Friday, June 19, 2015

Reading Laudato Si' (1)

In this globalized age of greater-than-ever centralization of almost everything, encyclicals (and indeed all papal utterances regardless of their specific level of authority) are increasingly guaranteed to receive a lot of public attention. At the same time, contemporary papal encyclicals tend to be long and wordy, which - in this age of diminished attention spans - suggests they may be less likely to be read in full by all who should read them (which in the case of this most recent encyclical is really pretty much everybody). All of which puts a serious burden of responsibility of anyone who presumes to comment on it - whether in the form of  secular commentaries in the media or on the internet, or intra-Church commentaries in catechesis and preaching.

One of the reasons for the encyclical's length, of course, is the range of topics it addresses and the different perspectives from within which it addresses them. Thus, Chapter 1, What Is Happening To Our Common Home, is - as its title suggests - an opening dialogue with the facts as we can observe them in our world. It is intended as "a fresh analysis of our present situation, which is in many ways unprecedented in the history of humanity" (17). The Pope's goal is to bring the empirical reality of environmental degradation and climate change home to his readers in a very direct way, "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" (19).

In keeping with the by-now almost unanimous consensus of the world's scientists, the Pope recognizes "that most global warming in recent decades is due to the great concentration of greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrogen oxides and others) released mainly as a result of human activity" and "aggravated by a model of development based on the intensive used of fossil fuels" (23). Amazingly, I can remember first hearing about this threat in college - more than 40 years ago. What was then a dire possibility is now our contemporary reality!

In addition to pollution and climate change, the Pope presents data on the problem of access to safe drinkable water - which he calls "a basic and universal human right" (30) - the loss of biodiversity, the increasing decline in the quality of human life, and the increase in global inequality. He emphasizes that the human and the natural environments "deteriorate together" (48). Meanwhile, even as physical and social conditions deteriorate, he highlights the evident failures of our political leadership. He calls the weakness of political responses "remarkable," but recognizes what I would call the rather unremarkable reason: "too many special interests, and economic interests easily end up trumping the common good and manipulating information so that their own plans will not be affected" (54)

And then there is the problem of false solutions. "At one extreme, we find 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. At the other extreme are those  who view men and women and all their interventions as no more than a threat, jeopardizing the global ecosystem, and consequently the presence of human beings on the planet should be reduced and all forms of intervention prohibited" (60). Here in the US, I suppose we are all acutely aware of the former group, those "special interests and economic interests" which are loudly skeptical of even the existence of a problem and adamantly opposed to society's effectively addressing it. But the latter group against which he warns is also loud and is influential in the international scene. Hence the importance of the Pope's explicit rejection of those who see human population as the problem and propose to deal with it in immoral ways - e.g., "forms of international pressure which make economic assistance contingent on certain policies of 'reproductive health'" (50).

This first section is thus a call to "take a frank look at the facts to see that our common home is falling into serious disrepair" (61), but also following in the long tradition of Christian faith and Catholic Social Teaching a call to reject both of those anti-human extremes.

The motif of our home "falling into serious disrepair" has an obvious Franciscan resonance. It should alert us that any really true solution, while certainly both technological and political, must be religious at its center. So this first section, while necessary to identify the problem as the world is actually experiencing it, is but a preliminary to re-examining the problem from a more fundamentally radical - i.e., religious - perspective, which is what the rest of the document does.

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