Laudato Si… Respect for our Earth

Pope Francis blesses faithful

June 2015. Pope Francis’s recent encyclical, “Laudato Si” is likely to go down as one of the most significant documents published in our time. No other is likely to have comparable impact on our society.  Most important, it is more than a document. This is church teaching that may reach far into societies that are barely literate. Already it has divided conservative movements in the US and elsewhere, won adulation from environmental movements, and given hope to much of the Third World that is wrestling with the spectre of global warming.

And there are detractors. Critics point to the Pope’s dismissal of population pressure and family planning. Rush Limbaugh, an American Conservative, dismissed the Pope as a Marxist. Jeb Bush, a Presidential Candidate vowed to ignore the encyclical, even though he is a Catholic.

At its heart, the document is about our Earth and our moral duty to take care of it. The author invokes the spirit of St. Francis about whom he says, He was a mystic and a pilgrim who lived in simplicity and in wonderful harmony with God, with others, with nature and with himself. He shows us just how inseparable the bond is between concern for nature, justice for the poor, commitment to society, and interior peace.

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.

The fact is, as he notes, we have been poor stewards of the Earth. Global warming, a lack of clean water, loss of biodiversity are our legacy. He blames our throwaway consumer culture, cites many tepid attempts to respond to the crisis.

Why should we change our ways? In Chapter 2 the author speaks of our present task, to restore the harmony present in creation. Rejecting arguments that “man was given dominion over all animals” (popular with many conservatives), the author writes, Together with our obligation to use the earth’s goods responsibly, we are called to recognize that other living beings have a value of their own in God’s eyes. To destroy other species through our disregard for them is morally unacceptable.

The universe is fundamentally pervaded by harmony. In this universe, shaped by open and intercommunicating systems, we can discern countless forms of relationship and participation. This leads us to think of the whole as open to God’s transcendence, within which it develops.  

We can say that “alongside revelation properly so-called, contained in sacred Scripture, there is a divine manifestation in the blaze of the sun and the fall of night”

The kernel of the encyclical is contained in the phrase, Whether believers or not, we are agreed today that the earth is essentially a shared inheritance, whose fruits are meant to benefit everyone.

The air belongs to everyone, as does the Earth, though the author accepts that private land ownership is acceptable. However richer nations cannot ignore the plight of poorer nations who struggle with the adverse consequences of their consumer culture.

Neglecting to monitor the harm done to nature and the environmental impact of our decisions is only the most striking sign of a disregard for the message contained in the structures 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. 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 co-operator 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”

However the encyclical goes beyond a laundry list of our misdeeds, and what is wrong with the world. It is about the need for a radical change in our culture where we recognize the needs of the Earth, and our duty to help and protect those who are less well off than ourselves. If the root of the problem is human greed, the loss of spiritual values, only by addressing those problems will a solution be found. And that change must ultimately come from the individual.

…the ecological crisis is also a summons to profound interior conversion

Governments can help, but they cannot eliminate greed through legislation. The author rejects technological fixes such as Geoengineering or carbon trading. Or population control. If we cannot change our wasteful and polluting culture, the other approaches are no more than window dressing. Education is key. To teach and inspire in others a love for the Earth, and for the poor. To return to a spiritual view that sees the Earth as permeated with Divine Love.

The encyclical is not a comprehensive, “how to fix the world”. Critics have pointed out inadequacies: the lack of mention of the role that women could play, of population control, what to do about climate refugees. The most glaring problem is the repeated mention of “the international community” as if such an entity exists. Instead we have separate nations, some war-torn and each driven by their national agenda.

Even so, the document is a courageous moral statement of our responsibility as human beings. The message not only to Catholics but to all peoples of the Earth.

by Paul Kieniewicz