REFLECTION ON LAUDATO SI BY POPE FRANCIS (PART IV)

For those of you just joining us, this is Part IV of a VII part series on Laudato Si.  Click on the links to see Part I, Part II, and Part III.  Feel free to comment and get the conversation going.  

PART IV

Chapter Three of Laudato Si looks at the human causes of the environmental problems today.  The Pope’s focus, however, isn’t on destructive acts of pollution or carbon emissions; rather, Francis looks at the more cultural causes of the crisis.  He first takes up the threat of an over-technological world.  While there are obvious advantages to technological advances (such as faster transportation and simplified means of communication), one must be naïve to ignore the fact that new technology has brought with it new evils.  “We need but think of the nuclear bombs dropped in the middle of the twentieth century, or the array of technology which Nazism, Communism and other totalitarian regimes have employed to kill millions of people, to say nothing of the increasingly deadly arsenal of weapons available for modern warfare” (104).  The Holy Father points to the problem of using useful technology as “an epistemological paradigm” to govern and guide our lives (107).  The risk, of course, is one of priorities.  We can use technology to better our lives, but we should not make our lives or our society revolve around the technology we use.  This is particularly problematic in today’s economically and politically charged world (for conservative Catholics who scoff at Francis’ economic views, he quotes Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s encyclical Caritas in Veritate to support his economic teaching in par. 109).  

Pope Francis connects these economic and technological issues with the ecological focus of the encyclical through teleology.  If we immerse ourselves in a technological life or economy, we will find ourselves thinking in the moment, and not looking towards the future.  We forget future generations, the ones who will suffer as a result of our recklessness.  We have to think bigger than ourselves.  In ecological terms, that means we have to think beyond solving immediate environmental issues and instead look at solving the bigger problems:

Ecological culture cannot be reduced to a series of urgent and partial responses to the immediate problems of pollution, environmental decay and the depletion of natural resources. There needs to be a distinctive way of looking at things, a way of thinking, policies, an educational programme, a lifestyle and a spirituality which together generate resistance to the assault of the technocratic paradigm. Otherwise, even the best ecological initiatives can find themselves caught up in the same globalized logic. To seek only a technical remedy to each environmental problem which comes up is to separate what is in reality interconnected and to mask the true and deepest problems of the global system. (111)

We must have a cultural revolution, where we change how we live to help save the world.  We must turn from our “modern anthropocentrism” before we lose everything. 

But such a change cannot come at the cost of innocent human lives.  “When we fail to acknowledge as part of reality the worth of a poor person, a human embryo, a person with disabilities – to offer just a few examples – it becomes difficult to hear the cry of nature itself; everything is connected” (117).  Repeatedly, Pope Francis returns to the connectedness of our world, of human life and life on earth.  Our relationship with our home can only be fixed if we fix our broken relationships within our human family.  “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, locking us into a stifling immanence” (119).  This means, Pope Francis again reminds us, that we cannot say that we must protect the environment if we support or justify abortion.  In par. 120, the Holy Father cries out, “How can we genuinely teach the importance of concern for other vulnerable beings, however troublesome or inconvenient they may be, if we fail to protect a human embryo, even when its presence is uncomfortable and creates difficulties?” 

Peter Singer should take note. 

I remember, almost two decades ago, going with my family to a prayer vigil the evening before the March for Life in Washington D.C.  There was a short skit at one point, followed by a song.  In both the skit and song, endangered animals (whales, pandas, etc) came together and sang that we must “save the baby humans / don’t let them disappear.”  While some might have thought the whole thing tacky, it struck a chord in my animal fanatic heart.  I knew at that young age that abortion was wrong, but I hadn’t thought of abortion and conservation as connected.  Both abortion and a reckless treatment of the environment stem from a moral relativism that infects our culture.  So Pope Francis writes,

In the absence of objective truths or sound principles other than the satisfaction of our own desires and immediate needs, what limits can be placed on human trafficking, organized crime, the drug trade, commerce in blood diamonds and the fur of endangered species? Is it not the same relativistic logic which justifies buying the organs of the poor for resale or use in experimentation, or eliminating children because they are not what their parents wanted? This same “use and throw away” logic generates so much waste, because of the disordered desire to consume more than what is really necessary.  (123)

Life’s connectedness is the theme of the Holy Father’s encyclical, and he will develop it a lot more in a later chapter.   

The rest of chapter three focuses on two seemingly different moral points: the rights of workers and experimenting on plants and animals.  Both points are essentially linked, for the Church’s teaching on them stems from the Seventh Commandment, “You shall not steal.”  The connection between workers’ right and stealing is obvious.  By depriving workers of their wages, an employer steals what is due to the worker.  We have a “vocation to work,” as is seen in God’s command to Adam to take care of the garden in Genesis 2 (128).  It is no accident that one of the sins that cry to Heaven for vengeance is “depriving workers of their wages.”  A just wage is essential to allow people to live comfortably.  That much is straight forward. 

How, then, does biological research on plants and animals fit into this discussion?  Simply put, if we needlessly destroy plant and animal life for our own selfish ends, we are stealing from our human neighbors, including future generations, and abusing a gift given to us by God.  It is wasting life.  Pope Francis is very clear that it is fine to experiment with plants and animals to help humanity, but you must not, as the Catechism says, “Cause animals to suffer or die needlessly” (CCC 2418; see Laudato Si, 130).  As far as genetically modified food is concerned, Francis does not reject growing and consuming such food.  However, he does condemn large corporate farms driving out and bullying small, private farm, destroying the smaller farmer’s way of life.  Again, Pope Francis focuses on subsidiary as the guiding principle when dealing with social issues (134-135). 

Wrapping up this discussion of human-environment interaction, Pope Francis once again brings up the issue of those who defend the environment without defending human dignity, particularly with experimenting on human embryos: 

There is a tendency to justify transgressing all boundaries when experimentation is carried out on living human embryos. We forget that the inalienable worth of a human being transcends his or her degree of development. In the same way, when technology disregards the great ethical principles, it ends up considering any practice whatsoever as licit. As we have seen in this chapter, a technology severed from ethics will not easily be able to limit its own power. (136)

This is a clear condemnation of research into things like embryonic stem cells or using genetic material obtained from aborted fetuses; by extension, the paragraph condemns the trafficking of aborted baby body parts, a barbaric practice which has recently come to light (if such a phrase is appropriate for such behavior) in the United States.  We cannot justify experimenting on human embryos, especially when the embryo is killed for such experimentation.  We cannot seek to put the rights of plants and animals above our own human brothers and sisters, especially above those who, in their innocence, have not yet breathed our planet’s air, or had the chance to feel the sun touch their skin, or enjoy the coolness of a breeze (see CCC 2418).  We must be wary of using technology to oppress a section of our human family, whether that portion of humanity is born or unborn. 

To use others in such way is, frankly, inhuman.  

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