The final Chapter of Pope Francis’ Encyclical is entitled Ecological Education and Spirituality. After reviewing the enormity of the challenges facing us, the serious damage we have done–continue to do–that is, after acknowledging how destructive we can be, Pope Francis reminds us that as human beings we also have an incredible capacity for change, for good, for conversion. If we can become so inventive to pander to our desires, we could use that same potential creatively to foster an education to pull us out of our dead end. As has been underlined earlier, we are God’s creation and we reflect God’s image. It is from there that we could live and act and make our choices. He are spiritual beings capable of a spirituality, a relationship with God, much bigger than our self-satisfaction, our sense of security and comfort. We are capable of embracing a global perspective that includes the needs of others and the needs of our earth.
This would, in fact, change the way we live. This could motivate us, who are more affluent and have more available, to stop and consider the effects of our choices and consumption on most of the human race and on future generations. At the rate we are going, even “developed” and privileged cultures will run out of non-renewable sources of energy and suffer the effects of climate change. What do we want for our grandchildren? Disaster or a sustainable future? When we consider the plight of most human beings and the increasing extinction of species, what kind of world are we making now? Were we to change, we could actually live out a new covenant between humanity and the environment that would reflect that we are a part of nature and a component of the environment, rather over and above or opposed to the natural world of creation.
This spells out conversion, the basic message of the Gospels, the fruit of all the covenants mentioned in the Jewish Scriptures. We can legitimately re-read Divine Revelation and the writings of the Church Fathers and the Doctors of the Church and learn that we have been reading too selectively, editing out all they have to say about using creation aright. It’s all been there; it just hasn’t been convenient to notice that fact. It is not an “extra” or “addenda” to the Christian vocation, not a fashionable, trendy, eye-catching lure pasted on to the Church when a secular society ignores basic Catholic teaching. This is the bigger context and rationale for what the Church professes.
Perhaps what will be baffling news–if good news–to some readers is the relation between joy and peace, humility and sobriety in responding to this conversion. Judging from the reactions of some secular critics and some high-profile American Catholics to this Encyclical, its message has been taken as dour, gloomy and scolding. Those reactions leave me asking myself whether they’ve read the same text that I have. It challenges the status quo, certainly, but in raising the responsibility we have to rest of the human race and out connectedness to the natural world, I find a palpable joy in that potential, a deeper security in recognizing a greater self than one that is selfishly indulged, and the hopeful possibility of working hard for our common well-being. Perhaps what is baffling to some readers is the humility required by such a conversion: the world is not there for my exploitation. I am but a piece of the puzzle or one tile in the mosaic. It is human delusion of self-importance or “being better than” that is infecting our lives. A sober and responsible simplicity actually leaves me unencumbered to enjoy, to remember to enjoy, the good things freely given by life. It’s the difference between taping into the human capacity to sing rather than buying more CD’s to make music for me, to be dependent on someone else’s expression. The tragedy is how consumerism can leave so many other people–even many inside our society–deprived of those basic goods that are free.
The challenges invite us to extend an ethic of love beyond the narrow circle of family or ethnicity or nation. If this is dismissed as romanticism, what do we do with the Gospel? The Gospel is not romantic, does not generate fluffy feelings: it proposes that love is sacrifice. Not the sacrifice of the over-achiever, covered by an armor or constant activity, but the sacrifice of vulnerability which we celebrate in sacrament, which we refresh in the Sabbath rest, in the Jubilee rest prescribed for natural resources. This is the sacramental life based in the Trinity: our God is not an isolated monad, aloof from our concerns and vulnerability. Our God is relatedness, is ultimate relationship that has also entered the realms of history and nature. Inevitably Mary is mentioned, Mary through whose consent that interpenetration of the human and divine occurred in the Incarnation.
The Encyclical began with a prayer, the Canticle of the Creatures composed by Francis of Assisi at the end of his life. The final Chapter concludes with two prayers, one for our earth and the second, a Christian Prayer in union with creation. That is precisely where we must begin and end to face the problems that presently beset us.
to be continued