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).