The Vatican released Pope Francis’s encyclical Laudato Si’ at noon in Rome this morning. The Pope says he seeks not merely the attention of his Catholic followers but “dialogue with all people about our common home.”
O.K., this atheist will listen.
Pope Francis personifies the Earth and portrays humanity as a violent overreacher that has forgotten its Gaian oneness with what Saint Francis of Assisi called “our Sister, Mother Earth”:
This sister now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her. We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will. The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life. This is why the earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor; she “groans in travail” (Rom 8:22). We have forgotten that we ourselves are dust of the earth (cf. Gen 2:7); our very bodies are made up of her elements, we breathe her air and we receive life and refreshment from her waters [Pope Francis, Laudato Si’, 2015.06.18, paragraph 2].
Someone is going to holler “New Age Theocracy!” but the dust in the earth metaphor neatly encapsulates this encyclical’s attack on the perverted notion of human dominion over the world. We are not “lords and masters”; we are but elements, dependent on the Earth for our survival. The Pope does not dismiss the notion of humanity occupying a “unique place.. in this world” [parag. 15], but do I misread the Pope if I say that the leader of the Church that once castigated Galileo for challenging geocentric cosmogeny now tells us to get off our high horse and recognize that we are not as central to Creation as Creation is central to us?
Because all creatures are connected, each must be cherished with love and respect, for all of us as living creatures are dependent on one another [parag. 42].
This responsibility for God’s earth means that human beings, endowed with intelligence, must respect the laws of nature and the delicate equilibria existing between the creatures of this world, for “he commanded and they were created; and he established them for ever and ever; he fixed their bounds and he set a law which cannot pass away” (Ps 148:5b-6). The laws found in the Bible dwell on relationships, not only among individuals but also with other living beings. “You shall not see your brother’s donkey or his ox fallen down by the way and withhold your help… If you chance to come upon a bird’s nest in any tree or on the ground, with young ones or eggs and the mother sitting upon the young or upon the eggs; you shall not take the mother with the young” (Dt 22:4, 6). Along these same lines, rest on the seventh day is meant not only for human beings, but also so “that your ox and your donkey may have rest” (Ex 23:12). Clearly, the Bible has no place for a tyrannical anthropocentrism unconcerned for other creatures [parag. 68].
Pope Francis emphasizes that his concern for Madre Tierra is no divergence from previous Catholic teaching. Paragraphs 4, 5, and 6 cite Pope Paul VI, Pope John Paul II, and Pope Benedict XVI all criticizing human-centric exploitation and overconsumption of global resources. He calls his papal namesake, Saint Francis, the “example par excellence of care for the vulnerable and of an integral ecology lived out joyfully and authentically” [parag. 10]. “Integral ecology” is a key phrase in this encyclical. It’s not just about hugging trees; Saint Francis’s life shows us “how inseparable the bond is between concern for nature, justice for the poor, commitment to society, and interior peace” [parag. 10], caring, as Saint Francis did, “for all that exists” [parag. 11].
And if you care for all that exists, you’ve got work to do:
- You’ve got to throw away the “throwaway culture” that denies resources to future generations and revamp industry to follow the model of natural ecosystems, in which everything, plant and animal, is recycled [parag. 22].
- You’ve got to accept that human activity has caused “most global warming in recent decades” and change your “lifestyle, production and consumption, in order to combat this warming” [parag. 23]. And if you keep pretending that climate science isn’t clear, Pope Francis will whack you on the news: “Such evasiveness serves as a licence to carrying on with our present lifestyles and models of production and consumption. This is the way human beings contrive to feed their self-destructive vices: trying not to see them, trying not to acknowledge them, delaying the important decisions and pretending that nothing will happen” [parag 59].
- You’ve got to respond to the “tragic rise in the number of migrants seeking to flee from the growing poverty caused by environmental degradation” [parag 25].
- You’ve got to stop wasting and privatizing water, because “access to safe drinkable water is a basic and universal human right, since it is essential to human survival and, as such, is a condition for the exercise of other human rights” [parag. 30].
And so on, through a catalog of deep environmental and cultural ills that reads more like the work of Wendell Berry and Bill McKibben than the standard homilies of bishops, much less the corporatist platitudes of any of God’s favorites running for the Republican nomination for President. Consider this Berryesque passage on biodiversity:
The replacement of virgin forest with plantations of trees, usually monocultures, is rarely adequately analyzed. Yet this can seriously compromise a biodiversity which the new species being introduced does not accommodate. Similarly, wetlands converted into cultivated land lose the enormous biodiversity which they formerly hosted. In some coastal areas the disappearance of ecosystems sustained by mangrove swamps is a source of serious concern [parag 39].
Pope Francis does not want nature without humanity. But in a fascinating turn to the ills of urban life, he says we cannot have humanity without nature:
Nowadays, for example, we are conscious of the disproportionate and unruly growth of many cities, which have become unhealthy to live in, not only because of pollution caused by toxic emissions but also as a result of urban chaos, poor transportation, and visual pollution and noise. Many cities are huge, inefficient structures, excessively wasteful of energy and water. Neighbourhoods, even those recently built, are congested, chaotic and lacking in sufficient green space. We were not meant to be inundated by cement, asphalt, glass and metal, and deprived of physical contact with nature [parag. 44].
But again, the Pope warns us against letting a wealthy few secure green space as their leisurely prerogative:
In some places, rural and urban alike, the privatization of certain spaces has restricted people’s access to places of particular beauty. In others, “ecological” neighbourhoods have been created which are closed to outsiders in order to ensure an artificial tranquillity. Frequently, we find beautiful and carefully manicured green spaces in so-called “safer” areas of cities, but not in the more hidden areas where the disposable of society live [parag 45].
Pollution, global warming, poor urban design, and other problems most gravely affect the poor—the “excluded” who make up a majority of the planet. Pope Francis says we fail to do more to protect and include those billions because many decision-makers live like me, sitting behind computer screens in comfortable houses in comfortable lands:
They live and reason from the comfortable position of a high level of development and a quality of life well beyond the reach of the majority of the world’s population. This lack of physical contact and encounter, encouraged at times by the disintegration of our cities, can lead to a numbing of conscience and to tendentious analyses which neglect parts of reality. At times this attitude exists side by side with a “green” rhetoric. Today, however, we have to realize that a true ecological approach always becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor [parag 49].
When Pope Francis speaks of “the disintegration of our cities,” he’s not talking about bridges falling apart. He’s talking about losing community, about different kinds of people not living, working, shopping, and talking together. We need to connect, in our cities and around the world:
We need to strengthen the conviction that we are one single human family. There are no frontiers or barriers, political or social, behind which we can hide, still less is there room for the globalization of indifference [parag. 52].
There it is: the globalist enchilada. Did y’all forget the original definition of catholic?
Don’t mistake this encyclical for a papal embrace of every item in a stereotypical American liberal agenda. The Pope emphatically rejects the notion that we comfortable nations should force developing nations to adopt “reproductive health” policies to earn our help. He says that blaming population growth for ecological problems dodges the real cause, extreme consumerism, that an elite minority (and if you have time to read this essay from a computer in America, you’re probably a member of that elite) doesn’t want to acknowledge, let alone surrender [parag. 50]. We are obliged to help developing nations, without population-growth conditions, by an “ecological debt” [parag. 51] created by our long-term exploitation of the world’s resources.
Pope Francis says that economics and politics, science and religion, must work together to promote integral ecology. Pope Francis calls for global cooperation and a rejection of “the ‘myths’ of a modernity grounded in a utilitarian mindset (individualism, unlimited progress, competition, consumerism, the unregulated market)” [parag. 210]. But amidst those grand-scale solutions, the Pope also calls on individuals to “cultivat[e] sound virtues… make a selfless ecological commitment,” and change simple daily habits:
A person who could afford to spend and consume more but regularly uses less heating and wears warmer clothes, shows the kind of convictions and attitudes which help to protect the environment. There is a nobility in the duty to care for creation through little daily actions, and it is wonderful how education can bring about real changes in lifestyle. Education in environmental responsibility can encourage ways of acting which directly and significantly affect the world around us, such as avoiding the use of plastic and paper, reducing water consumption, separating refuse, cooking only what can reasonably be consumed, showing care for other living beings, using public transport or car-pooling, planting trees, turning off unnecessary lights, or any number of other practices. All of these reflect a generous and worthy creativity which brings out the best in human beings. Reusing something instead of immediately discarding it, when done for the right reasons, can be an act of love which expresses our own dignity [parag. 211].
Laudato Si’ holds much more in its 246 paragraphs. It’s a serious read, but the English translation is also lucid, exhortative, and ultimately hopeful. The two prayers with which he closes do not ask for God’s mercy before in the face of impending doom. They ask for the power of God’s love so that “we may protect life and beauty… rescue the abandoned and forgotten of this earth… protect the world and not prey on it… sow beauty, not pollution and destruction” [parag. 246]. Those are prayers of action, not surrender. The Kingdom is coming, but we have work to do. Francis of Assisi understood; so, it seems, does Francis of Argentina.