Protecting mankind from self-destruction

Everyone is talking about Pope Francis’ latest encyclical, Laudato Si’, “On Care for Our Common Home.” Theologians, politicians, scientists, Hindus, Muslims; there is no shortage of opinions. Many will rely solely on the media’s interpretation of what they think the encyclical says, and others will pull it apart and look for nuggets of wisdom within. Even if reading papal missives is not on your summer reading list, the topic is one that we all have thought about in this age of super-storms, heat waves and drought.

Some will look at this clarion call for change with a feeling of triumphant satisfaction, others will respond with indignant denial that the Church dares to speak out on such issues. One Catholic news agency remarked that even if people don’t like something in the encyclical it is no excuse to dismiss the whole document. The presumption is that its message is going to make many people uncomfortable. Regardless of where one stands, Laudato Si’ is ripe with themes that deserve careful inspection, and probably introspection.

On its broadest level this encyclical raises the question about the meaning and responsibility of power. “We are not God. The earth was here before us and it has been given to us.” The Judeo-Christian concept of “dominion” over the earth has been distorted into “unbridled exploitation” rather than cultivation and reaping what the earth gives freely. Dominion is not a license to destroy. Dominion, in God’s plan “implies a relationship of mutual responsibility between human beings and nature” (67). This concept of mutuality gives to the earth as much responsibility for us as we have for it. We can take what we need, but not in excess. As we reflect on our actions and attitudes do we treat the world like it belongs to God?

We live amidst the beauty and awesome expanse of ocean on our shorelines, and we are careful to regulate how it is used. Elsewhere in the world the oceans collect trash that is carelessly dumped offshore by individuals and industry. The world will take notice next year when the Olympics are staged in Rio de Janeiro. Guanabara Bay, the 2016 Olympic venue for sailing, has been described as an “open sewer.’’ Fifty tons of rotting carcasses were floating in the Rodrigo de Freitas lagoon in April. Pope Francis is highlighting the need to see the world’s pollution as our problem, not theirs. “We need to strengthen the conviction that we are one single human family. There are no frontiers or barriers, political or social, behind which we can hide, still less is there room for the globalization of indifference” (52). In our country we bring all resources to bear on finding a solution if we are engulfed by the disastrous impact of pollution. The clean up of Boston Harbor came about because of a federal mandate. The legendary smog of California led to strict emissions control in cars that has been adopted as the national standard. Do we care enough about the pollution in emerging countries to share our knowledge and resources?

 Water is not a commodity; it is essential to life itself. “Access to safe drinkable water is a basic and universal human right, since it is essential to human survival and, as such, is a condition for the exercise of other human rights. Our world has a grave social debt towards the poor who lack access to drinking water, because they are denied the right to a life consistent with their inalienable dignity” (30). Are we as concerned about protecting this human right as we are about other life issues?

Laudato Si’ brings into focus the forgotten victims of the exploitation of nature — the poor. This is not a radical idea that Pope Francis espouses, but has been driven home by his predecessors. Pope St. John Paul II wrote, “God gave the earth to the whole human race for the sustenance of all its members, without excluding or favoring anyone” (Centisimus Annus). Every decision that we make has an impact on the poor, even if we never encounter one another in person. “Twenty percent of the world’s population consumes resources at a rate that robs the poor nations and future generations of what they need to survive” (95). The principle of subsidiarity teaches us that even the biggest problem can be addressed at the smallest and closest level. Can we cut our own waste and consumption to allow the poor in our region to have what they need?

Pope Francis makes it clear that “the work of the Church seeks not only to remind everyone of the duty to care for nature, but at the same time she must above all protect mankind from self-destruction” (79). Those who have been blessed with knowledge and resources will be asked to join this crusade.

Anchor columnist Claire McManus is the director of the Diocesan Office of Faith Formation. 

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