Pope Francis calls on us to rise above ourselves

Pope Francis released the sweeping encyclical, “Laudato Si” (“Praise by to You”), yesterday. As The New York Times reports, the document calls “for a radical transformation of politics, economics and individual lifestyles to confront environmental degradation and climate change, blending a biting critique of consumerism and irresponsible development with a plea for swift and unified global action.”
Image courtesy of PewSitter.

I’m a Unitarian who has been active on climate change issues for several years. Most recently I joined people of faith on a bike ride to Washington, D.C. to urge our legislators to act on climate change because it is our moral duty. (Read about the ride at PA Interfaith Power and Light, the riders, our meetings, and my conception of climate as a moral issue and reflections.) I agree with Pope Francis that, “[c]limate change is a global problem with grave implications: environmental, social, economic, political and for the distribution of goods. It represents one of the principal challenges facing humanity in our day.” That challenge has too often been seen as a technical problem that can be “fixed” with advanced technology and technological development. But it is also a moral, spiritual, and existential problem of meaning.

The indictment of all of us is broad and cutting, but the vision is beautiful and transcends the narrowness of self, especially as its conceived in the consumer society. My first feeling is that Francis has brought what some seem to think of as radical into the mainstream. I already see the hints of David Suzuki, Gus Speth, Ivan Illich (a defrocked priest himself), Thomas Berry, Wendell Berry, Arundhati Roy, Vandana Shiva, Wangari Maathai, and David Orr here. It is as if the modern Catholic Church has expanded the circle of moral concern from humans understood as separate from creation to being of the creation and the creation being of us. That is not at all to imply that Francis has abandoned special creation or the distinct godliness of human beings. Rather, that through “integral ecology,” Christians are morally responsible to more than people.

137. Since everything is closely interrelated, and today’s problems call for a vision capable of taking into account every aspect of the global crisis, I suggest that we now consider some elements of an integral ecology, one which clearly respects its human and social dimensions.

I. Environmental, economic and social ecology

138. Ecology studies the relationship between living organisms and the environment in which they develop. This necessarily entails reflection and debate about the conditions required for the life and survival of society, and the honesty needed to question certain models of development, production and consumption. It cannot be emphasized enough how everything is interconnected. Time and space are not independent of one another, and not even atoms or subatomic particles can be considered in isolation. Just as the different aspects of the planet – physical, chemical and biological – are interrelated, so too living species are part of a network which we will never fully explore and understand. A good part of our genetic code is shared by many living beings. It follows that the fragmentation of knowledge and the isolation of bits of information can actually become a form of ignorance, unless they are integrated into a broader vision of reality.

139. When we speak of the “environment”, what we really mean is a relationship existing between nature and the society which lives in it. Nature cannot be regarded as something separate from ourselves or as a mere setting in which we live. We are part of nature, included in it and thus in constant interaction with it. Recognizing the reasons why a given area is polluted requires a study of the workings of society, its economy, its behaviour patterns, and the ways it grasps reality. Given the scale of change, it is no longer possible to find a specific, discrete answer for each part of the problem. It is essential to seek comprehensive solutions which consider the interactions within natural systems themselves and with social systems. We are faced not with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather with one complex crisis which is both social and environmental. Strategies for a solution demand an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature.

These are the moral teachings of Christ meet Commoner’s Four Laws of Ecology. It’s a pretty breathtaking move.

If we are our brother’s keepers, if we are to love our neighbors as ourselves, if we are to till and keep the creation, then what are our responsibilities in this? Whatever they are-and they are significant in light of this integral ecology-he writes, “All is not lost. Human beings, while capable of the worst, are also capable of rising above themselves, choosing again what is good, and making a new start.” I look forward to reading the encyclical more deeply.

To follow what scientists have said about Laudato Si, check out this Think Progress post.

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