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We must care for the earth, and one another

Archbishop Wenski reflects on Laudato Si' at St. Thomas U. conference on climate

Archbishop Thomas Wenski delivered this talk April 5 at the Second International Conference on Climate, Nature and Society, sponsored by St. Thomas University and the Nature Conservancy. The conference took place at St. Thomas April 4 and 5, 2019.

Pope Francis’ Laudato Si is a rich and complex document — one that is much more than just a treatise on "climate change." I came across one commentator who said that to make it just about "climate change" would be like making the "Thanksgiving dinner feast" about the cranberries.

In Laudato Si', Pope Francis — as popes have done in previous social encyclicals — attempts to engage the world in a dialog. In doing so, he presents a vision of the human person, of our place and our dignity in the world, which the Church recognizes as both fallen and redeemed. Thus, it is a vision that is rooted in the Gospel and is enshrined in the Church’s moral teachings. 

The Holy Father declares that “we need only take a frank look at the facts to see that our common home is falling into serious disrepair” (Laudato si’, no. 60). In the encyclical, Pope Francis is more than just a prophet of gloom and doom. But he certainly doesn’t pull any punches in assessing the problems we face. Francis explains “that human life is grounded in three fundamental and closely intertwined relationships: with God, with our neighbor and with the earth itself” (no. 66).

Scripture tells us that “these three vital relationships have been broken, both outwardly and within us. This rupture is sin. The harmony between the Creator, humanity and creation as a whole was disrupted by our presuming to take the place of God and refusing to acknowledge our creaturely limitations” (Ibid).

Though Christ’s sacrifice on the cross gives us all we need to overcome it, sin can still have great sway over us even in this advanced age. The Pope details at some length the evidence that something has gone terribly wrong.

In our relationship with the earth, the Holy Father zeroes in on the impacts of pollution, lack of clean water, toxic waste, and climate change, the latter of which he calls “one of the principal challenges facing humanity in our day” (no. 25).

Even as he invites all people into honest dialogue, Pope Francis explains that people of good will ought not to ignore the significant level of scientific evidence on climate change. I am reminded of our own 2001 U.S. bishops’ statement, Global Climate Change: A Plea for Prudence, Dialogue and the Common Good, in which we said:

“In facing climate change, what we already know requires a response; it cannot be easily dismissed. Significant levels of scientific consensus — even in a situation with less than full certainty, where the consequences of not acting are serious —justifies, indeed can obligate, our taking action intended to avert potential dangers. In other words, if enough evidence indicates that the present course of action could jeopardize humankind's well-being, prudence dictates taking mitigating or preventative action.”

What we bishops said — and what the Pope is saying — is that even though the "science of climate change" might have its detractors, prudence dictates that we just cannot wait for unanimity. For example, doctors tell us that smoking is bad for your health — and there are to be sure those who would argue the contrary. And maybe some who smoke escape bad effects. But given what we know (and what the doctors tell us) it is prudent that we try to stop smoking.

The Pope realizes that our knowledge is imperfect. Undoubtedly, we will understand our world in deeper ways in the days to come. But to look at the information in front of us and do nothing is irresponsible.

Pope Francis is just as frank about the state of our human relationships. He emphasizes that our ecological challenges weigh heavily on those who can least carry the burden — the poor. We know that those who suffer in poverty have a special claim on our attention. We should consider how our decisions impact those struggling for survival and look for ways to deepen solidarity with them.

Evidence of contamination in our relationships with others doesn’t end there. Our throwaway culture has extended to human beings as well. We throw away life in the womb, and the Pope writes repeatedly about the destruction of embryos in this encyclical. We neglect the disabled and show little respect for the lives and contributions of the elderly.

In our current age, human beings themselves have become commodities of desire. Human trafficking has become a massive global industry, a juggernaut of filth and slavery, fueled by a pollution of the heart that is not easily remediated.

Internationally, where aid to developing countries displaces the unique cultural realities of peoples, the loss can be significant. He writes: “The disappearance of a culture can be just as serious, or even more serious, than the disappearance of a species of plant or animal” (no. 145).

To undertake this great work, we must restore all of our relationships in a full way.

In section four of the letter, Pope Francis uses the term “integral ecology” to explain the idea that everything is connected. Drawing on the thought of his predecessors, he explains that “disregard for the duty to cultivate and maintain a proper relationship with my neighbor . . . ruins my relationship with my own self, with others, with God and with the earth. When all these relationships are neglected, when justice no longer dwells in the land, the Bible tells us that life itself is endangered” (no. 70).

Thus, Pope Francis wants us to connect the dots between what could be called a “natural” ecology and what might be called a “human” or “social” ecology. He argues for an integral ecology.

An integral ecology demands that rain forests be protected — because of what they do potentially and actually for the flourishing of the human species on this earth. Likewise, marriage, understood for millennia as a union of one man and one woman, ought to be respected and protected.

And just as we favor laws that limit the danger of pollutants damaging our sensitive ecosystems, should we not be concerned about the “toxic waste” of pornography and its effects on the human ecology of the young?

With all of these challenges in the area of human ecology, the Pope explains, “it becomes difficult to hear the cry of nature itself” (no. 117). Can we hope to care for the gifts of the earth if we cannot care for one another?

Despite all this, Pope Francis really does weave together a hopeful message in Laudato Si’. He tells us that “the Creator does not abandon us; he never forsakes his loving plan or repents of having created us. Humanity still has the ability to work together in building our common home.”

Our common home is in disrepair — it needs a serious “make-over” or restoration. But such a restoration project begins where all things should — with our relationship with God.

If we get our relationship with God in order, everything else can fall into place. Pope Francis teaches that “a spirituality which forgets God as all-powerful and Creator is not acceptable. That is how we end up worshiping earthly powers, or ourselves usurping the place of God, even to the point of claiming an unlimited right to trample his creation underfoot” (no. 75).

God set our first parents over the Garden to till and to keep it, and he continues to look to us to act as stewards over the great gifts of the earth.

“‘Tilling’ refers to cultivating, ploughing or working, while ‘keeping’ means caring, protecting, overseeing and preserving,” explains the Pope. “This implies a relationship of mutual responsibility between human beings and nature” (no. 67).

We are able to share in the bounty of God’s gifts, but only if we do so with an eye toward preserving them for all people of this time and the generations that come after us.

Firmly anchored in our relationship with God, we can set about repairing all of our other relationships.

In place of isolation and use of one another, the Pope proposes a culture of encounter and solidarity. “Our relationship with the environment can never be isolated from our relationship with others and with God,” he explains, “otherwise, it would be nothing more than romantic individualism dressed up in ecological garb” (no. 119). 

Pope Francis underscores the importance of global consensus toward sustainable energy production. He urges the world community to seek meaningful international agreements that address pressing ecological problems in a unified way.

The Pope encourages developed nations to assist poorer countries toward cleaner energy solutions that protect the environment. He argues: “The poorest areas and countries are less capable of adopting new models for reducing environmental impact because they lack the wherewithal to develop the necessary processes and to cover their costs” (52). He acknowledges that poor developing nations are “bound to develop less polluting forms of energy production, but to do so they require the help of countries which have experienced great growth at the cost of the ongoing pollution of the planet” (172). 

With an “integral ecology” we must seek “integral development” to reduce poverty and promote human flourishing. Simply put, Pope Francis implicitly teaches us to ask a series of questions when faced with choices about how to advance human development: What will it accomplish? For whom? What are the risks and costs? Who will pay? How will people participate in the decisions that affect their lives?

The rapid pace of modern life has caused us to stop asking even these basic things. To honor our place in God’s created order, the Pope tells us that we must explore these and other questions. If we fail to ask fundamental questions, our ability to harm one another and the environment grows in disturbing and dangerous ways. For example, Pope Francis asserts: “To blame population growth [for environmental degradation] instead of extreme and selective consumerism on the part of some, is one way of refusing to face the issues” (50). 

At the same time, Pope Francis doesn’t dismiss the power of the individual even as he lifts up concerted action. A person who is mindful of their own consumption, who recycles, uses public transportation, turns off unnecessary lights and the like is making a real impact. These decisions can help change the world, he says. 

You’ll recall that I said earlier that Pope Francis views all of us as essential to the project before us. But Pope Francis warns of an approach that rejects a moral framework in the area of technological advancement. Just because we can do a thing does not mean we ought to do it. Too often, the Pope tells us, the dignity of the human person is disregarded in favor of a false sense of inevitable progress. 

The Holy Father calls us toward “intelligent and profitable ways of reusing, revamping and recycling,” indicating that “[p]roductive diversification offers the fullest possibilities to human ingenuity to create and innovate, while at the same time protecting the environment and creating more sources of employment. Such creativity would be a worthy expression of our most noble human qualities . . .” he says (192). 

And, so we must act on every level. Internationally, countries must work in concert toward the common good, placing pure national interests aside. Funding initiatives like the Green Climate Fund become critical, an effort which helps developing countries adopt sustainable technologies and adapt to climate change.

Catholic Relief Services, the US Bishops’ international effort that reaches 85 million people in 101 countries on five continents, works with the poorest communities to adapt to changing climate realities.

In Ethiopia, where millions depend on rain to grow crops to feed their families, even small variations in the climate can have devastating consequences. CRS and their local partners are working to avert climate change disasters. They are helping the most vulnerable Ethiopians to adapt in ways that will ensure that they don't just survive but thrive. For example, in one community terraces were built to slow soil erosion and retain rainwater. 

In Nicaragua, a CRS study shows that moderate temperatures are already rising, the country’s normally predictable rainy season is becoming irregular, and pests and fungus could invade altitudes where they previously wouldn’t. This could have very damaging impacts on poor coffee farmers in the region. Our agency is sharing the results of the research with small farmers throughout Central America and helping them devise long-term strategies for coping with climate change. To help them reduce their vulnerability to the effects of climate change and minimize its impact, CRS is promoting improved farming techniques, crop diversification and hardier tree varieties.

Domestically, we have spoken in strong support of a national standard to reduce carbon pollution, and during his visit to the United States, the Pope lauded such an effort. In that regard, he stressed that “when it comes to the care of our ‘common home’, we are living at a critical moment of history.”

As we look at the magnitude of the task before us, at a world and a people in disrepair, the challenge before us can seem daunting. The Pope reminds us of how much we can do, of the powerful effect of even simple, prayerful gestures as a means of remaining hope-filled.

Given that today greater numbers of people are more keenly aware of the need to protect the natural environment, these words concerning a natural ecology are generally welcomed. However, it is much more difficult today for people to connect the dots and see that there is a linkage between a natural ecology and a human ecology. 

As human beings, we do not “create” ourselves; rather we are created – as the Book of Genesis says, “in the image and likeness of God.” The nature of the human being is to be a man or a woman. This order of creation also must be respected and protected if human beings are to flourish. To accept our creatureliness does not contradict our freedom but it is a precondition for its true exercise. 

Our human nature – like Mother Nature itself – is a “gift of the Creator who designed its intrinsic order, and in this way provided the instructions for us to consult...” In Manila when he visited the Philippines after a devastating typhoon, Pope Francis citing a popular adage said, “God always forgives, we sometimes forgive, but when nature – creation – is mistreated, she never forgives.” 

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