At precisely a time when issues have arisen that we don’t quite know how to answer, Pope Francis has given us the new encyclical Laudato Sí. Providence couldn’t be any more pointed if there had been a divine Post-It note slapped on the front of it.
Disregard for the integrity of the human body? The dimming of the sacramentality of marriage? The ease with which we tolerate the holocaust of the unborn? The beginning of an era in which ordinary citizens are talking about civil disobedience?
God has given us this Pope, writing this encyclical, for this time. Laudato Sí puts a reasoned, charitable foundation under our feet, from which to answer these things that trouble us, and further, to propose solutions. Pope Francis is giving us common ground with those who might otherwise be our ideological opponents, because we all have bodies and all those bodies share a common home, this Earth. We can converse because we have a common experience.
My objective here is twofold: to show that we have nothing to fear, and much to gain, from this encyclical, and to approach it in terms of the theology of the body… because there are answers here. Answers to clamoring issues that threaten the world and those we love, just as the theology of the body spoke precisely to the things that troubled us most. In a way, Laudato Sí is the logical extension of the theology of the body.
When I first heard that the Pope was going to release an encyclical, a document of substantial magisterial authority, on The Environment, I was petrified. Many of us have been fighting, for years, the cultural tendency to elevate things over people, the tendency to focus the world’s attention on a whale while ignoring the silent screams of the unborn, to outlaw plastic grocery bags while never counting the damage done by the vast flushing of hormonal contraceptives.
So I threw the baby out with the bathwater. I dismissed Environmentalists because their priorities were out of balance. Pope Francis has convinced me that I can’t do that, not because The Environment is more important than humanity, but because it’s all related.
Do read the encyclical. If you rely only on commentaries, you may lose the power of his reasoning and the passion of his call. If you read secular commentaries, you will lose pretty much everything because the only topic in it that has the crows on the wire nattering, is climate change.
And friends, there are only a few lines about climate change in the entire letter, and they are wisely caveat’ed in article 188: “The Church does not presume to settle scientific questions.”
So if you’ve been avoiding Laudato Sí because you thought it was all about climate change, think again. The Pope hasn’t gone over to the Dark Side, turned green or moved to Avignon. Don’t let the crows fool you. He’s all about conversion of heart and mind, and the inter-relatedness of all creation:
“We are speaking of an attitude of the heart, one which approaches life with serene attentiveness, which is capable of being fully present to someone without thinking of what comes next, which accepts each moment as a gift from God to be lived to the full.” (Article 226)
Is that not the theology of the body writ large? Or to be more specific:
“The acceptance of our bodies as God’s gift is vital for welcoming and accepting the entire world as a gift from the Father and our common home, whereas thinking that we enjoy absolute power over our own bodies turns, often subtly, into thinking that we enjoy absolute power over creation. Learning to accept our body, to care for it and to respect its fullest meaning, is an essential element of any genuine human ecology.” (155)
St. John Paul couldn’t have said it any better!
The heart of the theology of the body is that our bodies are a reflection of God. Pope Francis urges us to broaden our view and see that all creation is a reflection of God, not in a way that could ever justify using, destroying or controlling human beings in subjection to Creation, but in the way that the Book of Genesis sets out.
“Each of the various creatures, willed in its own being, reflects in its own way a ray of God’s infinite wisdom and goodness.” (69)
In sound-byte, we might say: “Matter matters.” That’s code for holding a “sacramental worldview,” the belief that everything in the physical world has meaning and significance because it comes from the generous, loving hand of God and thus reflects Him.
Pope Francis, in his call to care for our common home, is pressing home the sacramental worldview. The ocean matters; lizards matter; the Columbian farmer who grew the beans to make the coffee that woke me up this morning, matters. Matter matters, and because it does, we care for it.
If we don’t, there are consequences, and Pope Francis says they are profound.
Can anyone argue that our world is not suffering a spiritual malaise, a despair even? By any objective measure, joy has fled the world. Does anyone have that deep-down gut feeling that the world is getting better, safer, more loving, more human? Do you feel hopeful about the future of the world?
“People no longer seem to believe in a happy future,” says the Pope. (113)
On the sidewalks of abortion facilities, I have heard people say, more than once, “We’re doing this baby a favor by aborting. He’s the lucky one; he gets to escape this mess.” You see? Otherwise healthy young people perceive life as a sentence to be served, something so onerous that to miss it altogether is a mercy. That is a symptom of a deep and tragic disease.
What is that malaise that has us feeling so deadened? Maybe, just maybe, it is our modern divorce from nature, and its resulting abuse and neglect. Nature is precisely what God gave us to be whole and happy. (See Genesis, chapter 2, for goodness’ sake!) Pope Francis writes that we cannot have wholeness or health in our own selves when creation is wounded and ill. It’s all connected.
Quoting his predecessor, Pope Francis says: “The external deserts in the world are growing, because the internal deserts have become so vast.”
We have devastated the earth because we ourselves are devastated. Creation is all of a piece, cut from the same bolt of fabric. It is not possible to wound ourselves without wounding creation, just as it is not possible for us to wound our bodies without wounding our souls because we’re all of a piece. Every immoral act we commit has consequences for our environment because Creation is all of a piece.
Here’s an example. I went to the lake early Sunday morning to run. The detritus of Saturday night was scattered all about the parking lots: broken glass bottles and used latex items. People come to the lake in darkness as a cover for sketchy behavior, leaving the evidence behind. That waste will eventually wash into the lake, spreading disease, asphyxiating wildlife and making the water unsafe for human recreation. The more toxic the lake, the less wildlife and flora, the less the lake can refresh and renew the human spirit. Which, in turn, leads to more sketchy behavior as humans look for more escape from their internal barren-ness. It’s all related.
It seems to me that the core issue Pope Francis is talking about is the same issue Saint John Paul so often spoke about: the tendency in fallen creatures to “use” things and people to their own advantage, to see the world in terms of how it can serve me.
Pope Francis, quoting St. John Paul, writes, “human beings frequently ‘see no other meaning in their natural environment than what serves for immediate use and consumption.’”
The things of creation were given to us to use, but not indiscriminately, not without regard to the love with which the Creator gave them to us, not without respect for the beauty and power with which they were endowed. And most especially not when our despoiling of the Creation causes harm to other human beings.
Which is precisely one of the Pope’s main points. The poor bear the brunt of ecological disintegration. We in the highly-consuming West don’t see it because our interest in the origin of products pretty much ends at the checkout. If it’s priced right, we buy it, regardless of the ecological cost to produce it.
I am reminded of the story from the conclave that elected Pope Francis. Cardinal Bergoglio was sitting next to his great friend, Cardinal Claudio Hummes when the necessary 77 votes were reached to elect the pontiff. At that moment, Cardinal Hummes hugged the future pope and said, ‘Don’t forget the poor.’”
In this encyclical, Francis fulfills his promise. He remembers the poor. “Both everyday experience and scientific research show that the gravest effects of all attacks on the environment are suffered by the poorest.” (48) The poor live closer to the land, in greater direct dependence on it, and they can’t afford to move to higher ground when the land is stripped or contaminated by indifferent producers of goods.
We have practiced a sort of dualism for many years, turning a blind eye to the damage caused by “the good life” of prosperous consumerism. We sincerely want to be “spiritual”, to pray and do good works, but our lifestyle may be inflicting damage on people and places we are not even aware of.
The Pope is calling for radical change. But how can individuals of good will change an entire economic and social system? Perhaps this is one of the Pope’s reasons for the encyclical. Only by reaching a large number of people can forces build that are strong enough to influence whole systems. “A change in lifestyle could bring healthy pressure to bear on those who wield political, economic and social power.” (206)
Even our tiny efforts to live more simply contribute to the solution. “They benefit society, often unbeknown to us, for they call forth a goodness which, albeit unseen, inevitably tends to spread. Furthermore, such actions can restore our sense of self-esteem; they can enable us to live more fully and to feel that life on earth is worthwhile.” (212)
The Pope urges us to critically examine “…the spirit of globalized technology, where a constant flood of new products coexists with a tedious monotony. Let us refuse to resign ourselves to this, and continue to wonder about the purpose and meaning of everything. Otherwise we would simply legitimate the present situation and need new forms of escapism to help us endure the emptiness.” (113)
The social situation in which we find ourselves, as Christians affronted and marginalized in public debate, the things we cherish demolished without a backward glance… this situation calls for a response from us. We can’t give up in silence. And we can’t discourse when we have no common ground with those who oppose us.
Here is our common ground. Here is our shared experience, our friendly footing. We all have the experience of a body. We all have experience of the earth, its power and its beauty. We can understand each other as we are authentically bound in love for this big blue ball, our common home and our brothers who share it. We can find answers in our common experience.
Pope Francis has brought the subject of the environment into the living room of the house. Previous popes had done the same, but the world may be more disposed to pay attention because of the turmoil surrounding us. It is all related, our social unrest and environmental damage. Pope Francis points strongly to an eminent reckoning, and I think we all feel the flutters of its approach. We must give up our polarized political prejudices on this topic and be willing to enter the dialogue.
As Saint John Paul said in a homily in 1989, “Is it not fundamental for our psychological and social well-being to hear God’s voice in the wonderful harmony of the universe?”
For our own preservation, for charity to the least of our brothers, for love of our Father’s creation, and for a return of true joy to this world, let us pay proper due to the subject of The Environment (and learn to embrace that term without wincing!)
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Sheryl Collmer is the Director of Evangelization Outreach for TOBET. She holds a Masters in Theological Studies from the University of Dallas, as well as BBA, MBA and BFA degrees. She lives in Plano, Texas where she enjoys God’s creation on foot, on two wheels and, increasingly, from the train.