In last week’s column I talked in general about the new encyclical from Pope Francis, Laudato Si (Praise Be To You). I discussed what an encyclical is and why the Pope was “taking sides” in the climate change debate. I promised to follow that up this week, with a look at some of the highlights in this more than 100 page document.
Some have found the Pope’s remarks on the environment too extreme (“The earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth”) and his analysis of capitalism too harsh (“market forces . . . see nature as a deposit of economic resources available for exploitation”). But in his encyclical the Pope is asking us to see the effect of environmental damage from the perspective of the poor—who are most affected when natural resources are extracted from the land to feed the market for consumer goods and who have the fewest options when violent and extreme weather caused by climate change rolls across the land. When we travel to third world countries most of us only see the parts of these countries that their governments and the tour companies want us to see. But the Pope knows first-hand through his own travels and his own ministry among the poor in South America about the destruction of rain forests, the “desertification” of peasant farm lands, and the poisoning of drinking water from industrial production.
The Pope is speaking out so strongly because he sees the environmental crisis as essentially a spiritual crisis (“an economic sin”), which manifests itself in at least three ways. First, our unbridled appetite for material goods contradicts an essential tenet of our faith that true and lasting happiness is in God and not in the things of this world (“The mere amassing of things and pleasures are not enough to give meaning and joy to the human heart”). Second, protecting our environment must be seen as an essential component in our care for the poor and the marginalized (He says we cannot claim to respect nature while supporting abortion or be pro-life without a commitment to reverse the damage to the environment; likewise we cannot oppose the trafficking of endangered species while remaining indifferent to human trafficking). Third, our indifference to the state of the environment is a betrayal of our most basic responsibility given to the human race in Genesis (human beings “endowed with intelligence must respect the laws of nature and the delicate equilibria existing between the creatures of this world . . . All living beings have a value of their own in God’s eyes . . . . Living our vocation to be protectors of God’s handiwork is essential to a life of virtue; it is not an optional or secondary aspect of our Christian experience.”).
In the end, the Pope is warning us that the cavalier way that our present economic-political system treats earth “our common home” is unsustainable. Today it is the world’s poor who are most affected; tomorrow it will be us. He then proposes very concrete actions, some of which we can take as individuals and some require systemic change. We can practice environmental responsibility by “avoiding the use of plastic and paper, reducing water consumption, separating refuse, cooking only what can be reasonably consumed, showing care for other living beings, using public transportation or car-pooling, planting trees, turning off unnecessary lights . . .” He suggests that even saying grace before meals can be a wonderful reminder that all that we have is truly a gift. At the national and international level, the Pope calls for policies reducing “carbon dioxide and other highly polluting gases . . . and developing sources of renewable energy.” He also challenges the nations of the world to place the common global good ahead of their national interests in negotiating treaties on the environment, recognizing that some nations can do more to mitigate a future environmental catastrophe than others.
There is much more that the Pope has to say about the state of the world in this encyclical, which was released on June 18. However, my impression is that his words, after creating an initial splash, are already in the process of being ignored and forgotten. Perhaps the message seems too much like the same old stuff. I was in high school when the “environmental movement” began to solidify in the late 1960’s and I remember the immense activism of that first Earth Day in 1970. Since then I think most of us have simply grown used to dire warnings about the environment. After all the years of hand-wringing, it is hard to believe that we might actually be heading down a path of destruction from which we cannot return. Essentially the Pope is asking us to see that caring for the environment is just as essential to practicing our faith as obeying the commandments and being charitable. Maybe if we told ourselves that every day for a month we might begin to believe it.