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With Laudato Si' (Praised Be), Pope Francis Renews Dialogue on Ecology

06/18/2015 02:40 pm ET | Updated Jun 18, 2016

This post is co-authored by Jeff Odell Korgen

With the publication today of Laudato Si' (Praised Be), already the most widely-read papal encyclical in church history, Pope Francis eviscerated every false choice in today's tired environmental debate, beginning with the notion that the ecological crisis pits people against nature. He also became the first pope to engage not only Christians and "people of goodwill," but also "every person living on this planet." He spoke not just as the leader of over one billion Catholics,--but as a spiritual guide for everyone--believer and non-believer alike and as perhaps the only person in the world with the potential to unite humanity to save itself and our increasingly fragile planet.

The two co-authors of this article, as parents (and one of us a grandparent) feel inspired by this document, especially with the Pope's deep concern for intergenerational solidarity. In a section called "Justice Between the Generations," he asks, "What kind of world do we want to leave to those who come after us, children who are now growing up?" For us, this is not an academic question, but one that lies at the heart of why we are involved in this work. For Pope Francis, "Intergenerational solidarity is not optional, but rather a basic question of justice."

The Pope's ambitious document rests on a new concept uniting traditional elements of Catholic teaching: integral ecology. Simply put, integral ecology refers to the idea that how we humans treat each other (human ecology) is intimately related to how we treat the Earth and our fellow creatures (natural ecology). The pontiff explains that "every violation of solidarity and civic friendship harms the environment." He makes direct connections between our "throw-away culture" that pollutes and degrades the environment with how our society discards those "excluded" from the global economy, exploits workers, harvests human organs, and traffics in people. But he not only critiques our economic and political inactivity on the environmental crisis, he offers a vision on how to create solutions: "I urgently appeal, then, for a new dialogue about how we are shaping the future of our planet. We need a conversation which includes everyone, since the environmental challenge we are undergoing, and its human roots concern and affect us all."

As he explains integral ecology, Francis draws from the best of the Judeo-Christian tradition. He utilizes biblical teachings that have been quoted by Jewish and Christian eco-theologians for decades: from the Creations stories of Genesis 1 &2, to the laws of the Sabbath, Sabbatical Year and Jubilee in Exodus and Leviticus; expressions of awe and wonder in the book of Psalms, concern for justice from the prophets; the glory of Creation from the Wisdom literature and the parables and life of Jesus from the Gospels.

But Pope Francis doesn't stop with quotes from the Hebrew scriptures and the New Testament--he also (marking a first for papal encyclicals) draws from the teachings of local Catholic bishops conferences from Japan to Colombia to southern Africa as well as the teachings of theologians, other Christian denominations, secular scientists and even a Sufi mystic. Francis therefore models the very dialogue he calls for.

The chief outcome of this dialogue of integral ecology is a rejection of the false choices presented by our current environmental debate. He skillfully retires the following false dichotomies:

The uniqueness of the human person vs. the radical equality of all creation: People are special--we are made in God's own image and likeness. Our Creator charged us with caring for and guarding Creation. But we are also made of the same stuff as other created things--the same atoms, the same subatomic particles, and therefore are kin to all created things found in "Sister Earth." And we must not view other species "merely as potential 'resources'" but we are obligated to accept that they have inherent value. Every created thing gives God glory through its existence. When we interfere with this part of God's plan, through environmental degradation and species extinction, we offend our Creator.

Creating jobs vs. the caring for the environment: Pope Francis easily dismisses the tired jobs vs. the environment argument by recalling that work and creation were closely linked in the Garden of Eden--guarding and tilling it. Humanity has always been called to work--by "necessity, part of the meaning of life on this earth, a path to growth, human development and personal fulfillment." At the same time, we are to always integrate a sense of "awe" in the creation we alter through our work, while we strive for full employment for all adults. He challenges the prevailing paradigm of progress that technological advancement automatically leads to better employment and a higher quality of life, and points out the negative impact that new technology can have developing societies. He says "...it is a matter of redefining our notion of progress. A technological and economic development which does not leave in its wake a better world and integrally higher quality of life cannot be considered progress."

Individual actions vs. inter-governmental solutions: In one chapter of Laudato Si', Pope Francis expresses both hope in the capacity of the world's governments to find ways of protecting the "global commons," like the climate, and dismay that they have so little to show for all their meetings thus far. The Pope clearly has in mind the United Nations negotiations for a new climate agreement when he calls for "an agreement on systems of governance," but he also affirms individual actions, "simple daily gestures which break with the logic of violence, exploitation and selfishness," such as reducing water consumption, turning off unnecessary lights, wearing warmer clothes during winter, and utilizing public transportation. For this pontiff, protecting creation rejects the false choice of big government solutions vs. individual choices--we need both. He also stresses how important it is to consider the common good over the desires of individuals: "...the common good calls for social peace, the stability and security provide by a certain order which cannot be achieved without particular concern for distributive justice, whenever this is violated, violence always ensues."

Science vs. religion: Portrayals of church antipathy toward science are frequently cartoonish, but they have their root in some truth. Pope Francis leaves all that in the dumpster of history with a thoughtful review of scientific findings on a range of environmental issues, from climate change to pollution, species extinction to water as a human right and an unequivocal pro-life stance. He shows himself to be a deeply spiritual man who has demonstrated a lifelong curiosity about what science can reveal about the laws of both human and natural ecology. Pope Francis joins Popes Benedict and St. John Paul II in viewing science as a tool to further the aims of church teaching.

The coming days, weeks, and even years will see much reflection on this groundbreaking encyclical. But we need more than study, Pope Francis insists, and he devotes an entire chapter to action. On June 28, at noon in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican, the two of us will come together with other religious and secular leaders from around the world to thank Pope Francis and call for a strong U.N. climate agreement on greenhouse gas emissions. Church bells will ring at noon local time around the world as shofars sound, gongs are rung, and other joyful noises emanate from houses of worship on all continents.

The One Earth, One Human Family march and these "joyful noises" will be the first fruits of Pope Francis' encyclical, an interreligious response in the spirit of global solidarity--among all humanity with all Creation--to stand with Pope Francis in insisting on a strong global climate agreement.

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This is the fourth in a series of posts on the encyclical by Jeffry Odell Korgen & Rabbi Lawrence Troster who are engaging Catholic and Jewish communities in OurVoices, the international, multi-faith climate campaign.