In my previous post on Laudato Si’ (Post #1: Let’s All Take A Deep Breath), I encouraged you to take some time to familiarize yourself with the basic themes of Catholic Social Teaching (CST) and how the seven themes of CST create a consistent ethic of upholding human dignity at every stage of life. In this post, we will wade into the document, looking at the Introduction and Chapter One. We will identify the vision Pope Francis gives for this Encyclical and then look at the practical, easy to identify problems our world faces in regard to ecology and how these poor choices adversely impact human dignity.
The Authority of this Encyclical: Opinion or Church Teaching?
Now that Laudato Si’ has been with us for a couple of weeks, I have been watching the American media’s reception of the document. Of the many critiques I could offer, there is one, big issue we need to clarify: What level of authority does this document hold? Those who are most critical of the Pope’s new Encyclical attempt to dismiss the text as the Pope’s personal opinions on climate change, nothing more. To the contrary, Pope Francis states in the Introduction of Laudato Si’ that this document is now a part of Catholic Social Teaching.
It is my hope that this Encyclical Letter, which is now added to the body of the Church’s social teaching, can help us to acknowledge the appeal, immensity and urgency of the challenge we face. I will begin by briefly reviewing several aspects of the present ecological crisis, with the aim of drawing on the results of the best scientific research available today, letting them touch us deeply and provide a concrete foundation for the ethical and spiritual itinerary that follows. I will then consider some principles drawn from the Judaeo-Christian tradition which can render our commitment to the environment more coherent. I will then attempt to get to the roots of the present situation, so as to consider not only its symptoms but also its deepest causes. This will help to provide an approach to ecology which respects our unique place as human beings in this world and our relationship to our surroundings. In light of this reflection, I will advance some broader proposals for dialogue and action which would involve each of us as individuals, and also affect international policy. Finally, convinced as I am that change is impossible without motivation and a process of education, I will offer some inspired guidelines for human development to be found in the treasure of Christian spiritual experience. (Laudato Si’, 15)
In light of this, the Pope is making a clear connection between the ecological decisions people make and the moral teachings of the Church. Therefore, this document is to be received as Church teaching, specifically under the categories of morality and CST. (Another worthwhile text to read on CST is the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, developed under the papacy of St. John Paul II.) The exploration of these dimensions of Church teaching is accomplished in this Encyclical by informing, teaching, and exhorting people to change their lives and attitudes about how we treat God’s creation, drawing upon the best science we have and the moral implications of how we treat the environment.
Ecumenism: Why does the Pope reference Patriarch Bartholomew?
As most Introductions to Encyclicals do, Pope Francis lays out the historical considerations for the subject at hand. Understandably, the Pope mentions the contributions of his predecessors: John XXIII, Paul VI, John Paul II, and Benedict XVI. I treated some of this history in my blog post, Human Ecology: What is it? However, there is an eye catching reference to Patriarch Bartholomew when Pope Francis expands the concern for ecology beyond the Papacy, into the ecumenical world.
Patriarch Bartholomew has spoken in particular of the need for each of us to repent of the ways we have harmed the planet, for “inasmuch as we all generate small ecological damage”, we are called to acknowledge “our contribution, smaller or greater, to the disfigurement and destruction of creation”. He has repeatedly stated this firmly and persuasively, challenging us to acknowledge our sins against creation: “For human beings… to destroy the biological diversity of God’s creation; for human beings to degrade the integrity of the earth by causing changes in its climate, by stripping the earth of its natural forests or destroying its wetlands; for human beings to contaminate the earth’s waters, its land, its air, and its life – these are sins”. For “to commit a crime against the natural world is a sin against ourselves and a sin against God”.
At the same time, Bartholomew has drawn attention to the ethical and spiritual roots of environmental problems, which require that we look for solutions not only in technology but in a change of humanity; otherwise we would be dealing merely with symptoms. He asks us to replace consumption with sacrifice, greed with generosity, wastefulness with a spirit of sharing, an asceticism which “entails learning to give, and not simply to give up. It is a way of loving, of moving gradually away from what I want to what God’s world needs. It is liberation from fear, greed and compulsion”. As Christians, we are also called “to accept the world as a sacrament of communion, as a way of sharing with God and our neighbours on a global scale. It is our humble conviction that the divine and the human meet in the slightest detail in the seamless garment of God’s creation, in the last speck of dust of our planet”. (Laudato Si’, 8)
One may ask, of the many ecumenical figures the Pope could have cited, why Patriarch Bartholomew? I do not know the Pope’s personal reasons for referencing Patriarch Bartholomew, but my first guess is that his writings are beautiful, speaking to the concern for ecology from a profoundly biblical worldview. At a deeper level, we can also see a clear gesture of ecumenism toward the leader of one of the five historic Churches and an inclusion of the Sacramental Theology of Eastern Christianity.
Going back to the historic meeting of Pope Paul VI and Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras I in 1964, there has been much hope that the separation between the Christian East and West will come to an end, reuniting “Peter (Rome) and Andrew (Greek Orthodox).” As of late, the division between Roman Catholicism and the Greek Orthodox has softened due to a series of wonderful gestures, slowly exploring reconciliation between these two, historic Churches. To include Patriach Bartholomew in this Encyclical appears to be yet another gesture of respect and trust, hopefully moving us one step closer to healing this historical division.
A second speculation is that Pope Francis may be making a reverential bow to the Sacramental Theology of the Orthodox. One of the great benefits of studying the Theology of the East is that much of the Orthodox faith was never subjected to the intellectual and spiritual impact of the Enlightenment. The reason this is significant is that looking at the liturgical life and the theological vision of the East can give us a glimpse back to an earlier era of Christian history, with some arguing that the Orthodox present a more pristine vision of early Christian life in contrast to the West that has gone through reform after reform. When we explore the Theology of the East as it pertains to the created world, what we discover is a vision of creation that is deeply sacramental. In the East, Sacraments are called “Mysteries,” taken from the Greek word “Mysterion” from Scripture. From this starting point, the East argues that creation is a “Mystery” in itself, evoking a strong sacramental connection with the natural world. Therefore, just as we see the desecration of a Sacrament as a grave sin (some of which are reserved to the Holy See alone for forgiveness), we hear similar echoes from the East about the sinfulness of desecrating the created world. A good example of this sacramental view of creation can be found on the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of American website. Click here for a nice summary of this sacramental vision of creation.
As an aside, I find it fascinating that there are modern people who argue that the Bible justifies exploiting creation because of the language of “subdue” and “dominion” in the first chapter of Genesis, but when you dig into the theological origins of the faith, we actually find that there is a far deeper connection between creation and faith than what we find today. We will explore this in more depth when we get to chapter two, exploring the theology of the text.
Climate Change: How are we impacting the world we live in?
While reading chapter one of Laudato Si’, I was reminded of a classroom discussion I had with my Social Ethics students back when I was a priest/teacher at Regis High School. In 2010, an explosion on a British Petroleum (BP) oil rig led to a massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. This tragedy, taking the life of 11 oil rig workers, begged two questions: Could this tragedy have been prevented and what would its long term impact be on the environment? When I prepared to explore these questions with my students, BP was streaming a real time video of where the oil was leaking into the ocean. I projected the video onto my white board as the backdrop for my presentation on Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s main theological points on Human Ecology. At first, I feared I had made a classroom management error, quickly realizing that the students were far more interested in the video of the oil spill than my lecture. However, a student interrupted me with a question that led to one of the best classroom discussions I ever had as a teacher. His question(s): Is that happening right now?! Why don’t they just stop the leak?! The student was dumbfounded why the oil leak could not be stopped and was deeply troubled by what appeared to be a lack of response by BP. I responded by sharing my limited knowledge of the difficulties of deep water oil line fixes and that what we were witnessing was just one of many nightmare scenarios a petroleum dependent world lives with. This response led to two days of students asking a number of great questions: Did BP plan for such an event before they built the rig? Why didn’t they develop tools to address this type of a tragedy before it happened? What will be the ecological impact on the fish and wildlife in and around the Gulf of Mexico? What will be the impact on humans as a result of this oil spill? Many of these questions failed to provide an immediate answer. However, it lead to a deep interest in my students about what the Church actually says about Human Ecology.
So what is the vision of ecology we get from the Church? As I read CST on this subject, I find a “commonsense” approach, similar to the common sense questions my students asked about the BP oil spill, that honestly looks at the ecological decisions that are being made, analyzes how these decisions impact creation, and then explores the moral implications of these decisions. Since the state of Wisconsin greatly enjoys fishing, I will often summarize the method the Church takes with ecology by saying, “If you pollute a lake bad enough, you will kill the fish… If you want to fish (and eat the fish), don’t pollute the lake!” To apply this simple hermeneutic to every ecological crisis is a gross oversimplification, but it does provide a nice starting point for us to look at what the Pope presents as pressing ecological concerns for our world. Here is a simplified list of what the Pope brings to our attention in Laudato Si’ (paragraphs 20-42).
In regard to pollution:
– If you expose people to atmospheric pollutants, it leads to health hazards and premature death, especially for the poor.
– The dumping of industrial waste and chemical products (from both industry and agriculture) leads to bioaccumulation of these toxins that go unchecked until serious health problems occur in people.
– If the use of non-biodegradable materials is not limited, the very cycle of life becomes altered, slowly making the environment unusable for future generations.
In regard to climate change:
– As global temperatures have risen, we see a rise in sea levels, an increase in severe (extreme) weather.
– The best science is showing us that the increase in temperature is due to the increase of green house gases, which the best science we have points to us as the primary contributors.
In regard to water:
– Water is a basic human right that is necessary for human, animal, and plant life. However, the more we pollute, waste, and privatize water as a money making endeavor, we are reducing access to clean drinking water, especially the for the poor who cannot afford to buy clean drinking water.
In regard to loss of biodiversity:
– The more we see animals and plants as “resources” that can be exploited, the less we pay attention to the role these plants and animals play in promoting a healthy ecosystem. The extinction of these animals and plants can have very negative, long term impacts upon our world and the human person. Therefore, be sure that our hunting and harvesting practices also protect the existence of these species and plants to ensure both their existence and the positive benefit they provide to our ecosystem.
I could continue this summary, exploring the sections on the decline of human life and global inequity (I’ll leave that for your eyes to read), but this brief summary makes clear the point I am trying to make: A Catholic approach to ecology begins by looking at human behavior, how that human behavior impacts our world, what the moral implications of those actions are, and how are we to respond when understanding these implications. In regard to how we are to respond to these issues, the Pope does not mince words in calling out the global community for its empty rhetoric on the environmental crisis. The most brutal part of the Pope’s criticism is found in paragraph 54 of Laudato Si’.
It is remarkable how weak international political responses have been. The failure of global summits on the environment make it plain that our politics are subject to technology and finance. There are too many special interests, and economic interests easily end up trumping the common good and manipulating information so that their own plans will not be affected. The Aparecida Document urges that “the interests of economic groups which irrationally demolish sources of life should not prevail in dealing with natural resources”. The alliance between the economy and technology ends up sidelining anything unrelated to its immediate interests. Consequently the most one can expect is superficial rhetoric, sporadic acts of philanthropy and perfunctory expressions of concern for the environment, whereas any genuine attempt by groups within society to introduce change is viewed as a nuisance based on romantic illusions or an obstacle to be circumvented. (Laudato Si’, 54)
In conclusion to this examination of the Introduction and Chapter One of Laudato Si’, we see the Pope laying out the history of the Church’s concern for ecology and the modern choices we are making that are contributing to the environmental crisis our world faces. Some may argue that the Pope is “pushing the ticket” to far on ecology, drawing upon scientific research that is still disputed by some. To this objection, I offer two reflections. One, I am very impressed with how the Pope makes reference, time and time again, to “the best science of our day.” This language shows a healthy understanding of science (he is a Chemist after all) in that all science will either be improved upon or be shown to have errors in the future. The Pope’s careful language implicitly opens the door to consider new scientific findings that may support or contradict our current understanding of this issue (nevertheless, it is quite clear that our climate is changing and not for the best). Second, the Pope clearly states that the Church does not need to have a definitive position on many of these problems. However, the existence of so many ecological issues, when understood as a whole, calls for the human community to act, even if we are still trying to understand the full extent of this crisis.
On many concrete questions, the Church has no reason to offer a definitive opinion; she knows that honest debate must be encouraged among experts, while respecting divergent views. But we need only take a frank look at the facts to see that our common home is falling into serious disrepair. Hope would have us recognize that there is always a way out, that we can always redirect our steps, that we can always do something to solve our problems. Still, we can see signs that things are now reaching a breaking point, due to the rapid pace of change and degradation; these are evident in large-scale natural disasters as well as social and even financial crises, for the world’s problems cannot be analyzed or explained in isolation. There are regions now at high risk and, aside from all doomsday predictions, the present world system is certainly unsustainable from a number of points of view, for we have stopped thinking about the goals of human activity. “If we scan the regions of our planet, we immediately see that humanity has disappointed God’s expectations”. (Laudato Si’, 61)
Discussion: What are the ecological issues you see in your back yard? What are the human choices you witness leading to these issues? How are they impacting human dignity in your community? I have a few of my own, concrete examples I wish to share, but I want to hear from you first. Post your response to this question, and I will expound upon some of the local ecological issues I have seen in response to your comments.