What if we stop waiting for governments to do the right thing and start doing it ourselves?
The Mater si, Magistra no debate seems to have immediately kicked in with Pope Francis’ new encyclical Laudato Si’ (“Praise Be to You”). What apparently unites Catholics of all persuasions is the conviction that the Church is only a teacher when it teaches what I agree with. Or as the old quip goes, “Orthodoxy is my doxy. Heterodoxy is another man’s doxy.”
But while the talking heads debate how many angels it takes to melt an icecap, I hope the rest of us use this encyclical to draw deeper into the Church’s social teaching, understanding how it is part of the entire ecology of Catholic doctrine and thought.
Laudato Si’ is a good place for most of us who unfortunately have not been well catechized in this area. The underlying theme of the encyclical is interconnectedness — humans with each other, humans with other creatures, humans with our planet, humans with God.
The first principle is the dignity of every human being: “The biblical accounts of creation invite us to see each human being as a subject who can never be reduced to the status of an object” (No. 81). Pope Francis correctly identifies the moral numbness that has us taking for granted the suffering of others, a condition that leads us to treat both humans and the natural world as objects to be used and exploited as we see fit.
In a world in which hatred is a threat but indifference is a poison, the pope makes clear that it is morally incoherent to worry about the snail darter but ignore the violence done to the child in the womb; to worry about the extinction of plant and animal species but to ignore the destruction of human communities due to climate change. This is a profound insight, because so often the desperately poor are as invisible to us as the embryo.
“When we fail to acknowledge as part of reality the worth of a poor person, a human embryo, a person with disabilities — to offer just a few examples — it becomes difficult to hear the cry of nature itself; everything is connected,” (No. 117) Francis wrote.
In Laudato Si’, the pope articulates the principles of Catholic thought as they apply not just to the environmental crisis but to the human crisis we face: That each human being has an inherent dignity and value. That we must seek the common good. That these are the bedrock principles around which society must orient itself. Yet more often, ours is a culture of selfish consumerism that turns people into objects and deifies our own needs and wants.
“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,” Francis wrote. “Strategies for a solution demand an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature” (No. 139).
This interconnectedness of the problems and of the potential solutions is the heart of Laudato Si’s message to us.
I do not know how Catholics — and all people of good will — will respond to the pope’s passionate appeal. It seems that in our own country we feel we have the most to lose, for we have so many benefits from the existing order.
But we Catholics don’t have to wait for policies to change. In our parishes and dioceses, we can lead the way in modeling our interconnectedness and our willingness to take action on behalf of the common good. As the pope reassures us: “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” (No. 61).
Greg Erlandson is OSV’s president and publisher.