Wenski calls for those speaking to “people in the pews” to foster “ecological conversion”

August 27, 2015

Archbishop Wenski spoke to archdiocesan staff at the 2015 Bridging the Gap conference, held Aug. 5 at Msgr. Edward Pace High School in Miami Gardens.  His remarks were followed by responses from Pastoral Center department heads, regarding how they were planning to implement Laudato Si’ in their respective ministries. 

This is a rich and complex document — one that is much more than just a treatise on “climate change.” I came across one commentator who said that to make it just about “climate change” would be like making the “Thanksgiving dinner feast” about the cranberries.

It will require of us some effort to explore and discover all that it offers us — and hopefully our discussion this morning is just such an effort. At the same time, it might help us to get ready for Pope Francis’ visit to the U.S. next month.

In Laudato Si’, Pope Francis — as popes have done in previous social encyclicals — attempts to engage the world in a dialog. In doing so, he presents a vision of the human person, of our place and our dignity in the world, which the Church recognizes as both fallen and redeemed. Thus, it is a vision that is rooted in the Gospel and is enshrined in the Church’s moral teachings.

‘At the same time, Pope Francis doesn’t dismiss the power of the individual even as he lifts up concerted action. A person who is mindful of their own consumption, who recycles, uses public transportation, turns off unnecessary lights and the like is making a real impact. These decisions can help change the world.’

The Holy Father declares that “we need only take a frank look at the facts to see that our common home is falling into serious disrepair” (Laudato si’, no. 60). In the encyclical, Pope Francis is more than just a prophet of gloom and doom. But he certainly doesn’t pull any punches in assessing the problems we face. Francis explains “that human life is grounded in three fundamental and closely intertwined relationships: with God, with our neighbor and with the earth itself” (no. 66).

Scripture tells us that “these three vital relationships have been broken, both outwardly and within us. This rupture is sin. The harmony between the Creator, humanity and creation as a whole was disrupted by our presuming to take the place of God and refusing to acknowledge our creaturely limitations” (Ibid).

Though Christ’s sacrifice on the cross gives us all we need to overcome it, sin can still have great sway over us even in this advanced age. The Pope details at some length the evidence that something has gone terribly wrong.

In our relationship with the earth, the Holy Father zeroes in on the impacts of pollution, lack of clean water, toxic waste, and climate change, the latter of which he calls “one of the principal challenges facing humanity in our day” (no. 25).

Even as he invites all people into honest dialogue, Pope Francis explains that people of good will ought not to ignore the significant level of scientific evidence on climate change. I am reminded of our 2001 bishops’ statement,Global Climate Change: A Plea for Prudence, Dialogue and the Common Good, in which we said:

“In facing climate change, what we already know requires a response; it cannot be easily dismissed. Significant levels of scientific consensus — even in a situation with less than full certainty, where the consequences of not acting are serious —justifies, indeed can obligate, our taking action intended to avert potential dangers. In other words, if enough evidence indicates that the present course of action could jeopardize humankind’s well-being, prudence dictates taking mitigating or preventative action.”

What we bishops said — and what the Pope is saying — is that even though the “science of climate change” might have its detractors, prudence dictates that we just cannot wait for unanimity. For example, doctors tell us that smoking is bad for your health — and there are to be sure those who would argue the contrary. And maybe some who smoke escape bad effects. But given what we know (and what the doctors tell us) it is prudent that we try to stop smoking.

The Pope realizes that our knowledge is imperfect. Undoubtedly, we will understand our world in deeper ways in the days to come. But to look at the information in front of us and do nothing is irresponsible.

Pope Francis is just as frank about the state of our human relationships. He emphasizes that our ecological challenges weigh heavily on those who can least carry the burden — the poor. We know that those who suffer in poverty have a special claim on our attention. We should consider how our decisions impact those struggling for survival and look for ways to deepen solidarity with them.

Evidence of contamination in our relationships with others doesn’t end there. Our throwaway culture has extended to human beings as well. We throw away life in the womb, and the Pope writes repeatedly about the destruction of embryos in this encyclical. We neglect the disabled and show little respect for the lives and contributions of the elderly.

In our current age, human beings themselves have become commodities of desire. Human trafficking has become a massive global industry, a juggernaut of filth and slavery, fueled by a pollution of the heart that is not easily remediated.

Internationally, where aid to developing countries displaces the unique cultural realities of peoples, the loss can be significant. He writes: “The disappearance of a culture can be just as serious, or even more serious, than the disappearance of a species of plant or animal” (no. 145).

To undertake this great work, we must restore all of our relationships in a full way.

In section four of the letter, Pope Francis uses the term “integral ecology” to explain the idea that everything is connected. Drawing on the thought of his predecessors, he explains that “disregard for the duty to cultivate and maintain a proper relationship with my neighbor . . . ruins my relationship with my own self, with others, with God and with the earth. When all these relationships are neglected, when justice no longer dwells in the land, the Bible tells us that life itself is endangered” (no. 70).

Thus, Pope Francis wants us to connect the dots between what could be called a “natural” ecology and what might be called a “human” or “social” ecology. He argues for an integral ecology.

An integral ecology demands that rainforests be protected — because of what they do potentially and actually for the flourishing of the human species on this earth. Likewise, marriage, understood for millennia as a union of one man and one woman, ought to be respected and protected. Marriage always has been primarily about the raising of children (who seem to be hardwired to be best raised by a father and a mother who are married to each other). It is certainly legitimate then to favor such traditional marriages — in law and custom — as a way of investing in the future of society by providing for the human flourishing of upcoming generations.

Listening to Archbishop Wenski in Miami ANA RODRIGUEZ-SOTO

Photographer: ANA RODRIGUEZ-SOTO | FC  Listening as fellow department heads respond to Archbishop Thomas Wenski’s talk on Laudato Si’, from left: David Prada, director of the Building and Property Office, and Kim Pryzbylski, senior director of Faith Formation and superintendent of Schools.

And just as we favor laws that limit the danger of pollutants damaging our sensitive ecosystems, should we not be concerned about the “toxic waste” of pornography and its effects on the human ecology of the young?

With all of these challenges in the area of human ecology, the Pope explains, “it becomes difficult to hear the cry of nature itself” (no. 117). Can we hope to care for the gifts of the earth if we cannot care for one another?

Despite all this, Pope Francis really does weave together a hopeful message in Laudato Si’. He tells us that “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.”

Our common home is in disrepair — it needs a serious “make-over” or restoration. But such a restoration project begins where all things should — with our relationship with God.  If we get our relationship with God in order, everything else can fall into place. Pope Francis teaches that “a spirituality which forgets God as all-powerful and Creator is not acceptable. That is how we end up worshiping earthly powers, or ourselves usurping the place of God, even to the point of claiming an unlimited right to trample his creation underfoot” (no. 75).

God set our first parents over the Garden to till and to keep it, and he continues to look to us to act as stewards over the great gifts of the earth.  “‘Tilling’ refers to cultivating, ploughing or working, while ‘keeping’ means caring, protecting, overseeing and preserving,” explains the Pope. “This implies a relationship of mutual responsibility between human beings and nature” (no. 67).

We are able to share in the bounty of God’s gifts, but only if we do so with an eye toward preserving them for all people of this time and the generations that come after us.

As Catholics we can connect with the Creator in intimate ways. Pope Francis writes: “The sacraments are a privileged way in which nature is taken up by God to become a means of mediating supernatural life. Through our worship of God, we are invited to embrace the world on a different plane. Water, oil, fire and colors are taken up in all their symbolic power and incorporated in our act of praise” (no. 235).

The creative activity of God reaches its summit in the person of Jesus Christ. For “the Lord, in the culmination of the mystery of the Incarnation, chose to reach our intimate depths through a fragment of matter. . .  In the Eucharist, fullness is already achieved; it is the living center of the universe, the overflowing core of love and of inexhaustible life” (no. 236).

Firmly anchored in our relationship with God, nourished by the bread that does not perish, we can set about repairing all of our other relationships.

In place of isolation and use of one another, the Pope proposes a culture of encounter and solidarity. “Our relationship with the environment can never be isolated from our relationship with others and with God,” he explains, “otherwise, it would be nothing more than romantic individualism dressed up in ecological garb” (no. 119).

‘Surrounded by pushes for endless technological and economic progress, with all their related distractions, Pope Francis is calling us to be counter-cultural. We must examine where advances once intended to serve us have become our masters in our own lives and our communal life.

Human beings possess a dignity “above other creatures,” and we should cultivate an esteem and deep respect for other people. Opening ourselves to encounter and knowledge of others will aid us as we seek ways to strengthen our social bonds and protect creation.

Pope Francis calls us to act together on every level. He underscores the importance of global consensus toward sustainable energy production. He urges the world community to seek meaningful international agreements that address pressing ecological problems in a unified way.

The Pope encourages developed nations to assist poorer countries toward cleaner energy solutions that protect the environment. Where corporations seek to harness natural resources in developing countries, they must ensure that the land and people are not left in worsening and dangerous circumstances.

An “integral development” requires we ask a series of simple questions: 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?

The pace of the modern world has caused us to stop asking even these basic things. To honor our place in the created order and the relationships God has ordained for us, the Pope tells us that we must pose these questions. “These community actions, when they express self-giving love,” he explains, “can also become intense spiritual experiences” (no. 232).

At the same time, Pope Francis doesn’t dismiss the power of the individual even as he lifts up concerted action. A person who is mindful of their own consumption, who recycles, uses public transportation, turns off unnecessary lights and the like is making a real impact. These decisions can help change the world.

Some of the most poignant passages in Laudato Si’ concern conversion of heart. For those of us who may have a role in helping to bring the Pope’s teaching to the people in the pews, this is an important message of the encyclical.

As we seek to be messengers and teachers on care for creation, this section of Pope Francis’ teaching should also cause us to reflect on our own lives.

The Pope asks us to 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” (no. 222).

Surrounded by pushes for endless technological and economic progress, with all their related distractions, Pope Francis is calling us to be counter-cultural. We must examine where advances once intended to serve us have become our masters in our own lives and our communal life.

Technology is “not neutral.” What we invite into our world begins to shape our lifestyles and decision-making. Our priorities in this area reveal the type of “society we want to build.”

Even the most well-intentioned of us should use this moment to look critically within our own hearts. What is weighing us down, standing in the way of us fully living out our vocations?

Related to this, the Pope wants us to keep our joy. He asks that we “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” (no. 207). 

Archbishop Wenski