The Pope: 5 lessons on tending to the earth

By Danny Schaffer

When Pope Francis arrives in United States on September 22, he will undoubtedly convey the Catholic Church’s enduring message of peace and good will for all humankind.

But he’s also likely to bring another, more sobering message that he first presented in his Encyclical (Laudato Si), “On Care for our Common Home,” in May. The message is that we cannot count on the prevailing “techno-economic paradigm” to combat the global environmental crisis that we see manifesting around us – ranging from climate change to species loss, from deforestation to soil and water degradation.

“The earth, our home, Pope Francis starkly asserts, “is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth.”

According to the Pope, this crisis is just “one small sign of the ethical, cultural and spiritual crisis of modernity.” We have too often come to “accept the idea of infinite or unlimited growth.” This idea, he cautions, “is based on the lie that there is an infinite supply of the earth’s goods, and thus leads to the planet being squeezed dry beyond every limit.”

The Pope’s moral authority – and the affection he has earned from tens of millions of people around the world – make him one of the only public figures who can say such deeply disturbing things about our global environment and society and still be heard. As the Pope acknowledges, heartfelt attempts at change are usually viewed “as a nuisance based on romantic illusions or an obstacle to be circumvented.” Yet, for Pope Francis, deep humility and respect for both our environment and fellow citizens not only reflect and strengthen our moral compass but also represent the true guideposts for a more sustainable and equitable economic future. As the Pope observes: “We cannot presume to heal our relationship with nature and the environment without healing all fundamental human relationships.”

***

Here are five seminal observations found in Pope Francis’s Encyclical that will help us keep our compass as we attempt to craft a more sustainable and equitable global society.

  1. Brotherhood with and an appreciation of the natural world around us is the first step in limiting our consumption: “…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… immediate needs. By contrast, if we feel ultimately united with all that exists, then sobriety and care will well up spontaneously.”
  2. Scientific discovery has brought us great benefits. But science and technology must be joined with an ethical and moral perspective: “Who can deny the beauty of an aircraft or a skyscraper?” Yet, “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…”
  3. Poor and marginalized populations suffer the most dire consequences of environmental degradation. Not only do they depend more on the natural world for their survival, but also they rarely have the means to combat adverse environmental impacts once they occur. So we must seek justice for these communities as we seek to protect our world: “… 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.”
  4. We must recognize the limits of the earth’s capacity and learn to accommodate the bountiful, yet finite, resources that are available to us: “Each community can take from the bounty of the earth whatever it needs for subsistence, but it also has a duty to protect the earth and to ensure its fruitfulness for coming generations.”
  5. Our environmental challenges and societal challenges are two sides of the same issue. How we treat our environment is symptomatic of how we treat each other: “We are not faced with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social but rather one complex crisis which is both social and environmental… the world is a gift which we have freely received and must share with others.“

***

As Pope Francis notes, the words ecology and economy are derived from the Greek word for “home.” In this sense, the Pope’s Encyclical is worldwide call to better “care for common home.”

“Mother Earth,” Pope Francis declares, “now cries out because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her.”

Yet, despite the daunting scope of the problems we face, Pope Francis remains optimistic. It is an optimism borne of hope in the human spirit and mind. As he uncompromisingly proclaims: “[W]e know things can change.”

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