September 4, 2015

Rejoice in the Lord

‘Laudato si’: Are we facing an ecological crisis?

Archbishop Joseph W. Tobin

The recent encyclical of Pope Francis—“Laudato Si’ ” (“May you be praised”)—clearly accepts the conclusions reached by scientists, philosophers and many others that “there is a growing sensitivity to the environment and to the need to protect nature, along with a growing concern, both genuine and distressing, for what is happening to our planet ” (#19). Are we facing an ecological crisis? The pope very definitely says “yes.”

At the same time, the Holy Father acknowledges that “there are certain environmental issues where it is not easy to achieve a broad consensus” (#188). He goes on to say, “the Church does not presume to settle scientific questions or to replace politics” (#188).

Why, then, does Pope Francis call to the world’s attention the current environmental crisis? In “Laudato Si’,” the pope responds, “I want to encourage an honest and open debate, so that particular interests or ideologies will not prejudice the common good” (#188).

Here we have the crux of so many of today’s social, political and, yes, environmental problems. Honest and open debate is blocked by particular interests and ideologies.

“Laudato Si’ ” is, first and foremost, a challenge to all people of good will to face reality and engage in respectful conversation. “I urgently appeal, then, for a new dialogue about how we are shaping the future of our planet,” the pope writes. “We need a conversation that includes everyone, since the environment challenge we are undergoing, and its human roots, concern and affect us all” (#14).

Dialogue is difficult, but it is absolutely essential if we are to respond appropriately to the challenges of our day. But not just the environmental challenges. Pope Francis makes it abundantly clear that the fundamental challenge we face as individuals and as a global community is a crisis of meaning. “What is the purpose of our life in this world? What is the goal of our work and all our efforts? What need does the Earth have of us?” (#160) The question of meaning has very practical implications.

“What kind of world do we want to leave to those who come after us, to children who are now growing up?” the pope asks pointedly. “This question does not have to do with the environment alone and in isolation,” he says. “The issue cannot be approached piecemeal” (#160).

Those who mistake Pope Francis’ concern for the environment with an ideology miss the central message of the encyclical. Consistent with the writings of his immediate predecessors, St. John Paul II and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, Francis calls attention to the stewardship of all creation that has been given to us by God—so that we can become co-responsible with God for the wonder-filled world we inhabit.

In fact, Pope Francis tells us that we human beings are not simply occupants of our earthly home. We are meant to be one with God and with all that God has made. “Human life is grounded in three fundamental and closely intertwined relationships,” the pope teaches. We are integrally bound up “with God, with our neighbor and with the Earth itself” (#66).

If we are in crisis politically, socially, economically or environmentally, it is because the sacred bond that was intended to connect us (powerfully described in the Book of Genesis as the state of human existence in the Garden of Eden prior to the fall) has been broken by sin.

No one should argue with the pope’s responsibility to speak of the human condition, as it has been ruptured by sin. The Church does not presume to settle scientific questions or to replace politics, but the Church does presume to speak out against injustice and abuse wherever they occur. “Every act of cruelty toward any creature is contrary to human dignity,” the pope says (#92). “A sense of deep communion with the rest of nature cannot be real if our hearts lack tenderness, compassion and concern for our fellow human beings” (#91) and, in the finest Franciscan tradition, reverence for all God’s creation.

God, neighbor and the Earth itself are inextricably joined in the mystery of creation. The crisis we are facing today is not a narrow, isolated concern of politics or ideology. It is a consequence of the original sin that ruptured the integrity and harmony of our world.

Fortunately, we Christians believe that God so loved this ruptured world that he sent his only Son to save us from ourselves and from our inhumanity to all creatures. By the power of God’s grace, we are called to restore all creation to its original dignity. Together with all our sisters and brothers (visible and invisible), we are invited to proclaim: “Laudato Si’!” Praise be to you, Lord! †

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