Pope Francis on care of our common home

July 1st, 2015

Pope Francis on care of our common home

The pope’s new encyclical letter marks a significant development of the Church’s social teaching not just on the environment, but also on economics and politics. The introduction highlights clear threads of teaching running through the writings of the most recent popes and includes teaching of the orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew.  These are woven together in this document around the urgent, common concerns we all share about the impact of harmful economic activity on our planet.  There are contributions from bishops’ conferences around the world as well as from international institutions and cultural commentators.  The letter proposes some ways forward (for all) in dialogue and also, at least as significantly, offers material for believers to reflect on and re-imagine their relationship to creation, in the light of faith.

An overarching theme is the role of science and technology in modern life, what it can and cannot do.  On the one hand progress in this area has brought humanity great benefits.  On the other, science and technology alone do not develop our ethical sensibilities.    One recurring argument is that the power of technological progress has so impressed us and given us such control over the material world, that many of us have become blind to the sense of that world as a gift to be nurtured and a reality of which we are an integral part.  Yet only when that sense is recovered will we be able to respond adequately to the environmental and social challenges of our era.   St Francis’ example of simple and immediate relationships with God, his fellow human beings and the world of nature represents an ideal response.  Part of the aim of the encyclical is to rekindle a desire within the reader for that ideal.

So there is a call to global ecological conversion, but also (perhaps the big idea of this encyclical) to an awareness of human ecology.  Environmental questions cannot be separated from social and economic questions.   The problems of the planet and the problems of the poorest of planet have to be considered together.  The latter are, after all, hardest hit by environmental degradation.   There is a challenge to explore new environmentally-friendly and human-friendly models of economic growth as part of such a human ecology, rather than to trust in emergent technology to repair damage caused by the current model of the way things have to be done.

The document develops over six chapters.   In the first, familiar environmental concerns and their impact on human lives, especially the lives of the poor, are presented.  The point is here, to look, see and be touched by what we see – an important element in conversion.  The second chapter selects elements from scripture and the tradition which support a vision of right relationships between humanity and the world and within human societies, noting that Christians have not always observed, or rightly elucidated, the implications of their faith.  This chapter’s task is to offer a vision that may inspire the response of believers and may also give helpful material for reflection to sympathetic non-believers.

The third chapter offers an analysis of the attitudes that lead us to engage in destructive forms of living.  This includes the argument sketched above about the role of technology, alongside the dominance of the profit motive in global decision-making and the effect of a human-relative ethics that encourages such self-centred decision-making.  There is an emphasis on the global inequities that must be balanced out amidst the ecological questions. Many will agree with some elements of the analysis, some will not.  The chapter also makes specific suggestions for an economy that prioritises labour as a primary good, and explores the issues of animal rights and GM crops.

Chapter four explores more deeply the notion of an ‘integral ecology’ (or perhaps ‘integrated ecology’), in which human societies are more harmoniously integrated among themselves and with nature as a whole.  This includes the effect of dehumanized economic activity on cultures and daily living.  All of this gives some content to the core idea in Catholic Social teaching (borrowed from ancient political philosophy) of ‘the common good’, considering the effects of our actions both on future generations and the present poor.

Chapter five acknowledges progress made, and makes suggestions about how the dialogue might move forward.  Open, honest, cross-disciplinary debate, which includes philosophical and ethical concerns is necessary.  International institutions that can hold governments to account are needed.  Costs need to be balanced fairly.  A new relationship between politics and economics is required.

The final chapter appeals for a new education that is in part an education in reverence, awe and compassion.  Picking up on themes from the introduction and chapter two, the pope offers a vision of the sort of contemplative and compassionate consciousness we need, if human societies are to grow in harmony with themselves and with our world.

Fr John Moffatt SJ is a member of the Hurtado Jesuit Community in Wapping. A fuller digest of the Encyclical is available here HJC Digest Ecology.