In his introduction to his Encyclical, Pope Francis mentions that certain themes will reappear in the various chapters, each time viewing them from a different perspective or context. I hope it strikes even a casual reader how frequently he quotes teaching on caring for the environment from the various national conferences of bishops. Apart from underlining the universality, the catholicity of concern for the natural world from a faith perspective, he also demonstrates the collegiality of the bishops teaching in consort with their pontiff. He is informed by and appreciative of their ministries. When as Cardinal Archbishop Jorge Bergoglio, he presided over the bishops of his native Argentina–and fielded criticism from both the right and the left–he maintained that they did not have to be unanimous of every point to be a truly Catholic body. That would not prevent them from presenting clear, unambiguous and consistently orthodox teaching. He is a Pope who takes the risk of listening to all sides.
You may recall that early in his pontificate that some of the faithful criticized him for not publishing a denunciation of abortion. And yet, he treats that subject and the medical experimentation on fetuses in this Encyclical in the context of the social evils emerging from our abuse of the environment. In other words, he waited to locate the issue in the concrete social context, from the roots of the problems and false values of our consumerist and throw-away civilization. The priority given the ecological issue reflects its urgency; if we continue to erode a life-sustaining environment, abortion becomes a non-issue when the human race no longer survives. Yes, the issue is that urgent, as much as we may not wish to believe that. Good stewardship of the natural world is not, the Pope writes here, an optional extra but is integral to our Gospel-based faith.
Of course, the interconnection of global climate change and social injustices effecting underdeveloped peoples, i.e., the majority of the human race, is not only repeatedly demonstrated in the Encyclical; the Pope has repeated that connection in his various visits throughout the world since publishing the encyclical. We can certainly expect some pointed recommendations and corrections to us during his visit to the United States this month.
Chapter Five: Lines of Approach and Action, pulls together some practical recommendations. In a sense, this Chapter addresses itself to the question, Where do we go from here? Consistent with his observation that we are all in this together and that an ecological spirituality is a communal one, he emphasizes the necessity of nations co-operating to effect needed changes and consolidate efforts. But not just the powerful and wealthy nations. Those peoples who are victimized most by ecological exploitation or climate change, must be allowed to contribute their voice; the solutions cannot be solely for those who can afford them. The poor nations cannot be left to garner the indirect benefits of change. We need to foster affordable improvements and a just distribution of resources–imaginative, intellectual, technological, moral and spiritual as well as natural.
That hope-filled strategy suggested, there’s no pretense that there are easy, instant solutions. The challenge of work to be done, co-operation to be achieved and international regulations to be set in place is daunting. This is a scientific problem but also a social and ethical problem. Deeper still, it is a religious and spiritual problem, requiring the co-operation and interchange of various faith traditions. This is a genuine crisis in the root sense of the word; not just a catastrophe but an opportunity to reanimate the human enterprise and pull us out of isolated self-interest.
In the past couple of posts, I’ve covered two chapters at a time, but the final Sixth Chapter deserves a post of its own.
Please remember that these posts are just a guide to reading the Encyclical. It is no substitute for that, no more than a book report on Tolstoy’s War and Peace could ever communicate the impact of reading the book itself.
…to be continued…