“Humanity has disappointed God’s expectations”: Pope Francis’s Call to Arms

Pope Francis did not speak lightly when he said that protecting God’s creation is a service that “the Bishop of Rome is called to carry out”. And so his encyclical “Laudato Si’, on care for our common home”, released yesterday, reflects his deeply held convictions.

While the encyclical’s message will require careful study to appreciate its theological nuances, what is striking from the opening words is the hard-hitting and fervent tone of the language calling on us to change our ways and our social structures to protect the creation.

This sister [Earth] now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her. We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will.

Laudato Si’ proclaims a theme Francis has stressed in previous public utterances, that exploitative attitudes to the natural environment reflect and spill over into exploitative attitudes towards human beings. Social relationships, the essence of our humanity, are destabilised when the environment is destroyed.

The reason is simple: climate change is already devastating the lives of some of the poorest people in the South, and it is with the poor that the Argentinian pontiff’s heart lies. In words with powerful theological resonance, Pope Francis declares:

The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life. This is why the earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor; she “groans in travail” (Rom 8:22).

The clamour incited by the encyclical will echo around the capitals of the North, yet Francis’s first concern seems to be to send a message of solidarity and compassion to the vulnerable of the South.

While drawing authority from previous encyclicals concerned with the environment – Centesimus annus by John Paul II in 1991 and Caritas in Veritate by Benedict XVI in 2009 – Francis has gone much further, not only with the stern language but also because Laudato Si’ appears at a time of enormous political and world importance. Francis is acutely aware of the political meaning of what he is doing. In September he is expected to take his ecological message into the heart of the beast, the Republican-dominated US Congress.

Confronting the deniers

Francis is a social radical in keeping with Catholic Social Teaching but seriously out of step with Catholic conservatives in the United States and Australia. His close linking of the destruction of nature to modern capitalism’s rampant environmental exploitation and mindless consumerism rings alarm bells. “Humanity is called to become aware of the need to change styles of life, of production and consumption”, he writes in Laudato Si’.

Nor is he afraid to attack the core of modern capitalism:

… given the insatiable and irresponsible growth produced over many decades, we need also to think of containing growth by setting some reasonable limits and even retracing our steps before it is too late. We know how unsustainable is the behaviour of those who constantly consume and destroy, while others are not yet able to live in a way worthy of their human dignity.

So not only the big polluters, the system itself is in the papal cross hairs. It is little wonder that climate deniers who identify as Catholic have awaited Laudato Si’ with dread. The encyclical will form the basis of what is taught from tens of thousands of pulpits and in tens of thousands of schools. Already in the United States bishops are making plans to amplify the papal message, perhaps by taking up his prayer that the rich and powerful be enlightened so that “may avoid the sin of indifference”.

Denier countermoves have been ham-fisted. Republican presidential contender and conservative Catholic Rick Santorum made the perplexing declaration that since the Church had been wrong about science in the past it should “leave science to the scientists”, as if the first aim of the denial movement had not been to take science away from the scientists.

The church should stick to theology and morality, he said, forgetting that every theological and moral position must be based on some understanding of the world. And there is no comfort for those like Santorum when Francis does make theological pronouncements on human domination of the Earth: “unbridled exploitation of nature … is not a correct interpretation of the Bible.” Instead, we are called to responsible stewardship.

The encyclical will not change the minds of many deniers, Catholic or otherwise, for their minds are closed. (I once pressed Nick Minchin what it would take for him to change his mind; he could not answer the question.) However, and this is what most worries leading deniers, it may well galvanise into action the multitudes of Catholics who do not reject the warnings of climate scientists but do not take them very seriously either.

Even more alarming for conservatives, the Pope is an internationalist who now proposes a “true world political authority” to play a strong role in economic regulation and climate policy.

Francis is, of course, entirely sincere in his concerns, yet it cannot pass without noting that his strong stance on climate change will in the eyes of liberals do a great deal to redeem the Church’s reputation, deeply stained by the Church’s collaboration in the widespread sexual abuse of children, a crime seen by many as almost unforgiveable.

Technology cannot save us

In Laudato Si’ Francis manages to unite both the sophisticated understanding of climate science embodied in the Pontifical Academy of Science and a prophetic tradition rooted in biblical exegesis. When the two come together we really should be afraid: “Doomsday predictions can no longer be met with irony or disdain. We may well be leaving to coming generations debris, desolation and filth.”

The pontiff develops the scientific-theological theme further. “We are not God. The earth was here before us and it has been given to us” yet with our “tyrannical anthropocentrism” we are destroying it. There can be no greater sin for humankind than the destruction of God’s gift. Christians who do not care for creation do not care for the work of God, he declared earlier this year. Catholics owe it to Jesus because they are “called to care for creation not only as responsible citizens but as followers of Christ”. Papal injunctions to not come any more categorical than that.

Breaking more decisively with a long theological position that remains surprisingly influential, Francis rejects the idea that “dominion” means domination. As well as declaring it to be a scriptural fallacy, in various parts the encyclical implies that far from being a passive domain in which man asserts his mastery, nature has her own agenda, is more powerful than man and will punish us if we push her too far.

Laudato Si’ is critical not only of those who exploit the Earth without care and of those who deny the facts of climate science. While celebrating technology’s achievements, he takes aim at those ‘ecomodernists’ who believe that climate change is a technological challenge rather than a moral and political one. He sends to the margins

… those who doggedly uphold the myth of progress and tell us that ecological problems will solve themselves simply with the application of new technology and without any need for ethical considerations or deep change.

Against those who invest their hope in technological salvation, the encyclical makes a subtle point about the nature of hope. “Hope would have us recognize that there is always a way out … . Still, we can see signs that things are now reaching a breaking point … .”

Misusing freedom

Pope Francis has cemented the Catholic Church’s shift away from regarding the Earth as resources for human exploitation. Nature is “God’s gift” to humankind, and any gift from God must be treated with respect, reverence even, and not subject to technical domination and exploitative disregard.

For Francis all Nature, including humankind, is one; so environmental destruction has the same roots as human suffering. They arise from “the same evil: the notion that there are no indisputable truths to guide our lives, and hence human freedom is limitless.”

The implications of the view that our sins arise from the misuse of our freedom are far-reaching, for they represent a move away from the Augustinian conception of original sin and redemption and closer to the Eastern Orthodox understanding in which our sinfulness can be expiated in the world by the responsible exercise of our freedom, including our freedom to deploy powerful technologies.

Laudato Si’ will be debated for many years hence, because woven into its powerful call for an immediate change in thinking and behaviour by the world’s rich and powerful, and by comfortable consumers across the globe, is a document of considerable theological novelty and subtlety.

Published by ABC Religion & Ethics 19 June 2015


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