The occasional, often ill-considered thoughts of a Roman Catholic permanent deacon who is ever grateful to God for his existence. Despite the strangeness we encounter in this life, all the suffering we witness and endure, being is good, so good I am sometimes unable to contain my joy. Deo gratias!

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Laudato Si -- The Pope Speaks

A few days ago, early, before the Florida sun burned too hot, Maddie and I took our usual morning walk. Maddie is our little Bichon Frise (that's a dog for all you cat lovers), and she and I walk together twice daily. The length of these walks varies -- sometimes a mile, sometimes two miles, sometimes more -- and so too does the direction. I usually let Maddie decide which way to turn as we depart the driveway. It's the least I can do for this loving creature who spends so much of her life obeying others.

An egret
On this particular morning Maddie turned left and led me to a pond about a quarter-mile from our home. It is, of course, an artificial pond, one placed purposely alongside our street which bisects an executive golf course. Our retirement community, The Villages, has kindly placed several benches there so one can sit quietly and watch the waterbirds or listen to the song birds. And so I sat while Maddie engaged in her life's work of sniffing every blade of grass she encounters.

Because it was so early, barely past sunrise, few humans or canines were up and about. Maddie and I could, therefore, more fully appreciate the remarkable beauty and quiet sounds of God's creation. No golf carts, no garbage trucks, no landscapers with their pick-ups and trailers, no handymen hammering, no unnatural noises, just the sound of Maddie quietly sniffing and the plaintive cooing of a mourning dove perched above me in a small magnolia tree. At the edge of the pond, just a few yards from my bench, two great egrets stood motionless, solemnly watching the antics of an anhinga or "snake-bird" that tirelessly dove again and again into the calm waters. Across the pond a family of five black-bellied whistling ducks waddled through the grass toward the opposite shore.
Whistling Ducks

Sitting on that bench in that quiet time of the day, I couldn't help but consider how well man and nature seem to have come together here. Indeed, The Villages has become a virtual bird sanctuary. I have seen herons, egrets and ibises of all sizes and colors, eagles, osprey, and hawks of every kind, flocks of white pelicans, many varieties of songbirds, and, of course, the ubiquitous mockingbird. They all seem to thrive here. We also have alligators, but they tend to avoid all but the stupidest of humans.

Anyway, as I sat, not so much watching and listening as absorbing my surroundings, I couldn't help but think of Pope Francis and his first encyclical, Laudato Si. My immediate setting, while not as wildly pristine as a rain forest in New Guinea or the deep woods of Canada, was certainly not repellant. What were once farmers' fields filled with watermelons, and pastures in which horses and cattle grazed, are now well cared-for neighborhoods. Ponds and green space abound, as do the large live oak trees so common in this part of Florida. I found myself thinking that this transformation of the land from agrarian use to human habitat was not necessarily a step backward. As Christians we understand that man is also a part of creation; indeed, as revealed in Genesis, we are the very pinnacle of God's creative work. This places an awesome responsibility on us: to accept that creation is God's doing, that He "owns" it, and that we are called to be good stewards of all that He has given us.

For those of you who haven't read Laudato Si, and I assume that includes many of you, let me say that it's not a quick and easy read. The encyclical is long -- more than 40,000 words -- and I expect many copies will sit unread on a lot of bookshelves or computer hard drives. I managed to make my way through it, but spent an entire evening doing so. To digest its contents fully I will need to read it again much more slowly. My comments here, then, simply reflect my own first impressions.

When a pope speaks, people listen. But far too many listen less to the pope and more to their own biases and ideological preconceptions. We see this in the range of reactions (including mine) arising in response to what Pope Francis had to say.

Those who pitch their tents among the extreme environmentalists of the far left concentrate their praise on the pope's concern for what he calls the “present ecological crisis” abetted by a "throwaway culture" that contributes greatly to the earth's environmental deterioration. But many of these same folks -- at least those who years ago made the ideological transition from a failed Marxism to green environmentalism -- ignore the Gospel of Creation that forms the foundation of the pope's thinking on humanity's relationship with the earth. In other words, his environmentalism is fine, but why on earth did he have to inject it with God and Jesus Christ and the Gospel and Creation and all that other religious stuff? And so they simply ignore the latter and focus on the former.

Opposed to the environmentalists we hear the complaints of those critics who believe the pope has been co-opted either by far left socialists who blame capitalism for all the world's ills or by "wacko greens" who believe the earth would be a far better place without humanity. For these critics there is no environmental crisis, and even if there were, technology and the free market would solve any ecological problems that might arise. Because some, but certainly not all, of these people are believing Christians they find themselves conflicted by the pope's encyclical and its deep religious roots. They manage to resolve the conflict, appeasing themselves by saying that Pope Francis is, after all, not speaking ex cathedra. Indeed, for them Laudato Si is just the word of a man, not the Word of God, so they really don't have to accept this particular papal teaching. Most, therefore, will simply ignore everything the pope has to say.

Of course there have been other reactions to the encyclical, some favorable and some not. I suspect many of the initial batch of pundits simply reacted to the out of context snippets that appeared in the secular media. Honestly, because my initial exposure to the encyclical was in the form of leaked excerpts, my preconceived notions led me to some erroneous first impressions. There's no need to include them here.

I'm certainly not qualified to discuss every aspect of the encyclical. Like all of us I have my opinions, but I'm not a climatologist and cannot address the science on which Pope Francis relies heavily. The question many Catholics have already asked me is, "Do I have to accept everything the pope says in his encyclical?" I suppose the only correct answer is, "It depends."

When it comes to the science behind climate change and the pope's proposed public policy responses, an informed Catholic might disagree so long as that disagreement is based on a firm foundation. Given the continued debate within the scientific community on the causes and direction of climate change, I believe one might reasonably disagree with the pope on these issues. As for how society should respond, the pope himself recognizes that others might differ with him. After all, if history has shown us one thing it's that science is not static, and future advances in technology might well enable new and better approaches to the use of natural resources and the protection of the environment.

Unfortunately, too many people will focus on the more controversial aspects of the encyclical, elements that might well be overcome by future events, and ignore the crucial theological and moral underpinnings.

It's important to realize that papal concern for the environment did not begin with Pope Francis. Indeed, many of his concerns have been expressed by his predecessors and other Catholic thinkers. He begins by quoting his namesake, St. Francis of Assisi, whose Canticle of the Creatures calls the earth "our Sister Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us,”. Indeed, that same canticle gives the encyclical its name. 

Continuing his introductory comments Pope Francis refers to Pope Saint John XXIII's 1963 encyclical, Pacem in Terris, to Pope Paul VI's frequent references to humanity's poor environmental stewardship, to the ecological concerns expressed by Pope Saint John Paul II in several of his encyclicals, and to Pope Benedict XVI's demand that as Christians we openly recognize how our irresponsible behavior has damaged the environment. Pope Francis also quotes the Ecumenical Patriarch of the Orthodox Church, Bartholomew I of Constantinople, who has often addressed humanity's "sins against creation." In Bartholomew's words, “to commit a crime against the natural world is a sin against ourselves and a sin against God.”

In other words, the current pontiff's concerns are nothing new. As I read the encyclical I couldn't help but think of the late Jesuit theologian, Romano Guardini (1985-1968), who has had such a significant influence on my own thinking. Guardini was a prolific writer, but the theme of  two of his books in particular seem to resonate with Pope Francis: Letters from Lake Como (1926) and The End of the Modern World (1956). It wasn't until today that I discovered Pope Francis had spent years studying Guardini and his work. To summarize Guardini's thought, he believed the modern world had been transformed in a way that encouraged enmity between humanity and nature. Instead of living within God's creation and nurturing it as a good steward, modern man has decided he must control or master it.

Such themes are also evident in the writings of Feodor Dostoevsky,  J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis and others who recognized that both unchecked capitalism and radical Marxism suffer from a common materialism that attempts to excise religion from the human spirit. For example, reading the encyclical, I'm reminded of the words of Dostoevsky's monk in the Brothers Karamazov:
"Love all God's creation, the whole and every grain of sand init. Love every leaf, every ray of God's light. Love the animals,love the plants, love everything. If you love everything, you willperceive the divine mystery in things. Once you perceive it, youwill begin to comprehend it better every day. And you will come atlast to love the whole world with an all-embracing love. Love theanimals: God has given them the rudiments of thought and joyuntroubled. Do not trouble it, don't harass them, don't deprive themof their happiness, don't work against God's intent. Man, do not prideyourself on superiority to the animals; they are without sin, and you,with your greatness, defile the earth by your appearance on it, andleave the traces of your foulness after you -- alas, it is true ofalmost every one of us! Love children especially, for they too aresinless like the angels; they live to soften and purify our heartsand, as it were, to guide us."
One gets the sense that Pope Francis has been greatly influenced by the thinking of such men as these, although he certainly has his own ideas on how it relates to the world today.

This post is already too long, so let me wrap it up with my agreements and disagreements. I agree with the pope's concerns about the world's deepening addiction to consumerism, about humanity's elites and their general disregard for the poor and the common good, and about the rise of technocrats and the misuse of science and the technology that flows from it. I also greatly appreciate the pope's focus on the environmental damage that one encounters, especially in the second and third world where the accession of power too often trumps everything else. Finally, we need to be reminded of our own place in God's creation, and of the responsibilities this places on us.

My concerns relate to the pope's belief that there is a scientific consensus about both global warming and its causes. His thinking seems to echo the kind of naive view of science often heard from Al Gore and others like him. Perhaps more importantly, though, the pope also, in seeming contradiction to his own warnings about the rise of technocrats, recommends that we come together globally, applying our technology to the environmental problems facing us. The problem with giving governments or global agencies the power to carry out such a worldwide mandate is that those who wield this power will almost surely misuse it. Even when applied with the best of intentions, such power usually leads to negative unintended consequences that often create a whole new set of problems. Lastly, I had hoped that Pope Francis, following the lead of his predecessors, would use this encyclical to teach his flock about how our faith and morality are affected by these issues plaguing the modern world. Instead, he has given us an encyclical that, at least in part, reminds one of the sort of quasi-political documents produced by committees at the United Nations.

Laudato Si will surely be studied, talked about, and written about for years to come. I trust this study will lead to a clearer understanding of man's place in the world and how best to address the problems we have created for ourselves. In the meantime, once it cools down this afternoon, I intend to take Maddie for another walk, thanking God for her and for all of His creation.

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