Tag Archives: ecology

Reflection on Laudato Si by Pope Francis (Part VI)

Did you think I forgot about this series?  Yes? 


Well, I didn’t!


I mean, I kinda did, but I REALLY didn’t.


In light of recent comments by Bishop Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences that “Right now, those who are best implementing the social doctrine of the Church are the Chinese,” despite China’s consistently messy human rights record and it’s dishonor of having two of the top ten most polluted cities in the world within its borders, it seems like the right time to reopen your copy of Pope Francis’ Laudato Si (or read it online) and look at what the Holy Father has said about properly implementing the Church’s social teachings in light of a true human ecology.  


You can read parts I through V by following the links on Part V


Here’s Part VI.  


In Chapter Five of Laudato Si, Pope Francis addresses the environmental movement, in particular the international efforts and organizations which have sought to solve the modern ecological crisis.  While many people place the burden of fixing the environment on such organizations, Pope Francis seems to have his doubts and his disappointments with such groups, at least as they are currently organized.  Francis laments that “the same ingenuity which has brought about enormous technological progress has so far proved incapable of finding effective ways of dealing with grave environmental and social problems worldwide” (164).  The issue isn’t that no countries are addressing the ecological crises that we face today; the problem is that each country is not working with all of the other countries to provide a lasting solution, not simply one tainted by political parties (166).  Civil groups have worked to help the planet and defend human rights, but they can only do so much when they do not have the cooperation of the world’s governments. 


The Holy Father does mention some progress in this vein, such as the work of the Basel Convention, which helps regulate the international movement and disposal of hazardous waste (168).  However, the big risk in any enviro-political discussion is the dignity of the poor and poorer countries.  Proposed solutions to ecological problems will cost a lot of money, and too often the bill is left at the feet of poorer people and countries (170).  A solution that helps the developed world might completely ignore the human needs of the developing world (172).  There is a need for a “true world political authority,” as Benedict XVI stated in Caritas in Veritate (see Laudato Si 175)

There is no one solution to every environmental issue, and there isn’t one solution to the same problem in different parts of the world, “because each country or region has its own problems and limitations” (Laudato Si 180).  The laws set in place in a country cannot change with the arrival of new political parties into office.  These laws must transcend the political divide, and politicians must see in them the long-term solutions to problems, rather than their own short-term political gains (181).  We see this issue especially in our own country, where a law passed by a government of one political party will be amended or removed as soon as the other party comes into office.  The laws helping the environment (or defending fundamental rights, like the right to life) must not fall into that category. 


The discussion over environmental laws should not stem from certain business propositions.  In other words, one should not wait until an economic factor arises to discuss the protection of the environment.  Instead, environmental discussions should play a part in all other discussions, including those dealing with human well-being and working conditions.  Repeatedly the Pope emphasizes the evils of consumerism and how such a lifestyle ruins our relationships with others and the world.  We can use new technologies without making our focus be how much we can get out of them.  We can use technology to help the world (see 184-187 for more on this). 


Paragraph 188 has a short, but important reminder from Pope Francis.  With all his discussion of scientific findings regarding the environment or the problems with modern political and economic systems, the Holy Father takes a moment to remind everyone that “the Church does not presume to settle scientific questions or to replace politics.”  Many writers falsely claimed that Pope Francis somehow added human-caused climate change to the teachings of the Church.  He did not, and reminds us of that here.  


Returning to political issues, Pope Francis notes that “Politics must not be subject to the economy,” meaning that one should not make all political decisions based on economic policies, such as saving banks or bailing out companies.  The Holy Father notes that many nations wasted a perfect opportunity to reevaluate their economic and political structures when responding to the economic crisis of 2007/2008.  Decisions should have been made in light of the common good and respect for all people; instead, many nations continued using the economic structures that did more harm than good in the past.  “The problem of the real economy is not confronted with vigour, yet it is the real economy which makes diversification and improvement in production possible, helps companies to function well, and enables small and medium businesses to develop and create employment” (189).  More funding and research should be put into working with our environment, such as sustainable use of natural resources and finding methods of production that do not harm the environment (191).  Likewise, economic growth should be examined in light of human dignity so that a location’s quality of life does not diminish in light of developments (194).   Economies shouldn’t be about maximizing profits, but rather about serving the citizens of a country. 


The key to all of this is subsidiarity (196).  Subsidiarity allows smaller groups in society to govern certain aspects of society, rather than having them all fall under the control of the government.  For example, disciplinary issues in a school should be dealt with by school personal.  If for some reason the issue reaches beyond the scope of the school, the local police get involved.  But the local police do not get involved if the matter can be dealt with at the smaller level.  This is a basic tenant of the Church’s social doctrine.  Pope Francis is evoking this teaching in regards to his discussion of politics and economics.  Too top heavy politics and economics do not leave room for the little guy, and often lead to the oppression of smaller units in society (we see this sort of discussion come up in the USA when politicians debate states’ rights issues).  When the various levels of a society work together, when politics, economics, and ethics unite, “we see how true it is
that ‘unity is greater than conflict'” (198, quoting Evangelii Gaudium, 228).  


Pope Francis concludes this chapter with a reflection on how Faith can play a role in all of this.  Against proponents of scientism, the Holy Father notes that science cannot explain “the whole of reality,” and that reasoning with science alone leaves “little room . . . for aesthetic sensibility, poetry, or even reason’s ability to grasp the ultimate meaning and purpose of things” (199).  If we lose sight of our purpose as human beings, of the greater good of society, of our place in God’s plan for creation, we will likewise lose our ability to protect our common home.  Above all, dialogue is needed between groups of believers and branches of science.  “The gravity of the ecological crisis demands that we all look to the common good, embarking on a path of dialogue which demands patience, self-discipline and generosity, always keeping in mind that ‘realities are greater than ideas'” (201, quoting Evangelii Gaudium, 231).  

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Reflection on Laudato Si by Pope Francis (Part V)

Pope Francis and Israel's President Shimon Peres plant an olive tree as a symbol for peace after their meeting at the president's residence May 26. (CNS photo/ Amir Cohen, EPA)

If you missed parts I through IV, check them out here


Chapter Four of Laudato Si is entitled “Integral Ecology.”  Here, Pope Francis again focuses on the interrelatedness of all of creation.  Everything in creation, every animal and rock, person and plant, is essentially good, since it has being, which comes from God (even mosquitoes!).  We are part of nature, not just living in it.  What we do to nature affects us, and what we do to ourselves affects nature.  The problems in today’s society are not divorced from the problems in the natural world.  As Pope Francis says, “We are faced not with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather with one complex crisis which is both social and environmental” (139).  As such, we need to study and develop ways to live with nature and with each other, respecting others and the creation God gave us.  We depend on nature for our physical existence, for food, water and shelter.  “We need only recall how ecosystems interact in dispersing carbon dioxide, purifying water, controlling illnesses and epidemics, forming soil, breaking down waste, and in many other ways which we overlook or simply do not know about” (140).  This, the Holy Father notes, is why “sustainable use” natural resources are so important, so that we can utilize our world while allowing it the chance to grow back.  One of the best examples of this is planting trees where forests were harvested, or having fish farms to protect wild fish populations. 

Two social issues expand on the pope’s discussion of sustainable use.  The economic systems of our nations should reflect our effort to protect the world, and our society should enforce laws which deal with environmental and human factors.  Economies are only helpful in so far as they help the people of a nation, and they should take into account environmental factors as well as human ones.  A nation which has laws protecting the environment or defending the innocent, but does not enforce such law, does more harm than good.  What good are laws if they are not enforced?  This leads to a culture of disrespect. 

Speaking of culture, Francis next turns his attention to a “cultural ecology,” which is not as much a culture of ecologists, but rather approaching human culture with the same care as one approaches the environment.  This is an important discussion because we face not just the extinction of plants and animals in our world, but also the extinction of entire ways of life.  Too often man-made environmental changes, either exploiting or protecting the ecosystem in question, ignore the needs of indigenous groups, who have coexisted with their natural neighbors for centuries, in some cases for millennia. 

Many intensive forms of environmental exploitation and degradation not only exhaust the resources which provide local communities with their livelihood, but also undo the social structures which, for a long time, shaped cultural identity and their sense of the meaning of life and community. The disappearance of a culture can be just as serious, or even more serious, than the disappearance of a species of plant or animal. The imposition of a dominant lifestyle linked to a single form of production can be just as harmful as the altering of ecosystems. (145)

Because of their important role in understanding an ecosystem, indigenous cultures should be brought into environmental discussions.  “When they remain on their land, they themselves care for it best” (146).  Working with these people, rather than against them, shows respect for the whole ecology of a region. 

Pope Francis next examines how we can incorporate this ecology into our daily lives.  It is, in a sense, about taking care of our own environment, specifically where we live and work.  The pope’s reflection calls to mind Christ’s teaching “Love your neighbor as yourself” (see Matthew 22:39 and Mark 12:31), for if we do not properly love ourselves, we cannot properly love our neighbors.  We cannot care for the world-wide environment if we cannot care for our local, personal environments.  In this context, Pope Francis addresses again the issue of extreme poverty, which plagues so much of the world.  In these situations of disease, filth, and violence, it may seem that all is hopeless. 

However, as human history shows, “love always proves more powerful” than the evils of a corrupt city (149).  We need to remember that charity isn’t just giving money; it is acting in love, namely the highest form of love.  Charity is that sacrificial love of another, caritas in Latin, agape in Greek.  It is the love which St. John the Evangelists, the “beloved disciple,” uses to describe God (1 John 4:8).  So in charity, we help out neighbors, whether it be giving money to help them, or helping build them proper homes (in paragraph 152, Pope Francis notes that “lack of housing is a grave problem in many parts of the world”). 

This section on ecology in our lives has a lengthy paragraph on “human life and the moral law” (155).  In this paragraph, Pope Francis looks at how we view our bodies, for how we view our body correlates to how we view our environment.  This is one of those paragraphs that I’m pretty sure socially liberal fans of the encyclical did not read (along with the ones discussed earlier about abortion and overpopulation).  I say this because here Pope Francis speaks out about gender identity.  The discussion in the encyclical is brief (it is only part, after all, of a larger tapestry about our common home), and there is a lot more that could be said about the issue in light of the Church’s teaching.  However, Francis felt addressing the issue of gender identity was important, particularly in light of charity.  Here are the Holy Father’s words:

Human ecology also implies another profound reality: the relationship between human life and the moral law, which is inscribed in our nature and is necessary for the creation of a more dignified environment. Pope Benedict XVI spoke of an “ecology of man,” based on the fact that “man too has a nature that he must respect and that he cannot manipulate at will” [here he is quoting Pope Benedict’s address to the German Parliament, the Bundersrat, in 2011].  It is enough to recognize that our body itself establishes us in a direct relationship with the environment and with other living beings.  The acceptance of our bodies as God’s gift is vital for welcoming and accepting the entire world as a gift from the Father and our common home, whereas thinking that we enjoy absolute power over our own bodies turns, often subtly, into thinking that we enjoy absolute power over creation.  Learning to accept our body, to care for it and to respect its fullest meaning, is an essential element of any genuine human ecology.  Also, valuing one’s own body in its femininity or masculinity is necessary if I am going to be able to recognize myself in an encounter with someone who is different.  In this way we can joyfully accept the specific gifts of another man or woman, the work of God the Creator, and find mutual enrichment.  It is not a healthy attitude which would seek “to cancel out sexual difference because it no longer knows how to confront it” [here he is quoting one of his own Wednesday Audience addresses from April 15, 2015]. 

Pope Francis is clearly rejecting the popular manipulation of the body.  He isn’t talking about staying healthy or trying to loose weight.  He is talking about gender identity.  He is talking about masculinity and femininity and the role those two aspects of human nature play in our lives.  There are certain traits, gifts from God, associated with being a man and being a woman.  We must embrace who we are and not seek to change our gender to fit our wants.  If I am a man, then that is part of who I am.  The same goes for women.  Otherwise I cannot “recognize myself in an encounter with someone who is different,” which is literally every other human being in existence besides me.  If people in society cannot recognize themselves for who they are, then we have a society which cannot communicate, which cannot relate to its own members.  There is an important difference between men and women (and it is more than their reproductive organs).  Differences aren’t bad, of course; they are essential.  A woman isn’t less than a man because she is not a man, nor is a man less than a woman because he is not a woman. 

It is an important discussion, one which I should discuss in a later post.  For now, I would like to move to the end of the encyclical. 

Pope Francis concludes the chapter with a brief discussion of two points: the common good of society and justice between human generations.  Remember a point made during our last reflection: the Church’s teaching concerning care for the environment falls under God’s prohibition against stealing.  We cannot steal the gifts of God from later generations, in particular the gifts of our world.  We cannot rob our children of their planet, nor should we simply solve the immediate problems and leave the larger ones for someone else.  That is not the way a family solves its problems; our human family should not turn to that solution either.  In other words, when we plan how to protect our common home, we must think of long standing solutions, cures rather than bandages.  Take a polluted river, for example.  A short term solution to the pollution would be to remove the garbage that collects along the river’s banks.  A lasting solution, in light of what Pope Francis teaches, would be to educate future generations to respect the not pollute, to conserve water, etc. 

Nor should we sit back and say there is nothing wrong with our world from where we sit, so there is nothing we should do.  The pope’s major issue here is individualism, which is when we make ourselves the measure of the rest of the world.  It stems from one of the great moral evils of our modern world: utilitarianism.  The Holy Father is writing against such selfish evil, the “what’s in it for me” mentality that infects pseudo-philanthropy.  But we are not the center of the world.  Our world is more than an extension of our personal yard.  It is a home shared with all of humanity, our extended human family.  We must first recognize the other man, the stranger whom we dread to meet.  Again, the refrain of the encyclical appears: the environmental problems in today’s world stem from an even greater problem in our society. 

We need a proper human ecology. 

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