The Encyclical on climate change and the environment released by Pope Francis this week has all the magic of the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1991. Back then, the antagonism between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. seemed implacable and unresolvable, a fight to the death. And then suddenly the wall came down and the world walked through, marveling, into a new era.
Now we have another abrupt shift, this time of a religious order. The leaders of the Catholic Church can hardly be accused of being “radical tree-huggers.” And yet here is Pope Francis, solemnly exhorting his flock of a billion Catholics worldwide to be respectful to Mother Earth and all the living beings she supports. In the blink of an eye, the language of Native American spirituality has been taken up by the same Catholic Church that once tortured and executed indigenous peoples precisely because of their different religious beliefs.
I urge you to read the entire Encyclical for yourself. It is a truly remarkable document, worth serious study. Of many passages I’d like to underline, here are two:
- Care for nature is part of a lifestyle which includes the capacity for living together and communion. Jesus reminded us that we have God as our common Father and that this makes us brothers and sisters. Fraternal love can only be gratuitous; it can never be a means of repaying others for what they have done or will do for us. That is why it is possible to love our enemies. This same gratuitousness inspires us to love and accept the wind, the sun and the clouds, even though we cannot control them. In this sense, we can speak of a “universal fraternity”.
- We must regain the conviction that we need one another, that we have a shared responsibility for others and the world, and that being good and decent are worth it. We have had enough of immorality and the mockery of ethics, goodness, faith and honesty. It is time to acknowledge that light-hearted superficiality has done us no good. When the foundations of social life are corroded, what ensues are battles over conflicting interests, new forms of violence and brutality, and obstacles to the growth of a genuine culture of care for the environment.
Here we find spiritual ecology enshrined as Catholic doctrine. And one thing about the Catholic Church—it is big on obedience. For believers, to ignore the Pope is to risk hellfire and damnation. In this case, though, the hellfire and damnation will be earthly, if we do not listen to the wise advice of Pope Francis and curb the insanity of industrial growth that goes beyond the limits of the planet to support.
Scientists appeal to our sense of reason, presenting compelling evidence that if we continue on our present path of wasteful consumption of the Earth’s resources, we will destroy our own future as a flourishing species. Religious leaders appeal to human beings’ moral conscience in invoking the responsibility of current parents and grandparents to leave a livable world to our descendants. It is up to the politicians, though, to translate vision into practice.
For too long, Christian conservatives in the U.S. have played the role of the ideological wing of Big Business, using money, manipulation and scare tactics to buy politicians and votes. In the face of the new Papal Encyclical, can American Christians really continue in good conscience to support the worst of the planet’s polluters and plunderers? Can they continue to elect mercenary politicians who hold our country hostage to the highest bidder?
If all good people who love our Earth and its creatures were to translate our love into action, as Pope Francis has just done so forcefully, I have no doubt the seemingly invincible wall of the industrial growth society we’ve been living with these past 200 years would melt away, revealing the path into a green, prosperous future.
“Where there’s a will, there’s a way,” the saying goes. Pope Francis has just shown us the will, and the way. It is now the task of us ordinary citizens to break the stranglehold of Big Business on politics and insist that our politicians follow his lead.
I close with an excerpt from the Pope’s “Christian Prayer in Union with Creation,” a vision of ecological interdependence if ever there was one:
“Triune Lord, wondrous community of infinite love,
teach us to contemplate you
in the beauty of the universe,
for all things speak of you.
“Awaken our praise and thankfulness
for every being that you have made.
Give us the grace to feel profoundly joined to everything that is.
God of love, show us our place in this world
as channels of your love
for all the creatures of this earth,
for not one of them is forgotten in your sight.
Enlighten those who possess power and money
that they may avoid the sin of indifference,
that they may love the common good, advance the weak,
and care for this world in which we live.”