to continue prioritizing the goal of steady work for everyone, regardless of dubious economic reasoning crafted to suit the interests of business.
We were created to work, and the broader objective when helping those in need, “should always be to allow them a dignified life through work.” Yet, technology favors replacing working people with machines to save costs, but this really is shooting ourselves in the foot because job losses also harm the fabric of society “through the progressive erosion of social capital: the network of relationships of trust, dependability, and respect for rules, all of which are indispensable for any form of civil coexistence.” “Human costs always include economic costs, and economic disfunctions always” affect human beings. To stop investing in people to realize greater short term gain is bad business. We need “productive diversity and business creativity” to ensure an ongoing, perpetual generating of fruitful employment. To use agriculture as an example, “economics of scale” have allowed huge companies to gobble up the small producers, creating ever more hardships on farmers with very few, if any, options for turning to new ways of making a living. “To ensure economic freedom from which all can effectively benefit, restraints occasionally have to be imposed on those possessing greater resources and financial power. To claim economic freedom while real conditions bar many people from actual access to it, and while possibilities for employment continue to shrink, is to practice a doublespeak that brings politics into disrepute.”
The pope says that business is a noble vocation directed to producing wealth and improving our world, but it needs to see “the creation of jobs as an essential part of its service to the common good.”
– New Biological Technologies
“When it pertains to the necessities of human life,” the Church teaches that experimentation using animals is only acceptable when it contributes to the welfare or saving the lives of humans. “Human power has limits” and “it is contrary to human dignity to cause animals to suffer or die needlessly.” Saint John Paul II pointed out that that scientific/technological progress is evidence of “the nobility of the human vocation to participate responsibly in God’s creative action” but that one cannot interfere in one part of creation without it having consequences in other parts to which we must attend. The church values benefits arising from biological and genetic advances, but that this should not lead to indiscriminate manipulation “which ignores the negative effect of such interventions. Human creativity cannot be suppressed, and those talented in the sciences must be allowed to use their God-given talents, but we must be vigilant as these powers involve considerable risks. “Any legitimate intervention will act on nature only in order ‘to favor its development in its own line, that of creation as intended by God.’”
As for genetic modification, whether vegetable or animal, medical or agricultural, these cases vary so greatly as to need individual judgement. We also must recognize that while genetically modified cereals have already helped to resolve problems in some areas, they have given rise to new problems, as those corporations who “own” the newly improved strains, by producing infertile seeds, have found ways and means to force farmers to purchase their seeds from the larger producers, effectively creating a de facto monopoly in some parts of the developing world. “A technology severed from ethics will not easily be able to limit its own power.
CHAPTER IV: INTEGRAL ECOLOGY
“Since everything is closely interrelated, and today’s problems call for a vision capable of taking into account every aspect of the global crisis, I suggest that we now consider some elements of an integral ecology [emphasis F], one that clearly respects its human and social dimensions.”
- ENVIRONMENTAL, ECONOMIC AND SOCIAL ECOLOGY
Ecology is the study of relationships between living things and the environments in which they develop, and it cannot be over-emphasized how interconnected everything is. Just as the sciences – biology, physics, chemistry – are interrelated, so too are all living species in a network that we will never fully understand. Even our genetic code is largely shared with other beings. Nature can never be seen as something apart, merely the setting for our lives. “We are part of nature, included in it and thus in constant interaction with it.” Understanding the sources of pollution requires a multi-disciplinary approach that takes into account “society, its economy, its behavior” and its perceptions of reality. Given the scale of change, we are well past the time when it was possible to isolate each problem to find a discrete answer. “We are faced not with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather with one complex crisis that is both social and environmental. Strategies for a solution demand an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature.”
Research should also help us better understand how different life forms interact to make up “ecosystems” and we should be mindful of them not only to discover how best to use them, “but because they have intrinsic value independent of their usefulness. Each organism, as a creature of God, is good and admirable in itself; the same is true of the harmonious ensemble of organisms existing in a defined space and functioning as a system. Although we are often not aware of it, we depend on these larger systems for our own existence.” Among other things, they disperse carbon dioxide, purify water and help us in many ways we overlook. “…Consideration must always be given to each ecosystem’s regenerative ability.”
Left to its own devices, economic growth tends to seek reduced cost through simplified procedures, which is a blinkered approach that ignores the broader vision required in our times. The protection of our environment must be factored into the equations. “We urgently need a humanism capable of bringing together the different fields of knowledge, including economics, in the service of a more integral and integrating vision.”
And, if everything is related, “then the health of society’s institutions has consequences for the environment and the quality of human life. ‘Every violation of solidarity and civic friendship harms the environment.’” Thus, “social ecology” is necessarily institutional, extending from the family, to wider local, national and international communities, until it includes the whole of society. “A number of countries have a relatively low level of institutional effectiveness, which results in greater problems for their people while benefiting those who profit from this situation.” “Lack of respect for the law is becoming more common.” And even where laws are on the books, they are often ignored with resulting deforestation where it is outlawed, or the scourge of drug cartels that destroy lives to satisfy the demands of more affluent, distant societies. It is all related.
- CULTURAL ECOLOGY
In addition to nature, we also have a historic, artistic and cultural patrimony that is a part of each place, an original identity that provides a foundation to build upon. “Ecology, then, also involves protecting the cultural treasures of humanity in the broadest sense… Culture is more than what we have inherited from the past; it is also, and above all, a living, dynamic and participatory present reality that cannot be excluded as we rethink the relationship between human beings and the environment… There is a need to respect the rights of peoples and cultures and to appreciate that the development of a social group presupposes an historical process that takes place within a cultural context and demands the constant and active involvement of local people from within their proper culture” [emphasis F]. The disappearance of a culture can be just as serious as losing a species of plant or animal and imposing a “lifestyle linked to a single form of production” can be just as harmful. “In this sense, it is essential to show special care for indigenous communities and their cultural traditions…When they remain on their land, they themselves care for it best. Nevertheless, in various parts of the world, pressure is being put on them to abandon their homelands to make room for agricultural or mining projects…without regard for the degradation of nature and culture.
- ECOLOGY OF DAILY LIFE
Even the settings in which we live – room, home, workplace, neighborhood – influence us, and regardless of how well we adapt, chaotic, noisy or ugly surroundings make it difficult for us to “find ourselves integrated and happy.” The creativity of those who find themselves in such circumstances yet manage to orient their lives, and the ability of the disadvantaged to make the most of hardships through kind and friendly human associations, is admirable. “The feeling of asphyxiation brought on by densely populated residential areas is countered if close and warm relationships develop, if communities are created, if the limitations of the environment are compensated for in the interior of each person who feels held within a network of solidarity and belonging. In this way, anyplace can turn from being a hell on earth into the setting for a dignified life.”
Given the effect of living space on human behavior, “it is not enough to seek the beauty of design. More precious still is the service we offer to another kind of beauty: people’s quality of life, their adaptation to the environment, encounter and mutual assistance.” Visual landmarks, common areas and urban landscapes that increase our sense of belonging also must be protected. It is important for all parts of a city to be integrated so that all who live there feel a sense of being a part of the whole, and “others are no longer seen as strangers but as part of a ‘we’ that all of us are working to create.”
“Lack of housing is a grave problem in many parts of the world” and both the poor and not so poor can find it difficult to own a home, which is much to do with a sense of dignity and the rearing of families. Where shanty towns have sprung up, the best option is to develop rather than raze them, but where “unsanitary slums or dangerous tenements” make it necessary, it may be best to relocate them, but always in full consultation with the inhabitants themselves. “‘How beautiful those cities that overcome paralyzing mistrust, integrate those who are different, and make this very integration a new factor of development! How attractive are those cities that, even in their architectural design, are full of spaces that connect, relate and favor the recognition of others!’”
Systems of transport are also the source of much difficulty in urban areas, and with private cars usurping space for roads and parking and spewing pollution as they gobble up fossil fuels, public transportation systems, it is agreed by most experts, need to be given priority, but these systems must also be improved since current systems “in many cities force people to put up with undignified conditions due to crowding, inconvenience, infrequent service and lack of safety.” And, even as we recognize the assault on human dignity in urban settings, we must not overlook “the abandonment and neglect” experienced by so many in the countyside, where some are reduced “to conditions of servitude, without rights or even the hope of a more dignified life.”
Our bodies, themselves, as physical entities, are also in direct relationship with the environment and other living beings, and “the acceptance of our bodies as God’s gift is vital for welcoming and accepting the entire world as a gift from the Father, and our common home,” but we must not let our absolute power over our own bodies turn into thinking we have absolute power over creation.
- THE PRINCIPLE OF THE COMMON GOOD
“An integral ecology is inseparable from the notion of the common good, as central and unifying principle of social ethics.” It is the common good that allows us “relatively thorough and ready access” to our own fulfillment. The common good begins with respect for the individual, expands to include groups, most importantly the family, “the basic cell of society. Finally, the common good calls for social peace, the stability and security provided by a certain order that cannot be achieved without particular concern for distributive justice; whenever this is violated, violence always ensues. Society as a whole, and the state in particular, is obliged to defend and promote the common good.” In our time, when “injustices abound and growing numbers of people are deprived of basic human rights and considered expendable, the principle of the common good immediately becomes, logically and inevitably, a summons to solidarity and a preferential option for the poorest of our brothers and sisters.
- JUSTICE BETWEEN THE GENERATIONS
“The notion of the common good also extends to future generations…Once we start to think about the kind of world we are leaving to future generations we look at things differently; we realize that the world is a gift which we have freely received and must share with others…Intergenerational solidarity is not optional, but rather a basic question of justice, since the world we have received also belongs to those who will follow us. An integral ecology must take this into account.
“Doomsday predictions can no longer be met with irony or disdain. We may well be leaving to coming generations debris, desolation and filth. The pace of consumption, waste and environmental change has so stretched the planet’s capacity that our contemporary lifestyle, unsustainable as it is, can only precipitate catastrophes, such as those that even now periodically occur in different areas of the world. The effects of the present imbalance can only be reduced by our decisive action, here and now.” We need to reflect on our accountability before our children!
Our seeming inability to take this challenge seriously “has much to do with an ethical and cultural decline that has accompanied the deterioration of the environment…and many problems of society are connected with today’s self-centered culture of instant gratification. We see this in the crisis of family and social ties and the difficulties of recognizing the other… Furthermore, our inability to think seriously about future generations is linked to our inability to broaden the scope of our present interests…Let us not only keep the poor of the future in mind, but also today’s poor, whose life on this earth is brief and who cannot keep on waiting.”
CHAPTER V: LINES OF APPROACH AND ACTION
Having taken stock of the current situation which, in itself, is enough to make clear the urgent need for change of direction, the pope in this section suggests several lines of dialog that “can help us escape the spiral of self-destruction that currently engulfs us.”
- DIALOG ON THE ENVIRONMENT IN THE INTERNATIONAL COMMUNITY
For a hundred years we have been increasingly aware of being one people living in a common home, and “interdependence obliges us to think of one world with a common plan” [emphasis F]. “A global consensus is essential for confronting the deeper problems, which cannot be resolved by unilateral actions on the part of individual countries. Such a consensus could lead, for example, to planning a sustainable and diversified agriculture, developing renewable and less polluting forms of energy, encouraging a more efficient use of energy, promoting a better management of marine and forest resources, and ensuring universal access to drinking water.”
Even though we now almost universally recognize the need to move away from highly-polluting fossil fuels, there is very little agreement on how to pay for this transition. There has been a lot of talk about the problem in recent years, but “politics and business have been slow to react in a way commensurate with the urgency of the challenges facing our world.” But, even so, the pope sounds a positive note by saying that while ours may well be looked upon in the future as the most irresponsible period in history, “nonetheless, there is reason to hope that humanity at the dawn of the twenty-first century will be remembered for having generously shouldered its grave responsibilities.”
Here the pope gives a survey of a long list of meetings that have reached terrific agreements on fixing environmental imbalances, but then not implemented their agreements with enforceable mandates. He notes the positive outcomes of accords on the ozone layer and trafficking in endangered species, but despairs when it comes to protection of biodiversity, desertification and climate change. “Reducing greenhouse gases requires honesty, courage and responsibility above all on the part of those countries that are more powerful and pollute the most.” “International negotiations cannot make significant progress due to positions taken by countries that place their national interests above the global common good. Those who will have to suffer the consequences of what we are trying to hide will not forget this failure of conscience and responsibility. Even as this Encyclical was being prepared, the debate was intensifying. We believers cannot fail to ask God for a positive outcome to the present discussions, so that future generations will not have to suffer the effects of our ill-advised delays.”
Having made his point, the pope then turns to potential approaches to these problems currently being discussed. First he points out that some strategies suggested that would internationalize the environmental costs across the board would unduly burden those countries “most in need of development” and cause further hardship “under the guise of protecting the environment.” Nor is he a fan of the buying and selling of “carbon credits” as proposed in a number of venues, including the U.S., which he believes would simply lead to clever manipulation of this new market to ensure ongoing “excessive consumption” in those areas with the resources to pay the tax.
Turning to poor countries, the pope notes that they need to clean their own houses and confront the scandalous level of consumption in some privileged sectors of their population and to combat corruption more effectively, and that they are also bound to seek out less polluting forms of energy production, but that to do so they need the help of those developed countries who have already cost the planet dearly in pursuing their own growth. “Enforceable international agreements are urgently needed, since local governments either don’t have the will or the power to effectively intervene. Relations between states must respect each other’s sovereignty, but like it or not, there must be agreed means to control behaviors and avert disasters that may start local, but will “eventually affect everyone.” The oceans are a particular area of concern with hardly any enforceable regulation especially for the “open seas.” “What is needed, in effect, is an agreement on systems of governance for the whole range of so-called ‘global commons.’”
These two overarching concerns – global warming and entrenched debilitating poverty – are both born of the same mindset; powers that be who resist taking radical decisions to reverse these ever worsening problems. Our new century is still subject to the same governmental systems of the past, but as it happens, even nation states are losing their ability to foment change since “the economic and financial sectors, being transnational, tend to prevail over the political. Given this situation, it is essential to devise stronger and more effectively organized international institutions, with functionaries who are approved fairly by agreement among national governments, and empowered to impose sanctions.” The pope concludes this section by quoting Pope Benedict XVI: “To manage the global economy;… to bring about integral and timely disarmament, food security and peace; to guarantee the protection of the environment; and to regulate migration: for all this there is urgent need of a true world political authority as my predecessor, [Saint] John XXIII indicated some years ago.”
- DIALOG FOR NEW NATIONAL AND LOCAL POLICIES
There are also “winners and losers” within countries – not just among them – and this requires “greater attention to policies on the national and local levels. The limits that a healthy, mature and sovereign society must impose are those related to foresight and security, regulatory norms, timely enforcement, the elimination of corruption, effective responses to undesired side-effects of production processes, and appropriate intervention where potential or uncertain risks are involved.” Unfortunately, politics today is concerned by a consumerist mindset looking for instant gratification so governments are reluctant to assign current assets to long-term benefits. “We forget that ‘time is greater than space,’ and processes are more effective than “holding onto positions of power.” “True statecraft” means allegiance to high principles and thinking of the long-term common good.
There is hope, however, when we look at local initiatives. “In some places cooperatives are being developed to exploit renewable resources of energy that ensure local self-sufficiency and even the sale of surplus energy. This simple example shows that, while the existing world order proves powerless to assume its responsibilities, local individuals and groups can make a real difference.” These local groups, plus non-governmental organizations need to rise to the occasion and drive public policy from the bottom-up. “Unless citizens control political power – national, regional and municipal – it will not be possible to control damage to the environment.”
There is much that can be done today: promoting energy conservation; finding forms of production that consume less raw materials in more efficient ways; removing inefficient or polluting products from the marketplace; updating transport systems and retrofitting buildings. Local governmental policies geared to reducing consumption while encouraging recycling can also help, as well as agricultural policies that protect species and utilize improved farming methods and rural infrastructure (better access to markets, improved irrigation).
Like it or not, it will take time to see results in the environment, so that far-seeing politicians “will inevitably clash with the mindset of short-term gain and results that dominate present-day economics and politics. But if they are courageous, they will attest to their God-given dignity and leave behind a testimony of selfless responsibility. A healthy politics is sorely needed, capable of reforming and coordinating institutions, promoting best practices and overcoming undue pressures and bureaucratic inertia. It should be added, though, that even the best mechanism can break down when there are no worthy goals and values, or a genuine and profound humanism to serve as the basis of a noble and generous society.”
- DIALOG AND TRANSPARENCY IN DECISION MAKING
We need to stop fooling ourselves and doing everything possible to disguise and avoid seeing the true environmental costs of progress, which means that we have to stop putting the assessment of environmental impacts of any given project at the end of a process, and start including them from the beginning in a way that is “interdisciplinary, transparent and free of all economic or political pressure.” All the stakeholders should be involved in arriving at a consensus, and “the local population should have a special place at the table; they are concerned about their own future and that of their children, and can consider goals transcending immediate economic interest.” “We need to stop thinking in terms of ‘interventions’ to save the environment in favor of policies developed and debated by all interested parties” which means that all the parties need to be fully informed, including different risks and possibilities. “Honesty and truth are needed in scientific and political discussions” which need to go deeper than simply the issue of whether or not the law allows it to proceed.
Risk/benefit analyses of new projects must take into consideration the common good now and in the future, and especially if the project involves use of natural resources, high levels of emissions or waste products, changes in the landscape and/or effect on habitats of protected species. Some projects can have unintended consequences that could have been foreseen like noise pollution, blocking of horizons, the effects of nuclear energy use, and the like. Unfortunately, our consumerist culture encourages rubber-stamping authorizations and concealing information.
There are certain questions that need always to be asked about a new venture to see if it will really be worthwhile: “What will it accomplish? Why? Where? When? How? For whom? What are the risks? What are the costs? Who will pay those costs and how?” And some questions have a higher priority, i.e., how will it affect local water resources, given that access to water precedes all other human rights.
“The Rio Declaration of 1992 states that ‘where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a pretext for postponing cost-effective measures’ that prevent environmental degradation.” In other words, the burden of proof is reversed in such analyses so that the party proposing a project must affirm that serious or irreversible damage will not result. “this does not mean being opposed to any technological innovations that can bring about an improvement in the quality of life, but it does mean that profit cannot be the sole criterion to be taken into account.”
“There are certain environmental issues where it is not easy to achieve a broad consensus. Here I would state once more that the Church does not presume to settle scientific questions or to replace politics. But I am concerned to encourage an honest and open debate so that particular interests or ideologies will not prejudice the common good.”
- POLITICS AND ECONOMY IN DIALOG FOR HUMAN FULFILLMENT
Here, the pope turns to the economic crisis of 2007-08, which, he says, “provided an opportunity to develop a new economy, more attentive to ethical principles and new ways of regulating speculative financial practices and virtual wealth. But the response to the crisis did not include rethinking the outdated criteria which continue to rule the world.” Rationality doesn’t drive production, economics do, and they don’t always assign to products a value that equals their real worth in order to sell more and make more profits, but this is not a true, real, on-the-ground economy. “Yet, it is the real economy that makes diversification and improvement in production possible, helps companies to function well and enables small and medium business to develop and create employment.”
“It should always be kept in mind that ‘environmental protection cannot be assured solely on the basis of financial calculations…the environment is one of those goods that cannot be adequately safeguarded or promoted by market forces.” We must reject the notion of a magic market that solves all problems simply by increasing profits because “where profit alone counts, there can be no thinking about the rhythms of nature, its phases of decay and regeneration, or the complexity of ecosystems that may be gravely upset by human intervention.” Plus, “biodiversity is considered at most a deposit of economic resources available for exploitation, with no serious thought for the real value of things, their significance for persons and cultures, or the concerns and needs of the poor.”
These questions frequently elicit accusations of a desire to hinder progress, but we need to be wiser in our pacing of life, slow it down so that all the ramifications of our “progress” can be considered. “If we look at the larger pictures, we can see that more diversified and innovative forms of production that impact less on the environment can prove very profitable.” “Such creativity would be a worthy expression of our most noble human qualities, for we would be striving intelligently, boldly and responsibly to promote a sustainable and equitable development within the context of a broader concept of quality of life. On the other hand, to find ever new ways of despoiling nature purely for the sake of new consumer items and quick profit, would be, in human terms, less worthy and creative, and more superficial.”
Unfortunately, “it is not enough to balance, in the medium term, the protection of nature with financial gain, or the preservation of the environment with progress. Halfway measures simply delay the inevitable disaster. “Put simply, it is a matter of redefining our notion of progress. A technological and economic development that does not leave in its wake a better world and an integrally higher quality of life cannot be considered progress. Frequently, in fact, people’s quality of life actually diminishes – by the deterioration of the environment, the low quality of food or the depletion of resources – in the midst of economic growth.
“The principle of maximization of profits, frequently isolated from other considerations, reflects a misunderstanding of the very concept of the economy. As long as production is increased, little concern is given to whether it is at the cost of future resources or the health of the environment; as long as the clearing of a forest increases production , no one calculates the losses entailed in the desertification of the land, the harm done to biodiversity or the increased pollution. In a word, businesses profit by calculating and paying only a fraction of the costs involved. Yet, only when ‘the economic and social costs of using up shared environmental resources are recognized…’” can those actions be considered ethical.
“What happens with politics?” There needs to be more attention paid to the idea that ‘of him to whom much is given, much will be required’ – those who wield the most power have the most responsibility for the common good. But, in these times there are economic sectors that are even more powerful than states, themselves, that threaten to remove politics from the process altogether, but economics without politics would leave those powers free to continue unhindered without any care for the environment at all. And, “the mindset that leaves no room for sincere concern for the environment is the same mindset that lacks concern for the inclusion of the most vulnerable members of society” and “does not appear to favor an investment in efforts to help the slow, the weak or the less talented to find opportunities in life.’”
We need a new politics that is far-sighted and capable of taking an integral, interdisciplinary approach to handling the current crisis. “A strategy for real change calls for rethinking processes in their entirety, for it is not enough to include a few superficial ecological considerations while failing to question the logic which underlies present-day culture.”
“Politics and the economy tend to blame each other when it comes to poverty and environmental degradation.” It is to be hoped that each will acknowledge past mistakes and rise to the occasion by finding, through dialog, actions directed to the common good, for when “some are concerned only with financial gain, and others with holding on to or increasing their power, what we are left with are conflicts or spurious agreements where the last thing either party is concerned about is caring for the environment and protecting those who are most vulnerable.”
- RELIGIONS IN DIALOG WITH SCIENCE
Empirical science cannot explain everything, including “aesthetic sensibility, poetry, or even reason’s ability to grasp the ultimate meaning and purpose of things… Religious classics can prove meaningful in every age; they have an enduring power to open new horizons… is it reasonable and enlightened to dismiss certain writings simply because they arose in the context of religious belief?’” That ethical principles may be couched in religious language makes them no less worthy. Reasonable ethical principles can be stated in many languages, including religious ones… “If a mistaken understanding of our own principles has at times led [believers] to justify mistreating nature, to exercise tyranny over creation, to engage in war, injustice and acts of violence, we should acknowledge that by doing so we were not faithful to the treasures of wisdom that we have been called to protect and serve.”
Most people say they are believers, which 1) “should spur religions to dialog among themselves for the sake of protecting nature, defending the poor, and building networks of respect and fraternity;” 2) encourage dialog among the various sciences, since each tends to become wrapped up in its own vernacular; and 3) help advance a dialog between the various ecological movements, that need to work together rather than, as so often happens, at cross purposes. “The gravity of the ecological crisis demands that we all look to the common good, embarking on a path of dialog that demands patience, self-discipline and generosity, always keeping in mind that ‘realities are greater than ideas.’”
CHAPTER VI: ECOLOGICAL EDUCATION AND SPIRITUALITY
Lots of thing need to change, but human beings most of all. We need to be more aware of our common origin, our mutual belonging and a future that must be shared. “A great cultural, spiritual and educational challenge stands before us and it will demand that we set out on the long path of renewal.”
- TOWARD A NEW LIFESTYLE
“Since the market tends to promote extreme consumerism in an effort to sell its products, people can easily get caught up in a network of buying and spending. Compulsive consumerism is one example of how the techno-economic paradigm affects individuals…this paradigm leads people to believe that they are free as long as they have the supposed freedom to consume. But those really free are the minority who wield economic and financial power. Amid this confusion, postmodern humanity has not yet achieved a new self-awareness capable of offering guidance and direction, and this lack of identity is a source of anxiety. We have too many means and only a few insubstantial ends.”
We are currently living in “a seed-bed for collective selfishness” in which “the emptier a person’s heart is, the more he or she needs things to buy, own and consume,… and a genuine sense of the common good also disappears. Social norms are respected only to the extent that they do not clash with personal needs” and since this is unsustainable over time, it is not only extreme weather that we must fear, but as well the “catastrophic consequences of social unrest. Obsession with a consumerist lifestyle, above all when few people are capable of maintaining it, can only lead to violence and mutual destruction.”
“Yet all is not lost… We are able to take an honest look at ourselves, to acknowledge our deep dissatisfaction, and to embark on new paths to authentic freedom. No system can completely suppress our openness to what is good, true and beautiful, or our God-given ability to respond to his grace at work deep in our hearts. I appeal to everyone throughout the world not to forget this dignity which is ours. No one has the right to take it from us.”
There are ways to apply pressure on those who wield political, economic and social power. Boycotts have proven successful in changing the way business operates, and when social pressure affects the bottom line, businesses change, which makes it all the more important for consumers to develop a sense of social responsibility. “Today, the issue of environmental degradation challenges us to examine our lifestyle.”
“The Earth Charter” suggests that we leave our current habits of self-destruction behind and make a new start, but we have not, as yet, developed a universal awareness needed to achieve this. “Here,” the pope says, “I would echo that courageous challenge: ‘As never before in history, common destiny beckons us to seek a new beginning… Let ours be a time remembered for the awakening of a new reverence for life, the firm resolve to achieve sustainability, the quickening of the struggle for justice and peace, and the joyful celebration of life.’” It is time for us to go “out of ourselves toward the other… to set limits on ourselves in order to avoid the suffering of others or the deterioration of our surroundings… If we can overcome individualism, we will truly be able to develop a different lifestyle” and bring about change.
- EDUCATING FOR THE COVENANT BETWEEN HUMANITY AND THE ENVIRONMENT
We are faced with an educational challenge since even those young people in the developed countries who have shown new attitudes toward environmental issues and a willingness to make significant strides to protect the environment are, nevertheless, living “in a milieu of extreme consumerism and affluence that makes it difficult to develop other habits.” Our environmental consciousness has expanded as education has moved from simply reciting scientific facts to an effort to instill a sort of “ecological citizenship,” but even this often fails to instill good habits. Even when effective enforcement is available, laws and regulations are insufficient to curb bad conduct so long tolerated. For laws and regulations to really work, people have to be motivated to accept them and personally transformed to respond.
“A person who could afford to spend and consume more but regularly uses less heating and wears warmer clothes, shows the kind of convictions and attitudes” we need. There are many little ways we can change our behavior that can significantly affect the world around us, from recycling to car-pooling to planting trees, and all of these help to bring out the best in us. Reusing something instead of discarding it, “when done for the right reasons, can be an act of love that expresses our own dignity.” And, “we must not think that these efforts are not going to change the world… for they call forth a goodness that, albeit unseen, inevitably tends to spread.”
A variety of settings can be useful for promoting ecological education, including schools, the media, in church, and especially in the home. “In the family we first learn how to show love and respect for life… respect for the local ecosystem and care for all creatures… In the family we learn to ask without demanding, to say ‘thank you’ as an expression of genuine gratitude for what we have been given, to control our aggressiveness and greed, and to ask forgiveness when we have caused harm. These simple gestures of heartfelt courtesy help to create a culture of shared life and respect for our surroundings.”
Political institutions and other groups are also entrusted with furthering our environmental education, as well as the Church, which has an important role to play. “It is my hope,” says the pope, “ that our seminaries and houses of formation will provide an education in responsible simplicity of life, in grateful contemplation of God’s world, and in concern for the needs of the poor and the protection of the environment.” Also, the important connection between aesthetic appreciation of beauty and maintenance of a healthy environment should not be overlooked. “If someone has not learned to stop and admire something beautiful, we should not be surprised if he or she treats everything as an object to be used and abused without scruple. .. Our efforts at education will be inadequate and ineffectual unless we strive to promote a new way of thinking about human beings, life, society and our relationship with nature. Otherwise, the paradigm of consumerism will continue to advance, with the help of the media and the highly effective workings of the market.”
- ECOLOGICAL CONVERSION
Here the pope turns to address Christians specifically, “since the teachings of the Gospel have direct consequences for our way of thinking, feeling and living.” He would like to see a renewed spirituality that can motivate to a more passionate concern for the protection of the world. “Admittedly, Christians have not always appropriated and developed the spiritual treasures bestowed by God upon the church, where the life of the spirit is not disassociated from the body or from nature or from worldly realities, but lived in and with them, in communion with all that surrounds us.”
“It must be said that some committed and prayerful Christians, with the excuse of realism and pragmatism, tend to ridicule expressions of concern for the environment. Others are passive; they choose not to change their habits and thus become inconsistent. So what they all need is an ‘ecological conversion,’ whereby the effects of their encounter with Jesus Christ become evident in their relationship with the world around them. Living our vocation to be protectors of God’s handiwork is essential to a life of virtue; it is not an optional or a secondary aspect of our Christian experience.”
Yet, it will take more than individual conversions to the cause to generate the change needed. “Social problems must be addressed by community networks and not simply by the sum of individual good deeds…the ecological conversion needed to bring about lasting change is also a community conversion.”
This conversion should include new attitudes that, taken together, foster generous, tender care for our world, including, first, an attitude of gratitude; recognition that the world is our gift from a loving God. And, secondly, an attitude that recognizes reverence for all life in all its forms; a splendid universal communion. Our ‘superiority’ is not a reason for personal glory or irresponsible dominion, but rather the source of a serious responsibility that grows out of our faith. “I ask all Christians to recognize and to live fully this dimension of their conversion. May the power and the light of the grace we have received also be evident in our relationship to other creatures and to the world around us.”
- JOY AND PEACE
“Christian spirituality proposes an alternative understanding of the quality of life, and encourages a prophetic and contemplative lifestyle” that allows for deep enjoyment of living without obsessive consumption. “Less is more” is an ancient lesson, but one to be taken to heart since it is nearly impossible to cherish life in all its subtleties when we are constantly bombarded with new consumer goods. “Christian spirituality proposes a growth marked by moderation and the capacity to be happy with little.” And, to live in this way is truly liberating. Rather than diminishing life, it allows for each moment to be lived to the full without the need to always be on the lookout for what we don’t have. “Happiness means knowing how to limit some needs that only diminish us, and being open to the many different possibilities that life can offer.”
The Twentieth Century was not a time when sobriety and humility were valued traits, which ended up causing not only environmental imbalances, but also created the condition in which it is no longer possible to speak of the environment in isolation. “We have to dare to speak of the integrity of human life, of the need to promote and unify all the great values. Once we lose our humility and become enthralled with the possibility of limitless mastery over everything, we inevitably end up harming society and the environment. It is not easy to promote this kind of healthy humility or happy sobriety when we consider ourselves autonomous, when we exclude God from our lives or replace him with our own ego, and think that our subjective feelings can define what is right and what is wrong.”
“On the other hand, no one can cultivate a sober and satisfying life without being at peace with him or herself. Peace is much more than just the absence of war. Inner peace is closely related to care for ecology and for the common good because, lived out authentically, it is reflected in a balanced lifestyle together with a capacity for wonder that takes us to a deeper understanding of life. Nature is filled with words of love, but how can we listen to them amid constant noise, interminable distractions?… An integral ecology includes taking time to recover a serene harmony with creation, reflecting on our lifestyle and our ideals, and contemplating the Creator.”
“We are speaking of an attitude of the heart that approaches life with serene attentiveness, that is capable of being fully present to someone without thinking of what comes next, that accepts each moment as a gift from God to be lived to the full.” Saying “grace” at mealtime is one visible expression of this attitude, and the pope asks all believers to “return to this beautiful and meaningful custom.”
- CIVIC AND POLITICAL LOVE
If God is our common father, then we are all brothers and sisters, and authentic fraternal love is always freely given without thought of anything in return. “That is why it is possible to love our enemies…. We have had enough of immorality and the mockery of ethics, goodness, faith and honesty. It is time to acknowledge that lighthearted superficiality has done us no good. When the foundations of social life are corroded, what ensues are battles over conflicted interests, new forms of violence and brutality, and obstacles to the growth of a genuine culture of care for the environment.”
“St. Therese of Lisieux invites us to practice the little way of love, not to miss out on a kind word, a smile, or any small gesture that sows peace and friendship. An integral ecology is also made up of simple daily gestures that break with the logic of violence, exploitation and selfishness. In the end, a world of exacerbated consumption is at the same time a world that mistreats life in all its forms. Love… is also civic and political and… seeks to build a better world…In this framework, along with the importance of little everyday gestures, social love moves us to devise larger strategies to halt environmental degradation and to encourage a ‘culture of care’ that permeates all of society.”
“Society is enriched by a countless array of organizations that work to promote the common good and to defend the environment, whether natural or urban. Some, for example, show concern for a public place (a building, a fountain, an abandoned monument, a landscape, a square), and strive to protect, restore, improve or beautify it as something belonging to everyone…These actions cultivate a shared identity, with a story that can be remembered and handed on. In this way, the world and the quality of life of the purest, are cared for, with a sense of solidarity.”
- SACRAMENTAL SIGNS AND THE CELEBRATION OF REST
“The universe unfolds in God, who fills it completely. Hence, there is a mystical meaning to be found in a leaf, in a mountain trail, in a dewdrop, in a poor person’s face. The ideal is not only to pass from the exterior to the interior to discover the action of God in the soul, but also to discover God in all things.” We are taught that all good things come from God not because things of this world are really divine, but because believers experience the intimate connection between God and all living things. “Standing awestruck before a mountain,” says the pope, we “cannot separate the experience from God and perceive that the interior awe being lived” is surely divine.
For the church and believers, the sacraments connect us to this larger reality “as we are invited to embrace the world on a different plane. Water, oil, fire and colors are taken up in all their symbolic power and incorporated in our act of praise.” Water used to baptize a child “is a sign of new life…Christianity does not reject matter. Rather, bodiliness is considered in all its value in the liturgical act, whereby the human body is disclosed in its inner nature as a temple of the Holy Spirit…” And, for the Catholic believer, it is in the Eucharist that all which has been created finds its greatest exaltation. “The Eucharist joins heaven and earth; it embraces and penetrates all creation. The world that came forth from God’s hands returns to him in blessed and undivided adoration…Thus, the Eucharist is also a source of light and motivation for our concern for the environment, directing us to be stewards of all creation.”
And when the Eucharist is celebrated on Sunday, it has special importance since Sunday is meant to be a day of rest; “a day that heals our relationships with God, with ourselves, with others and with the world…In this way, Christian spirituality incorporates the value of relaxation and festivity… The law of weekly rest forbade work on the seventh day, ‘so that your ox and your donkey may have rest, and those of your maidservant, and the stranger, may be refreshed (Exodus 23:12). Rest opens our eyes to the larger picture and gives us renewed sensitivity to the rights of others.”
- THE TRINITY AND THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN CREATURES
Even in God, who is three – the Father, Son and Holy Spirit – we learn of the importance of relating to others. The “divine Persons” exist in relation to each other “and the world, created according to the divine model, is a web of relationships. Creatures tend toward God, and in turn it is proper to every living being to tend toward other things so that throughout the universe we can find any number of constant and secretly interwoven relationships. This leads us not only to marvel at the manifold connections existing among creatures, but also to discover a key to our own fulfillment. The human person grows more, matures more and is sanctified more to the extent that he or she enters into relationships, going out from themselves to live in communion with God, with others and with all creatures.”
- QUEEN OF ALL CREATION
For the Catholic believer, “Mary, the Mother who cared for Jesus, now cares with maternal affection and pain for this wounded world.” Just as she mourned the death of her Son, so now she grieves for our abused neighbors and “this world laid waste by human power.” “She treasures the entire life of Jesus in her heart and now understands the meaning of all things. Hence, we can ask her to enable us to look at this world with eyes of wisdom.” Likewise, the figure of Saint Joseph, the earthly father of Jesus is presented by the Gospels as a just man, hard-working and strong, but also a man of great tenderness, “which is not a mark of the weak but of those who are genuinely strong, fully aware of reality and ready to love and serve in humility,” and he, too, can show us the way toward the protecting of this “world that God has entrusted to us.”
- BEYOND THE SUN
“In the end, we find ourselves face to face with the infinite beauty of God…Jesus says: ‘I make all things new’ (Rev. 21:5). Eternal life will be a shared experience of awe, in which each creature, resplendently transfigured, will take its rightful place and have something to give those poor men and women who will have been liberated once and for all. In the meantime, we come together to take charge of this home that has been entrusted to us, knowing that all the good that exists here will be taken up into the heavenly feast. In union with all creatures, we journey through this land seeking God, for ‘if the world has a beginning and if it has been created, we must inquire who gave it this beginning, and who was its Creator. Let us sing as we go. May our struggles and our concern for this planet never take away the joy of our hope.”
“God, who calls us to generous commitment and to give him our all, offers us the light and the strength needed to continue on our way. In the heart of this world, the Lord of life, who loves us so much, is always present. He does not abandon us, he does not leave us alone, for he has united himself definitively to our earth, and his love constantly impels us to find new ways forward. Praise be to him!” [emphasis F].
Pope Francis concludes this wide-ranging and, to me at least, astonishing survey of the plight of our earth with two prayers. The first is to be shared with all who believe “in a God who is the all-powerful Creator,” and the second is specifically written for Christian believers to ask for inspiration as we take up the cause of creation “set before us by the Gospel of Jesus.” I relate both in their entirety:
A PRAYER FOR OUR EARTH:
All-powerful God, you are present in the whole universe
And in the smallest of your creatures.
You embrace with your tenderness all that exists.
Pour out upon us the power of your love,
That we may protect life and beauty.
Fill us with peace, that we may live
As brothers and sisters, harming no one.
O God of the poor,
Help us to rescue the abandoned and forgotten of this earth,
So precious in your eyes.
Bring healing to our lives,
That we may protect the world and no prey on it,
That we may sow beauty, not pollution and destruction.
Touch the hearts
Of those who look only for gain
At the expense of the poor and the earth,
Teach us to discover the worth of each thing,
To be filled with awe and contemplation,
To recognize that we are profoundly united
With every creature.
We thank you for being with us each day.
Encourage us, we pray, in our struggle
For justice, love and peace. Amen.
A CHRISTIAN PRAYER IN UNION WITH CREATION
Father, we praise you with all your creatures.
They came forth from your all-powerful hand;
They are yours, filled with your presence and your tender love.
Praise be to you!
Son of God, Jesus,
Through you all things were made.
You were formed in the womb of Mary our Mother,
You became part of this earth,
And you gazed upon this world with human eyes.
Today you are alive in every creature
In your risen glory.
Praise be to you!
Holy Spirit, by your light
You guide this world toward the Father’s love
And accompany creation as it groans in travail.
You also dwell in our hearts
And you inspire us to do what is good.
Praise be to you!
Triune Lord, wondrous community of infinite love,
Teach us to contemplate you
In the beauty of the universe,
For all things speak of you.
Awaken our praise and thankfulness
For every being that you have made.
Give us the grace to feel profoundly joined
To everything that is.
God of love, show us our place in this world
As channels of your love
For all the creatures of this earth,
For not one of them is forgotten in your sight
That they may avoid the sin of indifference,
That they may love the common good, advance the weak
And care for this world in which we live.
The poor and the earth are crying out.
O Lord, seize us with your power and light,
Help us to protect all life,
To prepare for a better future,
For the coming of your Kingdom
Of justice, peace, love and beauty.
Praise be to you!
And so I conclude this survey of Pope Francis’s remarkable epistle. May God add his blessing to this reduction of the words of Pope Francis, “Given in Rome at Saint Peter’s on 24 May, the Solemnity of Pentecost, in the year 2015, the third of my Pontificate.”
I would also note that the Encyclical is “Copyright: Libreria Editrice Vaticana” and that this review was penned exclusively for my own personal, non-commercial use and that of my friends, out of love and appreciation for “Our Common Home” and Pope Francis, its most pro-active and effective advocate.