Caring for Creation: Spiritual Wisdom that Can Save the Planet

January 24, 2018

A recent book I can’t set aside is Pope Francis’ on Climate Change and Inequality: On Care for Our Common Home, which was published in 2015. In this book, one of the world’s most respected spiritual leaders describes the environmental crisis that threaten people everywhere, explains ways in which human activity contributes to changes in the environment, and casts a vision of the transformed world that people like us can help to create. He declares that many kinds of wisdom are needed, but as a representative of a biblically-based Christian faith community, he offers his guidance from that perspective. His ideas can be summarized under five headings.

God’s design for creation: God’s love has brought creation into existence and every creature is enfolded by God’s love. God has given a special responsibility to humankind, to care for creation. We are to respect its laws and the “delicate equilibria existing between the creatures of this world (¶ 68). “A fragile world, entrusted by God to human care, challenges us to devise intelligent ways of directing, developing and limiting our powers” (¶ 78).

The human response: Human beings misunderstand our original assignment to care for the world and its creatures so that each part lives in ways that are consistent with God’s design. Instead, we act as though we are in control, with the right to dominate all things for our own good. Pope Francis talks about the cult of unlimited human power and the “technocratic paradigm.” We master natural processes and do with them as we will.

The results: Some of the results of our technological prowess are good and lead to better lives the world over. Even so, our manipulation of nature also gives us power which often we do not use well. The exercise of this power can lead to suffering, destruction, and death. “When human beings place themselves at the centre, they give absolute priority to immediate convenience and all else becomes relative. Hence we should not be surprised to find, in conjunction with the omnipresent technocratic paradigm and the cult of unlimited human power, the rise of a relativism which sees everything as irrelevant unless it serves one’s own immediate interests. There is a logic in all this whereby different attitudes can feed on one another, leading to environmental degradation and social decay” (¶ 122).

Vision for the future: Pope Francis uses the term “integral ecology” to describe his vision of the world we can help to create. “Ecology studies the relationship between living organisms and the environment in which they develop.” Since all aspects of life are interrelated, he continues, the term “integral ecology” describes the world we hope to live in. The Pope discusses environmental, economic, and social ecology; cultural ecology; and the ecology of daily life. He affirms the importance of “the principle of the common good,” and the fact that this principle extends to future generations. If we face these issues courageously, we will be led to a deeper understanding of our purpose in the world and be able to live with greater dignity (¶ 160).

The response by people of faith: One of the strengths of the Pope’s encyclical in his emphasis upon the need for insights from all sources of wisdom: religious, scientific, philosophical, economic, political, artistic, and all the others. He also urges dialogue at all levels—individual, local, national, and international. As is appropriate for a leader of the Christian faith, he concludes his book by discussing “ecological education and spirituality.” He writes that “we have too many means and only a few insubstantial ends,” and encourages people to develop simpler life styles. Doing so, he continues, could have a positive effect upon businesses and lead then to give more consideration to the environmental impact of how they do business. In our faith communities we need to provide education and encouragement to help people live in simpler, gentler, and more peaceful ways.

The Pope concludes the encyclical by reaffirming the value of Christian sacraments in leading to a way of life that is right for us and for the world. He discusses baptism and the live-giving qualities of water; eucharist (the communion service) and the way that food and drink connect us to God and one another; and the Sabbath (weekly day of rest and gladness) that helps us live a slower and more fulfilling life.

Other people also are publishing books that provide solid information and persuasive recommendations for how people in developed countries can live their way into a new future. A later column in this series will give a short list of those that I find especially helpful. The encyclical is published online by the Vatican and also is available in several trade editions from book dealers.


Integral Ecology: Envisioning a New Future for the World

January 28, 2016
The Encyclical in English

The Encyclical in English

One of the noteworthy books of 2015 is a religious exposition, Pope Francis’ 160-page Encyclical on Climate Change and Inequality: On Care for Our Common Home. In her introduction to the Melville House English edition, Naomi Oreskes compares it with Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Silent Spring because it is a book that “catalyzes thought into action.”

It covers “virtually every important topic in contemporary life,” a list that includes “climate change, deforestation, and the need for clean, safe drinking water [and] “population (and abortion),” but also various problems of science and technology—including public transportation, urban planning and architecture, social media, genetic modification of crops, embryonic stem cell research—and law, economy, and governance—including the problems of deregulated markets, corruption, and weak governance” (pp. vii, viii).

In his preface, Pope Francis presents the point of view that characterizes the entire book. Citing the writings of his patron saint, twelfth century Francis of Assisi, the pope describes Mother Earth as our sister and declares that she “now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her. We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will. 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” (¶ 2).

He cites St. Francis, beloved by people everywhere, as an embodiment of the principles which can be entitled “integral ecology.” We must approach nature and the environment with a sense of awe and wonder, the Pope affirms, for “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 their immediate needs” (¶¶ 10, 11).

Although the encyclical is oriented toward members of the pope’s own church, he acknowledges that people in other religious communities and other disciplines enrich the church’s teaching. He closes the preface with an appeal to readers everywhere: that they join together in “a new dialogue about how we are shaping the future of our planet.”

The next few paragraphs of this introduction to the encyclical offer a summary of its main ideas. It uses phrases and comments from the text of the encyclical, but without attribution, and arranges them in an order that sometimes differs from their placement in the encyclical itself. My purpose is to suggest the range and value of the encyclical and encourage a serious study of the document itself.

The major part of this review essay consists of detailed notes on the encyclical, following the sequence of Pope Francis’ exposition and providing full documentation. (Since the encyclical in all of its editions is divided into numbered paragraphs, I cite the text by paragraph [¶] rather than by page).

Although the encyclical is divided into six chapters, it can be outlined under four headings: (A) where things stand now: crisis; (B) analysis of how we reached this state of affairs; (C) the new world and way of life for which we can work; and (D) a course of action for people everywhere, but especially for those whose current way of life is largely responsible for the ecological crisis now confronting the world. Read more. . . Integral Ecology-Pope Francis