A continuing conversation on the care of our common home
Pope Francis penned his encyclical, “Laudato Si’” for “every person living on the planet” not only to read but also to “enter into dialogue with all people about our common home.”
In an effort to keep the conversations going, The Visitor is pleased to announce a six-part faith formation series in which guest writers will help “unpack” what the Holy Father said in the encyclical and offer reflection questions and actions to respond to his message.
This useful guide is intended to help readers grasp the overall content and encourage further study and dialogue in homes and parishes. This is the first in a series.
Chapter 1: “What is Happening to Our Common Home?”
In chapter one, Pope Francis speaks of the earth as “our home,” and like any home we want to take care of it! Yet, in recent years, the pope says we have not done enough to be good stewards.
A common problem he cites is what he calls a “rapidification” of society. In other words, we have an acceleration of human activity with a more intense pace of life and work which is in contrast to the slower pace of nature and change. This rapid pace has caused us to overlook some common environmental problems and social concerns that are slowly but surely looming dangerously over our planet.
In his introduction, Pope Francis links a concern for our “natural ecology” with our “human ecology,” and he insists the two are one. He cites several key problems including pollution and climate change, the issues of water, the loss of biodiversity, the decline in the quality of human life, the breakdown of society and global inequality, which in turn are given a weak human response. These are problems spelled out in more detail:
* Pollution and climate change: Pope Francis recognizes that pollution affects everyone, whether it is caused by transportation, industrial fumes, fertilizers, insecticides, herbicides, etc. He says, “Account must be taken of the pollution produced by residue, including dangerous waste present in different areas.”
In regard to climate change, he says, “Humanity is called to recognize a need for a change of lifestyle, production and consumption in order to combat this warming or at least the human causes which produce or aggravate it.” Global warming has grave implications — be it environmental, social, economic, political or related to the distribution of goods.
* Water issues: For Pope Francis, fresh drinking water is an issue of primary importance. One serious problem is the quality of water available for the poor. Underground water is of particular concern as a result of industrial, agricultural and mining impacts.
* Loss of biodiversity: The earth’s resources are plundered because of short-sighted approaches to the economy, commerce and production. You might say that biodiversity is what keeps the checks and balances of our ecosystems in place, so to lose all or part of such a complex system — be it plants or animals and the extinction of diverse species or the destroying of the “lungs” of our planet with the loss of our Amazon or Congo jungles — is to create not only a loss of beauty but also a harmful imbalance in the equilibrium of our planet.
* Decline in the quality of human life and the breakdown of society: To Pope Francis, when looking at the environment, we cannot neglect human beings as creatures deserving to enjoy the right to life and happiness. This, too, is part of the environment and our planet.
“We are not meant to be inundated with cement, asphalt, glass and metal and deprived of physical contact with nature,” he says. The unruly growth of cities, social exclusion, drug trafficking and violence, the breakdown of society, excessive and wasteful use of energy, both visual and noise pollution and a throwaway culture are signs that growth in the past two centuries has not always led to an overall improvement in the quality of life.
* Global inequality: In Pope Francis’ holistic view, we cannot combat environmental degradation unless we also attend to the causes related to human and social degradation. For the pope, the “human environment” and “natural environment” deteriorate or thrive together. Most of the worst effects on the environment affect the poor most directly. Inequality affects not only individuals but also countries, creating an “ecological debt” whereby wealthier countries prosper while poorer ones get poorer, not only economically but environmentally as well through the plunder of human and natural resources.
All these major concerns specified in Chapter 1 are, in the pope’s mind, given a “weak response” since there is a failure on the part of the international community to act. Too often, special interests and economic interests end up trumping the common good.
On a positive note, Pope Francis acknowledges various improvements in rivers polluted for decades that have been cleaned up, native woodlands that have been restored, landscapes beautified, beautiful buildings built, the use of more non-polluting energies and more efficient transportation, etc. These are a sign that men and women are capable of intervening with a positive response.
When it comes to the environment, Pope Francis wants to dispel two myths: first, that the application of new technological progress without any ethical consideration will solve the environmental problem itself. The second myth is to see human beings themselves as a threat on our planet and thus their numbers should be reduced and all forms of intervention prohibited.
Case in point: What do you think of this perspective? With regard to topics like climate change, for example, one could make strong and convincing arguments on both sides, both from a scientific point of view as to whether global warming is happening or not and whether or not it is caused by human pollution or is merely a natural occurrence at this particular time. Yet, when we look at the big picture isn’t that beside the point?
There is an argument called “Pascal’s Wager.” Blaise Pascal was a brilliant Catholic philosopher and scientist (cir. 1600s). He formulated the wager of God’s existence saying, “It is better to bet that God does exist than to bet God does not exist, since if you bet God does not exist and you are wrong, the stakes (hell) are much higher than if you bet God does exist and you are wrong.”
Apply this now to the debate on climate change. Whether you believe it or not, isn’t it better to err on the positive side, to protect our environment from harmful greenhouse gases and pollutants? Because, if we don’t, the stakes (destruction of our planet) are too high. We can only win by doing what is right! One question is: Are you willing to bet and lose on this one?
Pope Francis reminds us that protecting the environment is a moral obligation, that science and religion can work together and that all people (not just Christians) but even non-believers should be concerned about this. Issues related to the environment go far beyond mere physics, chemistry or mathematics to what is also human in us. We need an integral and sustainable approach that accounts for all things: not just toxic wastes and the use of chemicals but also human social, economic and religious factors that ensure total health. Too often the poor in poorer countries suffer most.
In the mind of Pope Francis, concern for our environment is an important part of our Judeo-Christian tradition. This encyclical is a great document for all of us to read and reflect upon.
Call to action:
Discuss and decide in detail what one plan of action you intend to do in order to be a good steward of our planet — “our home” as Pope Francis calls it.
Coming in the October 23 issue:
Chapter 2: “The Gospel of Creation.” Reflection by Benedictine Sister Michaela Hedican, prioress of St. Benedict’s Monastery, St. Joseph.