This blog has, from the beginning, focused on ecology and economics. These topics are taken up in a recent encyclical by Pope Francis with the extra dimension of how faith informs our decisions in these areas. Like Al Gore in his book, “The Future” , the pope summarizes some trends in the world around us and offers some advice on how to deal with them. What is most surprising about this work is not what the pope has to say but that he says anything at all on the topic.
Judeo-Christian thought has been blamed for much that is wrong with our environment. It certainly inspired an evangelical and colonial expansion of European culture. In 1967, Lynn White introduced the argument that western christianity placed undue importance on the Genesis mandate (Gen 1:28) to “fill the earth and subdue it”. Francis counters this argument by pointing out that Creation is a broader term than Nature and involves a relationship with the Creator. Any dominion humans may have over the lands and waters they live in is tempered with respect for the Creator. Francis points out the consistent strand of wonder and respect that nature inspires throughout the Old testament, the words of Jesus and the words of the pope’s namesake, Saint Francis of Assisi. He addresses the encyclical not just to Catholics but to all humanity, who share the common heritage that is our planet.
The pope advises us to talk about our relationship with the lands and waters that sustain us. He uses the word “dialogue” to emphasize the need for listening as well as expression. In particular, he advises us to have 5 kinds of dialogue:
- International dialogue
- Dialogue on national and local environmental policy
- Dialogue on transparency in decision-making
- Dialogue on human fulfillment
- Dialogue between religions and science
It is a pretty comprehensive list. His emphasis on listening to people from other cultures, economic backgrounds and world views seems particularly apt when the discussion is about having air, water, and food. He argues (Laudato Si 195) that it is only ethical to consume a common resource when all those who are affected by the consumption are informed and when the consumer is prepared to pay the price of restoring the resource. Though ecology can make things rather complicated with long time lags for restoring some resources and far reaching impacts both downstream and through our shared atmosphere, the discussion that is needed in all five of the above dialogues is not unlike the one that friends must have to share a restaurant bill. These discussions are best handled with respect and generosity.
Pope Francis highlights the work of his predecessors, including Pope Benedict XVI – not someone who is well-known as an environmental advocate. Yet perhaps the most telling quote in the encyclical is from Pope Benedict:
“The external deserts in the world are growing, because the internal deserts have become so vast”.
Francis ends the encyclical with a prayer along the same lines. He is aware of the barriers that the language and posture of prayer creates and offers two prayers, one in the Catholic tradition and one in a more universal context. The latter offers a sentiment that I think we can all share when dealing with a world that is essential to our existence:
“Bring healing to our lives, that we may protect the world and not prey on it, that we may sow beauty, not pollution and destruction.” Laudato Si (246)