Without a doubt the media has been abuzz about the latest Encyclical from the Holy Father. (When is the last time you could say that about a Church document?) There was a lot of fear that the magisterium would co-opt David Suzuki as the new head of the magisterium but what has been accomplished from this attention instead has been to renew the Christian understanding of Man’s relationship to Creation and the moral implications.
Very little of the essence of the first half of the encyclical is new. The catechism has emphasized the impossibility of divorcing respect of our natural resources from our moral duties (2415). Pope Francis has written in a way to drive home that connection and highlighted the impact of natural neglect to human life. Thus, with his moral authority and popularity, popular thought has reclaimed humanity at the center of the environmental debate.
This is intuitive to me as my schools’ Environmental clubs had always been run by the religion teachers. Stewardship for creation seems to logically follow. More recently, environmental debates had created strange divisions between the secular or new age against religious and social conservatives where the consensus should have instead led to a great alliance.
The environmental movements of the day tend to be anti-humanist, blaming population, for example for the woes of the earth. Also, there is a pantheism in the new age movement which casts nature as equal or superior in moral status to the human person. So much so that cutting down trees to make homes for the homeless would not be morally justified.
The Holy Father opens his encyclical by reminding us of our sibling relationship with nature with the words of St. Francis. (1) This communion is relevant to all human beings and thus addresses this to “all people about our common home”. (3) There is dignity in the birds and the seas in terms of God’s immanence as “nature as a whole not only manifests God but is also a locus of his presence” (88). He rejects the pantheism of the new age outright in Paragraph 90 and rather spends much of the paper explaining different issues of the planet and how our brothers and sisters suffer because of it, whether it be pollution, loss of clean water, or loss of biodiversity. (20-52)
In full continuity with pontiffs before him, this is essentially a wake up call for Catholics who had previously found themselves comfortable within the framework of the predominant environmental movement or the anti-conservationist conservative movement. The Holy Father calls us to regain the beautiful and proportional view of God’s creation and to step up to our duties to restore and protect in light of our Faith. Without naming new sins or new virtues. Like at any retreat, I find myself already reminding and reflecting upon my own lifestyle and seeing how I can be part of a solution and softly evangelize that in those around me. “For all our limitations, gestures of genorosity, solidarity and care cannot but well up within us, since we were made for love” (58). It is from our hearts where we will find the drive to restore the imbalance caused by environmental neglect.