Saturday, June 20, 2015

Our Common Home

If you haven't been living under a rock, you have no doubt heard that Pope Francis has finally released his encyclical on the environment, entitled Laudato Si' after its first two words. I cannot encourage you strongly enough to read it, or if its considerable length is too daunting, one of the stories summarizing it. It is a truly remarkable treatise on the modern human condition  worthy of being read and noted by everyone. I will only comment on it here briefly, since I have very little to add to Francis' challenge.

The beginning of the encyclical (paragraphs 1-2) quote the pope's namesake in the course of laying out his vision:
“LAUDATO SI’, mi’ Signore” – “Praise be to you, my Lord”. In the words of this beautiful canticle, Saint Francis of Assisi reminds us that our common home is like a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us. “Praise be to you, my Lord, through our Sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us, and who produces various fruit with coloured flowers and herbs”.
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). We have forgotten that we ourselves are dust of the earth (cf. Gen 2:7); our very bodies are made up of her elements, we breathe her air and we receive life and refreshment from her waters.
He further uses Saint Francis' love for, openness to, and communion with God's creation as model for all Christians, recognizing that is both the gift of a benevolent Creator and a "book" by which we can know something of him. (10-12) He states his call thus:
The urgent challenge to protect our common home includes a concern to bring the whole human family together to seek a sustainable and integral development, for we know that things can change. The Creator does not abandon us; he never forsakes his loving plan or repents of having created us. Humanity still has the ability to work together in building our common home. ... I urgently appeal, then, for a new dialogue about how we are shaping the future of our planet. (13-14)
He then wastes little time in the problems he is calling to attention. It is somewhat regrettable that Laudato Si' is so often referred to as the "climate encyclical". As promised and hoped, Francis does address the matter of climate change head-on, coming down solidly on the side of the scientific consensus (23-26):
The climate is a common good, belonging to all and meant for all. At the global level, it is 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 climatic 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. Humanity is called to recognize the need for changes of lifestyle, production and consumption, in order to combat this warming or at least the human causes which produce or aggravate it. It is true that there are other factors (such as volcanic activity, variations in the earth’s orbit and axis, the solar cycle), yet a number of scientific studies indicate that most global warming in recent decades is due to the great concentration of greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrogen oxides and others) released mainly as a result of human activity. Concentrated in the atmosphere, these gases do not allow the warmth of the sun’s rays reflected by the earth to be dispersed in space. The problem is aggravated by a model of development based on the intensive use of fossil fuels, which is at the heart of the worldwide energy system. Another determining factor has been an increase in changed uses of the soil, principally deforestation for agricultural purposes. Warming has effects on the carbon cycle. It creates a vicious circle which aggravates the situation even more, affecting the availability of essential resources like drinking water, energy and agricultural production in warmer regions, and leading to the extinction of part of the planet’s biodiversity.... If present trends continue, this century may well witness extraordinary climate change and an unprecedented destruction of ecosystems, with serious consequences for all of us. A rise in the sea level, for example, can create extremely serious situations, if we consider that a quarter of the world’s population lives on the coast or nearby, and that the majority of our megacities are situated in coastal areas.
Is evident in this section, Francis is surprisingly literate in discussing the mechanics of this and other problems he highlights; it must be remembered (especially by politicians who seem to have forgotten) that the pope is himself a scientist, with a degree in chemistry. Just as strongly, he addresses the undeniable human consequences of climate change.
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. Its worst impact will probably be felt by developing countries in coming decades. Many of the poor live in areas particularly affected by phenomena related to warming, and their means of subsistence are largely dependent on natural reserves and ecosystemic services such as agriculture, fishing and forestry. They have no other financial activities or resources which can enable them to adapt to climate change or to face natural disasters, and their access to social services and protection is very limited. 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 been a tragic rise in the number of migrants seeking to flee from the growing poverty caused by environmental degradation.
Yet the climate is just one of the many issues Francis calls us to respond to. He also discusses pollution (20), industrial waste (21), the western throwaway culture (22), water scarcity (28) and quality (29), and the loss of biodiversity (32-42). And after all this, he moves on to issues that are more sociological than ecological, echoing his conviction that humans are indivisibly connected with the rest of the creation (240): urbanization (44), societal breakdown (46), harmful effects of technology and media (47), and socioeconomic inequality (48-52). The scope of Francis' vision for human (or creational) flourishing, the depth of his compassion for humanity and nature, is breathtaking, as expressed in one of his concluding sentences:
it is no longer enough to speak only of the integrity of ecosystems. 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. (224)
In the face of all these problems, so often I turn away from most of them and focus on a few pet issues like climate change or recycling, if that. Francis' conviction shows me that this is due to the smallness of my heart; I simply can't bear to think in such length about the modern human condition, though I wish I could. Simply stopping manmade climate change is not nearly enough; this document reads like a blueprint for a truly Christian, truly human(e) way of being in the world. No one is fully equal to the task which he describes. This encyclical is not, I think, meant to be read by us as individuals, but as citizens, employees, members and supporters of movements and organizations that can tackle the big challenges, and, for some, as members of the body of Christ who are the real recipients of God's command to be stewards of his creation. To this end, in chapter two of the encyclical Francis compellingly lays out the Christian foundation for creation care, doing so much better than I did in my previous post on the climate.

Part of me is quite happy that Laudato Si' is getting as much publicity as it is, even if it arrives with much more fanfare than Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew's letter published years ago (in paragraphs 7-8 Francis favorably recognizes the prior contributions of Bartholomew, whose response to the present encyclical is also well worth reading, as is his joint response with the Archbishop of Canterbury). I hope that it will help to direct both public opinion and public policy towards courses of action that will bring about the kind of flourishing and harmony with the creation that he envisions. Yet it is hard not to finish reading it without feeling sobered at all the ways we harm ourselves and exploit the world around us, and what will be involved in shifting our present course.

Returning to the subject of the climate (maybe for the above reasons?), I appreciate how Francis is using his considerable moral authority to increase the pressure on climate change deniers. I could already tell you that it is immoral to reject humility, the basic facts, and public opinion in claiming without foundation that you know better about the climate than the overwhelming majority of climate scientists. But Francis also highlights our moral responsibility to live in harmony with (rather than selfishly exploit) the rest of the created world, and the human consequences of climate change, which will disproportionately fall on the poor and vulnerable who had a relatively small role in causing the rising sea levels, scorching droughts, or food chain collapses that made them into refugees. In other words, environmentalism is not just about self-preservation; it is about social justice and living as created beings worshipping our Creator. Climate change denial is not only blind (does anyone else appreciate the irony that religious leaders now seem to be more scientifically literate than a good deal of civil leaders?); it is callous for refusing to see and take responsibility for the consequences of our contributions to the problem at hand. As this excellent response from BioLogos says, Laudato Si' "makes a moral call for action based on the fundamental premises of the Christian faith – premises so fundamental that we can all, and must all, agree."

In summary: read Pope Francis' encyclical, or at least an executive summary of it. Recommend it to your friends and loved ones. The vision if offers, of a way through the ecological, technological, and sociological problems besetting modern-day humanity, is motivated by a compassionate heart that compels attention, if not partnership, not just from all Christians, but from all people. His seamless connection of this heart with the Christian faith and gospel is one of the best examples of evangelism I have seen in this day and age. For all the differences between my faith tradition and the pope's, I stand in complete agreement with him on the subject matter of this encyclical, and I hope that it finds traction in the hearts, minds, and lives of many.

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