Francis' Momentous Encyclical: On Care for Our Common Home

06/19/2015 01:45 pm ET | Updated Jun 19, 2016
Andrew Medichini/AP

"We are in trouble just now because we do not have a good story. We are between stories." -- Father Thomas Berry

I'm not Catholic. Nevertheless, fond of this pope, I've eagerly awaited the release of Laudato Si', Francis' encyclical on ecology and climate. Immediately after its June 18 release, I paged wildly through it and was blown away. Laudato Si' is absolutely stunning in sweep, depth, and wisdom. It is exactly the right document, at the right moment, by the right person.

Humanity now faces existential crises on multiple fronts: extremes of economic disparity, a severely degraded global ecosystem, competition for dwindling natural resources including land and water, constant warfare, failed states, and a climate on the verge of spinning out of control. Worse, many of us -- especially those with young children or grandchildren -- teeter on the edge of hopelessness, fearing the planet and the future may not be salvageable.

It seems then almost folly to suggest, as does Thomas Berry in the quotation above, that our collective ills somehow stem from a flawed or incomplete "story." And yet, read between the lines of Laudato Si' and this is exactly the conclusion you'll reach.

When Berry uses the word "story," he means "mythology" -- the overarching story that guides us individually and collectively in our relationships to the Creator, the creation (including fellow creatures), and one another.

For millennia, our mythology derived primarily from religious traditions, many if not most of which taught that we humans were created by divine fiat, that we occupy the center of the cosmos, that we are superior to the rest of creation, that the earth was created expressly for our needs, and that we are free to use the earth pretty much as we damn well please.

In 1543, with the publication of Copernicus' On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres, a new story began to unfold: the scientific story. The scientific revolution, the Enlightenment, the industrial age, the space age, and the information age followed in rapid succession. But, more to the point, the scientific story largely supplanted the religious one.

As commonly interpreted, the scientific story goes like this: we humans are not the center of the cosmos. Moreover, we're here by random accident rather than divine act. Furthermore, in the view of the late evolutionary biologist Stephen J. Gould, "Evolution is purposeless, nonprogressive, and materialistic."

These competing mythologies have created a modern dilemma. According to Ilya Prigogine, Nobel laureate in chemistry: "We are faced with a tragic choice between an alienating science and an antiscientific philosophy." Seemingly diametrically opposed, science and religion have been at loggerheads virtually since science's inception. As a result, most humans choose to align with one camp or the other. No issue has revealed the tragedy of this dichotomous choice more clearly than the climate. In the U.S., for example, meaningful climate action has been blocked largely by evangelical Christians whose distrust of the scientific story blinders them to the poignance of the scientific data.

In one aspect, however, science and religion have acted in cahoots: both stories have contributed to the degradation of the earth that now threatens our undoing. Some, misconstruing Genesis' exhortation "to have dominion over the earth," take license to abuse the earth. Similarly, scientific materialism reinforces an attitude that the earth is merely an inanimate rock to be exploited.

The offspring of this unholy union is a valueless economic system -- based on mindless consumption, "a seedbed for collective selfishness" -- that runs roughshod over the earth and exploits those who labor, all in idolatry to the golden calf. Moreover, we've created a technological Frankenstein: the prowess to bring nature to her knees by clear-cutting forests, damming rivers, monoculture agribusiness, and extreme methods of resource extraction such as mountain top removal, tar sands mining, and hydraulic fracturing.

The stunning -- and immensely hopeful -- aspect of Francis' encyclical is that, like Berry, he calls for a new "integral" story. He begins by correcting the fallacies in the religious and scientific stories. First, in Chapter Two, he takes religion to the woodshed:

... we must forcefully reject the notion that our being created in God's image and given dominion over the earth justifies absolute domination ... . The biblical texts ... tell us to "till and keep" the garden of the world (Gen 2:15). "Tilling" refers to cultivating, ploughing or working, while "keeping" means caring, protecting, overseeing and preserving. This implies a relationship of mutual responsibility between human beings and nature.

Then, in Chapter Three, it's science's turn for a whupping:

Still stuck in the discredited scientific materialism of the past, "the technological mind sees nature as an insensate order." The materialistic paradigm fosters an "I-It" relationship to nature rather than an "I-Thou" relationship, to appropriate the theology of Martin Buber. This author has at least twice argued in Huffington Post (3/29/2013 and 10/1/2014) that the materialistic paradigm is neither necessary nor helpful for science. Neither is it helpful for humanity according to the pope, because that paradigm "tends to dominate economic and political life."

Having carefully laid out the problems in Chapters One to Three, Francis begins to address solutions in Chapter Four: Integral Ecology. Integral ecology recognizes that one cannot compartmentalize the problems of the world into environmental, economic, and social. The spheres are closely interlinked, and the problems in each sphere stem from the same flawed mythology. Time and again, he reiterates that "everything is connected," "everything is interrelated," sounding more like a Native American wisdomkeeper or an Eastern mystic than a dualistic Westerner.

In Chapter Five, he advocates transparent problem solving and open dialogue: international dialogue, dialogue between national and local constituencies, dialogue between politics and economics, and especially dialogue between religions and science. By such dialogue we collectively shape a new myth of meaning that sees the world as a "communion of subjects, not a collection of objects," again to quote Thomas Berry. By dialogue we think outside the boxes of growth-obsessed capitalism or soul-crushing communism to create new -- sustainable and just -- economic models, sacred economies that reflect our values and distinguish "quality of life" from "standard of living."

Francis, a boxer in his youth, pulls no punches: "Doomsday predictions can no longer be met with irony or disdain. We may well be leaving to coming generations debris, desolation and filth."

"Yet all is not lost. Human beings, while capable of the worst, are also capable of rising above themselves, choosing what is good, and making a new start, despite their mental and social conditioning."

Love will save us. Ultimately, Francis calls for a revolution in love, by which we humans push the boundaries of love outward -- beyond our family, beyond our clan, beyond our nation, beyond our species -- to embrace the earth as "a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us."

Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955), the Jesuit priest-paleontologist who spent his life crafting and articulating the new story, envisioned a time in which science and faith would join forces in this very labor of love: "Some day, after mastering the winds the waves, the tides, and gravity," he wrote, "we shall harness for God the energies of love. And then, for the second time in the history of the world, [humans] will have discovered fire."

(With gratitude to brothers-in-arms Doug Hendren and Charles Finn.)