Sunday, August 23, 2015

Laudato Si': Care for our Common Home

Dubbed the "climate change encyclical",  Laudato Si' is really about relationships.

In Laudato Si’: On Care For Our Common Home, Pope Francis calls the world to rethink and transform the “outdated criteria which continue to rule the world.”

From the first page, this encyclical hooked me with its straightforward and direct language, occasionally surprising me with its bluntness, such as when Francis described the world as resembling a “pile of filth”, or criticized politicians for lacking “breadth of vision.” Other times, the language is more poetic, particularly when the pope praises the beauty of creation.

In Laudato Si’, Francis attempts to gather the thought of the universal church on the connection between the environment and social issues. Not only does he refer to the teachings of his predecessors, Francis makes numerous references to statements on the environment from Catholic bishops’ conferences around the world. He also devotes several paragraphs to the teaching of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew. 

Although it has been dubbed “the climate change encyclical”, the discussion on climate change is only a small portion of Laudato Si’.  Those who focus on the pope’s comments on climate change miss the point. This encyclical is about three key relationships – humanity’s relationship with God, with the created world, and with one another – and it reflects on the problems existing within the web of these relationships.

At the root of the environmental crisis, says Francis, is a “misguided anthropocentrism” that places human beings at the center. In our hubris, we have fallen prey to “unrestrained delusions of grandeur”. We seek mastery over nature instead of respecting it as a sacred gift. We are turning ““a magnificent book in which God speaks to us and grants us a glimpse of his infinite beauty and goodness” into something that “is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth”. 

Francis talks about the utilitarian mindset that leads us to treat others with disregard, valuing them only in so far as they are useful to us. We are more interested in convenience and consumption, economics and power than in the intrinsic dignity of the human person and nature. In the theology of this encyclical, our lifestyle and mindset blind us to the destruction of the environment and deafen us to the cries of the poor.

Francis cautions that if we continue to see ourselves as independent from others and as separate from nature, our attempts to heal the environment will be piecemeal at best. Healing the environment requires healing the other two key relationships; “our relationship with the environment can never be isolated from our relationship with others and with God. Otherwise, it would be nothing more than romantic individualism dressed up in ecological garb”.  A true ecological approach is therefore always a social approach; “it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor”.  

Less we feel overwhelmed and discouraged by the reality of the challenges facing humanity, the encyclical offers hope.  Human beings have the capacity to transform the present environmental and social crisis, but it will require a change of heart and attitude.  We will do well to heed an ancient lesson common in religious traditions,  ‘less is more’, and to cultivate a spirit of moderation that is happy with fewer goods even if it is contrary to today’s culture of consumption and waste.

From developing enforceable international environmental polices to small individual actions, everyone has a part to play in caring for our common home.  We renew the social fabric, break down indifference, and forge a shared identity, says Francis, when we promote the common good and defend the environment.  “Social love moves us to devise larger strategies to halt environmental degradation and to encourage a “culture of care” which permeates all of society.” 

Laudato Si’ challenges us, individually and collectively, to confront the environmental crisis and to resolve the inequalities of human society. The future hangs in the balance of our response.

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