This article first appeared in The Memphis Daily News
On Thursday, June 18, the Vatican released Pope Francis’ much-anticipated encyclical, “Laudato si” (Praise Be to You: On the Care for Our Common Home). For some time now, Catholics, environmentalists and other Vatican watchers were aware that Francis was going to focus on the environment, especially the problem of global climate change. By the time the encyclical dropped on Thursday, it had already been confirmed through pre-released snippets that the Pope sided with the scientific consensus on the human origins of the climate crisis. Anyone with a political score to settle probably heard all they needed to hear.
That’s a shame.
“Laudato si” is a challenging and wide-ranging moral critique of the human relationship to the natural world. It’s a message enjoining us to love creation and our interconnectedness with it. By tradition, Francis unites his account with the teachings of his papal predecessors. But it’s also a unique and in many ways a troubling message. Francis promises no miraculous alternatives to the fact that we will have to deal (for a long time) with the destructive effects of global warming and extensive biodiversity loss, or the countless ecological tragedies that will continue to befall the world’s poor, including lack of access to food and clean water.
Thrown into the mix is the fact, for Francis, that we have allowed our technologies to shape our ethical conduct to ourselves and each other. These have turned us into market-driven consumers undermining our ability to care deeply about our own and each other’s personal dignity.It’s not an easy read, although Francis does a very good job making his subject matter intelligible and clear. His writing is not the problem. Rather the problem that will vex this encyclical is the social, ethical, ecological and theological complexity of environmental crisis.
In reading through it, I thought of the difficult work clergy and others will have making the document gain resonance with parishioners, especially if they lack the scientific, legal, ethical or even theological training to make the key messages digestible to the laity. It’s not that Francis is writing from the academic ivory tower. Rather, the knowledge we need to take on the world’s environmental problems is just not simple. There is no one solution that fixes both climate change and biodiversity loss. We have a lot of work to do just to prepare ourselves for tackling the mess we’re in, and Francis doesn’t shy away from that fact.
For Francis, we have a bad habit of separating economics from ecology.
Like many ethicists who have taken on environmental issues, Francis gains the most traction in terms of personal ethics. That message begins with love, a love that needs to be cultivated into virtue and directed toward the needs of the poorest in our communities. What many readers will struggle with is the strong connection Francis makes between economic justice and ecological integrity. In response, he encourages the clergy especially to be models of the simplicity necessary for undoing the damage of modern technology on the dignity of work, on relationships (including to God), and on the intrinsic value of all of God’s creation.The political path paved by “Laudato si” is less clear. Indeed, Francis is discouraged by the numerous failures of the international community to arrive at a common plan for addressing environmental crisis. In several places, he identifies the Rio summit of 1992 – an international political failure by most accounts – as manifesting the spirit needed for an international consensus. Nevertheless, it is also clear that whatever the specifics of Francis’ envisioned future political solutions, they will be revolutionary, prioritizing the needs of local communities wherever possible, aiming for an “integral ecology” in which environmental challenges are always approached in terms of the complex interplay of scientific fact, social realities and personal ethics.
I tried to think how these ideas might translate to life in Memphis and the Mid-South. As one possibility, I see Francis’ message reflected in the activity of organizations like Grow Memphis, which gives grants to community gardeners and schools to eradicate the environmental injustice of local food deserts. I see it also in the vision of the Midsouth Regional Greenprint, which has articulated sustainability guidelines already adopted by many local municipalities. Finally, I see a major responsibility for Memphis’ higher educational institutions to teach students how to confront environmental problems with their multi-disciplinary resources. If anything, Francis’ message is that engineering, business and science will continue to make us into consumers without adequate guidance from ethics and religion.
The foundations of Francis’ integral approach are already part of the Catholic mission of Christian Brothers University where I work. But there is no reason to think that Francis’ message is impertinent to the aims of Memphis’ secular and other private higher educational institutions. Fundamentally, all of us have a stake in Francis’ injunction to “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.”“Laudato si” is a worthwhile read for anyone seeking guidance in our age of environmental crisis. It won’t satisfy the desire for easy solutions, but Francis makes clear that no path will work that leaves us indifferent to the goodness and beauty residing in all God’s creation.
Paul Haught is VP of Academic Services at Christian Brothers University.