It is easy to fall into the trap of linking talk related to the environment to overall political battles we like to avoid. Stewardship of God’s creation is not, however, a political matter; rather, it is our moral responsibility to care for the space in which we live. It also includes caring for those around us and establishing meaningful, productive relationships. In today’s world, the prevalence of the need for immediacy can hinder our ability to feel this great responsibility. While technological advances certainly help drive the desire for immediate gratification, we often fail to see how this shifting mentality translates to how we interact with our surroundings. We can lose sight of the overall idea of environment and just focus on where we are directly impacted. After all, it is more rewarding to us individually if we do not divert our attention from exactly what we encounter, is it not?
Christianity would distinctly tell us that is not the case. In fact, just last year, Pope Francis released an encyclical, Laudato Si, which highlights the importance of care for all of God’s creation. Hoping to dispel the passivity with which some regard such matters, Pope Francis conveys his message with a sense of urgency by linking our surrounding world to the idea of the family. Through this link, he heightens the degree of immediacy and intimacy that we associate with the issue and links it in a more relevant way to a moral responsibility. Pope Francis begins his encyclical with a beautiful assertion, stating “that our common home is like a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us.” Beyond just the implications of familial love, this statement conveys a complex notion of our relationship with the earth. Our world is our sister, implying a sense of equality. We share the same father, God, and hence we must hold our surroundings in the same regard in which we hold ourselves. The compassion, love, and respect that we show towards our fellow humans is by definition transferrable to our world. Our earth, however, is more than just our equal. Our earth is our lifegiver, our mother. She provides us with what we need, and in turn, we owe her the dignity and respect to care for her at all times, especially when she is unwell. Thus, when we look around at the damage we have inflicted, we should see the harm not just as harm to our companion but also as harm to our sustainer.
Pope Francis structures his encyclical by beginning with an explicit claim of the problems with our current environment, later entering into reasons for acting on his claims as present in the Bible. He does not shy away from acknowledging the political nature of the problem and furthermore highlights the very personal nature of the care of our environment: “Inner peace is closely related to care for ecology and for the common good because, lived out authentically, it is reflected in a balanced lifestyle together with a capacity for wonder which takes us to a deeper understanding of life.” Our deepest inner spirituality is threatened by an environment left uncared for. Thus, it is critical that we all understand the ways in which we violate our home, so that we can ultimately address these issues in order to restore our inner peace and spirituality.
The first direct environmental concern that Pope Francis chooses to address is pollution and climate change, beginning his claim by stating that it is our duty to “become painfully aware, to dare to turn what is happening to the world into our own personal suffering and thus to discover what each of us can do about it.” The way in which he addresses the concern allows for greater understanding; Pope Francis implicates the throwaway nature of society. Because of our need for rapid production and consumption, we believe we can discard of materials in a similar way. We believe we want to live in a world of good, yet if we constantly surround ourselves with the latest junk we want to get rid of, then the world, ironically, becomes empty. True emptiness is not a result of the absence of material goods but rather of the absence of substance and purpose. Thus, if we surround ourselves with the idea that all of our things are so temporary, eventually this throw away mentality permeates the permanent aspects of our lives, such as our relationships. After proceeding through arguments for increased focus on the issue of water and the loss of bio-diversity, Pope Francis cycles back to his argument surrounding the idea of the throwaway culture, citing it as a cause for the decline in the quality of life. He backtracks to potential causes of problems and is careful to craft multifaceted proposals to facilitate true stewardship. By advocating for smaller-scale sustainable food production, for example, he also conveys the need for greater access to employment opportunities. As inhabitants of the earth, our ability to flourish and grow is equally as important as the environment’s. Hence, Pope Francis articulates that this idea must be addressed economically so that all people can have a way to contribute to our world. Pope Francis is careful to avoid simply presenting a lamentation of the world’s current problems. If his encyclical were based in fact-dumping or deep condemnation, it would not have sparked the global conversation and attracted as much attention as it has. His encyclical contains true wisdom, which he claims “is not acquired by a mere accumulation of data which eventually leads to overload and confusion, a sort of mental pollution.” True wisdom innately entails a large element of understanding and compassion, making the information much more personal. It is in this personal element that we truly come to grasp what we seek to know and begin to relate it to our own lives. Pope Francis stands firmly behind the position that society has the power to enact change through a collaborative effort. He recognizes that, with the immediacy of today’s heavily digitally-influenced culture, comes a less urgent desire to build up long-standing relationships. We must work against the influence of our digital culture in order to maintain the importance of productive, engaging conversation with those around us: “Real relationships with others, with all the challenges they entail, now tend to be replaced by a type of Internet communication which enables us to choose or eliminate relationships at whim, thus giving rise to a new type of contrived emotion which has more to do with devices and displays than with other people and with nature.”
Through this document, we hear the voice of God in the here and now, for Pope Francis is certainly sure to convey a sense of urgency about his message. The wide scope of topics that this document covers conveys the fact that we do not live in isolation; all of our actions subsequently influence others; environmentalism relates to the economy as much as it does to planting trees. There is, however, a hierarchical way in which we should view arguments in favor of focusing on the environment. Engaging in political discourse forfeits the immediacy, for different sides will constantly be at odds. Pope Francis, therefore, focuses on the theological arguments for protecting the earth that God gave us. Our world is both our sister and our mother, our friend and our provider, representative of the infinite reach of God’s power and love. It is truly our duty, our right, and our privilege, therefore, to exhibit true stewardship. As Pope Francis says, “We journey through this land seeking God…Let us sing as we go. May our struggles and our concern for this planet never take away the joy of our hope.”
Anne Marie Crinnion ’20 is a Psychology concentrator in Dunster House and is a staff writer and the webmaster for the Ichthus.
Pope Francis. Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home [Encyclical] (2015).