Earlier this year, my post “Shut Up, Doomsayers!” focused on my desire to hear a solution-oriented discussion of our global environmental problems. I’m tired of hearing how the planet is falling apart, largely due to human behavior, without hearing much about how to change it. That post was published back in February.
All I really needed was to wait until May, when Pope Francis published his encyclical, Laudato Si. This 245-point treatise, separated into six chapters, may focus on ecological concerns, but it also weaves these issues into greater matters of faith, values, materialism, greed, and social justice. Early on, Pope Francis had me hooked; in point 14, under the heading “My Appeal,” he writes,
I urgently appeal, then, for a new dialogue about how we are shaping the future of our planet. We need a conversation which includes everyone, since the environmental challenge we are undergoing, and its human roots, concern and affect us all. The worldwide ecological movement has already made considerable progress and led to the establishment of numerous organizations committed to raising awareness of these challenges. Regrettably, many efforts to seek concrete solutions to the environmental crisis have proved ineffective, not only because of powerful opposition but also because of a more general lack of interest. Obstructionist attitudes, even on the part of believers, can range from denial of the problem to indifference, nonchalant resignation or blind confidence in technical solutions. We require a new and universal solidarity. As the bishops of Southern Africa have stated: “Everyone’s talents and involvement are needed to redress the damage caused by human abuse of God’s creation”. All of us can cooperate as instruments of God for the care of creation, each according to his or her own culture, experience, involvements and talents.
Everyone may not own property on this planet, but everyone does live on it and rely on it. We all need the air, water and food that the Earth provides. That “universal solidarity” makes us all stakeholders in finding solutions to environmental problems.
After his introduction, the pope’s six chapters interweave social concerns, scientific findings and Catholic teachings, and we end with a closing prayer. The first three chapters identify the problem and the role of faith in solving it. This crisis isn’t only a matter of public policy or geopolitics. The head of the world’s largest religious denomination is weighing in, and he has his say in Laudato Si.
Moving along, in chapter Four, “Integral Ecology,” Pope Francis insists that, as a part of the system, we have all to participate responsibly in this discourse. He writes, in point 161:
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, such as those which even now periodically occur in different areas of the world. The effects of the present imbalance can only be reduced by our decisive action, here and now.
I have children, who were born in the first decade of the millenium, and I’d like to think that their lifespan will run into the 2070s and 2080s. And, if they have children of their own, my grandchildren’s lives could extend into the twenty-second century. This downward environmental destruction may be slow, but I want to know that we did all we could, for everyone we could help, in the 2000s, 2010s and 2020s. Catholics love to talk about the respect for the unborn— well, this looming environmental is all about the unborn.
Chapter five, “Lines of Approach and Action,” focuses on what we need to be doing now. Here Pope Francis gets down on ground level, offering a series of point-by-point discussions of individuals efforts, how they succeeded or failed, and also reminding us in point 180:
There are no uniform recipes, because each country or region has its own problems and limitations. It is also true that political realism may call for transitional measures and technologies, so long as these are accompanied by the gradual framing and acceptance of binding commitments. At the same time, on the national and local levels, much still needs to be done, such as promoting ways of conserving energy.
Pope Francis is right. We can’t just wake up one morning and decide to be “green.” If we’re going to phase out fossil fuels, we can’t just outlaw gasoline and oil one day! Public policy has to be shaped, which will lead us through changing over our cars, allowing time to comply with new standards. Oil and gas workers need to be re-trained for new jobs, and refineries need to be shut down responsibly. The switch-over would take years.
Laudato Si takes time to read and to absorb, and the pope’s immense understanding of our faith connects so many features of our lives to this issue. For example, he writes at one point that we should not respect the irresponsible “trafficking” of goods . . . nor of human beings. One running theme of this encyclical is interconnectedness: we are all children of God, taking our sustenance from God’s creation, and as such we should be respectful of God and each other.
So where do we go from here? In point 194, he writes:
For new models of progress to arise, there is a need to change “models of global development” this will entail a responsible reflection on “the meaning of the economy and its goals with an eye to correcting its malfunctions and misapplications.” It is not enough to balance, in the medium term, the protection of nature with financial gain, or the preservation of the environment with progress. Halfway measures simply delay the inevitable disaster. Put simply, it is a matter of redefining our notion of progress.
In the final chapter, Pope Francis offers an alternative, because “we human beings above all who need to change.” This better way is a life that ties in ecological awareness as an essential component of one’s faith. Our Catholic faith reminds us that all people are sinners, that all people can do better.
NOTE: For further reading, The Atlantic published a short piece titled “The Father, The Sun, and the Holy Spirit,” in its April 2011 issue, about then-Pope Benedict’s efforts to green up the Vatican.