Is Francis the First Pope to Write About Ecology?
As I read in the opening paragraphs of Pope Francis’s Franciscan-flavored encyclical, Laudato Si, of the “sickness evident in the soil, in the water,” I could not help but remember something else I read recently: about how the many chemicals found in our water and soil, from hormones to antibiotics to all sorts of contaminants, mix together to form who knows what kind of toxic stew. Ugh. My own neighborhood wraps around a small man-made lake. I care about what I let drain into it. I care about the people and animals who live near, in, or on the lake. I cared before and even more since I became Catholic. Why? Because I have a different outlook, a different worldview now than I did have. A different anthropology, if you will. A different understanding of what it means to be human and what it means to be a disciple and a steward of God’s creation. Not that I have it all figured out, far from it. But I understand more than I did and I’m learning more every day.
Which brings me back to the encyclical. Pope Francis reminds us of something he says we have forgotten: that we are dust of the earth (Gen 2:7). Those of us who read and study Scripture probably have not forgotten it, and those of us who hear these words in the Scripture-soaked Mass and in the Liturgy of the Hours, the daily prayers of the Church, have heard them many times. But how deeply do we reflect on them? Some more than others, surely. And there are those human persons who seem to have forgotten that they are human or who long to be anything but human. They seem to have reflected on the words of Genesis very little or not at all. (More on this later. Maybe Francis mentions the madness of transhumanism or gender theory in Laudato Si. I don’t know yet.)
In paragraph 3, the Pope points out that Pope Saint John XXIII addressed Pacem in Terris to the whole “Catholic world” and “to all men and women of good will”. I thought to myself, Well, that narrows the audience. Then I read the next line:
Now, faced as we are with global environmental deterioration, I wish to address every person living on this planet.
Oh, he thought of that. (By now I should be used to Popes thinking of things before I do.) Francis wants to “enter into dialogue with all people about our common home.” When I looked online today I found some people who were willing to listen, some willing to dialogue, and many whose minds were made up about what he said before he even said it. I saw far too many of those, Catholic and otherwise, but then that’s nothing new and I expected it.
In paragraph 4 he mentions “unchecked human activity”. Please note that this does not mean “unchecked humans” or “unchecked human population”. This is not rabid environmentalist talk, though some will work hard to persuade everyone that it is, and Francis continues to quote his predecessors, showing that his concerns are not new. Pope Paul VI from his apostolic letter, Octogesima Adveniens, paragraph 21.
While the horizon of man is thus being modified according to the images that are chosen for him, another transformation is making itself felt, one which is the dramatic and unexpected consequence of human activity. Man is suddenly becoming aware that by an ill-considered exploitation of nature he risks destroying it and becoming in his turn the victim of this degradation. Not only is the material environment becoming a permanent menace – pollution and refuse, new illness and absolute destructive capacity – but the human framework is no longer under man’s control, thus creating an environment for tomorrow which may well be intolerable. This is a wide-ranging social problem which concerns the entire human family.
The Christian must turn to these new perceptions in order to take on responsibility, together with the rest of men, for a destiny which from now on is shared by all.
And this from paragraph 4 of Visit Of Pope Paul Vi To The FAO On The 25th Anniversary Of Its Institution:
These problems surely are familiar to you. We have wished to evoke them briefly before you only in order to underline better the urgent need of a radical change in the conduct of humanity if it wishes to assure its survival. It took millennia for man to learn how to dominate, «to subdue the earth» according to the inspired word of the first book of the Bible (Gen. 1:28). The hour has now come for him to dominate his domination; this essential undertaking requires no less courage and dauntlessness than the conquest of nature itself. Will the prodigious progressive mastery of plant, animal and human life and the discovery of even the secrets of matter lead to anti-matter and to the explosion of death? In this decisive moment of its history, humanity hesitates, uncertain before fear and hope. Who still does not see this? The most extraordinary scientific progress, the most astounding technical feats and the most amazing economic growth, unless accompanied by authentic moral and social progress, will in the long run go against man.
In paragraph 5 Francis quotes Pope Saint John Paul II who wrote about the environment and human persons in his very first encyclical, Redemptoris Hominis, section 15, entitled “What modern man is afraid of”. It’s six paragraphs long; you can read it for yourself at the link above.
He goes on to quote from a catechesis given by John Paul II in 2001, paragraph 4:
We must therefore encourage and support the “ecological conversion” which in recent decades has made humanity more sensitive to the catastrophe to which it has been heading. Man is no longer the Creator’s “steward”, but an autonomous despot, who is finally beginning to understand that he must stop at the edge of the abyss. “Another welcome sign is the growing attention being paid to the quality of life and to ecology, especially in more developed societies, where people’s expectations are no longer concentrated so much on problems of survival as on the search for an overall improvement of living conditions” (Evangelium vitae, n. 27). At stake, then, is not only a “physical” ecology that is concerned to safeguard the habitat of the various living beings, but also a “human” ecology which makes the existence of creatures more dignified, by protecting the fundamental good of life in all its manifestations and by preparing for future generations an environment more in conformity with the Creator’s plan.
Francis quotes John Paul II several times more before moving on in paragraph 6 to quote Pope Benedict XVI several times, including this from Meeting Of The Holy Father Benedict XVI With The Clergy Of The Diocese Of Bolzano-Bressanone, in an answer to a question posed by Fr. Karl Golser:
Creation is groaning – we perceive it, we almost hear it – and awaits human beings who will preserve it in accordance with God. The brutal consumption of Creation begins where God is not, where matter is henceforth only material for us, where we ourselves are the ultimate demand, where the whole is merely our property and we consume it for ourselves alone. And the wasting of creation begins when we no longer recognize any need superior to our own, but see only ourselves. It begins when there is no longer any concept of life beyond death, where in this life we must grab hold of everything and possess life as intensely as possible, where we must possess all that is possible to possess.
Then Francis turns to Patriarch Bartholomew and his concerns about the “ethical and spiritual roots of environmental problems”. From a lecture at the Monastery of Utstein, Norway (23 June 2003):
He asks us to replace consumption with sacrifice, greed with generosity, wastefulness with a spirit of sharing, an asceticism which “entails learning to give, and not simply to give up. It is a way of loving, of moving gradually away from what I want to what God’s world needs. It is liberation from fear, greed and compulsion”.
So, is Pope Francis the first Pope to write about ecology? Nope. Not by a long shot.
In Part 2 we’ll begin with paragraph 10 and see how far we get. Now I’d best tend to my pack before they mutiny on me and take the car down to the lake without me. Hate when that happens. Silly dogs never put the seat back where I had it.
PS: Didn’t I say I wasn’t going to write a long commentary on the pope’s encyclical when it was finally released? Yeah, well, I wasn’t going to. Seems I just get started and before I know it, comes the time to say: this post is so long! ;) Thanks for reading. Peace be with you!