Laudato Si’ — Part I

As you can read in this edition of The Anchor (and as you have heard from the secular media), Pope Francis came out with an encyclical letter, Laudato Si, eight days ago, which he subtitled, “On care for our common home” (that being Earth). Papal documents normally take their names from the first words of the document in Latin (which is why the Vatican II documents are known as Lumen Gentium, Gaudium et Spes, etc.). However, Pope Francis chose to have this document be known by its first words in Italian (since he was quoting St. Francis of Assisi, who wrote in that language), Laudato Si,  which in English means, “Praise be to You” (the “You” being God).

Pope Francis discusses how St. Francis referred to the earth as our sister and called all of nature a brother or sister. In No. 11 of the document, the pope says about his namesake’s filial attitude towards Creation: “Such a conviction cannot be written off as naïve romanticism, for it affects the choices which determine our behavior. If we approach nature and the environment without this openness to awe and wonder, if we no longer speak the language of fraternity and beauty in our relationship with the world, our attitude will be that of masters, consumers, ruthless exploiters, unable to set limits on their immediate needs.”

Throughout the document the Holy Father condemns this negative attitude and sees it connected to the selfishness which harms our fellow human beings. At No. 6 he writes, “Pope Benedict asked us to recognize that the natural environment has been gravely damaged by our irresponsible behavior. The social environment has also suffered damage. Both are ultimately due to the same evil: the notion that there are no indisputable truths to guide our lives, and hence human freedom is limitless.”

The pope is criticizing this “limitless” idea of human freedom; his attitude is one that many Americans over the centuries have also believed. The Prohibitionist speaker John Finch said in 1882, “Your right to swing your arm leaves off where my right not to have my nose struck begins.” However, Laudato Si’ lists many incidents in which the powerful are figuratively ignoring the boundary of the noses of other people, especially the poor.

Among the people Pope Francis refers to in the document is his friend Bartholomew, the Patriarch of Constantinople. At No. 9 the pope writes, “Bartholomew has drawn attention to the ethical and Spiritual roots of environmental problems, which require that we look for solutions not only in technology but in a change of humanity; otherwise we would be dealing merely with symptoms. He asks us to replace consumption with sacrifice, greed with generosity, wastefulness with a spirit of sharing, an asceticism which ‘entails learning to give, and not simply to give up. It is a way of loving, of moving gradually away from what I want to what God’s world needs. It is liberation from fear, greed and compulsion.’”

At No. 25 and many other places in the encyclical, the pope conveys this truth about our changing environment. “Its worst impact will probably be felt by developing countries. Many of the poor live in areas particularly affected by phenomena related to warming.” Later in that paragraph the pope connects this reality to things we’ve seen in the news repeatedly during the Francis papacy and especially in the last 12 months: “There has been a tragic rise in the number of migrants seeking to flee from the growing poverty caused by environmental degradation. They are not recognized by international conventions as refugees; they bear the loss of the lives they have left behind, without enjoying any legal protection whatsoever. Sadly, there is widespread indifference to such suffering, which is even now taking place throughout our world. Our lack of response to these tragedies involving our brothers and sisters points to the loss of that sense of responsibility for our fellow men and women upon which all civil society is founded.”

Here we see a parallel between the lack of action on the environment and lack of action about human suffering. John Carr, who used to work for the U.S. bishops conference and now is at Georgetown University, said on NPR about the encyclical, “The pope clearly puts care for Creation and action on climate change at the center of Christian life, and that will challenge and irritate some people. He also clearly places care for the weak and the vulnerable, including unborn children for example, at the center of the environment ethic, and that’ll make other people uncomfortable.”

Pope Francis makes the latter group uncomfortable at No. 50. He writes, “Instead of resolving the problems of the poor and thinking of how the world can be different, some can only propose a reduction in the birth rate. At times, developing countries face forms of international pressure which make economic assistance contingent on certain policies of ‘reproductive health.’ Yet ‘while it is true that an unequal distribution of the population and of available resources creates obstacles to development and a sustainable use of the environment, it must nonetheless be recognized that demographic growth is fully compatible with an integral and shared development’ (quote from the “Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church”). To blame population growth instead of extreme and selective consumerism on the part of some, is one way of refusing to face the issues. It is an attempt to legitimize the present model of distribution, where a minority believes that it has the right to consume in a way which can never be universalized, since the planet could not even contain the waste products of such consumption. Besides, we know that approximately a third of all food produced is discarded, and whenever food is thrown out it is as if it were stolen from the table of the poor.”

There is a lot of “food for thought” in this document, food we don’t want to throw away. We will look at it more over this summer, but as Father Landry says in this week’s column, why not go out and read a copy at home?

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