Pope Francis’ encyclical letter “Laudato Si'” is addressed to all people who share our common home, the earth. Not that it will be well received by all people. Specifically mentioned in many passages, religious conservatives may well wonder why the Pope of all people, has made so free as to weigh in on Climate Change, Economics, the Free Market, and Private Property. Those on the “left” will find the Pope’s linking the degradation of our earth, and her rights, with the degradation of the unborn and the elderly, and their rights little more than a political bait and switch, gaining an international audience and ear on the subject of eco-conversion, and finding the Pope quoting Pope Benedict and other Popes as often as he brings forth something of his own, as for example in section 217 when he calls for an interior conversion as an answer for solving our eco-crisis. “The external deserts in the world are growing, because the internal deserts have become so vast.” (Benedict XVI, Homily for the Solemn Inauguration of the Petrine Ministry, April 24, 2005)
Indeed one could call this encyclical co-authored. So many other bishops from around the world and past Popes are cited, John Paul II and Benedict the XVI especially, it truly represents the mind of the church, past and present, and often reads as a tutorial on the traditional longstanding Thomistic understanding of the common good, and private property. But old teachings applied to fresh new situations can yield much insight, and especially self-discovery.
Promoting Dialogue and Mutual Responsibility
The purpose of the encyclical is to promote dialogue between men of all faiths and political persuasions about how best to care for the earth, and for each other in the safeguarding of the earth’s precious resources. It is evident that the Pope’s eyes are on the poor, whose livelihoods are most at risk in the exploitation of the resources in the developing world, and in the gearing of economies to big businesses, which not only box the smaller producers out of the market, but create infrastructure and products with profit in mind, and not the long view of the well being of local economies, watersheds, and communities. It is a personal note to each citizen of the earth: a call to “Dare to turn what is happening to our world into our own personal suffering.” (Section 19) It is something that many on the left have been doing for a while, but the Pope calls even them to a deeper ecological consciousness and friendship, as he links our maltreatment of the earth to our maltreatment of human beings, the deterioration of nature with the deterioration of our culture.
It is a simple and almost fatherly reminder to become students of Nature. It is the cyclical order and pattern in nature herself that provides the whys and wherefores for recycling and composting and re-using. As more and more of the world’s population is becoming city-dwelling, it is often easy to forget the closed circle of fertility that occurs in natural ecosystems, as the Pope reminds us of in section 22, plants synthesize nutrients which feed herbivores; these in turn become food for carnivores, which produce significant quantities of organic waste which give rise to new generations of plants.” The industrial system does not emulate this model, found in nature. The Pope is suggesting we stop buying into the “modern myth” which presupposes unlimited material growth as undeniably good for us all, and which gives the industrial system a pass in the name of that myth, despite the waste and injustices, which such a system incurs in its process. He is asking us to question this system, and to use our modern talents and ingenuity to devise new means of production that place the long term good of both the earth and its inhabitants at their core, rather than profit. “Humanity is called to recognize the need for changes of lifestyle, production and consumption.” (Section 23)
The Problem of Over-Consumption
Specifically the Pope draws attention to several issues in which human over consumption has contributed to. Among them: water pollution and waste, Climate Change, extinction of various species, loss of marine and forest ecosystems of the world, and also mental pollution (brought on by the modern “technocracy”.)
Speaking to people of Christian faiths, he explores Genesis to show that God’s gift of reason, which sets man apart from His other creations, is not to encourage domination on the part of human beings, but rather stewardship. God’s words to Adam and Eve in the garden, charging them to “till and keep” creation, refer not to domineering exploitation, but to working it and keeping/protecting it. “(The creation accounts in Genesis) suggest that human life is grounded in three fundamental and closely intertwined relationships: with God, with our neighbor and with the earth itself.” (Section 66) The Pope points to sin as that which causes the ruptures in these three relationships, both inward and outwardly.
In Section 95 the Pope quotes the New Zealand Bishops who suggest that the over consumption of the developed world is a sin against the 5th commandment, “Thou Shalt Not Kill.” It’s a sobering thought. One that is backed up by big guns, the likes of Pope Benedict XVI. Pope Francis quotes him in section 206, when he urges us to vote with our food dollars for a more eco-friendly world: “Purchasing is always a moral-and not simply economic-act.” (Caritas in Veritate 2006)
Reminding us of our universal solidarity with all men and creatures on this planet, the Pope has some important reminders about private property: “If we make something our own, it is only to administer it for the good of all. “ Section 95 And “The Christian tradition has never recognized the right to private property as absolute or inviolable, and has stressed the social purpose of all forms of private property.” (Section 93). This may prove to be something of a shocker to many politically conservative Christians. Which brings us to perhaps the crux of this encyclical and why it’s proving to be so pesky to so many. This letter suggests that there is really no distinction and separation between what we do financially and what we do morally, that our consumption is a civic act, not a private one. It suggests that our Religious beliefs and our environmental actions are interconnected more that we might care to think, that the action of buying mass-produced Chinese goods in a big box store which underpays it’s workers, and contributes to massive amounts of material waste, flooding lives with goods that are not needed, and often discarded after a few uses, that this may not indeed be the action of a Christian.
Any time the church seeks to infiltrate the part of our lives spent outside of the pews, it gets pesky. Things get uncomfortable. At rock bottom, we like our lives to be neatly separated into Tupperware containers, faith and worship over here, shopping over there, what goes on in our bedrooms in this box, and what we eat over in this other one. In his encyclical the Pope is reminding us of the interconnectedness of things. Our relationship with the earth is connected to our relationship with our fellow human beings, and vice versa. What we believe in church affects where we should shop, and what we should buy. It is not simply a matter of looking into the companies that produce the goods we buy, we ought to ask ourselves how we can better pursue a path of simplicity, and in this, we can be inspired by people of other faiths and political persuasions, who have chosen to invest in time to contemplate and renewable energy sources, and lifestyles which involve less consumption as a whole.
Technocracy and the “Modern Myth”
One of the most interesting critiques of the encyclical is the one of modern technology. The Pope points out that over-mechinization has not only unemployed a great deal of humanity, it has also furthered our ability to dominate nature while at the same time separating us farther from it. “Technological products are not neutral, for they create a framework which ends up conditioning lifestyles and shaping social possibilities along the lines dictated by the interests of certain powerful groups.” (Section 107) He points to the fruits of the Technocracy as bitter indeed. Already they are clearly seen: “ environmental degradation, anxiety, loss of the purpose of life, and of community living.”(Section 110) The fragmented knowledge imparted in this modern technocracy that we live in, often leaves us with no clear sense of the whole, nor any means with which to answer deeper questions of philosophy and ethics, which underpin the whole of our existence on earth. Life in a technocracy also lends itself to a frenetic pace, we are constantly “connected” electronically, and consequently never really in one place wholly, for any amount of time, a fraction of ourselves somewhere else via text, or twitter, or any of the other social media outlets. #Half There Anywhere. In response to the technocracy the Pope advocates a big SLOW DOWN, a recovering “of the values and the great goals swept away by our unrestrained delusions of grandeur.” (Section 114) He reminds us to reacquaint ourselves with reality, and its limits. Limits, which our over-consumption and our use of technology in the pursuit of our wants have obscured.
The free market is profit driven, and is governed by wants rather than needs. This is why, the Pope points out, it is insufficient to leave to the “invisible hands” of the free-market the job of governing the economy and solving the eco-crises we find ourselves in today.
The Dignity of Work
One of the ways to self govern our impulse toward over consumption is developing a vivifying understanding of work. If more people choose to do more for themselves, and not rely on the expensive and elaborate system of distribution of goods and food that we find ourselves in in the developed world, there would be less of a burden placed on local economies, many of which, (in developing nations), export commodity crops to their detriment. “We were created with a vocation to work. The goal should not be that technological progress increasingly replace human work, for this would be detrimental to humanity. Work is a necessity, part of the meaning of life on this earth, a path to growth, human development and personal fulfillment.” (Section 128)
Global Eco-Initiatives and Oversight
Some global goals that the pope sets are:
- Sustainable and Diverse agriculture
- Renewable Energy
- Efficient Use of Energy
- Better use of Marine and Forest Resources of the World
- Universal Access to Drinking water. (Section 164)
- Favoring Production with maximum energy efficiency
- Diminishing the Use of Raw Materials
- Removing from the market products which are less energy efficient or more polluting
- Improving transport systems
- Encouraging construction and repair of buildings aimed at reducing energy consumption and pollution. (Section 180)
He makes it very clear that there needs to be global authority (with the claws and teeth necessary to enforce the laws) to hold nations and states and businesses accountable with regard to eco-abuse. The responsibility is Universal, but the developed world, being as it has helped itself to more of a piece of the global resource pie, has a responsibility to contribute more to these efforts at accountability.
Personal Responsibility and New Paths of Simplicity
While making it very clear that the actions of concerned individuals will not be enough to stave off further ecological disaster, and coming class and resource wars, he does encourage us to follow the example of St. Therese of Lisiuex, performing little acts with great love, in solidarity with our fellow man and with the earth we co-inhabit. Using less energy, avoiding plastic and paper, reducing water consumption, recycling, composting, using public transportation or carpooling whenever we can, planting trees, turning out lights when not using them, all these things “reflect a generous and worthy creativity which brings out the best in human beings. They benefit society, often unbeknownst to us for they call forth a goodness which albeit unseen, inevitably tends to spread.” (Sections 211, 212)
In the end, Pope Francis reminds us that “though capable of the worst, (we) are also capable of rising above (ourselves), choosing again what is good and making a new start…I appeal to everyone throughout the world not to forget this dignity which is ours.”
It is hoped, that in following paths of greater simplicity we will be freed up to respond to the poverty our heedless actions have caused in our neighbors, our planet, and in our own hearts. Listening to and deeply considering the words of Pope Francis in his encyclical “Laudato Si’” will help carve out a space in us internally, and in our lives externally, which love will fill.
Chiara Dowell farms with her husband, Shane, at Little Flower Farm near Skandia and worships at St. Peter in Forest Lake, and St. Mary and St. Michael in Stillwater.