Recently, I gave a presentation on Pope Francis’ vision of Integral Ecology. At the end of the presentation, a person asked what new technologies we should be embracing as Catholics to take the first steps toward caring for our common home in light of Laudato Si’? I could tell I shocked the room a little when I simply said, “None of them.”
Sensing that many thought this answer contradicted everything I presented on, I explained that a core problem with embracing our call to care for creation is our inability to detach from a consumption mentality and embrace a conservation mentality. When consumption is chosen over conservation, the question about care for creation becomes primarily one of economics: What is the most cost effective way to provide more energy for more people who consume more and more on a yearly basis without doing to much harm to creation?
When looking at Laudato Si’, we don’t find a document who’s starting point is developing new eco-friendly technologies for the purpose of expanding consumption while protecting creation. Instead, Laudato Si’ provides a clarion call to embrace a simpler life, living within our means, and conserving the gifts we have been given. From this foundation of embracing a more modest lifestyle, Pope Francis then calls for new practices and technologies to be developed and utilized, locally and globally, to care for the environment. However, the true starting point for caring for our common home is to not only reduce material waste, but to let go of a wasteful mentality that is intimately connected with how we view the world and one another.
This embrace of a simpler life is at the heart of what Pope Francis means when he speaks of the dangers of being a “throwaway society.” Pope Francis explains that moving away from being a throwaway society not only means to be less wasteful with natural resources, but also calls us to embrace a “social ecology,” acknowledging that humanity is part of creation, not abusers of creation. In particular, the Holy Father sees a clear connection between how the irresponsible exploitation of natural resources is connected with the dehumanization of the poor and marginalized.
When we speak of the “environment”, what we really mean is a relationship existing between nature and the society which lives in it. Nature cannot be regarded as something separate from ourselves or as a mere setting in which we live. We are part of nature, included in it and thus in constant interaction with it. Recognizing the reasons why a given area is polluted requires a study of the workings of society, its economy, its behaviour patterns, and the ways it grasps reality. Given the scale of change, it is no longer possible to find a specific, discrete answer for each part of the problem. It is essential to seek comprehensive solutions which consider the interactions within natural systems themselves and with social systems. We are faced not with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather with one complex crisis which 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. (Laudato Si’. 139)
Recently, the Ratzinger Foundation announced that its November 2017 meeting in Costa Rica will focus upon the care of our common home. This convention will assist the efforts of the Bishops of Costa Rica to establish an observatory at the University of Costa Rica that will develop a Laudato Si’ Human Development Index. The index will be a type of environmental watchdog, measuring the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of ecological practices employed by different countries based on Laudato Si’. Here is a brief video from Rome Reports explaining this project.
The mission of the Ratzinger Foundation is to promote theology in the spirit of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI (Joseph Ratzinger). Therefore, as the video affirms, the main thrust of the 2017 meeting will be on Benedict XVI’s writings on ecology and how they are present in Laudato Si’. The central theme of Benedict XVI’s theological vision of ecology is to move toward a Human Ecology in which ecological choices are made from the perspective of promoting and protecting human dignity at all stages of life. The heart of Benedict XVI’s vision of Human Ecology can be found in his Encyclical Caritas In Veritate (Charity in Truth).
The way humanity treats the environment influences the way it treats itself, and vice versa. This invites contemporary society to a serious review of its life-style, which, in many parts of the world, is prone to hedonism and consumerism, regardless of their harmful consequences. What is needed is an effective shift in mentality which can lead to the adoption of new life-styles “in which the quest for truth, beauty, goodness and communion with others for the sake of common growth are the factors which determine consumer choices, savings and investments.” Every violation of solidarity and civic friendship harms the environment, just as environmental deterioration in turn upsets relations in society. Nature, especially in our time, is so integrated into the dynamics of society and culture that by now it hardly constitutes an independent variable. Desertification and the decline in productivity in some agricultural areas are also the result of impoverishment and underdevelopment among their inhabitants. When incentives are offered for their economic and cultural development, nature itself is protected. Moreover, how many natural resources are squandered by wars! Peace in and among peoples would also provide greater protection for nature. The hoarding of resources, especially water, can generate serious conflicts among the peoples involved. Peaceful agreement about the use of resources can protect nature and, at the same time, the well-being of the societies concerned.
The Church has a responsibility towards creation and she must assert this responsibility in the public sphere. In so doing, she must defend not only earth, water and air as gifts of creation that belong to everyone. She must above all protect mankind from self-destruction. There is need for what might be called a human ecology, correctly understood. The deterioration of nature is in fact closely connected to the culture that shapes human coexistence: when “human ecology”is respected within society, environmental ecology also benefits. Just as human virtues are interrelated, such that the weakening of one places others at risk, so the ecological system is based on respect for a plan that affects both the health of society and its good relationship with nature.
In order to protect nature, it is not enough to intervene with economic incentives or deterrents; not even an apposite education is sufficient. These are important steps, but the decisive issue is the overall moral tenor of society. If there is a lack of respect for the right to life and to a natural death, if human conception, gestation and birth are made artificial, if human embryos are sacrificed to research, the conscience of society ends up losing the concept of human ecology and, along with it, that of environmental ecology. It is contradictory to insist that future generations respect the natural environment when our educational systems and laws do not help them to respect themselves. The book of nature is one and indivisible: it takes in not only the environment but also life, sexuality, marriage, the family, social relations: in a word, integral human development. Our duties towards the environment are linked to our duties towards the human person, considered in himself and in relation to others. It would be wrong to uphold one set of duties while trampling on the other. Herein lies a grave contradiction in our mentality and practice today: one which demeans the person, disrupts the environment and damages society. (Caritas In Veritate. Benedict XVI. 51)
When reading the ecological vision of our two most recent Popes, their strong call for a human, integral ecology promises for a fascinating meeting by the Ratzinger Foundation in 2017. I am very curious to see what the Laudato Si’ Human Index will look like when its principles are established and how the world community will react. Together, let us pray for the success of this meeting of the Ratzinger Foundation and for the Holy Spirit to guide those involved in the development of the Laudato Si’ Human Index. May these and other efforts of the Church help all of us to embrace the care of our common home, improving both the environment around us and the dignity shown to one another as children of God.
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