On Care for Our Common Home

Many people, including Pope Francis, see the current situation of the environment as one of the major crises and challenges that humanity is now facing. It may well be the No. 1 problem, more important in the long run than terrorism, migration (partially driven by ecological problems, see Laudato Si’, No. 25), war and armaments, population growth and food supply, etc. According to Noam Chomsky, institute professor emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology: “The threat of global warming is very serious. Every time one reads a science journal, there’s an even more alarming discovery.” 

Pope Francis has now weighed in with a moral voice, talking about environmental degradation as one of the largest challenges we have, which might make us ask, Are we committing suicide with this indiscriminate and tyrannical use of nature?

The theological basis for the pope’s position lies in seeing creation as a sacrament: “As Christians, we are also called ‘to accept the world as a sacrament of communion, as a way of sharing with God and our neighbors on a global scale. It is our humble conviction that the divine and the human meet in the slightest detail in the seamless garment of God’s creation, in the last speck of dust of our planet’ ” (LS, No. 9).

We see also the great social dimension of the pope’s concern when he invokes Leonardo Boff’s phrase and book title, “Cry of the Earth, Cry of the Poor,” to remind us that those who suffer the most from environmental damages are always the weakest members of our society (see No. 49). Poor soil happens because there are poor souls who are looking for pleasure or purpose by exploiting creation.

Pope Francis wants us to come up with a new spirituality and conversion of life. He is calling for the latest development in our Catholic social thought by asking for a type of ecological education — to give Mother Nature a break.

His message sounds much like how we preach during Lent. He is calling upon us for “a bold cultural revolution … to slow down and look at reality in a different way, to appropriate the positive and sustainable progress which has been made, but also to recover the values and the great goals swept away by our unrestrained delusions of grandeur” (No. 114). And, earlier in the document, the pope tells us that “the misuse of creation begins when we no longer recognize any higher instance than ourselves, when we see nothing else but ourselves” (No. 6).

Pope Francis laments obstructionist attitudes coming from even believers who may deny that there is any problem, or are indifferent, nonchalant, resigned to the fact that this is the way it is, or hold a blind confidence that technical solutions will solve the problem. What is needed is a “new and universal solidarity” (No. 14).

In the Book of Genesis, we were given stewardship of this world. Now, though, it doesn’t look like we have done a very good job, as the pope talks about our common home beginning to look more and more like an “immense pile of filth” (No. 21).

We cannot continue with the notion that there is an unlimited supply of resources for our comfort or convenience, which Laudato Si’ calls “the modern myth of unlimited material progress” (No. 78). Some claim that the ocean codfish population has decreased to only 10 percent of what it once was and that to cut down more trees in the Amazon rain forest would affect the planet’s weather patterns.

What makes Laudato Si’ so special is that it is bringing scientists, politicians and theologians together to see — not only the material parts, but also the social and spiritual parts — that bad environmental practices are destroying our common home (see No. 188). It is now recognized by many that the recent progress made at the International Conference on Environment and Climate Change in Paris in 2016 was able to go forward because of Pope Francis’ encyclical.

So, the pope is calling us to “develop a new synthesis, capable of overcoming the false arguments of recent centuries” (No. 121).

He identifies part of the problem as this: When we place ourselves at the center of the universe and the meaning of our existence, then we begin to demand immediate convenience and everything else becomes relative.

“If we can overcome individualism, we will truly be able to develop a different lifestyle and bring about significant changes in society” (No. 208). Or, as St. Teresa of Calcutta taught so well, live more simply that others might simply live.

Words to Live By

Besides the obvious need to organize study groups within the parish or the deanery, we must accept the fact that the vast majority of our parishioners will never attend. Obvious recommendations include to take quicker showers, cut back on the use of air conditioning (see No. 55), reduce useless driving and consumption of gasoline, examine our eating habits, etc.

Allow me, therefore, to compile a list of more quotes for you to slip into your homilies or use as fillers in the parish bulletin. A constant citing of comments will help to keep this issue alive as part of our faith and Christian living.

1) Some might call Francis a techno-skeptic, even though he has said that techno-science, when well directed, can produce important means of improving the quality of human life, from useful domestic appliances to great transportation systems, bridges, buildings and public spaces (see No. 103).

He also pointed out that we should be beware of putting too much confidence in technology, which, “linked to business interests, is presented as the only way of solving these problems, in fact proves incapable of seeing the mysterious network of relations between things and so sometimes solves one problem only to create others” (No. 20). So we might ask ourselves every time we embrace a new bit of technology, do we ask ourselves what the ripple effect of this might have on our world? And on us?

2) Just in case one might feel that there isn’t enough traditional spirituality or religious thought in this encyclical, how about the Eucharist as demonstrating the hope of all the world.

“It is in the Eucharist that all that has been created finds its greatest exaltation. Grace, which tends to manifest itself tangibly, found unsurpassable expression when God himself became man and gave himself as food for his creatures. The Lord, in the culmination of the mystery of the Incarnation, chose to reach our intimate depths through a fragment of matter. He comes not from above, but from within, he comes that we might find him in this world of ours. In the Eucharist, fullness is already achieved; it is the living center of the universe, the overflowing core of love and of inexhaustible life. Joined to the incarnate Son, present in the Eucharist, the whole cosmos gives thanks to God.

“Indeed the Eucharist is itself an act of cosmic love: ‘Yes, cosmic! Because even when it is celebrated on the humble altar of a country church, the Eucharist is always in some way celebrated on the altar of the world.’ The Eucharist joins heaven and earth; it embraces and penetrates all creation.… Thus the Eucharist is also a source of light and motivation for our concerns for the environment, directing us to be stewards of all creation” (No. 236).

3) An exaggerated anthropocentrism is cited as the root of so many of our crises. When human beings fail to find their true place in this world, they misunderstand themselves and end up acting against themselves: “Not only has God given the earth to man, who must use it with respect for the original good purpose for which it was given, but, man too is God’s gift to man. He must therefore respect the natural and moral structure with which he has been endowed” (No. 115).

When a man becomes the measure, sin becomes a regulator. Read all of Chapter Three of Laudato Si’ to get into all of Pope Francis’ examples. They range from free-market economics to sexual abuse and abortion. The pope casts a wide net. 

4) LAUDATO SI’ (“Praise be to you”) comes from the beautiful canticle of St. Francis of Assisi, who “reminds us that our common home is like a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us. ‘Praise be to you, my Lord, through our Sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us, and who produces various fruit with colored flowers and herbs’” (No. 1).

What would life be like if all the plants and flowers, the birds and the bees disappeared? We need to move forward from a mentality that finds that created goods find their purpose in existing to serve our benefit and pleasure, instead of understanding that all created objects have a value in themselves, independent of us humans.

“This sister now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her. We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will. The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life” (No. 2), which includes the filth which we find in our world today.

5) Ill-planned or ill-researched projects, quickly rushed into production, have hurt and wounded the environment in many places, especially when there was no follow-up investigation or monitoring. “The culture of consumerism, which prioritizes short-term gain and private interest, can make it easy to rubber-stamp authorizations or to conceal information” (No. 184).

6) “Where profits alone count, there can be no thinking about the rhythms of nature, its phases of decay and regeneration, or the complexity of ecosystems which may be gravely upset by human intervention” (No. 190).

7) “Concern for the environment thus needs to be joined to a sincere love for our fellow human beings and an unwavering commitment to resolving the problems of society” (No. 91).

8) “It is no longer enough, then, simply to state that we should be concerned for future generations. We need to see that what is at stake is our own dignity. Leaving an inhabitable planet to future generations is, first and foremost, up to us. The issue is one which dramatically affects us, for it has to do with the ultimate meaning of our earthly sojourn” (No. 160).

9) As Pope Benedict XVI wrote in the encyclical Caritas in Veritate, “Purchasing is always a moral — not simply economic — act” (LS, No. 206). And, “the issue of environmental degradation challenges us to examine our lifestyle.”

10) We are all in this together, so we must cooperate and work together: “I urgently appeal, then, for a new dialogue about how we are shaping the future of our planet. We need a conversation which includes everyone, since the environmental challenge we are undergoing, and its human roots, concern and affect us all” (No. 14).

11) “Some forms of pollution are part of people’s daily experience. Exposure to atmospheric pollutants produces a broad spectrum of health hazards, especially for the poor, and causes millions of premature deaths” (No. 20), which, as mentioned earlier, can be exacerbated by too much reliance on technology and can create new, unforeseen problems. “These problems are closely linked to a throwaway culture which affects the excluded just as it quickly reduces things to rubbish” (No. 22).

12) “One particularly serious problem is the quality of water available to the poor…. Even as the quality of available water is constantly diminishing, in some places there is a growing tendency, despite its scarcity, to privatize this resource, turning it into a commodity subject to the laws of the market. Yet access to safe drinkable water is a basic and universal human right, since it is essential to human survival and, as such, is a condition for the exercise of other human rights.

“Our world has a grave social debt towards the poor who lack access to drinking water, because they are denied the right to a life consistent with their inalienable dignity” (Nos. 29-30, emphasis in original)

13) Science is not enough. We have to include the Gospels as part of the solution. “If we are truly concerned to develop an ecology capable of remedying the damage we have done, no branch of the sciences and no form of wisdom can be left out, and that includes religion and the language particular to it. The Catholic Church is open to dialogue with philosophical thought; this has enabled her to produce various syntheses between faith and reason. The development of the Church’s social teaching represents such a synthesis with regard to social issues; this teaching is called to be enriched by taking up new challenges” (No. 63).

For More Insights

If you are interested in deepening your insights into biblical teaching and the Church’s teaching about these matters, I recommend you get a copy of Dianne Bergant’s latest book, A New Heaven, A New Earth (Orbis Books, 2016). Here is an excerpt: “All of Earth is governed by laws we did not devise, laws we cannot revise, laws to which we too are subject. Earth does not belong to us; we belong to Earth. We come from it; we are sustained by it; and in the end, we return to it.”

While most people will not want to sit down and listen to a 30-minute lecture or talk on the environment, quick little phrases and remarks can touch a person’s conscience and linger the same way a melody continues in our mind long after the music has stopped. Preach the Gospel. Talk about the sacraments? Encourage people to pray more? And to help the poor? Yes, to all the above.

But on a healthy planet! These ecological insights have now become part of our faith in worshiping our loving Creator who has given us this mother earth to use as we walk toward our final destiny.

Father Kirchner, C.Ss.R., writes from Seelos House of Formation in Hyde Park, Chicago.