Pope Francis and the Environment: opening and closing doors quietly

Written by Andrew Studdert-Kennedy on .

 The Papal Encyclical, Laudato si  (Praise be to you) On care for our common home, was published on June 18 and is the first encyclical ever to concentrate on the environment. Although 40,000 words in length, it is accessible and easy to read.

Pope Francis acknowledges the debt he owes to his namesake, St Francis of Assisi, whose love and reverence for the whole of creation led him to greet the sun and the moon, the birds and the wind, as brothers and sisters.

Wishing to restore a proper respect for the environment, Pope Francis merges his ecological analysis with traditional concerns of Catholic Social Teaching – the poverty and inequality that follow when market forces are unbridled.

He wishes to ‘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.’

In many ways, the Pope is not saying anything that hasn’t been said already by eloquent environmentalists, but he does place it all in the context of Christian teaching, specifically the human tendency towards the short term and our hubris:

"The fact is that contemporary man has not been trained to use power well, because our immense technological development has not been accompanied by a development in human responsibility, values and conscience.  Each age tends to have only a meagre awareness of its own limitations. It is possible that we do not grasp the gravity of the challenges now before us."

Most specifically, he responds to the charge that Judaeo-Christian thinking, on the basis of the Genesis account that grants humans ‘dominion’ over the earth, has encouraged the unbridled exploitation of nature.  ‘This is not a correct interpretation of the Bible as understood by the Church’, he writes.  ‘We are not God.  The Earth was here before us and it has been given to us’.

The scale of the challenges that face us are so great that we can feel overwhelmed by them.  But it is here that the Encyclical is at its most affirming - encouraging us to see the cumulative value of individual actions and disciplines.  Applauding local initiatives and responses, he suggests they have a place in a much bigger story:

"Around these community actions, relationships develop or are recovered and a new social fabric emerges.  Thus, a community can break out of the indifference induced by consumerism.  These actions cultivate a shared identity, with a story which can be remembered and handed on. In this way, the world, and the quality of life of the poorest, are cared for, with a sense of solidarity which is at the same time aware that we live in a common home which God has entrusted to us.  These community actions, when they express self-giving love, can also become intense spiritual experiences."

There is a story told about a Vietnamese Buddhist who when asked by a Catholic monk what he had learned in his first twelve months in a monastery, replied:  ‘To open and close doors quietly’.  This is a gentleness that can carry through to all other aspects of life.

Laudato si suggests to us all that we don’t need to spend a year in a monastery, but simply pay attention to the world around us in order that we, too, may open and close doors quietly.


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