Praise be to you, my Lord, through our Sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us, and who produces various fruit with coloured flowers and herbs
– Saint Francis of Assisi
This sister now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her. We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will. The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life. This is why the earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor; she “groans in travail” (Rom 8:22). We have forgotten that we ourselves are dust of the earth (cf. Gen 2:7); our very bodies are made up of her elements, we breathe her air and we receive life and refreshment from her waters.
– Pope Francis
Praise be to God indeed! Thursday’s Papal encyclical on climate change breathes fresh air and spirit on a world and on a climate-change debate sorely in need of both. The depth and breadth of the discussion defy casual summary. To attempt to identify and lift nuggets from the larger whole or to pick-and-choose cafeteria-style among the arguments presented is misdirected if not futile, though we’ve seen numerous attempts in all the news and social media in the days since. What makes the nuggets truly golden are their settings – the precise wording and the carefully-woven context. That weaving is so deft and intricate that attempts to unravel particular bits from the fuller exposition leave something far inferior to the whole.
In other words, to feel the impact you and I had best read the encyclical in its entirety. That encouragement doesn’t even go far enough. To go further – not merely to feel its impact but to derive its benefit, to experience its healing – we need to meditate on it. And we’re not talking about meditating on it over a single weekend. The encyclical deserves regular revisits. Over months. Years. It’s going to stand the test of time.
- The encyclical is more about human nature than Earth’s nature. In fact it sees the two as inextricably intertwined, inseparable. Furthermore, it sees climate change not as a separate issue, or even as an issue in its own right. Instead it’s a symptom of human failings and shortcomings: greed, selfishness, hypocrisy, mendacity, etc. You could add shortsightedness except that at several points the text notes that we’re not merely oblivious to our wrongs and how they exacerbate the problem. Our actions are premeditated. We possess the needed self-awareness, and we see the bow wave of problems we’re creating for the poor and disenfranchised, for those less fortunate – and yet we proceed anyway.
- It’s a Rorschach test. Scientists may be tempted to ignore the spiritual dimension, and focus on the realities of environmental degradation, loss of habitat and biodiversity. NGO’s focused on the plight of the poor, whether the poor nations or the poor within each nation, will exult over the papal support for their cause. Free-market voices of a certain stripe will decry papal attempts to “make all of us poor.” Political leaders of a certain persuasion will grouse about religious meddling in economic and social matters. Check the news summaries and the blogs. You’ll find everyone finding in the encyclical support for long-held positions and personally and institutionally-cherished preferences. (LOTRW is surely no exception; another reason you should read the encyclical from start to finish and draw your own conclusions.)
- It’s reality-based. In support, here’s a snippet from section 201 of the encyclical: realities are greater than ideas (the original text includes a citation to an earlier Vatican work). But (especially scientist-friends) be warned; reality here is assumed to have physical, social, and spiritual dimensions. (An aside. Some scientists make it clear that non-experts should be cautious in arguing with scientists about climate change. Understood. But we scientists ought to be equally attentive to those who’ve studied spirituality in a disciplined way when they share what their studies on such matters have revealed. And if we’re reluctant to be blindly submissive on these latter subjects, then perhaps we ought to be more respectful to those who dare question our science.)
- It sees these realities and our human challenges as fully integrated and inseparable. For example, the encyclical makes clear that our environmental problems stems from seeing nature and all its life and creatures as being mere objects as opposed to essential manifestations of the love and power and nature of God. It sees our indifference to the plight of lifeforms and landforms as intimately related to our disinterest in the suffering of others. It describes us as having allowed ourselves to drift into a state of slavery to technology as opposed to retaining mastery over it.
- It is fully comfortable with both science and faith. At one and the same time the encyclical holds true to the idea of a created universe and embraces findings of science with respect to the size of the universe, the age of the earth, evolution of life, and the nature of reality at the quantum level. It is positive about the contributions of science and technology not just to material human welfare but beauty and the elevation of the human spirit. And interestingly, it doesn’t dither over these concerns; it simply blows right through them. Surely an encouragement to the rest of us to follow suit.
- The moral message ought to arouse us more than the economic message. The encyclical makes much of our interest in individual material well-being as measured by conventional means. This has already come under attack from some quarters as “the pope urging us to all be poor.” But the deeper message of the encyclical is that when we enrich ourselves while turning a blind eye to the basic human needs of others – whether for food, or water, or shelter, or respect – we do great and indelible harm to our souls, and that this is the greater danger.
- The encyclical is more celebratory than condemnatory. Throughout – in every section and every reflection, the encyclical reminds us that the Creation is good. It sees every aspect of physical reality both animate and inanimate as carrying a message about God’s love, power, interest in our well-being, and forgiving nature. It speaks to our access to joy and peace in light of this understanding. It speaks to the possibility of building a richer, more equitable, more sustainable, future.
- It is a group construct. Surely Pope Francis called for it. Surely he made editorial comments as the work proceeded, and had a good deal to say about both its substance and tenor. But the encyclical clearly has as much in common with an IPCC report as it does with the prayerful reflection of a saintly, devout individual. There are frequent, quoted references to thoughts and contributions from bishops from around the world. Much as an IPCC report, the chapters and conclusions are informed by the scholarship and study of many other individuals, past and present, who are extensively and thoroughly cited.
- It is a valuable addition to the ongoing global dialog. While, as an encyclical, it’s intended to represent a “final” or definitive papal word in some sense, it’s not intended to supplant discussion so much as contribute to it. The latter sections of the encyclical encourage continuing dialog of all kinds: international, national and local, dialog leading to transparency in decision-making, politics and economy in dialog for human fulfillment, religions in dialog with science. In section 188, the Pope emphasizes all this:
There are certain environmental issues where it is not easy to achieve a broad consensus. Here I would state once more that the Church does not presume to settle scientific questions or to replace politics. But I am concerned to encourage an honest and open debate so that particular interests or ideologies will not prejudice the common good.
- Did I say you ought to read the whole thing for yourself and draw your own conclusions? Yes. Is the encyclical the last word? No. Is it a perfect document? No. Is it something you and I would do well to discuss seriously with each other? Build on and improve? Absolutely, no matter who we are or what our role.
Let’s get at it.