I’m tempted to quote, clown that I am, Monty Python’s “Now for something totally different”. But this isn’t the time or topic for clowning! I simply want to note that posts about the vocation crisis are not concluded but need to defer to a series on the Encyclical “Laudato Si”.
Cultural Context of the Intended Readers. It is tricky to give an succinct title to this featured post because this particular encyclical encompasses so much at once. One stumbling block is my own avoidance of the word “Ecology” which has come to be interpreted in the United States as an ideology of liberal politics. That designation had originally been awarded it by politically conservative opposition but it stuck from both perspectives. As a politicized label it is associated, from my point of view, with a number of token, inadequate policies, giving a nod to both the environmental crisis and maintaining the status quo.
Were I to refer in the title to “sustainability” or “environmental” issues, I’d short-change the context of the Encyclical which is so important and points in two directions. On one level, Pope Francis’ teaching reminds us that human beings are, that human nature is part of God’s creation and not detached from or “above” creation. This is a realization lost sight of by thinkers of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. The classic quote here is from The Elizabethan philosopher, Francis Bacon who described the goal of science thus: Nature with all her children to bind her to your service and make her your slave. The other direction considers our relation to the human family; the exploitation of nature by rich and powerful nations not only depletes our natural resources but traps impoverished peoples in increasing poverty.
And those two points underline the controversial character of the Encyclical. It touches the sore spot of American practice and stimulates our penchant for polarization. I would not hold up Europe as an ideal model for either environmental stewardship or awareness; nor would I place Europe in the avant guard of economic justice. Perhaps it is because Europe is no longer the power broker of political and military power or finance that even her governments can accept that scientific data necessitates change in our practice; that the status quo is not sustainable. Sir Mark Moody-Stuart, of the UK, is the former chairman of Shell oil company, with 39 years of experience with the company–hardly a radical! Recently Sir Mark advocated divesting fossil fuel companies now: “If you think your money can be used somewhere else, you should switch it…Selective divestment or portfolio-switching is actually what investors should be doing.” Although European reforms do not solve the current environmental crisis, they are a first step we have not been able to take since it threatens the infrastructures and current vested interests of US industry. Our culture is complex and so are the issues, but since our status quo and lifestyle are questioned one reaction is to deny the reality of the sustainability issues and claim that the presuppositions for change represents political ideology and not fact.
Counter-Cultural Response of Consecrated Life. It is on this point that I find the responses of Roman Catholic religious communities to environmental issues so important. Communities who have pledged themselves to conscientious stewardship are aligned to no single political ideology. On issues political, economic, ethical, liturgical and theological, we run the entire gamut of opinions; and yet we all recognize that the unchallenged status quo, when it comes to the limited resources of this planet, is not sustainable and can only lead to extinction. Is it the Gospel call, the community of goods–over and against private ownership–or the counter-cultural nature of consecrated life that frees our vision? I can’t speak for everyone. But we can maintain our opposing opinions and yet agree on the negative impact we have been having on creation and together advocate change. Monastic communities in particular, despite our varying histories and political opinions, are responding to the challenges of a sustainable future. Certainly our vow of stability conducts us to appreciate the place and our monastic rule cultivates the sense of sacred in the mundane. Living in the same community for a lifetime can teach me to appreciate that my opinions are questionable and not the final word; I can allow room for a diversity of opinion. Perhaps living close to nature and the seasons opens our eyes to the already evident symptoms of an environmental crisis, in no way dependent on any particular ideology.
Political Alternatives? Pope Francis’ Encyclical certainly challenges capitalism and consumerism which can feel threatening. However, that’s not in and of itself approval of leftist politics. Apart from the fact The Soviet block of Communism has collapsed and Labor or Socialist parties no longer offer a distinctive platform in European politics, the leftist alternatives have no impressive record as stewards of the natural world. In fact the various political forms of Socialism unquestionably accepted the industrial revolution which provoked their existence. The one remaining communist Super Power, China, has a disastrous record on environmental issues–like the former U.S.S.R. before her. A classic example is the Great Chinese Famine between 1958 and 1962. A poor crop yield was blamed on sparrows believed to be eating up the crops; the response was the organized and massive destruction of sparrows. The systematic extinction of these birds eliminated the natural predators of locusts resulting in the unchecked multiplication of locusts which…well, you get the picture. The famine was exacerbated and continued until 1962.
To criticize capitalism and consumerism is not to exalt leftist ideology. The non-capitalist countries are not even in the running. An ideologically atheist world view does not have to be dismantled here since it never addressed the issue of environmental responsibility. To reverence the nature is not to worship or deify nature but to recognize it as God’s creation: both we human beings and the natural environment we live in are creation from God’s hand. As humans, endowed with self-reflection and imagination, we can give voice to the voiceless realms of energy, elements, minerals, ecosystems, weather patterns, land and animals. Failing to do so, failing to be aware of more than our comfort and convenience is failing to become human.
…to be continued