The Pope’s care for our common home

July 21, 2015

Pope Francis I was born Jorge Bergoglio in Buenos Aires in 1936. He graduated from a technical high school and worked as a chemical technician in the food industry. In 1959, he entered the Society of Jesus—the Jesuits—and was ordained in 1969. He taught literature and psychology.

The Jesuits see God in the details of everyday life, finding contemplation in action. One joke has a Jesuit saying Mass with members of other religious orders when the lights go out. The others make sermons about light and darkness while the Jesuit finds the fuse box.

James Martin, a Jesuit priest writes, “Most of all, it is not a spirituality that says ‘Well, that—whether it’s work, money, sexuality, depression, sickness—is something to avoid when talking about the spiritual life.’”

As pope, Francis has advocated for the Church to be a home to gays and divorcées, while still holding that divorce and sex outside of heterosexual marriage are sins. He apologized for the Church’s persecution of the evangelical Waldensian Christians in the 15th century.

On May 24, Francis published Laudato Si, a 30,000-word letter to Catholics, “On Care for Our Common Home.” Laudato Si is Latin for “Praise be to You,” from a passage in St. Francis’ Canticle to Brother Sun: “Praise be to you, my Lord, through our sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us, and who produces various fruit with colored flowers and herbs.”

Even before publication, Francis was criticized, mostly by politicians of the venal and deliberately ignorant wing of the Republican Party, for commenting outside his area of expertise and taking the position that humans have caused global warming.

Rick Santorum, a Catholic and GOP presidential candidate, said, “The Church has gotten it wrong on science a few times, and I think we are probably better off leaving science to the scientists and focusing on what we are very good at, which is theology and morality.”


But, in Laudato Si, Francis describes the “fuse box” where we might fix our ecological “crisis” (his word) that afflicts the world today. As Garret Hardin showed in The Tragedy of the Commons, there are problems that don’t admit technological solutions—only moral ones. Francis is the moral leader of over 1.1 billion people. It is his prerogative and duty to instruct them.

The mention of global warming is almost incidental. He says the climate is a “common good” and a “complex system,” and that a “very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are witnessing a disturbing warming of the climatic system.”

He equivocates about the cause “for each particular phenomenon,” but implies that we are responsible for the larger trend. “Humanity is called to recognize the need for changes in lifestyle, production and consumption, in order to combat this warming, or at least the human causes which produce or aggravate it.”

Francis doesn’t include the argument for a relationship between warming and human activity, although he demonstrates an understanding of positive feedback as it relates to the phenomenon.

No doubt he wanted to give a boost to delegates at the United Nations Climate Change Conference this December, but, in Laudatus, climate change is really the occasion for a discussion about the care of creation and of human beings.

Francis covers climate, water, and biodiversity as common goods, mentioning the shortage of water, damage to coral and plankton, and species extinctions. “Creatures exist only in dependence on each other, to complete each other, in the service of each other.”

Pollution of water, like that of air, makes it harder for us to live. We are among the creatures that depend on the web of life for nutrition and ecological services, so damage to the ecosystem imperils us.

But it isn’t just other creatures’ utility that makes them valuable. They are beautiful and dignified, being creatures of God, praising God by their very existence.

Francis stresses the singular place of humans in the web of life and says we would be mistaken to try to save the environment without seeing to the needs of the poor. The world’s poor live by subsistence—small agriculture, hunting, fishing, and forestry.

As the environment deteriorates, their livelihoods are taken away. They are often made refugees, but ironically not recognized as such by the wealthy who have straitened their circumstances.

He points out the debt that the wealthy owe the poor, having gotten the materials for their own comfortable lifestyles at bargain prices from poor nations.

Francis blames consumerism and technocracy among the wealthy for the ecological crisis that ruins the poor and fouls their nest. He recommends an “integral ecology,” which accounts for humans in the web of life and demands transparency and complete accounting for costs and benefits of development—including who pays the costs and who reaps the benefits.

The sciences must speak each other’s languages in order to avoid specialization, and economists must understand that they are dealing with a world of causes and consequences.

One profound passage describes the relationship of the Trinity, particularly Christ to creation. Christ is the Father’s “reflection, through whom all things were created, [who] united himself to this earth when he was formed in the womb of Mary.” We grow and mature as we enter into relationships with other creatures, “going out from themselves to live in communion with God.”

Is Laudatus Si preparing the ground to legitimatize contraception, historically against the laws of the Catholic Church? One passage says, “Still, attention needs to be paid to imbalances in population density, on both national and global levels,” but this is after Francis makes it clear that limiting population is a hedge on the part of a minority that “believes it has the right to consume in a way that can never be universalized.”

This raises a couple other points of interest for people who will be mostly happy with Laudatus Si. Francis is unequivocal about the dignity of humans, no matter their stage of development. He says that if we can’t treat embryos well, we probably will make excuses for throwing the poor and the environment under the bus.

He also writes a difficult paragraph about humans having a nature that we must respect and “cannot manipulate at will.” If we attempt absolute power over our bodies, it will turn into a sense of absolute power over nature. The same paragraph also talks about sexual difference, which seems to refer to transexuality, though Francis never says so.

Certainly plastic surgery to make your genitals appear to be that of the other sex may look like the height of consumerism, but knowing a friend’s decades of agony over her sexuality, I have to hope that this vague paragraph shows Francis thinking something like, “There are worse things,” and that he will realize gender reassignment’s similarity to repairing cleft palates and medicating severe depression.

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