Ethics for a threatened world

Early reports on Pope Francis’ much-anticipated encyclical on the environment have tended to frame its message in an old question: Can religion add anything significant to the understanding of complex issues that belong to the province of modern science? More specifically, can a pope’s pronouncements on the contentious issues of climate change carry any weight at all?

Drawing from a leaked draft of Francis’ encyclical letter, “Laudato Si,” subtitled “On care for our common home,” the initial media accounts laud his “masterful grasp of the science behind climate.” They resonate the hope that a voice like his, coming from one of the most trusted figures in the world, could shape the current debate on climate change. Still, as the Washington Post reminds us, “the encyclical comes at a time when institutional religion’s influence is waning in many parts of the world.”

Having had a chance to read most of the 192-page final document, I think it would be misleading to take Francis’ intervention as an attempt to “weigh in” on the scientific issues. He knows that is not the role of religion.

Indeed, he concedes to the complexity of environmental issues. “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.”

While the encyclical does echo the findings of climate scientists, which depict the reality, the magnitude, and the urgency of the manmade threats to the environment, Francis goes one step further. He offers a theology of the environment, and of the totality of life as God’s creation. In so doing, he provides a layer of ultimate meaning, beyond science, from which to understand what has brought humanity to this state. On this basis, he proceeds to weave what, to me, is one of the clearest statements of an ethics for a threatened world.

The theology of a “genuine human ecology” that Francis articulates draws extensively from the writings of his predecessors, notably John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Though his words are simpler and more direct, Francis’ message is a restatement of Benedict’s views denouncing a way of life built on nihilism and relativism. It is this, he says, that ultimately lies behind the crisis of the environment: the attitude that nothing is sacred anymore and that everything is permissible. “When the culture itself is corrupt, and objective truth and universally valid principles are no longer upheld, then laws can only be seen as arbitrary impositions or obstacles to be avoided.”

There is a lot in this lucid document that readers will find appealing or disagreeable, depending on where their own personal circumstances have situated them.

Here is, for example, an eloquent restatement of the Church’s stand on private property: “Whether believers or not, we are agreed today that the earth is essentially a shared inheritance, whose fruits are meant to benefit everyone…. The Christian tradition has never recognized the right to private property as absolute or inviolable, and has stressed the social purpose of all forms of private property.” This and many other passages reiterate the Church’s longstanding preferential option for the poor.

Francis devotes a series of paragraphs to a clarification of an Old Testament reference to man being given “dominion over the earth,” which has sometimes been singled out as a teaching that justifies the unbridled exploitation of the world’s resources. “The biblical texts are to be read in their context, with an appropriate hermeneutic, recognizing that they tell us to ‘till and keep’ the garden of the world (cf. Gen 2:15). ‘Tilling’ refers to cultivating, ploughing or working, while ‘keeping’ means caring, protecting, overseeing and preserving.”

Francis covers a lot of ground in this encyclical, his second since he became pope. You can almost hear him freely expounding on a wide range of topics with the wit, spontaneity and homespun wisdom that have become his trademark. He talks about the perils of “a spirituality without God,” and of a world in which the media and digital devices are omnipresent. He questions the authenticity of relationships formed in social networking sites. He revisits the value of “contemplative rest,” a virtue that, on a previous occasion, he had contrasted to “Marthaism.” He takes a dig at those who are obsessed with reducing birth rates, those who promote abortion, and those who tinker with human embryos in the name of science.

He even has a paragraph on issues that would surely draw the attention of transgender persons—a takeoff from Benedict’s “ecology of man.” In it, Francis warns that the belief “that we enjoy absolute power over our own bodies turns, often subtly, into thinking that we enjoy absolute power over creation.” He counsels that we must learn “to accept our body, to care for it and to respect its fullest meaning,” but we must value “one’s own body in its femininity or masculinity… if I am going to be able to recognize myself in an encounter with someone who is different.” Could this paragraph have been written in reference to Bruce Jenner’s transformation into Caitlyn Jenner?

This papal encyclical, to me, is not just about the crisis of the natural environment. This is Pope Francis’ all-encompassing take on the crisis of humanity in the modern world. As ethics, it is a plea for a return to humility, to faith, to love and simplicity—and to “true wisdom as the fruit of self-examination, dialogue and generous encounter between persons….”

* * *