Commentary by Deborah Larmour on Pope Francis’ Encyclical on the Environment: Laudato si’ (May 24, 2015) Please consider reading the entire document found on the Official Vatican Website.
In the Wedding Ceremony (Rite of Betrothal) for the Ukrainian Catholic Church the Priest prays that God will bless the couple and “Fill their houses with grain, wine and oil, yes, with
every good thing, so that they in turn may share with those in need.” While this is a brief mention of the purpose of abundance, that being not selfish accumulation but rather for the ‘common good’, it is extremely significant for I believe it has shaped the manner in which our people have traditionally regarded the things of the earth and the blessings they have received—with gratitude, generosity and hospitality. As well, our central prayer to the Holy Spirit is a clear recognition of God’s presence in the material world. Our prayer reads as follows: Heavenly King, Consoler, the Spirit of Truth, who are everywhere present and filling all things, treasury of blessings and giver of life, come and dwell within us, cleanse us of all that defiles us, and O Good One save our souls. Thus, we as a culture are often labeled as ‘cheap’ (or to use a non pejorative term ‘thrifty’) when in fact our heritage is one of restraint, patience, self control and the practice of the 3 R’s—reduce, reuse and recycle. If the material world is the place where God is present, reveals himself to us and blesses us, then using, dominating and wasting the things of the world is unacceptable.
That is the good news about our beautiful heritage. For my Babas’ and Didos’ growing, protecting and nurturing was central—from their families to their gardens and fields. They were environmentalists long before it was ‘cool’. Every seed planted was a prayer of blessing and thanks. (This is obviously not unique to Ukrainian’s as most cultures that had strong ties to the land for their livelihood also had a relationship of this sort with creation.) However, we also know from our prayer to the Holy Spirit that God will only be present in humans, unlike in the things of nature, if we ask him to be. The human heart can choose to close itself off to the life giving presence of God and choose a path other than that which our faith and heritage would have us walk. Closed in on ourselves we choose distortions of the truth and our inclinations become darkened, domineering and self focused. Sadly, we all do this. This is why we need to be reminded of who we are really created to be—lovers and caretakers—committed to protecting all creation rather than just selfishly taking what we want regardless of consequences.
Pope Francis is not the first to do this and he quotes many other religious and spiritual leaders including his immediate predecessors and Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew to name a few. His new encyclical released May 24th is ‘counter cultural’ as it addresses the ‘big picture’ of ecological concern that includes a concern for human life and how it is lived and it rests on the premise that what is truly good for humanity is also good for the earth—we share a ‘common good’. This is a foreign concept in our world of ‘opportunity cost’ and dog-eat-dog competition. Often what we get from environmentalists is that the earth would be in much better shape were it not for humans—as if either humanity or the earth could thrive but not both. Rather, Pope Francis takes a complementary approach. This is not one the modern western mindset understands. Why? — Simply put, because we no longer understand the concept of a ‘common good’.
So what is the ‘common good’? Our whole mindset is built on the foundation of a scarcity of resources. So, if goods are in short supply, the next supposition is that if I win, naturally you must lose, and vice versa. We cannot possibly both win. Really, nature confirms this with the concept of the ‘survival of the fittest’. However, in human life that natural competition for goods is held in tension with a higher principle of the ‘common good’. This is the law of love that tends towards unity instead of battle, integration rather than disintegration. The first place we should experience this life-giving dynamic is in the family. It is in the family that we should be able to encounter the synergy of win-win. Your win is my win and vice versa. It is the place where love reigns and its synergistic dynamics result in 1+1> 2. In other words, our unity, our common purpose and common endeavor will not only sustain, but also be life giving. Life always begins with love. Our vision of the world must not be driven by the values of the marketplace but but firmly planted on the values of familial love–wherein the true good of each and everyone is valued and promoted.
So, our Holy Father addresses not only Catholics, but also all humanity. He clearly points out that as we have a common home we must also have a unified purpose and endeavor together to truly care for the earth. It is not a matter of how one group can dominate but how all of us can thrive with this common purpose of caring for the earth. In this Pope Francis reminds us of the approach of St. Francis, his namesake, who related to all creation (humanity included) with love. In speaking of the Saint he says:
Such a conviction cannot be written off as naive romanticism, for it affects the choices which determine our behaviour. If we approach nature and the environment without this openness to awe and wonder, if we no longer speak the language of fraternity and beauty in our relationship with the world, our attitude will be that of masters, consumers, ruthless exploiters, unable to set limits on their immediate needs. By contrast, if we feel intimately united with all that exists, then sobriety and care will well up spontaneously. The poverty and austerity of Saint Francis were no mere veneer of asceticism, but something much more radical: a refusal to turn reality into an object simply to be used and controlled. (11)
As the world ‘groans’ in the crisis of our abuse of the planet, Francis invites us to consider the roots of the problem, as well as offering proposals for action both as individuals and nations, from the perspective of the deep wisdom of our Christian tradition. This is truly counter-cultural! (Coming soon—Pt. II Humanizing the ‘Environmental’ Crisis)