From Caring for our Common Home: A Readers’ Guide & Commentary on Pope Francis’ Encyclical on the Environment, by Fr. Thomas Reese, SJ, with additional quotes from Laudato Si’, USCCB, guides by the Columbans and Franciscans, and from Henry J. Longbottom SJ. Email marie (at) catholicnetwork.us if you want the 21 page Word doc.
The pope is calling the world to a conversion that will have a huge impact on how we live, how our economy works, and how governments operate. “Revolutionary” is almost too weak a word. It will require an extraordinary change in human vision and behavior to accomplish this peaceful revolution. It will require sacrifice from everyone, especially those who are enjoying the fruits of the status quo. What the pope asks will not be easy, but he encourages us to trust in a loving God and a powerful Spirit that can renew the face of the earth. Laudato Si’ emphasizes love as the motivating force and requires each of us to get involved for the long haul. This is a marathon, not a sprint. As Christians, we must have hope and faith. Francis’ encyclical strengthens that hope.
The encyclical draws on an immense range of sources. Pope Francis was trained as a chemist before he entered the seminary. He is quite clear that ‘Facts are more important than ideas’. These facts include the physical limits of the Earth, our atmosphere and to life for many. The pope begins the encyclical by saying Sister Earth “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.” He cites earlier popes and other religious leaders who have spoken about the environment and is clear that the land and resources belong to God.
Henry Longbottom SJ also provides a quick overview of Laudato Si’, “a text of such landmark significance that it may well become one of the most important sources of Catholic Social Teaching since its inception with Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum in 1891.” Pope Francis presents “urgent challenge to protect our common home … to bring the whole human family together to seek a sustainable and integral development, for we know that things can change” (13). It’s all about relationships.
In the introductory section, Francis, following his thirteenth-century namesake, calls the earth our “common home”, which is like our sister and our mother. But we are damaging this familial relationship as we harm the environment. In so doing, we are damaging our relationship with other humans, particularly those least equipped to defend themselves: the poor and future generations. We are forgetting our interconnectedness with the earth and with those around and ahead of us who depend on our good stewardship of the gift of creation.
Given the universal nature of our common home, Francis makes it clear that the encyclical is addressed to not only members of the Church but is a vehicle to “enter into dialogue” with all people who are “united by the same concern” (3, 7). Such a wide target audience explains the immense range of sources the encyclical draws on. The document looks to St. Francis of Assisi and St. Bonaventure, as well as St. Thomas Aquinas, but also to Eastern Christian traditions. It even quotes a Sufi Mystic. Twentieth-century thinkers Teilhard de Chardin and Romano Guardini deserve special mention. Secular documents such as the Rio Declaration from 1992 and the 2000 Earth Charter are referred to as well. The reader is also struck by the many references to previous papal writings, particularly those of St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI. The relationship between Francis and his predecessors on ecology is strong.
After a comprehensive introduction, the encyclical divides into six chapters, each examining different aspects of the rupture between humans and creation and the prospects for healing this relationship.
The first chapter, “What Is Happening to Our Common Home”, looks at the various symptoms of environmental degradation. The impacts of climate change are considered alongside issues of the depletion of freshwater and loss of biodiversity. There is no substantial discussion of the science of global warming; instead, it simply points to the overwhelming consensus concerning the negative impact of carbon-intensive economies on the natural world and human life: “Caring for ecosystems demands farsightedness, since no one looking for quick and easy profit is truly interested in their preservation” (36). The encyclical firmly posits that a truly ecological approach is also inherently social – an approach that simultaneously hears the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor. The social and environmental impacts of mining is cited as a prime example of this.
The second chapter, “The Gospel of Creation”, considers the world the way that God intended it. The chapter surveys the rich scriptural traditions to show that there is no biblical justification for “a tyrannical anthropocentrism unconcerned for other creatures.”(68) And reverence for nature is only authentic if we have compassion for fellow humans. All have a role and deserve life.
The third chapter, “The Human Roots of the Ecological Crisis”, examines the twin notions of what it calls the “technocratic paradigm” and a “modern anthropocentrism” borne out of a view that mistakenly sees nature as a mere given, devoid of any spiritual or transcending inherent value. These notions have led us to ignore limits, the inherent value of others, or longer term considerations, thinking that our approach can continue despite the earth’s finite resources. A purely materialistic view of reality has not only resulted in disregard for the environment, but also lessened the value of life, especially those forms viewed as having little or no use in the current economic order – human embryos, the poor, or people with disabilities.
At the heart of consumerist and profit-driven economic ideologies is a wrong-footed idea of dominion. The result is exploitation and a throwaway attitude towards nature and human life itself. The encyclical calls for a bold cultural revolution in our attitude to development and progress. It puts it rather bluntly: “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.”(114).
In the fourth chapter, “Integral Ecology”, the encyclical charts a path to recapture awareness of the interconnectedness of creation. To do so, it is essential to appreciate the impact of environmental degradation on “cultural ecology”, such as those social networks and ways of life which are bound up with the environment in which communities are placed. The experience of indigenous peoples is specifically referred to in this regard.
The fifth chapter, “Lines of Approach and Action”, sets out various international collective actions needed. It highlights the imperative to switch from fossil fuels to renewables, with the use of government subsidies where appropriate. It identifies the need for international agreements and legislation not only in relation to climate change but also biodiversity and the oceans. Carbon credits are criticized as “an expedient which permits maintaining the excessive consumption of some countries and sectors.” (171).
The sixth chapter, “Ecological Education and Spirituality”, shifts attention to the individual believer, families and communities, and invites them to make a difference in concrete ways as we strive to transform our systems and take practical steps leading to a deeper, spiritual “ecological conversion” through which the follower of Christ recognizes the true worth of all created entities. The statement “God created the world, writing into it an order and a dynamism that human beings have no right to ignore”(221) stands in the hallowed natural law tradition of Aristotle and Aquinas that every creature has in its nature an end, a telos, which humans should respect and honor. The intrinsic value of non-humans is noted when the encyclical states that the “ultimate purpose of other creatures is not to be found in us” but rather in the Risen Christ who embraces all things (83). — Henry Longbottom, SJ [email protected]
Chapter 1 What is happening to our common home?
Pope Francis is a firm believer in the need to gather the facts in order to understand a problem. Chapter 1 presents the scientific consensus on climate change along with a description of other threats to the environment, including threats to water supplies and biodiversity. He also looks at how environmental degradation has affected human life and society. He concludes by writing about the global inequality of the environmental crisis.
“The climate is a common good” (23) and “access to safe drinkable water is a basic and universal human right.” He says biodiversity is important (32-42) and we have no right to deprive other species of their existence. He talks about the effects on people’s lives of environmental deterioration, current models of development, and the throwaway culture (43-47) and says “we cannot adequately combat environmental degradation unless we attend to causes related to human and social degradation” (48). He stresses that “a true ‘ecological debt’ exists, particularly between the global north and south” and that the world’s response to our intersecting environmental and economic crises has been weak (53)? Our technocratic decision making and economic domination system oriented to profit more than people has been problematic.
Chapter 1 of the encyclical first reports on air pollution: “Exposure to atmospheric pollutants produces a broad spectrum of health hazards, especially for the poor, and causes millions of premature deaths.” Pollution is “caused by transport, industrial fumes, substances which contribute to the acidification of soil and water, fertilizers, insecticides, fungicides, herbicides and agrotoxins in general.” Then the chapter moves on to the pollution caused by waste. “Each year hundreds of millions of tons of waste are generated, much of it non-biodegradable, highly toxic and radioactive, from homes and businesses, from construction and demolition sites, from clinical, electronic and industrial sources.” About climate, the Pope cites the overwhelming scientific agreement that “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.” He references how global warming leads to melting of glaciers and polar ice, rising sea levels, and the release of methane gas from the decomposition of frozen organic material. He also notes that “carbon dioxide pollution increases the acidification of the oceans and compromises the marine food chain.” He points to the overwhelming consensus concerning the negative impact of carbon-intensive economies on the natural world and human life: “Caring for ecosystems demands farsightedness, since no one looking for quick and easy profit is truly interested in their preservation” (36). “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.”
Chapter 1 devotes an entire section to the loss of biodiversity, its causes and consequences. “Each year sees the disappearance of thousands of plant and animal species which we will never know, which our children will never see, because they have been lost forever. The great majority become extinct for reasons related to human activity.” These are resources that will not be available to future generations. The encyclical reports on polluted water supplies, dying coral reefs, and deforestation. It summarizes the current thinking of scientists about environmental issues. Later in the encyclical, Francis writes, “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.” Facts matter when it comes to the environment, which is why Francis begins his encyclical with a presentation of the scientific consensus on the state of the environment and where we are going. These facts present the world with a moral dilemma that will be explicated later in the encyclical. Facts, in Francis’ universe, should not be twisted to fit our ideas. Rather, facts can force us to change our ideas; for example, what it means to be a Christian in the 21st century must change when confronted with environmental crisis we face.
Chapter 2 The Gospel of creation
The pope argues that faith convictions can motivate Christians to care for nature and for the most vulnerable of their brothers and sisters. He begins with the biblical account of creation and care. He then meditates on the mystery of the universe, which he sees as a continuing revelation of the divine.
“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 and which also unites us in fond affection with brother sun, sister moon, brother river and mother earth.” In “till and keep” the garden of the world (cf. Gen 2:15), “keeping” means caring, protecting, overseeing and preserving. This implies a relationship of mutual responsibility between human beings and nature. In addition to communities taking from the bounty of the earth what is needed for subsistence, we also have the duty to protect the earth and to ensure its fruitfulness for coming generations. “The earth is the Lord’s” (Ps 24:1); to him belongs “the earth with all that is within it” (Dt 10:14). Thus God rejects every claim to absolute ownership: “The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine.”(67, Lev 25:23) “This responsibility for God’s earth means that human beings, endowed with intelligence, must respect the laws of nature and the delicate equilibria existing between the creatures of this world.” Further, rest on the seventh day is meant not only for human beings (67) 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; they cannot just be used as we wish. Man must respect the particular goodness of every creature, to avoid any disordered use of things.” (69) Everything is interconnected, and genuine care for our own lives and our relationships with nature is inseparable from fraternity, justice and faithfulness to others (70). The Pope reviews biblical law on the sabbath, giving land and people adequate rest, and returning land and goods to those indebted. The pope says, this “was an acknowledgment that the gift of the earth with 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.”(71) All “not only exist by God’s mighty power; we also live with him and beside him. This is why we adore him.” (72)
He reminds us to find renewed strength during times of trial by contemplating” God who created the universe, who “gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless.” (Is 40:28b-29). Francis urges us to read the prophets (73) and recall that God can overcome every form of evil. Injustice is not invincible (74). When we forget this we can end up forgetting our place, “worshipping earthly powers…even to the point of claiming an unlimited right to trample his creation underfoot;” “otherwise human beings will always try to impose their own laws and interests on reality.” (75). Creation can only be understood as a gift from the outstretched hand of the Father of all, and as a reality illuminated by the love which calls us together into universal communion. (76) The creating word expresses a free choice. Creation is of the order of love. God’s love is the fundamental moving force in all created things. Every creature is thus the object of the Father’s tenderness, who gives it its place in the world. (77)
He speaks of freedom and responsibility of human beings who, as part of the world, have the duty to cultivate their abilities in order to protect it and develop its potential. If we acknowledge the value and the fragility of nature and, at the same time, our God-given abilities, we can finally leave behind the modern myth of unlimited material progress. A fragile world, entrusted by God to human care, challenges us to devise intelligent ways of directing, developing and limiting our power. (78)
Faith allows us to interpret the meaning and the mysterious beauty of what is unfolding. And we can apply our intelligence towards things evolving positively. The work of the Church seeks not only to remind everyone of the duty to care for nature, but at the same time “must above all protect mankind from self-destruction.”(79) God, who wishes to work with us and who counts on our cooperation, can also bring good out of the evil we have done, and “loosen the knots of human affairs, including the most complex and inscrutable”.(80) God is intimately present to each being, without impinging on the autonomy of his creature(s). His divine presence, which ensures the subsistence and growth of each being, “continues the work of creation” (79, Aquinas). The Spirit of God has filled the universe with possibilities and therefore, from the very heart of things, something new can always emerge (80). Each of us has his or her own personal identity…a direct action of God and a particular call to life and to relationship. The biblical accounts of creation invite us to see each human being as a subject who can never be reduced to the status of an object, each capable of entering into dialogue with God and others. It would also be mistaken to view other living beings as mere objects subjected 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. Completely at odds with this model are Jesus’ model of harmony, justice, fraternity and peace.
As he said of the powers of his own age: “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant” (Mt 20:25-26). (82). In 83 he “add(s) yet another argument for rejecting every tyrannical and irresponsible domination of human beings over other creatures. The ultimate purpose of other creatures is not to be found in us (83). Each creature has its own purpose. None is superfluous. The entire material universe speaks of God’s love, his boundless affection. Soil, water, mountains: everything is, as it were, a caress of God. And the history of our friendship with God is always linked to particular places. The Earth is a continuing revelation of the divine”and “To sense each creature singing the hymn of its existence is to live joyfully in God’s love and hope” (85). The universe as a whole, in all its manifold relationships, shows forth the inexhaustible riches of God (86). St. Thomas Aquinas wisely noted that multiplicity and variety “come from the intention of the first agent” who willed that “what was wanting to one in the representation of the divine goodness might be supplied by another”, as God’s goodness “could not be represented fittingly by any one creature”. Hence we need to grasp the variety of things in their multiple relationships; the Catechism teaches “God willed the interdependence of creatures. No creature is self-sufficient. Creatures exist only in dependence on each other, to complete each other, in the service of each other” (86). 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 (87). Nature as a whole not only manifests God; God is present and found therein (88). “The earth is essentially a shared inheritance, whose fruits are meant to benefit everyone.” (71).
- How does Francis interpret Genesis 1:28, which grants humankind dominion over the earth (Paragraph 67)? He says ”Although it is true that we Christians have at times incorrectly interpreted the Scriptures, nowadays we must forcefully reject the notion that the word dominion or that we are created in God’s image justifies absolute domination over other creatures. Christians in their turn “realize that their responsibility within creation, and their duty towards nature and the Creator, are an essential part of their faith” (64, JPII).
- According to Francis, the Bible teaches that the harmony between the creator, humanity, and creation was disrupted by our presuming to take the place of God and refusing to acknowledge our creaturely limitations (66). In what ways do we deify the market? Our leaders? Do we also take less responsibility then for bringing about system change, where we can have an impact?
- How does Francis use the Bible to support his view that the gift of the earth with its fruits belongs to everyone? (71)
- In reflecting on the mystery of the universe, what does Francis mean by saying that “creation is of the order of love”? (77)
- What is our role “in this universe, shaped by open and intercommunicating systems” where “we can discern countless forms of relationship and participation” (79)?
- Francis says, “Creating a world in need of development, God in some way sought to limit himself in such a way that many of the things we think of as evils, dangers or sources of suffering, are in reality part of the pains of childbirth which he uses to draw us into the act of cooperation with the Creator” (Paragraph 80). How do you understand this?
- If the ultimate purpose of other creatures is not to be found in us, how do we and other creatures fit into God’s plan (83)?
- Alongside revelation contained in Scripture, “there is a divine manifestation in the blaze of the sun and the fall of night” (85). How have you experienced God in creation?
- “The Christian tradition has never recognized the right to private property as absolute or inviolable, and has stressed the social purpose of all forms of private property” (Paragraph 93). When can the right to private property be subordinated to the common good?
- What was the attitude of Jesus toward creation (Paragraphs 96-100)?
Commentary: Revelation and creation, respecting and sharing God’s gift
From the beginning of human history, the beauty and awesomeness of creation has inspired people to think of God. Whether it was the power of a storm or the beauty of a sunset, humans have experienced creation as revelatory of greatness of a creator God. Even without Hebrew or Christian revelation, many peoples saw the divine working through nature. For early humans the world was alive with spirits and the divine. The Bible is filled with reflections on the relationship between God and nature, and the role of humans in this world. Pope Francis in the second chapter of Laudato Si’ reflects on God, creation, and the role of humanity in the divine plan in order 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 their brothers and sisters.”
First off, he wants to make clear that he rejects the “dominion” theory that gives man total domination over creation. This theological view, based on Genesis 1:28, was interpreted during the 19th century to promote the industrial revolution and its desire to use the earth as malleable clay that man could pound and shape into whatever he wants. Francis sees this interpretation as distorted. It “has encouraged the unbridled exploitation of nature by painting him [man] as domineering and destructive by nature. This is not a correct interpretation of the Bible as understood by the Church.” Today, “we must forcefully reject the notion that our being created in God’s image and given dominion over the earth justifies absolute domination over other creatures.” Instead, Pope Francis does an exegesis of Genesis 2:15 telling Adam to till and tend the garden of the world. “‘Tilling,’” writes Francis, “refers to cultivating, ploughing or working, while ‘keeping’ means caring, protecting, overseeing and preserving.” As a result, “Each community can take from the bounty of the earth whatever it needs for subsistence, but it also has the duty to protect the earth and to ensure its fruitfulness for coming generations.”
He notes that the Sabbath was a day of rest not only for humans but also for “your ox and your donkey” (Exodus 23:12). “Clearly, the Bible has no place for a tyrannical anthropocentrism unconcerned for other creatures.” In fact, the psalms tell us that creatures by their very existence bless and give glory to God. God loves the work of his hands and saw that it was good even before man and woman were created. Francis’ reflection on Genesis leads him to see that “human life is grounded in three fundamental and closely intertwined relationships: with God, with our neighbor and with the earth itself.” These relationships are ruptured by sin, “by our presuming to take the place of God and refusing to acknowledge our creaturely limitations.”
Francis affirms that the world did not result from chaos or chance but “as the result of a decision … a free choice” based on love. “Every creature is thus the object of the Father’s tenderness, who gives it a place in the world,” and “God’s love is the fundamental moving force in all created things.” As a result, “every act of cruelty toward any creature is contrary to human dignity.” The biblical answer to the injustice of domineering earthly powers or the destruction of the earth is to “speak once more of the figure of a Father who creates and who alone owns the world.” Francis notes each human person possesses a uniqueness. “Each of us has his or her own personal identity and is capable of entering into dialogue with others and with God himself. Our capacity to reason, to develop arguments, to be inventive, to interpret reality and to create art, along with other not yet discovered capacities, are signs of a uniqueness which transcends the spheres of physics and biology.”
God created “a world in need of development,” and “counts on our cooperation.” As a result, “many of the things we think of as evils, dangers or sources of suffering, are in reality part of the pains of childbirth which he uses to draw us into the act of cooperation with the Creator.” Despite the specialness of humanity, “The ultimate destiny of the universe is in the fullness of God” and the fullness of life for all. Everything is connected, he argues. He cites the Dominican bishops who said, “Peace, justice and the preservation of creation are three absolutely interconnected themes, which cannot be separated and treated individually without once again falling into reductionism.” He goes on to write, “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 and which also unites us in fond affection with brother sun, sister moon, brother river and mother earth.”
Central to Francis’ biblical reflection is seeing the earth as a gift “with its fruits belonging to everyone.” Those who farmed the land “were obliged to share its fruits, especially with the poor, with widows, orphans and foreigners in their midst” (Leviticus 19:9-10). “Concern for the environment thus needs to be joined to a sincere love for our fellow human beings and an unwavering commitment to resolving the problems of society.” Perhaps Francis’ most challenging theological reflection for Catholics in the global north is his seeing the earth as “essentially a shared inheritance, whose fruits are meant to benefit everyone.” We are called to be faithful to our God who “created the world for everyone.” This requires a revolution in our perspective on the fundamental rights of the poor and the underprivileged. It requires that private property be subordinate to “the universal destination of goods, and thus the right of everyone to their use.” He calls this “the golden rule of social conduct and the first principle of the whole ethical and social order.”
He asserts that “The Christian tradition has never recognized the right to private property as absolute or inviolable, and has stressed the social purpose of all forms of private property.” He concludes that “The natural environment is a collective good, the patrimony of all humanity and the responsibility of everyone. If we make something our own, it is only to administer it for the good of all. If we do not, we burden our consciences with the weight of having denied the existence of others.”
Francis cites the New Zealand bishops who asked “what the commandment ‘Thou shall not kill’ means when 20 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.”
Francis reminds us that “In the Christian understanding of the world, the destiny of all creation is bound up with the mystery of Christ, present from the beginning: ‘All things have been created though him and for him’ (Col 1:16).” “The very flowers of the field and the birds…are now imbued with his radiant presence.” The theological vision of Pope Francis in chapter 2 of Laudato Si’ is a practical one; his principal aim is to show that humans must care for creation as well as share its fruits with one another.
Chapter 3 The human roots of the ecological crisis
Too much power and dominance for those with technocratic means: Although science and technology “can produce important means of improving the quality of human life,” they have also “given those with the knowledge, and especially the economic resources to use them, an impressive dominance over the whole of humanity and the entire world.” Francis says we are enthralled with a technocratic paradigm, which promises unlimited growth. But this paradigm “is based on the lie that there is an infinite supply of the earth’s goods, and this leads to the planet being squeezed dry beyond every limit.” Those supporting this paradigm show “no interest in more balanced levels of production, a better distribution of wealth, concern for the environment and the rights of future generations. Their behavior shows that for them maximizing profits is enough.”
The extractive/domination model, which Pope Francis also calls the technocratic paradigm: This paradigm exalts the concept of a subject who, using logical and rational procedures, progressively approaches and gains control over an external object. This subject makes every effort to establish the scientific and experimental method, which in itself is already a technique of possession, mastery and transformation. It is as if the subject were to find itself in the presence of something formless, completely open to manipulation. Men and women have constantly intervened in nature, but for a long time this meant being in tune with and respecting the possibilities offered by the things themselves. It was a matter of receiving what nature itself allowed, as if from its own hand. Now, by contrast, we are the ones to lay our hands on things, attempting to extract everything possible from them while frequently ignoring or forgetting the reality in front of us. (106) This has made it easy to accept the idea of infinite or unlimited growth, which proves so attractive to economists, financiers and experts in technology. It is based on the lie that there is an infinite supply of the earth’s goods, and this leads to the planet being squeezed dry beyond every limit. It is the false notion that “an infinite quantity of energy and resources are available, that it is possible to renew them quickly, and that the negative effects of the exploitation of the natural order can be easily absorbed”.(106) “The effects of imposing this model on reality as a whole, human and social, are seen in the deterioration of the environment, but this is just one sign of a reductionism which affects every aspect of human and social life… they create a framework which ends up conditioning lifestyles and shaping social possibilities along the lines dictated by the interests of certain powerful groups.” (107) We need to think more intentionally, creatively, and outside of this box to make “decisions about the kind of society we want to build” (107). “The technological paradigm has become so dominant that it would be difficult to do without its resources and even more difficult to utilize them without being dominated by their internal logic. It has become countercultural to choose a lifestyle whose goals are even partly independent of technology, of its costs and its power to globalize and make us all the same.” It is not about or “for the well-being of the human race”…“in the most radical sense of the term power is its motive – a lordship over all” (108) (domination irrespective of others). “The technocratic paradigm (with its “view to profit”) also tends to dominate economic and political life… The lessons of the global financial crisis have not been assimilated, and we are learning all too slowly the lessons of environmental deterioration (109) (Be more concerned with the) actual operation (of these bankrupt theories) in the functioning of the economy as by their deeds our current system “shows no interest in more balanced levels of production, a better distribution of wealth, concern for the environment and the rights of future generations. Their behavior shows that for them maximizing profits is enough. Yet by itself the market cannot guarantee integral human development and social inclusion…we have “a sort of ‘super-development’ of a wasteful and consumerist kind which forms an unacceptable contrast with the ongoing situations of dehumanizing deprivation,” while we are all too slow in developing economic institutions and social initiatives which can give the poor regular access to basic resources. We fail to see the deepest roots of our present failures, which have to do with the direction, goals, meaning and social implications of technological and economic growth.”(110) We need to “together generate resistance to the assault” and avoid being “caught up in the same globalized logic”, looking at what are in “reality interconnected problems” so we do not “mask the true and deepest problems of the global system.” (111)
(Cooperatives and better direction of technology as a path forward) “We can once more broaden our vision. We have the freedom needed to limit and direct technology; we can put it at the service of another type of progress, one which is healthier, more human, more social, more integral. Liberation from the dominant technocratic paradigm does in fact happen sometimes, for example, when cooperatives of small producers adopt less polluting means of production, and opt for a non-consumerist model of life, recreation and community. Or when technology is directed primarily to resolving people’s 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 through a kind of salvation which occurs in beauty and in those who behold it. 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. Will the promise last, in spite of everything, with all that is authentic rising up in stubborn resistance?” (112)
“There is a growing awareness that scientific and technological progress 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 possibilities which technology continues to offer us… Let us refuse to resign ourselves to this, and 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.” (113) All of this shows the urgent need for us to move forward in a bold cultural revolution… 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.”(114) “Prizing technical thought over reality, “the technological 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,” compromising the intrinsic dignity of the world. When human beings fail to find their true place in this world, they misunderstand themselves and end up acting against themselves: ‘Not only has God given the earth to man, who must use it with respect for the original good purpose for which it was given, but, man too is God’s gift to man. He must therefore respect the natural and moral structure with which he has been endowed’.”(115 and JPII)
“Modernity has been marked by an excessive anthropocentrism which today, under another guise, continues to stand in the way of shared understanding and of any effort to strengthen social bonds. The time has come to pay renewed attention to reality and the limits it imposes, conditions for a more sound and fruitful development of individuals and society. An inadequate presentation of Christian anthropology 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.” Instead, a biblical view calls for care, as a householder, and responsible stewardship. (116)
“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 nature…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. ‘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’.” (117 and JPII)
“There can be no renewal of our relationship with nature without a renewal of humanity itself.“ People have “unique capacities of knowledge, will, freedom and responsibility” and we must use them. (118) “The importance of interpersonal relations. If the present ecological crisis is one small sign of the ethical, cultural and spiritual crisis of modernity, we cannot presume to heal our relationship with nature and the environment without healing all fundamental human relationships… esteem for each person and respect for others…A correct relationship with the created world demands that we not weaken this social dimension of openness to others… Our relationship with the environment can never be isolated from our relationship with others and with God (119). How can we genuinely teach the importance of concern for other vulnerable beings, however troublesome or inconvenient they may be, if we fail to protect (those who cannot defend themselves)? (120) We need to develop a new synthesis capable of overcoming the false arguments of recent centuries. Christianity…continues to reflect on these issues in fruitful dialogue with changing historical situations (121).
When human beings place themselves at the center, they give absolute priority to immediate convenience and all else becomes relative…in conjunction with the omnipresent technocratic paradigm and the cult of unlimited human power, the rise of a relativism which sees everything as irrelevant unless it serves one’s own immediate interests… leading to environmental degradation and social decay (122). “Use and throw away logic” The culture of relativism is the same disorder which 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 the 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 their impact on society and nature as collateral damage…This same “use and throw away” logic generates so much waste, because of the disordered desire to consume more than what is really necessary. We should not think that political efforts or the force of law will be sufficient to prevent actions which 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 (123).
- Francis says “the technocratic paradigm also tends to dominate economic and political life” (Paragraph 109)?
- Francis says, “We are all too slow in developing economic institutions and social initiatives which can give the poor regular access to basic resources” (Paragraph 109). What does he mean? Why does this happen?
- Francis asserts that “by itself the market cannot guarantee integral human development and social inclusion” (Paragraph 109). Why does he say this? Do you agree?
- Francis argues, “To seek only a technical remedy to each environmental problem which comes up is to separate what is in reality interconnected and to mask the true and deepest problems of the global system” (Paragraph 111). What are the true and deepest problems of the global system in Francis’ mind?
- Francis calls for a broadened vision (Paragraph 112), “a bold cultural revolution” (Paragraph 114). What would that look like?
- For Francis, “the present ecological crisis is one small sign of the ethical, cultural and spiritual crisis of modernity” (Paragraph 119). What does Francis mean by “practical relativism” (Paragraph 122) and cultural relativism (Paragraph 123)?
- Why does Francis argue that any approach to integrated ecology must also protect employment (Paragraph 124)?
Commentary Pope Francis’ equation: Technology + greed = disaster
Pope Francis is highly critical of greed and the domination paradigm that has been extended worldwide through technology and the profit motive. While crediting technology with what it has accomplished in terms of many medical and life-giving advances, Pope Francis speaks of weapons and destruction of the earth and argues, “our immense technological development has not been accompanied by a development in human responsibility, values and conscience.” Francis is especially critical of how paradigm sees the world (including human beings and material objects) as objects completely open to manipulation. The goal is to extract everything possible from things while ignoring the reality in front of us. This leads economists, financiers and experts in technology to accept the idea of unlimited growth “based on the lie that there is an infinite supply of the earth’s goods, and this leads to the planet being squeezed dry beyond every limit.”
Francis saves his harshest words for economic interests who “accept every advance in technology with a view to profit, without concern for its potentially negative impact on human beings.” They show “no interest in more balanced levels of production, a better distribution of wealth, concern for the environment and the rights of future generations. Their behavior shows that for them maximizing profits is enough.” In Francis’ mind, this is the cause of our current economic and environmental crisis. What is needed is a broader vision where “technology is directed primarily to resolving people’s concrete problems, truly helping them live with more dignity and less suffering.” Technology must serve humanity, not the market.
The goal of technology, he argues, should not be to increasingly replace human work with machines in order to save money and make more profit. Like Pope John Paul II, Francis holds work in high esteem. “Work is a necessity, part of the meaning of life on this earth, a path to growth, human development and personal fulfilment.” “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.”
“Once the human being declares independence from reality and behaves with absolute dominion, the very foundations of our life begin to crumble,” Francis believes. Rather than being a cooperator with God in the work of creation, quoting John Paul II he says, “man sets himself up in place of God and thus ends up provoking a rebellion on the part of nature.” For Francis, “the present ecological crisis is one small sign of the ethical, cultural and spiritual crisis of modernity.” Humanity “cannot presume to heal our relationship with nature and the environment without healing all fundamental human relationships” including our relationships with others, God, and creation. He says, the “practical relativism typical of our age is even more dangerous than doctrinal relativism. In practical relativism, human beings place themselves at the center “and” give absolute priority to immediate convenience and all else becomes relative.” This culture “sees everything as irrelevant unless it serves one’s own immediate interests,” going hand and hand with “the omnipresent technocratic paradigm and the cult of unlimited human power.” The result is “the mindset of those who say: Let us allow the invisible forces of the market to regulate the economy, and consider their impact on society and nature as collateral damage.” He condemns the “use and throw away” logic that “generates so much waste, because of the disordered desire to consume more than what is really necessary.” Pope Francis does not believe that technology and the market will magically provide the solution to social and environmental issues, rather they are part of the problem.
Pope Francis previews in Chapter 3 his support for the commons, cooperatives, and an economy that favors diversity and small-scale producers. “For example, there is a great variety of small-scale food production systems which feed the greater part of the world’s peoples, using a modest amount of land and producing less waste, be it in small agricultural parcels, in orchards and gardens, hunting and wild harvesting or local fishing.” He calls for government support of such small producers. “To ensure economic freedom from which all can effectively benefit,” he asserts, “restraints occasionally have to be imposed on those possessing greater resources and financial power.” He finds calls for “economic freedom” to be bogus when “real conditions bar many people from actual access to it.” Pope Francis thinks business is or should be “a noble vocation, directed to producing wealth and improving our world. It can be a fruitful source of prosperity for the areas in which it operates, especially if it sees the creation of jobs as an essential part of its service to the common good.” He believes that technology can and should be used to improve the lot of humanity and that business people are called to a noble vocation that is in service to the common good.
Chapter 4 Integral ecology
Recognizing the reasons why a given area is polluted requires a study of the workings of society, its economy, its behavior, and the ways it grasps reality. We are not faced 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 (139). The heart of what the Encyclical proposes is integral ecology as a new paradigm of justice. Ecology is the relationship of living organisms and the environment: “Everything is closely interrelated.” All of creation is a web of life that includes “human and social dimensions.” By “environment,” we mean the relationship existing between nature and society. The chapter ends with a look at two important principles: the common good, and justice between generations.
Pope Francis emphasizes the dimension of the interconnectedness of all things and “the conditions required for the life and survival of society, and the honesty needed to question certain models of development, production and consumption” (138) “The analysis of environmental problems cannot be separated from the analysis of human, family, work-related and urban contexts, and of how individuals relate to themselves.”(141) 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. (141). The integral perspective also brings the ecology of institutions into play: “if everything is related, then the health of a society’s institutions affects the environment and the quality of human life. “Every violation of solidarity and civic friendship harms the environment” (142).
The Pope notes that “together with the patrimony of nature, there is also an historic, artistic and cultural patrimony which is likewise under threat” (143), and greater attention to local cultures is needed (rather than leveling or overcoming local cultures through globalization). Also, the problems we have created will take complex solutions, demanding the active participation of all members of the community (144). In the context of culture the Pope expresses the need for special care for indigenous communities and their cultural traditions, noting that they are not merely one minority among others, but should be the principal dialogue partners, especially when large projects affecting their land are proposed. In contrast, indigenous people are still being pressured to abandon their lands to make room for agricultural and mining projects (146), in many places.
The Pope says authentic development presupposes an integral improvement in the quality of human life: public space, housing, transport, etc. (150-154). We need provide for common areas, housing and transportation in a way that promotes “the common good.” While the Pope is concerned for quality urban development, he says this should not cause us to overlook rural populations which “lack access to essential services and where some workers are reduced to conditions of servitude, without rights or even the hope of a more dignified life” (154). “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, whereas thinking that we enjoy absolute power over our own bodies turns, often subtly, into thinking that we enjoy absolute power over creation” (155).
“Human ecology is inseparable from the notion of the common good” (156), but is to be understood in a concrete way. In today’s context, in which, “injustices abound and growing numbers of people are deprived of basic human rights and considered expendable” (158), committing oneself to the common good means to make choices in solidarity based on “a preferential option for the poorest of our brothers and sisters” (158). The Pope defines intergenerational solidarity as the notion of the common good extended to future generations. He comments that: “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” (159) As already emphasized by Benedict XVI: “In addition to a fairer sense of inter-generational solidarity there is also an urgent moral need for a renewed sense of intra- generational solidarity” (162).
“What kind of world do we want to leave to those who come after us, to children who are now growing up?” … “We need to see that what is at stake is our own dignity. Leaving an inhabitable planet to future generations is, first and foremost, up to us. The issue is one which dramatically affects us, for it has to do with the ultimate meaning of our earthly sojourn.” (160) “What is the purpose of our life in this world? Why are we here? What is the goal of our work and all our efforts? What need does the earth have of us” (160)?
Pope Francis adds that our very dignity is at stake. He says that: “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” (161). , “Doomsday predictions can no longer be met with irony or disdain”(161) The current crisis demands a very concrete response, and Pope Francis says: “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 those who will have to endure the dire consequences” (162).
- What would it mean to have “an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature (139)”?
- What responsibilities do I have to creation? What responsibilities do I have to the poor, to future generations? How is poverty an environmental issue?
- The Pope speaks about a consumerist vision of human beings and that the pace of consumption, waste and environmental change has stretched the planet’s capacity, which can only lead to catastrophes. Likewise, research on GHG emissions in our own culture has confirmed a strong linkage between income, consumption (buying new items, going on long trips, increased services and associated products and consumption), and emissions. What do you think our culture could do systematically, to reduce? Where should we start?
- The Pope, bishops, and previous church fathers talk about how the goods of the earth (climate, natural resources, air and water) belong to all. How can this be carried out?
- Pope Francis affirms that “intergenerational solidarity is not optional, but rather a basic question of justice”. What must be done to guarantee a better future for our and other kids?
- What are the consequences of seeing the earth as a gift that we have freely received and must share with others and that also belongs to those who will follow us (159)?
- What does Francis mean when he says, “An ethical and cultural decline … has accompanied the deterioration of the environment” (162)?
Commentary: Everything is Connected. Integral ecology is a key concept in chapter four of Laudato Si’, Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment. It flows from his understanding that “everything is closely related” and that “today’s problems call for a vision capable of taking into account every aspect of the global crisis.” Relationships take place at the atomic and molecular level, between plants and animals, and among species in ecological networks and systems. “We need only recall how ecosystems interact in dispersing carbon dioxide, purifying water, controlling illnesses and epidemics, forming soil, breaking down waste, and in many other ways which we overlook or simply do not know about.” Nor can the “environment” be considered in isolation. “Nature cannot be regarded as something separate from ourselves or as a mere setting in which we live,” writes the pope. “We are part of nature.” We must study “the workings of society, its economy, its behavior patterns, and the ways it grasps reality.” And in considering solutions to the environmental crisis, we must “seek comprehensive solutions which consider the interactions within natural systems themselves and with social systems.” These interrelationships enable Francis to see that “we are not faced with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather one complex crisis which is both social and environmental.” As a result, “Strategies for a solution demand an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature.” In such an “economic ecology,” the protection of the environment is then seen as “an integral part of the development process and cannot be considered in isolation from it.”
Pope Francis also argues that it is important to pay attention to “cultural ecology” in order to protect the cultural treasures of humanity. But “Culture is more than what we have inherited from the past; it is also, and above all, a living, dynamic and participatory present reality, which cannot be excluded as we rethink the relationship between human beings and the environment.” He complains that a consumerist vision of human beings, encouraged by globalization, “has a leveling effect on cultures, diminishing the immense variety which is the heritage of all humanity.” New processes must respect local cultures. “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 which takes place within a cultural context and demands the constant and active involvement of local people from within their proper culture.”
This interconnectedness means that “environmental exploitation and degradation not only exhaust the resources which provide local communities with their livelihood, but also undo the social structures which, for a long time, shaped cultural identity and their sense of the meaning of life and community.” In various parts of the world, he notes, indigenous communities are being pressured “to abandon their homelands to make room for agricultural or mining projects which are undertaken without regard for the degradation of nature and culture.” He marvels at the ability of the poor to practice human ecology where “a wholesome social life can light up a seemingly undesirable environment” and “the limitations of the environment are compensated for in the interior of each person who feels held within a network of solidarity and belonging.”
Pope Francis quotes Pope Benedict who spoke of an “ecology of man,” based on the fact that “man too has a nature that he must respect and that he cannot manipulate at will.” He notes that “thinking that we enjoy absolute power over our own bodies turns, often subtly, into thinking that we enjoy absolute power over creation.” Human ecology, Pope Francis argues, cannot be separated from the notion of the common good, which he cal“a central and unifying principle of social ethics.” Quoting Gaudium et Spes, the Second Vatican Council’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, he defines the common good as “the sum of those conditions of social life which allow social groups and their individual members relatively thorough and ready access to their own fulfillment.” (i.e., flourishing for all, ability to thrive)
The common good calls for respect for the human person as well as the overall welfare of society and the development of a variety of intermediate groups. It requires social peace, stability and security, “which cannot be achieved without particular concern for distributive justice.” “Where 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.”
Finally, Pope Francis’ vision of integral ecology and the common good includes justice between generations. Returning to his biblical vision, he says that “the world is a gift we have freely received and must share with others.” This includes future generations. “The world we have received also belongs to those who will follow us.” He quotes the Portuguese bishops, who said, the environment “is on loan to each generation, which must then hand it on to the next.” He ends chapter four with the challenging question, “What kind of world do we want to leave to those who will come after us, to children who are now growing up?” He fears that “Doomsday predictions can no longer be met with irony or disdain.” According to Pope Francis, the ethical and cultural decline which accompanies the deterioration of the environment forces us to ask fundamental questions about life: “What is the purpose of our life in this world? Why are we here? What is the goal of our work and all our efforts? What need does the earth have of us?”
Chapter 5 Lines of approach and action
What is to be done? Francis calls for dialogue on environmental policy in the international, national and local communities. This dialogue must include transparent decision-making so that the politics serve human fulfillment and not just economic interests. It also involves dialogue between religions and science working together for the common good.
- Francis speaks of the need for a global consensus for confronting problems. Why is it needed, and how is it going to be achieved (164)?
- Why does he think that “the post-industrial period may well be remembered as one of the most irresponsible in history” (165)?
- What are the successes and failures of the global response to environmental issues (66-169)?
- Francis argues, “The same mindset which stands in the way of making radical decisions to reverse the trend of global warming also stands in the way of achieving the goal of eliminating poverty” (175). What is this mindset?
- “The Church does not presume to settle scientific questions or to replace politics,” Francis says. “But I am concerned to encourage an honest and open debate so that particular interests or ideologies will not prejudice the common good” (Paragraph 188). What is the proper role of the church in political, economic and environmental issues?
- Francis is critical of many business practices, has no faith in the marketplace to safeguard the environment, and sees a robust role for government in the regulation of the economy and protecting the environment. What do you think?
- Francis says, “There is a need to change ‘models of global development’ ” (194)? What is wrong with the current models? What would the new models look like?
Commentary: Saving the environment through dialogue and transparency. The world will continue on “the spiral of self-destruction which currently engulfs us,” says Pope Francis, unless everyone works together to find solutions to the environmental crisis through dialogue and transparency. This dialogue must occur on the local, national and international level, and should include people from business, politics, science, religion and the environmental movements, as well as ordinary people who lives will be affected.
In the first four chapters of his encyclical Laudato Si’, Pope Francis reviews what scientists tell us is happening to the environment, reflects on what the Bible telus about creation, and points his finger at greed and a consumption (and extraction)-based economy as the causes of the environmental crisis. In chapter 5, he discusses how we should respond to the crisis.
Francis is the first to admit that the church does not have concrete solutions to the crisis facing the world. “The Church does not presume to settle scientific questions or to replace politics,” he writes. “But I am concerned to encourage an honest and open debate so that particular interests or ideologies will not prejudice the common good.”
Francis believes that “interdependence obliges us to think of one world with a common plan” (his emphasis). He is not impressed by the global efforts so far. Pope Francis acknowledges that the world community has made progress through the Basel Convention on hazardous wastes, the Convention on international trade in endangered species, and the Vienna Convention on protecting the ozone layer.
But the international community has made little progress in protecting biodiversity, stopping desertification, or reducing greenhouse gasses because of a “lack of political will.” What agreements have been made “have been poorly implemented?” Enforceable international agreements and global regulatory norms are needed that “impose obligations and prevent unacceptable actions.”
He calls for the development of a global consensus that would lead “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.”
Specifically, he says that “technology based on the use of highly polluting fossil fuels– especially coal, but also oil and, to a lesser degree, gas – needs to be progressively replaced without delay.” As the Bolivian bishops said, “the countries which have benefited from a high degree of industrialization, at the cost of enormous emissions of greenhouse gases, have a greater responsibility for providing a solution to the problems they have caused.” These countries in fact owe a “carbon debt” to the rest of the world.
Francis singles out one solution for criticism in his encyclical — carbon credits, whereby business could buy the right to pollute from companies that have reduced pollution levels in excess of what is required by law. Francis believes that this could “lead to a new form of speculation which would not help reduce the emission of polluting gases worldwide.” I think he is correct, but this is clearly a prudential judgment about which people could disagree.
Francis argues that poor nations need help through the technology transfer, technical assistance and financial resources. But they also have to work to eliminate extreme poverty and promote social development of their people. They “need to acknowledge the scandalous level of consumption in some privileged sectors of their population and to combat corruption more effectively.”
In fact, Francis believes that “the same mindset which stands in the way of making radical decisions to reverse the trend of global warming also stands in the way of achieving the goal of eliminating poverty.” He observes that the power of nation states has been weakened and “the economic and financial sectors, being transnational, tends to prevail over the political.”
Francis agrees with Pope Benedict who wrote in Caritas in Veritate that there is need for a world political order “to manage the global economy; to revive economies hit by the crisis; to avoid any deterioration of the present crisis and the greater imbalances that would result; to bring about integral and timely disarmament, food security and peace; to guarantee the protection of the environment and to regulate migration.” Such a world authority would be anathema to many Americans who see even a weak United Nations as a threat to U.S. sovereignty.
But Francis does not put all the onus on a world authority; he calls for greater attention to the environment by local and national authorities which have a “responsibility for planning, coordination, oversight and enforcement within their respective borders.” This would include setting down “rules for admissible conduct in the light of the common good.”
The problem he sees is that politics is “concerned with immediate results” and “is driven to produce short-term growth.” Politicians are “are reluctant to upset the public with measures which could affect the level of consumption or create risks for foreign investment.” Plus there is the problem of corruption.
Francis is a fan of cooperatives because “they are able to instill a greater sense of responsibility, a strong sense of community, a readiness to protect others, a spirit of creativity and a deep love for the land. They are also concerned about what they will eventually leave to their children and grandchildren.” He sees this mentality especially in indigenous peoples.
Francis acknowledges that there is “no uniform recipes” that will fit the needs of all countries or regions, but he believes all should promote energy conservation and maximum energy efficiency. This might involve “removing from the market products which are less energy efficient or more polluting, improving transport systems, and encouraging the construction and repair of buildings aimed at reducing their energy consumption and levels of pollution.” Pope Francis also wants to promote recycling and sustainable agriculture. All of this will require courage on the part of politicians who “will inevitably clash with the mindset of short-term gain and results which dominates present-day economics and politics.”
Transparency is an essential element in the dialogue to find better ways of preserving the environment, according to the pope, especially transparency in the assessment of the environmental impact of business ventures and projects. Corruption, on the other hand, conceals “the actual environmental impact of a given project” and produces “specious agreements which fail to inform adequately and to allow for full debate.”
What is needed is environmental impact assessments that are “interdisciplinary, transparent and free of all economic or political pressure.” Only when scientific and political discussions are imbued with honesty and truth can all the different stakeholders reach a consensus on the alternatives available. “The culture of consumerism, which prioritizes short-term gain and private interest, can make it easy to rubber-stamp authorizations or to conceal information.”
Francis calls for a thorough investigation and discussion of any proposed venture. “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?” If a study finds that “serious and irreversible damage may result, a project should be halted or modified.” He recognizes that sometimes the evidence is disputable. In such cases, the burden of proof should be on the projects promoters “to demonstrate that the proposed activity will not cause serious harm to the environment or to those who inhabit it.”
The bottom line for Francis is that “profit cannot be the sole criterion to be taken into account.” Francis believes that “Politics must not be subject to the economy, nor should the economy be subject to the dictates of an efficiency-driven paradigm of technocracy.” Rather they should be in dialogue for the common good.
Chapter 6 Ecological education and spirituality
We need to change and develop new convictions, attitudes and forms of life, including a new lifestyle. This requires not only individual conversion, but also community networks to solve the complex situation facing our world today. Essential to this is a spirituality that can motivate us to a more passionate concern for the protection of our world. Christian spirituality proposes a growth and fulfillment marked by moderation and the capacity to be happy with little. Love, overflowing with small gestures of mutual care, is also civic and political, and it makes itself felt in every action that seeks to build a better world.
- Throughout this encyclical, Francis links concern for the poor with the environment. Why does he do that?
- Francis is critical of a consumerist lifestyle (204). Why? What would a new lifestyle look like?
- What might happen with widespread change in lifestyles (206)?
- What does Francis see as the role of environmental education in increasing awareness and changing habits (210-211)?
- What does Francis mean by an ecological spirituality, and how can it motivate us to a passionate concern for the protection of our world (Paragraph 216)?
- Self-improvement on the part of individuals will not by itself remedy the extremely complex situation we face today, according to Francis. What is the role for community networks? Governments?
- What are the attitudes that foster a spirit of generous care (Paragraphs 220-221)?
- Granted all of the problems we face, what gives Francis joy and peace (222-227)?
- Love must also be civic and political, according to Francis. “Social love moves us to devise larger strategies to halt environmental degradation and to encourage a ‘culture of care’ which permeates all of society.” How can we encourage civic and political love in the United States?
- Francis proposes that the natural world is integral to our sacramental and spiritual lives (233-242). How have you experienced this?
- How is this encyclical going to change your life?
Commentary: The path to change is environmental education and spirituality
In the last chapter of Laudato Si’, Pope Francis begins by acknowledging that “Many things have to change course, but it is we human beings above all who need to change.” The path to change comes through education and spirituality.
“We lack an awareness of our common origin, of our mutual belonging, and of a future to be shared with everyone,” he asserts. “This basic awareness would enable the development of new convictions, attitudes and forms of life.” The problem is that compulsive consumerism “leads people to believe that they are free as long as they have the supposed freedom to consume,” but “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,” believes Francis, “Human beings, while capable of the worst, are also capable of rising above themselves, choosing again what is good, and making a new start, despite their mental and social conditioning.” But this requires our taking an honest look at ourselves and changing our lifestyle and systems. Quoting the Earth Charter he asserts, “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.”
“Disinterested concern for others, and the rejection of every form of self-centeredness and self-absorption, are essential if we truly wish to care for our brothers and sisters and for the natural environment,” he writes.
An environmental spirituality, according to Francis, would include being “capable of going out of ourselves towards the other,” setting “limits on ourselves in order to avoid the suffering of others or the deterioration of our surroundings,” “disinterested concern for others, and the rejection of every form of self-centeredness and self-absorption,” being attuned “to the moral imperative of assessing the impact of our every action and personal decision on the world around us,” and overcoming individualism and developing “a different lifestyle and bring about significant changes in society.”
Environmental education is important in developing this spirituality. It should include “scientific information, consciousness-raising and the prevention of environmental risks” as well as “a critique of ‘myths’ of a modernity grounded in a utilitarian mindset (individualism, unlimited progress, competition, consumerism, the unregulated market).”
Education must “promote a new way of thinking about human beings, life, society and our relationship with nature,” says Francis. “Otherwise, the paradigm of consumerism will continue to advance, with the help of the media and the highly effective workings of the market.” Environmental education must lead to a change in lifestyle, including “avoiding the use of plastic and paper, reducing water consumption, separating refuse, cooking only what can reasonably be consumed, showing care for other living beings, using public transport or car-pooling, planting trees, turning off unnecessary lights, or any number of other practices.”
Christian spirituality has a precious contribution to make in responding to the environment crisis because it “can motivate us to a more passionate concern for the protection of our world,” according to Francis. A commitment to this goal cannot be sustained without an “interior impulse which encourages, motivates, nourishes and gives meaning to our individual and communal activity,” he writes, quoting from Evangelii Gaudium.
In other words, what is required is an “ecological conversion,” whereby the effects of Christians’ “encounter with Jesus Christ become evident in their relationship with the world around them,” writes Francis. “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.”
Pope Francis warns against hoping that the ecological crisis can be solved by individual conversion alone. “Social problems must be addressed by community networks and not simply by the sum of individual good deeds,” he says. “The ecological conversion needed to bring about lasting change is also a community conversion.”
This conversion is founded on a better awareness of our place in the world. It begins with gratitude, “a recognition that the world is God’s loving gift, and that we are called quietly to imitate his generosity in self-sacrifice and good works.” “It also entaia loving awareness that we are not disconnected from the rest of creatures, but joined in a splendid universal communion,” he writes.
It also includes “the awareness that each creature reflects something of God and has a message to convey to us, and the security that Christ has taken unto himself this material world and now, risen, is intimately present to each being, surrounding it with his affection and penetrating it with his light.” Finally, “there is the recognition that God created the world, writing into it an order and a dynamism that human beings have no right to ignore.”
What would a Christian environmental spirituality look like? “Christian spirituality proposes an alternative understanding of the quality of life, and encourages a prophetic and contemplative lifestyle,” explains Francis, “one capable of deep enjoyment free of the obsession with consumption.”
It includes “the conviction that ‘less is more,’” “moderation and the capacity to be happy with little,” “a return to that simplicity which allows us to stop and appreciate the small things, to be grateful for the opportunities which life affords us, to be spiritually detached from what we possess, and not to succumb to sadness for what we lack.” This does not lead to a sad life, but to a life of joy and peace for those who “enjoy more and live better each moment.” “Even living on little, they can live a lot,” writes Francis, “above all when they cultivate other pleasures and find satisfaction in fraternal encounters, in service, in developing their gifts, in music and art, in contact with nature, in prayer. Happiness means knowing how to limit some needs which only diminish us, and being open to the many different possibilities which life can offer.” “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 which takes us to a deeper understanding of life,” explains Francis. “Nature is filled with words of love, but how can we listen to them amid constant noise, interminable and nerve-wracking distractions, or the cult of appearances?”
“An integral ecology is made up of simple daily gestures which break with the logic of violence, exploitation and selfishness,” but it is also civic and political and “makes itself felt in every action that seeks to build a better world.”
“Love for society and commitment to the common good are outstanding expressions of a charity which affects not only relationships between individuals but also ‘macro-relationships, social, economic and political ones,’” he says. This “social love moves us to devise larger strategies to halt environmental degradation and to encourage a ‘culture of care’ which permeates all of society.”
“When we feel that God is calling us to intervene with others in these social dynamics,” he writes, “we should realize that this too is part of our spirituality, which is an exercise of charity and, as such, matures and sanctifies us.”
For Francis, spirituality does not mean turning away from the world. There is a mystical meaning to be found in everything in the universe, declares Francis. A good spirituality finds God not only in the interior of our hearts but also in creatures outside of ourselves, whether it be “in a leaf, in a mountain trail, in a dewdrop, in a poor person’s face.”
“The Sacraments are a privileged way in which nature is taken up by God to become a means of mediating supernatural life,” explains Francis. “Water, oil, fire and colors are taken up in all their symbolic power and incorporated in our act of praise.” Francis says, “Encountering God does not mean fleeing from this world or turning our back on nature.”
Quoting Pope John Paul, he notes, “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 is united with the Lord Jesus, who himself took a body for the world’s salvation.” It is in the Eucharist that “The Lord, in the culmination of the mystery of the Incarnation, chose to reach our intimate depths through a fragment of matter,” writes Francis. “Joined to the incarnate Son, present in the Eucharist, the whole cosmos gives thanks to God. The Eucharist joins heaven and earth; it embraces and penetrates all creation,” he continues. Environmental spirituality is also Trinitarian because “The Father is the ultimate source of everything, the loving and self-communicating foundation of all that exists. The Son, his reflection, through whom all things were created, united himself to this earth when he was formed in the womb of Mary. The Spirit, infinite bond of love, is intimately present at the very heart of the universe, inspiring and bringing new pathways.”
At the end, we will find ourselves face to face with God and “be able to read with admiration and happiness the mystery of the universe, which with us will share in unending plenitude,” he concludes. “In the meantime, we come together to take charge of this home which has been entrusted to us, knowing that all the good which exists here will be taken up into the heavenly feast.” At the conclusion of what Francis calls this “lengthy reflection which has been both joyful and troubling,” he proposes two prayers. The first can be shared with all who believe in God, while the second is specifically Christian.
In the first prayer, we recognize God’s presence in all of creation and ask him to pour upon us his love so that we can rescue the abandoned and forgotten. We ask for healing so we can protect the world and not prey upon it. “Teach us,” we pray, “to discover the worth of each thing, to be filled with awe and contemplation, to recognize that we are profoundly united with every creature.” And the prayer concludes, “Encourage us, we pray, in our struggle for justice, love and peace.”
In the final prayer, we acknowledge not only the Creator but also the Son “who became part of this earth.” We profess that in his risen glory he is alive in every creature. And we recognize the Holy Spirit guiding the world “towards the Father’s love” and accompanying “creation as it groans in travail.” We ask the Triune Lord to “teach us to contemplate you in the beauty of the universe” and to “show us our place in this world as channels of your love for all the creatures of this earth.” We pray especially that “those who possess power and money … may avoid the sin of indifference, … love the common good, advance the weak, and care for this world in which we live.” “Help us, we pray, “to protect all life, to prepare for a better future, for the coming of your Kingdom of justice, peace, love and beauty.”
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 not 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
as we journey towards your infinite light.
We thank you for being with us each day.
Encourage us, we pray, in our struggle
for justice, love and peace.