There are many fine things about Pope Francis' encyclical "Laudato Si,'" not least because it adds poetry to an issue that is saturated with technocratic and political heaviness. His opening paragraph immediately puts the reader in a different space, reminding us of our interconnectedness with all of life on earth. By quoting St. Francis of Assisi, he describes the earth as our sister, "with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us." Not the normal terminology in a document on climate change. He goes on to evoke an image of our small blue planet, whirling in an infinite blackness as a common home. No matter what color, religion, nationality or gender, we are all in this together.
The drama of a warming world unfolding before us requires us all to act now and face the future with honesty and determination. The content and its directness is refreshing and combines anger at injustice with hope that we will find a solution.
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 Roman Catholic Church is global, it is unified and it has one figurehead who is respected as a statesman. There is no other institution in the world like it."
The first thing to understand is why this intervention is important. The Roman Catholic Church is global, it is unified and it has one figurehead who is respected as a statesman. There is no other institution in the world like it, religious or secular. It speaks to its billion members distributed around the globe with a unified voice through a regulated network. Go anywhere and attend a mass and you will be able to follow the ritual, despite language and cultural differences.
Yet there are distinctive local flavors that anchor the faithful to church that is at once universal and parochial. It is a unique institution, with a leader who has the pulling power of a superstar. Love it or hate it, the Roman Catholic Church is a phenomenon.
There are other important considerations. The Roman Catholic Church shares with other faiths the ability to galvanize people to act from a spiritual well founded on love of God and neighbor rather than political doctrine. When an issue is viewed through spiritual eyes, it is seen differently.
A new dimension comes into play that touches deep recesses, demanding we bring our humanity into play, not just our intellectual or political affiliation. It seems a cliché to quote Gus Speth, the former dean of forestry and environmental studies at Yale, but no one has really put it better:
I used to think that top global environmental problems were biodiversity loss, ecosystem collapse and climate change. I thought that with 30 years of good science we could address these problems. I was wrong. The top environmental problems are selfishness, greed, and apathy, and to deal with these we need a spiritual and cultural transformation.
In walks Pope Francis onto the climate change stage.
The messages of the encyclical are stark. Climate change will have "grave implications" for all of humanity, rich and poor, but mainly the poor who are already struggling to cope with the inequalities thrust on them by over consumption and indifference of the richer nations:
Many of those who possess more resources and economic or political power seem mostly to be concerned with masking the problems or concealing their symptoms, simply making efforts to reduce some of the negative impacts of climate change.
He blasts those who deny the evidence before their eyes and has no patience with apathy or inertia. When it comes to acting for "the common good," (that deeply Catholic phrase that is at the heart of the church's social teaching), there is no get out clause. Members of the Catholic hierarchy who have denied climate change are castigated:
The attitudes that stand in the way of a solution, even among believers, range from negation of the problem, to indifference, to convenient resignation or blind faith in technical solutions.
The Sin of Wastefulness
The encyclical doesn't stop at just climate change though. Refreshingly we are reminded of the sin of wastefulness, greed, pollution and, joyfully for me, loss of biodiversity.
Each year sees the disappearance of thousands of plant and animal species which we will never know, which our children will never see, because they have been lost for ever. The great majority become extinct for reasons related to human activity. Because of us, thousands of species will no longer give glory to God by their very existence, nor convey their message to us. We have no such right.
In some ways the most important thing "Laudato Si'" has done is turn the scientific, opaque and frightening climate change issue into something three dimensional and human. The simplicity of the language appeals directly to the moral center of a loving, complicated, chaotic yet broken humanity. Quite simply it says look around, grieve for the damage, reach out to those who are in need, love the earth and all its wonderful life forms and change for the better. He sees our response to the destabilizing of a warming world as a journey which will challenge us to our core but will ultimately bring about peace and justice.
Let us sing as we go. May our struggles and our concern for this planet never take away the joy of our hope.
If only such poetry were more commonplace in this very disturbing debate.