Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Reading Laudato Si

Having a few days break before returning to Boston, I have the luxury of giving a slow-read to the Holy Father's encyclical Laudato Si. Without trying to give a summary of the text, I thought it might be nice to offer a few reflections on the document. 

In the introduction to the document, we find a tantalizingly suggestive phrase: integral ecology. Pope Francis does not immediately define this term, but he tethers it to the vision Saint Francis had for the environment. Consistent with a tradition reaching back to the psalms, the Holy Father desires his readers to take a stance that allows creation itself to praise God's glory. Far from a bloodless portrayal of the environment as an assemblage of biological organisms, Pope Francis understands creation as the primordial locus of wonder and awe:
If we approach nature and the environment without this openness to awe and wonder, if we no longer speak the language of fraternity and beauty in our relationship with the world, our attitude will be that of masters, consumers, ruthless exploiters, unable to set limits on their immediate needs. By contrast, if we feel intimately united with all that exists, then sobriety and care will well up spontaneously. The poverty and austerity of Saint Francis were no mere veneer of asceticism, but something much more radical: a refusal to turn reality into an object simply to be used and controlled. (11)
Our attitude to the world must not be one of cool indifference but, rather, one of astonishment and wonder. That it is at all is a marvel sufficient to rock us back on our heels and stir up within a sense of enormity and vastness of creation. 

Chapter One, "What is Happening to Our Common Home," addresses five areas of particular environmental concern: pollution, water, biodiversity, quality of human life, and global inequality. Pope Francis decries what I would call naive "capitalist cataracts" which blind one to detecting the many and subtle ways we are all connected. So blinded, one comes to see "the environment" as merely a means to a singular end: profit. If profit is the goal, then any means can be justified to turn a profit, even if those means include inflicting terrible damage to the world we share with one another. This blindness lacks, too, the depth-perception to note that what we do to the environment ultimately affects us: the toxins we spew into the air or discharge into the sea eventually make it back to us in the forms of our drinking water and the food on our plates. It's sort of like passing gas in a crowded elevator: you may hope to God it doesn't stink but odds are it does and it will, given sufficient time, affect everyone on board. 

Pope Francis concludes the first chapter with the following prescient observation:
On many concrete questions, the Church has no reason to offer a definitive opinion; she knows that honest debate must be encouraged among experts, while respecting divergent views. But we need only take a frank look at the facts to see that our common home is falling into serious disrepair. Hope would have us recognize that there is always a way out, that we can always redirect our steps, that we can always do something to solve our problems. Still, we can see signs that things are now reaching a breaking point, due to the rapid pace of change and degradation; these are evident in large-scale natural disasters as well as social and even financial crises, for the world’s problems cannot be analyzed or explained in isolation. There are regions now at high risk and, aside from all doomsday predictions, the present world system is certainly unsustainable from a number of points of view, for we have stopped thinking about the goals of human activity. “If we scan the regions of our planet, we immediately see that humanity has disappointed God’s expectations”. (61)
The role of the Church is not to claim that this scientific theory is correct, or that scientific study irredeemably flawed. The Church's role, instead, is to help give a holistic assessment - an integral assessment - of the current state of affairs. One may debate the nature and scope of human impact upon the earth, but it cannot be denied that we are affecting it...and not for the good of the planet or for the whole of its population.

This first chapter, then, sets the stage for what is to follow. I am keenly interested in how the notion of "integral ecology" will be developed. But as I finish reading this opening of the text, I cannot but marvel at the ongoing sense of hope: it is not too late for us to be aroused to the plight of our common home and respond in a way in line with God's expectations.

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