WHEN Pope Francis released his encyclical in June of this year the media stressed it was another example of this Pope’s being in line with the popular mood around the issues of the day and went all gaga over it for a few days.
Then the encyclical sank from the media like a stone dropped into a still lake, the ripples visible briefly and the surface of the lake returns to its placid normality, with nary a sign remaining that a stone had been dropped into the lake.
Not only has the secular media’s interpretation of the encyclical proven to be self-serving, it also misses the point.
Hopefully this commentary will show that while Pope Francis is teaching “on care for our common home”, he is teaching first and foremost about the ecology of the human heart as foundation to addressing the environmental challenges faced by the entire human family.
The title of the encyclical comes from a canticle of St. Francis praising the Lord through all aspects of this planet earth on which we live [para.1] and the Holy Father speaks of the earth crying because of what we have done/do [para. 2] yet immediately the Holy Father stresses all is a matter of what is within and flows from the human heart: 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. [para. 2]
Echoing St. John XXIII, who addressed his seminal encyclical PACEM IN TERRIS to “all men of good will”, [para. 3] Pope Francis enunciates his desire to: …. address every person living on this planet……to enter into dialogue with all people about our common home. [para.3]
This is striking for two reasons in particular: 1] He is reaffirming his role as shepherd and father of every human being, not just Catholics and 2] Dialogue means there is something important to discuss because the search for truth, identification of issues, discovery of solutions means, in this context especially, neither side of the issue can claim definitively to have the answers.
The destruction of the human environment is extremely serious, not only because God has entrusted the world to us men and women, but because human life is itself a gift which must be defended from various forms of debasement. [para.5]
Implicit in this teaching is a challenge to those who put saving forests or whales ahead of saving pre-born children from being murdered in the womb, and to those who, on the other hand, while seeking to protect pre-born children often lack compassion in their hearts for those who have committed or advocate for abortion.
Often this latter group denies any human responsibility for the wounding of the earth.
Pope Francis leaves little wiggle room in his moral challenges throughout the encyclical.
It is not a matter of the Holy Father saying we must all be totally pro the global warming side. He is stressing we MUST all be pro EVERYONE and everything God has gifted to us.
Perhaps we cannot directly do anything, for example, to prevent a child being murdered in the womb, but we can each day in our hearts adopt and pray for the protection of every child at risk; perhaps we cannot directly do anything about the condition, for example, of the world’s oceans but we can recycle.
If we focus, without taking concrete action, over how many millions of children are aborted or likewise without concrete action over the condition of the oceans, the sheer magnitude of evil will overwhelm and discourage us.
For thirty of His thirty-three years on earth Christ did ordinary little things each day, like every human being. He did them exceedingly well.
We need humble confidence in the powerful impact of little things done well, the accumulation of which – imagine if all seven billion of us smiled at each other, a little thing, each day – will transform human life and the environment.
That like his namesake Pope Francis is a human being of love, hope, joy shines through in simple, clear teaching such as: Rather than a problem to be solved, the world is a joyful mystery to be contemplated with gladness and praise. [para. 12]
Then Pope Francis articulates his appeal to the whole human family: The urgent challenge to protect our common home includes a concern to bring the whole human family together to seek a sustainable and integral development, for we know that things can change. The Creator does not abandon us; he never forsakes his loving plan or repents of having created us. Humanity still has the ability to work together in building our common home. [para.13]
Among other serious challenges, which must be confronted, if we are to respond in the affirmative to the Holy Father’s appeal, are those of global terrorism, rooted in irrational hatreds, and the chaotic fragility of the global economy, both issues which relentlessly increase the numbers of displaced people throughout the world.
In the universal sense the earth is our ‘common home’, but for millions of our brothers and sisters, those in refugee camps, the homeless and others, they literally have no home. Jesus Himself intimately in His public life took upon Himself, into His Heart, this stark reality which is the daily life of millions: The Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head. [cf. Mt. 8:19-22; Lk. 9:58 ff.]
Pope Francis, reflecting on “what is happening to our common home” stresses: Our goal is not to amass information or to satisfy curiosity, but rather to become painfully aware, to dare to turn what is happening to the world into our own personal suffering and thus to discover what each of us can do about it. [para.19]
One dimension of this is opening our consciousness, our hearts, to a degree of authentic intimacy, with every human being, especially the poor and vulnerable, which should include also a type of intimacy with all creation.
We tend, mainly, to be somewhat unconsciously aware of the sun, moon, stars [if we can see the stars at night for artificial light in urban areas is so ‘polluting’ the sheer wonderment of the night sky is not visible in all its splendour]; likewise the immense extent of concrete and asphalt in our cities, the density of high rise buildings separates most of us from access to soft earth underfoot, to the wonders of dense forest populated by creatures of the forest.
Metropolises of more than a million, to several millions are commonplace in our era.
The state of the world’s oceans is rather a remote fact for those living in such density in modern cities.
Violence, vermin, garbage, loneliness, these are the immediate ‘environmental’ stresses experienced day in and day out by our brothers and sisters in the millions, in particular the homeless.
This is central to our opening our hearts to becoming “…painfully aware…”, and throughout the encyclical Pope Francis interweaves his concerns about the environment and his passionate concern for and love of the poor, a concern and love ever since his election he has ceaselessly challenged us all to embrace and respond to.
Thus, for example, when speaking about drinking water Pope Francis, after reminding us that access to safe drinking water is a foundational and universal human right adds: 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. This debt can be paid partly by an increase in funding to provide clean water and sanitary services among the poor. But water continues to be wasted, not only in the developed world but also in developing countries which possess it in abundance. This shows that the problem of water is partly an educational and cultural issue, since there is little awareness of the seriousness of such behaviour within a context of great inequality. [para. 30]
Here again is a place where we who cannot do the macro, directly supply water to those who have none, can do the micro, namely take a serious, objective inventory of our personal water use/waste.
Throughout the encyclical Pope Francis issues stark warnings about the potential repercussions of our behaviour: Greater scarcity of water will lead to an increase in the cost of food and the various products which depend on its use. Some studies warn that an acute water shortage may occur within a few decades unless urgent action is taken. The environmental repercussions could affect billions of people; it is also conceivable that the control of water by large multinational businesses may become a major source of conflict in this century. [para.31]
Throughout the encyclical Pope Francis speaks specifically about other environmental issues besides water in some detail, often weaving in, as noted above, references to the impact not solely on the ‘natural’ environment but on our lives as well.
Some sections read somewhat technical and feed directly into the debate, for example, between those who see humans as the primary, almost the exclusive agents of what less and less is called ‘global warming’ and more frequently the rather porous ‘climate change,’ and those who see any climate change as merely ‘natural’ occurrences. Likely the objective truth is some of both: the human and the natural.
Since this commentary is attempting to focus on the Holy Father’s words connected to the environment of the human heart most of the above noted will be skipped over.
The human environment and the natural environment deteriorate together; we cannot adequately combat environmental degradation unless we attend to causes related to human and social degradation. In fact, the deterioration of the environment and of society affects the most vulnerable people on the planet: “Both everyday experience and scientific research show that the gravest effects of all attacks on the environment are suffered by the poorest”. [para.48]
This is another example of what strikes me as the dominate teaching, namely that our prime reason for having concern about, caring for our ‘common home’, is because it is we human beings who live in – yes IN I would stress, not on – this common home.
When I was a boy in high summer only the wealthy could afford air conditioning, which in the years immediately after the war was one of many things which were both rare and expensive.
Those of us who lived in tenements because of poverty or small flat tar roofed working class houses would sit out on fire escapes or front stoops until the wee hours of the morning when things might cool down enough for a couple of hours of fitful sleep.
Exhausted men would head off to work, exhausted mothers to care for their families come morning , with no relief from the heat of the day the even more exhausted men would return in the evening, the even more exhausted women tend to supper, try to comfort their children.
Such is still reality for millions of people today, no relief from summer’s heat and in some countries serious diseases, like malaria, flourish compounding the suffering.
It needs to be said that, generally speaking, there is little in the way of clear awareness of problems which especially affect the excluded. Yet they are the majority of the planet’s population, billions of people. These days, they are mentioned in international political and economic discussions, but one often has the impression that their problems are brought up as an afterthought, a question which gets added almost out of duty or in a tangential way, if not treated merely as collateral damage. Indeed, when all is said and done, they frequently remain at the bottom of the pile…… we have to realize that a true ecological approach always becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor. [para.49]
Implicit in the above is a call to metanoia, the conversion of heart which is essential if we are to hear the cry of the poor, let alone the cry of the earth.
I know an internationally renowned environmentalist who jets all over the globe, owns more than one mansion, is totally for abortion. Facts, not a judgement on the person, who is both seriously dedicated to their cause and very eloquent about it to boot – however while I have seen them in various documentaries about the plight of this or that species of plant or animal I have never known them to visit a refugee camp and experience the plight of our brothers and sisters who live there.
The environmental conditions of such places are horrific and directly impact human beings.
We need to strengthen the conviction that we are one single human family. There are no frontiers or barriers, political or social, behind which we can hide, still less is there room for the globalization of indifference. [para. 52] Disregard for the duty to cultivate and maintain a proper relationship with my neighbour, for whose care and custody I am responsible, ruins my relationship with my own self, with others, with God and with the earth. When all these relationships are neglected, when justice no longer dwells in the land, the Bible tells us that life itself is endangered. [para. 70]
In the whole second section of the encyclical, from which the above is taken, Pope Francis does a great teaching on the truth of Who has created us, and all of creation, why we exist and are beloved: In the Judaeo-Christian tradition, the word “creation” has a broader meaning than “nature”, for it has to do with God’s loving plan in which every creature has its own value and significance. Nature is usually seen as a system which can be studied, understood and controlled, whereas creation can only be understood as a gift from the outstretched hand of the Father of all, and as a reality illuminated by the love which calls us together into universal communion…….Every creature is thus the object of the Father’s tenderness, who gives it its place in the world. Even the fleeting life of the least of beings is the object of his love, and in its few seconds of existence, God enfolds it with his affection. Saint Basil the Great described the Creator as “goodness without measure”,…while Dante Alighieri spoke of “the love which moves the sun and the stars”….Consequently, we can ascend from created things “to the greatness of God and to his loving mercy”. [paras. 76/77]
Like St. John Paul II, who while having an openness to the theories of evolution, always stressed that the factual beginning point, point of origin of everyone and all created things is God Himself, Pope Francis is also clear on this point: Human beings, even if we postulate a process of evolution, also possess a uniqueness which cannot be fully explained by the evolution of other open systems. Each of us has his or her own personal identity and is capable of entering into dialogue with others and with God himself. Our capacity to reason, to develop arguments, to be inventive, to interpret reality and to create art, along with other not yet discovered capacities, are signs of a uniqueness which transcends the spheres of physics and biology. The sheer novelty involved in the emergence of a personal being within a material universe presupposes a direct action of God and a particular call to life and to relationship on the part of a “Thou” who addresses himself to another “thou”. 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. [para. 81]
At the same time: The ultimate destiny of the universe is in the fullness of God, which has already been attained by the risen Christ, the measure of the maturity of all things…Here we can add yet another argument for rejecting every tyrannical and irresponsible domination of human beings over other creatures. The ultimate purpose of other creatures is not to be found in us. Rather, all creatures are moving forward with us and through us towards a common point of arrival, which is God, in that transcendent fullness where the risen Christ embraces and illumines all things. Human beings, endowed with intelligence and love, and drawn by the fullness of Christ, are called to lead all creatures back to their Creator. [para. 83]
At the end of the Canon of the Mass, known as the Fourth Eucharistic Prayer, the Church, having articulated our common yearning to be admitted with our Blessed Mother, the Saints, all the faithful departed into heaven affirms:…There, with the whole of creation, freed from the corruption of sin and death……
The whole of creation!
Creation not as we now experience it, this adversarial reality between weather and human beings, certain creatures who pose a real danger such as poisonous snakes, disease and so forth.
The ‘whole of creation’ means precisely the one freed from sin and death.
Before original sin there was no adversarial status in the Garden.
Indeed before Cain slew his brother there was no adversarial status between human beings.
If we be converted, if we strive to lead lives, as Pope Francis urges, which are truly human lives, lives of loving concern for one another, the necessary first step in caring for our common home, then we shall not only see but dwell within what the author of the book of Revelation was granted to see and what is asked in the Canon of the Mass: Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” [21: 1-4]
Pope Francis affirms that: God has written a precious book, “whose letters are the multitude of created things present in the universe”…….We can say that “alongside revelation properly so-called, contained in sacred Scripture, there is a divine manifestation in the blaze of the sun and the fall of night”…. Paying attention to this manifestation, we learn to see ourselves in relation to all other creatures: “I express myself in expressing the world; in my effort to decipher the sacredness of the world, I explore my own”……[para. 85]
Further on the Holy Father stresses that: A sense of deep communion with the rest of nature cannot be real if our hearts lack tenderness, compassion and concern for our fellow human beings. It is clearly inconsistent to combat trafficking in endangered species while remaining completely indifferent to human trafficking, unconcerned about the poor, or undertaking to destroy another human being deemed unwanted. This compromises the very meaning of our struggle for the sake of the environment….. 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. [para.91]
However this communion, a communion of love, will not, cannot, occur unless I truly know who I am as person, person created in the image and likeness of God: person who has breath of life because Life Himself, Love Himself has created me, person who is of the same flesh and blood, same immortal soul, is same beloved of God as every other human being.
Therefore since One alone is the Lord and Giver of Life, One alone has the right to take life: abortion is therefore the ultimate act of usurpation and idolatry, of arrogant murder.
Moreover, when our hearts are authentically open to universal communion, this sense of fraternity excludes nothing and no one. It follows that our indifference or cruelty towards fellow creatures of this world sooner or later affects the treatment we mete out to other human beings. We have only one heart, and the same wretchedness which leads us to mistreat an animal will not be long in showing itself in our relationships with other people. Every act of cruelty towards any creature is “contrary to human dignity”….We can hardly consider ourselves to be fully loving if we disregard any aspect of reality: “Peace, justice and the preservation of creation are three absolutely interconnected themes, which cannot be separated and treated individually without once again falling into reductionism”….Everything is related, and we human beings are united as brothers and sisters on a wonderful pilgrimage, woven together by the love God has for each of his creatures and which also unites us in fond affection with brother sun, sister moon, brother river and mother earth. [para.92]
Throughout the encyclical there is a striking expectation, perhaps even a degree of assumption, that human beings, not necessarily in general but at least those who will read, heed, implement the call within this teaching of the Holy Father, truly know who we are, or if not are at least open to metanoia, that profound conversion of heart which will indeed bring us to truly consciousness of self in relation to those like myself, every other human being, and in right relationship with all of creation, rooted of course in communion of love with the Holy Trinity.
Such authentic consciousness for many in our day is hampered in general by the vicissitudes of life in the 21st century, a time wherein if we are not numbed by extreme poverty, living in places of daily terrorist violence and various forms of oppression, are numbed by living in nations whose culture is ever more deeply enmeshed in the culture of death, darkness, nihilism and where for many ‘social media’ are the sum of their ‘contact’ with other human beings.
In Germany in 1940, a people either in bondage by the Nazis or part of the evil of Nazism, a man wrote a book: Die Umgestalgung in Christus, which because the Nazis forbade the author to publish in Germany, ultimately did not see the light of day in English until after the war.
Finally in 1948, titled in English: Transformation in Christ, the book was published. The author: Dietrich von Hildebrand.
I mention that background because in the common human pilgrimage as we move from childhood through the latter stages of life to discover the truth of: who am I; why am I?, is a struggle which occurs in the actual context of the place, culture, time in which we live and therefore often times external forces beyond our control may either enhance or impede our quest.
The gift of faith is a critical component because, frankly, if we do not know Christ we will remain forever incomprehensible to our very selves and therefore to Other who is God, and to other as other human beings, while other as all creation will be for us like a child chasing bubbles on a summer’s afternoon – the bubbles either float away beyond reach and sight or if caught and touched burst without leaving a trace.
Unconscious man entrusts himself to the flow of events, without setting them at a distance; therefore he is incapable of surveying them. Though he may have single impressions of great intensity, no single fact will reveal itself to him in its full significance and purport, for each lacks connection with the other, and above all, with the primal cause of being and the ultimate meaning of the world. His life is wrapped in a cloud of obscurity. Perhaps such a person will receive, time and again, a strong religious impression, and in its consequence grasp, for a moment, the metaphysical situation of man; but he fails to awaken once for all, and no sooner is his mind distracted by some other impressions than the sphere of ultimate reality has again vanished from his sight. [von Hildebrand, Transformation in Christ, Ignatius Press edition, p. 65]
Pope Francis teaches: In the Christian understanding of the world, the destiny of all creation is bound up with the mystery of Christ, present from the beginning: “All things have been created though him and for him” (Col 1:16)….The prologue of the Gospel of John (1:1-18) reveals Christ’s creative work as the Divine Word (Logos). But then, unexpectedly, the prologue goes on to say that this same Word “became flesh” (Jn 1:14). One Person of the Trinity entered into the created cosmos, throwing in his lot with it, even to the cross. From the beginning of the world, but particularly through the incarnation, the mystery of Christ is at work in a hidden manner in the natural world as a whole, without thereby impinging on its autonomy. [para.99]
This connects to von Hildebrand’s: Only the Christian can be truly conscious in the full sense of the term. For he alone has a true vision of reality proper and a true conception of God and the supernatural realm, from which everything derives its ultimate meaning. [op.cit.p.66]…..It must be the purpose of a true Christian that his entire life be suffused by the light of truth, the lumen Christi. [ibid p.68]
Once our lives are entirely suffused with the light of Christ then we can incarnate this teaching of Pope Francis: Neglecting to monitor the harm done to nature and the environmental impact of our decisions is only the most striking sign of a disregard for the message contained in the structures of nature itself. 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. Once the human being declares independence from reality and behaves with absolute dominion, the very foundations of our life begin to crumble, for “instead of carrying out his role as a cooperator with God in the work of creation, man sets himself up in place of God and thus ends up provoking a rebellion on the part of nature”. [para.117]