I am still reading through Pope Francis’s encyclical, Laudato Sii, but my first reading of it gave me the impression that this document simply gives cannon fodder to those who would distort the Gospel for their own agenda. I didn’t enjoy it and thought it might be a mistake since it seemed to provide so much cannon fodder to those who only care about Catholic teachings that match their worldview. However, I decided to read it a second time since I always think that I best understand something after reading it at least twice and this time I tried to read it through the lens of John Paul II and his previous teachings instead of the media. My second reading is helping me see it in a completely different light and pick up what I believe are the foundational truths guiding the whole document that are passed over in the mainstream media. If one were to ask a journalist why Catholics should care for the environment, I’m sure they would probably respond that the earth has value in itself or because we will be destroyed by the earth if we do not take care of her. While these responses may be true and the pope affirms these statements, they fall short of what I think are two deeper reasons discussed by the Holy Father: love of God and neighbor.
Pope Francis writes, “[t]he destruction of the human environment is extremely serious, not only because God has entrusted the world to us men and women, but because human life is itself a gift which must be defended from various forms of debasement.” (5) This is what I think is the foundational truth of the whole document. First, God has given the world to us as a gift and secondly, destruction of the environment leads to a degradation of human life. Now imagine if you gave someone you loved a very expensive Christmas gift that you knew they would enjoy and after they received it, they broke or damaged it later that day without a care about how much work you put into getting them this gift. Analogously, when we have no regard for creation we have no care for this gift of God. One definition of sin that I was told in seminary was that sin is an act of ungratefulness. When we do not care for the gifts of God, when we refuse His love present in creation, we sin. Sin is a refusal of the gift. Not only is creation a gift from God but the pope reminds us that St. Francis saw in all creation a reflection of God who made all things. Beautiful qualities of God are present throughout all of creation so that to neglect the world is to neglect seeing some aspect of God in His creation (though I admit it may be hard to see God’s beautiful design in a platypus).
Chapter one of the encyclical reviews the scientific claims that the world is in danger of being destroyed and destroying humanity. The pollution, contamination, and global warming are all threats to other plants, animals, humans, and the world at large. In addition to losing valuable plants and animals, Pope Francis spends a good amount of space on how our irresponsibility affects the lives of the poor and he calls our attention to a true basic human right: drinking water. Due to pollution and other toxic contaminants, some communities do not have access to something a simple as clean water which may be due to Western corporations exploiting the materials of a developing or underdeveloped nation. The pope correctly tells us that to have a true care for the environment, we must also have a care for the most vulnerable. He says, “[A] true ecological approach always becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.” (49) If only the cry of the earth is given attention to the neglect of the poor, the earth will still destroyed for “the human environment and the natural environment deteriorate together.” (48) To claim to love the earth at the expense of others is a contradiction that leads to the destruction of the world they claim to protect.
What I really like about this first chapter of the encyclical is that the Holy Father connects care for the earth with love of neighbor. Our actions, whether sins or virtuous acts, affect others even if we cannot see them. This shows that our actions have transcendental-like qualities that go beyond space and time. The pollution put up in the air decades ago is still in the atmosphere affecting people today. This transcendental-like quality ought to help us hesitate to be greedy, consume too much, or act rashly without regard for the sanctity of human life. The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines sins as a “failure in genuine love for God and neighbor caused by a perverse attachment to certain goods. It wounds the nature of man and injures human solidarity.” (CCC 1849) Exploiting and polluting the earth out of greed for big business and an inordinate desire for earthly goods (latest car, iPhone, computer, clothes, etc.) hurts other people and I am thankful to the pope for calling attention to how we effect our fellow human beings by our environmental choices.
How we treat our world is reflective of our love for God and neighbor and Pope Francis is brining this to our attention. I suggest that any Catholic wanting to love God and neighbor properly ought to care for the earth as an expression of that love. In order to care for the environment, the Holy Father call us all to an “ecological conversion” which I hope to discuss in a future post.