Francis says

9 octobre 2015,

par Edwin MatthewsU.S. President Obama meets with Pope Francis in the Oval Office of  the White House in Washington

co fondateur des Amis de la Terre en France, nous communique son appréciation à l’américaine, de la dernière encyclique papale

Care for Our Common Home

We are living the most despairing of times.  We revolt from the enlarging assault by our species on the natural world.  The planet seems to be shattering with environmental disasters that threaten the loss of all we need and love.  Yet we are doing little to take responsibility for this reality.

But in this discouraging time, we have been given a clear and hopeful voice.  Just as we are about to be overtaken by the four horsemen of an environmental apocalypse , comes Pope Francis, inspired by his namesake, a twelfth century monk, St. Francis of Assisi, and asks us to embrace, honor and protect the earth, our common home.  The earth, he says, should be like a sister for us.

The Pope’s environmental message is contained in a recent papal letter, or encyclical, entitled Laudata Si: On Care for Our Common Home.  Although usually a statement of doctrine addressed to bishops of the church, this letter is an appeal to “every living person on this planet.”  He invites us to have a “dialogue with all people about our common home” and offers us a way forward.

The document is noteworthy not only because it will influence members of the Catholic Church everywhere, but because it is an inclusive examination of the current environmental crisis and its roots.  Francis lays the responsibility for our environmental disasters squarely at our feet.  His indictment of human irresponsibility is burning, as his analysis probes and provokes.  Yet Francis provides in his encyclical a challenging but hopeful alternative.

What does this remarkable, nearly two-hundred-page letter say?  There is far too much to summarize in a short essay, and I invite its study.  Francis finds that what is happening to our common home is “unprecedented in the history of humanity.”    He states that we are “laying waste to our planet.”  He finds a “violence present in our hearts [that is] also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life.”    Pope Francis minces no words.  He challenges each of us “to become painfully aware” so that we can “dare to turn what is happening to the world into our own personal suffering” and “discover what each of us can do about it.”  (19)

Before addressing the origins of our environmental crisis, Francis first describes in concrete terms the crisis we face:

+      Climate:  Francis begins by declaring that “climate is a common good, belonging to all and meant for all.” (23).    Based on a “very solid scientific consensus,” he acknowledges that the climate is being changed by our release of greenhouse gasses, and calls upon “humanity . . . to recognize the need for changes of lifestyle, production and consumption in order to combat this warming. . . .” (23).   Francis concludes  that “the use of highly polluting fossil fuels—especially coal, but also oil and, to a lesser degree, gas—needs to be progressively replaced without delay.”  (165).   Francis attacks those with resources and economic or political power for “masking the problems or concealing their symptoms . . . [which he finds] will continue to worsen if we continue with current models of production and consumption.”  (26).  No denier, this Pope.

+     Pollution:  Due to pollution and our throw away culture, he finds “the earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth.”  (21).  Toxins irreversibly affect people’s health and “we have not yet managed to adopt a circular model of production capable of preserving resources for present and future generations, while limiting as much as possible the use of non-renewable resources, moderating their consumption, maximizing their efficient use, reusing and recycling them.” (22).

+     Water: Francis reminds us that access to healthy fresh water is a “basic and universal human right” because it is both “essential to human survival” and also “a condition for the exercise of other human rights, as well as indispensable for supporting terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems.” (27).  He finds that the diminishing access to drinking water denies the poor “the right to a life consistent with their inalienable dignity.”  (30) We have failed to protect our water and “the present level of the exploitation of the planet [by wealthier societies] has already exceeded acceptable limits.”  (27).

+     Loss of Biodiversity: Each year we have seen the “disappearance of thousands of plant and animal species [including microorganisms] which we will never know . . . , because they have been lost for ever.” (33)  “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,” writes Francis.  (33).   “Human intervention, often in the service of business interests and consumerism,” he states, “is actually making our earth “less rich and beautiful, ever more limited and grey. . . .” (34).

+     Decline in the Quality of Human Life and Breakdown of Society:  Pope Francis also considers the effects of environmental deterioration, “current models of development and the throwaway culture,” on our daily lives. (43). “The human environment and the natural environment deteriorate together.” (48). Each causes the other.

Speaking of the “unruly growth of many cities, which have become unhealthy to live in,”   Francis reminds us that we “were not meant to be inundated by cement, asphalt, glass and metal, and deprived of physical contact with nature.”  (44). The “privatization of certain spaces and others [closed to outsiders in order] to ensure an artificial tranquility” deprives people of access to places of particular beauty.”  (45).

The Pope notes that the past two centuries of global change and growth “has not always let to . . . an improvement in the quality of life” and points to signs that are “symptomatic of real social decline: the effects of technological innovations on employment, social exclusion, an inequitable distribution and consumption of energy and other services, increased violence and a rise in new forms of social aggression, drug trafficking and growing drug uses by young people, and the loss of identity.”  (46).

The omnipresent media and the digital world have further subjected us to a “new type of contrived emotion which has more to do with devices and displays than with other people and with nature.”  (47). This produces “a harmful sense of isolation,” as we are shielded “from direct contact with the pain, the fears and the joys of others and the complexity of their personal experiences.” (47).

+     Global Inequality:  Francis asserts that poverty is linked to environmental decay.  The deterioration of the environment always disproportionately affects those most vulnerable.  And, although they are in the majority, “there is little awareness of problems which especially affect the excluded.”   (49).   This collective blindness supports “the present model of distribution, where a “minority believes that it has the right to consume in a way which can never be universalized, since the planet could not even contain the waste products of such consumption.” (50).

+     Our Weak Response:  Pope Francis finds that “these situations have caused sister earth, along with all the abandoned of our world, to cry out, pleading that we take another course.   Never have we so hurt and mistreated our common home as we have in the last two hundred years.” (53).   And yet we have managed to do very little.

The Human Roots of the Ecological Crisis

Faced with an unprecedented crisis, what must we do?   Quoting Saint John Paul II, Francis asks us to pause and consider the “lifestyles, model of production and consumption and the established structures of power which today govern societies” (5) and have led us to “our irresponsible use and abuse of the earth.” (2).

The Pope offers three fundamental censures of our current human culture that he argues explain our failure to protect the earth:

1.     We have taken up technology following “an undifferentiated and one-dimensional” way of thinking (106):  We seek to gain control over the natural world and much else, as if life were open to manipulation.  Rather than “receiving what nature itself allowed”, we attempt to extract everything possible from nature while frequently ignoring the reality in front of us.  (106).  And the specialization and the fragmentation of knowledge “often leads us to a loss of appreciation for the whole, for the relationships between things, and for the broader horizon. . . . “ (110).

Although he acknowledges that the modification of nature for useful purposes has benefited human beings and “given us tremendous power,” (104) Francis writes that “contemporary man has not been trained to use [this] power well.” (106), citing the German priest and philosopher,  Romano Guardini, who the Pope studied as a young seminarian.

Francis notes that this one-dimensional technological thinking has “made it easy to accept the idea of infinite or unlimited growth, which proves so attractive to economists, financiers and experts in technology” but which is “based on the lie that there is an infinite supply of the earth’s goods, and this leads to the planet being squeezed dry beyond every limit.” (106).  He notes that “some circles maintain that current economics and technology will solve all environmental problems, but he concludes that “the market cannot guarantee integral human development.”  (`109).  He also concludes that it is a “false notion that an infinite quantity of energy and resources are available, that it is possible to renew them quickly, and that the negative effects of the exploitation of the natural order can be easily absorbed.’”  (106).

Francis warns that “we have to accept that technological products are not neutral.”  (107).   “Decisions which may seem purely instrumental are in reality decisions about the kind of society we want to build.” (107).  They end up “conditioning lifestyles and shaping social possibilities along the lines dictated by the interests of certain powerful groups.” (107).  Technology “tends to absorb everything into its ironclad logic” (108) and we tend to accept “every advance in technology with a view to profit, without concern for its potentially negative impact on human beings.” (109).  Let us, argues Francis, refuse to resign ourselves to this. (113).

Francis argues that we need “a distinctive way of looking at things, a way of thinking, policies, an educational program, a lifestyle and a spirituality which together generate resistance to the assault of the technocratic [thinking].” (111).  This Pope asks for nothing less than “a bold cultural revolution” to limit and direct technology. (114).

Francis does not advocate “a return to the Stone Age,” but urges us simply “to slow down and look at reality in a different way, . . . to recover the values and the great goals swept away by our unrestrained delusions of grandeur.” (114)

2.     We have followed a “cult of unlimited human power” (122):  Francis finds that we see every increase in human power as progress.   And in our excessive self-centeredness, we stand “naked and exposed in the face of our ever-increasing power, lacking the wherewithal to control it.” (105).

We have come to see “no intrinsic value in lesser beings” and “no special value in human beings.”  (118).   But “human beings cannot be expected to feel responsibility for the world unless, at the same time, their unique capacities of knowledge, will, freedom and responsibility are recognized and valued.” (118).  For Francis, “we cannot presume to heal our relationship with nature and the environment without healing all fundamental human relationships.” (119).

3.     Our actions are guided by our selfish interests, what he calls “practical relativism” (122-123):  The Pope argues that when human beings place ourselves “at the center, [we] give absolute priority to immediate convenience.” (122) .  We see “everything as irrelevant unless it serves [our] own immediate interests”. (122).  This myopia  drives us “to treat others as mere objects. . . .” (123).  Francis asserts this is the “mindset of those who say:  Let us allow the invisible forces of the market to regulate the economy, and consider their impact on society and nature as collateral damage.” (123).

“In the absence of objective truths or sound principles other than the satisfaction of our own desires and immediate needs,” Francis asks what limits could we place on human trafficking, organized crime, the drug trade, commerce in blood diamonds and the fur of endangered species?”  (123).

Our response to this existential challenge has been feeble and inadequate.  Francis finds that we lack leadership.  “Our politics are subject to technology and finance” and too many special interests. (54).   “The most we can expect is superficial rhetoric, sporadic gestures of philanthropy and perfunctory expressions of concern for the environment, whereas any genuine attempt by groups within society to introduce change is viewed as a nuisance based on romantic illusions or an obstacle to be circumvented.” (54).  But what does this far-seeing Pope prescribe.

We must allow the principles of ecology to guide our lives (“Integral Ecology”)

Pope Francis argues that we must be guided by the principles of ecology in all our actions that he calls “integral ecology.”  Ecology studies the relationship between living organisms and the environment.  We must therefore have a “reflection and debate about the conditions required for the life and survival of society, and the honesty needed to question certain models of development, production and consumption.” (138).

The Pope appeals for a “fresh analysis of our present situation”, without which he admits that theological and philosophical reflections can seem “tiresome and abstract.” (17).  His recommendations are specific, based upon what he sees is happening to us all right now.   His message is not doctrinaire.  His encyclical calls for a frank dialogue to develop comprehensive solutions, a dialogue that recognizes that a variety of proposals are possible.

Francis says we cannot regard nature “as something separate from

ourselves or as a mere setting in which we live.” (139).  “Ecological culture cannot be reduced to a series of urgent and practical responses to the immediate problems of pollution, environmental decay and depletion of natural resources.” (111).

And we must also be guided by the principle of the “common good,”  which the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council has defined as “the sum of those conditions of social life which allow social groups and their individual members . . . access to their own fulfillment.” (156).  Francis reminds us that the common good requires an underlying respect for the human person, a social peace that society and the state are obliged to defend and promote.  (157).  And, as a matter of justice, we must ask “what kind of world do we want to leave to those who come after us, to children who are now growing up.”  (160).

Francis also asks us “take account of the value of labour.” (124). Work is “part of the meaning of life on this earth, a path to growth, human development and personal fulfillment. . . .”(128).  It should be “the setting for . . . rich personal growth, where many aspects of life enter into play: creativity, planning for the future, developing our talents, living out our values, relating to others, giving glory to God.” (123).   “To stop investing in people, in order to gain greater short-term financial gain,” writes Francis, “is bad business for society.” (128).

Francis argues that we need an “economic ecology” that recognizes that “the protection of the environment is in fact an integral part of the development process and cannot be considered in isolation from it.”(141).  He advises that we need politics and economics to be in service of life, especially human life.   It is “not enough to balance in the medium term, the protection of nature with financial gain or preservation of the environment with progress.  Halfway measures simply delay the inevitable disaster.  Put simply,” he says, “it is a matter of redefining our notion of progress.” (194).

And Pope Francis agrees with Benedict XVI that “purchasing is always a moral — not simply an economic — act.” (206).  “When people become self-centered and self-enclosed, their greed increases” and they lose sight of the common good. (204)  We become a “seedbed of collective selfishness,” he says, again citing Guardini.  (204). “Obsession with a consumerist lifestyle, above all when few people are capable of maintaining it, can only lead to violence and mutual destruction.”  (204).

Francis’s searing message is upsetting, but hopeful because he offers specific solutions to the environmental crisis we face, as well as solutions that depend on us.  It is addressed not just to Catholics, but to us all.   His text merits a close reading.  His appeal is for nothing short of an ecological conversion, a change of heart in us and our communities towards  a  “loving awareness that we are not disconnected from the rest of creatures,” (220) each of which “reflects something of God and has a message to convey to us.”  (221).  Francis asks us to reflect on why we are here and urges us to take “decisive action here and now.” (161).

The essence of Francis’s message is almost captured by a 9th Century Muslim poet,  Ali al-Khawas, who Pope Francis paraphrases towards the end of his letter:  “There is a mystical meaning to be found in a leaf, in a mountain trail, in a dewdrop, in a poor person’s face.” (233).

Even though he recognizes that human beings have been, and remain “capable of the worst,” Francis believes that “all is not lost” and that we “are also capable of rising above ourselves, choosing again what is good, and making a new start, despite [our] mental and social conditioning.” (205).   “We are able to take an honest look at ourselves, to acknowledge our deep dissatisfaction, and to embark on new paths to authentic freedom,” which for Francis implies our free will and responsibility.   For Pope Francis, this is not merely a choice, but is our moral imperative.

Are we listening?