Saturday, June 20, 2015

Reading Laudato Si' (2)

If Laudato Si's first takeaway (a technological-sounding neologism which I genuinely detest, but which I will use here because it works and everyone understands it) is that environmental degradation and climate change (and their assorted human and social casualties) are really happening and beyond serious debate, then the second is that any serious solution must also be seriously spiritual. "If we are truly concerned to develop an ecology capable of remedying the damage we have done, no branch of the sciences and no form of wisdom can be left out, and that includes religion and the language peculiar to it" (63). So the encyclical's second chapter, The Gospel of Creation, is thoroughly theological.

For faithful Christians, this is of course very familiar ground. The biblical account contrasts an idealized state of harmony (what we traditionally have termed original righteousness) with our actual, current sinful condition, in which our relationships with God, with one another, and with nature have become disordered and conflictual. In the history of the Church, Saint Francis has figured particularly prominently as an exemplary image of discipleship. Not surprisingly, therefore, Pope Francis recalls "that the harmony which Saint Francis of Assisi experienced with all creatures was seen as a healing of that rupture" between human beings and nature (66) 

Since the 1960s, it has become fashionable to blame Christianity for modern civilization's exploitative approach to nature (as well as for almost everything else that has gone wrong in history). The Pope rightly rejects this and reads the creation accounts as implying "a relationship of mutual responsibility between human beings and nature. Each community can take from the bounty of the earth whatever it needs for subsistence, but it also has the duty to protect the earth and to ensure its fruitfulness for coming generations. ... Thus God rejects every claim to absolute ownership" (67).

The Christian theology of creation is more just just some generic spirituality. It is a faith in a loving God who freely creates (77). The concept of creation clearly sets the Christian commitment to our common home apart from secularist understandings of the natural environment and humanity's place in relation to nature. "The biblical accounts of creation invite us to see each human being as a subject who can never be reduced to the status of an object" (81). Christian faith affirms both nature as God's creation and human freedom and responsibility. "If we acknowledge the value and fragility of nature and, at the same time, our God-given abilities, we can finally leave behind the modern myth of unlimited material progress" (78). Clearly envisioning a future in which human beings are responsible subjects but also in which we have definitively left behind of the modern mythology of material progress is one of the repeated themes and fundamental challenges of the entire encyclical.

Creation is ultimately Christocentric. "The ultimate destiny of the universe is the fullness of God, which has already been attained by the risen Christ, the measure of the maturity of all things. ... The ultimate purpose of other creatures is not to be found in us. Rather, all creatures are moving forward with us and through us towards a common point of arrival, which is God, in that transcendent fullness where the risen Christ embraces and illumines all things" (83).

In this understanding, the human person, though connected with all of creation and other living beings in an interdependent balance, remains at the center. But that centrality has ethical consequences. Thus, "we should be particularly indignant at the enormous inequalities in our midst" (90). "Hence ever ecological approach needs to incorporate a social perspective which takes into account the fundamental rights of the poor and the underprivileged" and highlighting "the principle of the subordination of private property to the universal destination of goods" (93).

If the encyclical's first takeaway is the empirical reality of the problem and the second is the inherently spiritual need for a religious solution, rooted in the theology of creation bound up in the mystery of Christ, a third is the traditional Christian priority of the social. "The Christian tradition has never recognized the right to private property as absolute or inviolable, and has stressed the social purpose of all forms of private property" (93). Only with such a social understanding of the human condition can we ever hope to care for our common created home.

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