Laudato Sí – part 3. In this third and final installment, the political aspects of Laudato Sí will be discussed in terms of classic Catholic social principles.
It is impossible to get a balanced view of the Pope’s encyclical Laudato Sí from the secular press. They have dubbed it the “climate change encyclical”  even though global warming only merited a few paragraphs. At the same time, they entirely missed the Pope’s repeatedly stated link between environmental care and the protection of life in its earliest stages. They glossed over the part where the Pope denounces population control as a fatally flawed answer to environmental stress. They ignored it when he taught that respect for our own bodies, in their masculinity and femininity, is key to forging a community where the environment is honored.
From the Catholic world, the commentary is more inclusive, more nuanced… and also more concerned:
“There is growing alarm over the impact in the secular world of the Papal Encyclical on the environment, Laudato Sí, despite the good intent… The alarm is especially felt among pro-life, pro-family leaders… [who] are dismayed to be witnessing the Holy See now working very closely with some of the very same people they have been heroically fighting all those years.” 
I can’t say I don’t share their concern. There are certain words and terms in Laudato Sí that sound to Catholic ears a bit like a fingernail on a chalkboard.
- A global consensus is essential for confronting the deeper problems, which cannot be resolved by unilateral actions on the part of individual countries [vi]
- we need institutions empowered to impose penalties for damage inflicted on the environment. [vii]
- urgent need of a true world political authority [viii] (Quoting Pope Benedict who was quoting St. John XXIII, so we can’t lay this one solely at the door of Pope Francis.)
So many international bodies have devolved into population control tumbrels, abortion merchants and cudgels to be used against capitalist economies. Catholics have, or at least should have, become wary of such agencies. They institute policies contrary to human nature and the common good, while cloaking themselves in a mantle of humanitarianism.
And the Pope wants more international governing bodies? Say it isn’t so!
We have a Catholic framework from which to approach such things: the principles of solidarity and subsidiarity. Like so many things in Catholic life, the sweet spot is somewhere in between the two, partaking of both.
Solidarity is, simply, the responsibility of everyone for everyone. It’s the recognition that we’re all in this together, that we’re brothers, that Christ made the sacrifice of redemption for all persons. It’s a more “global” way of looking at things.
Subsidiarity is the principle that favors the resolution of issues at the smallest, most intimate level, as close as possible to the family or individual, without needless interference from higher-level entities. It’s more “local” in scope. For example, the Federal government doesn’t need to regulate the lemonade stand on the corner.
Good government lies somewhere in between solidarity and subsidiarity, some benevolent mid-point where government is an aid to a tranquil life, but not an interference in it.
How do we apply those principles to the environmental issues enumerated by Pope Francis?
Though the secular press is mum about it, the Pope was very forthcoming with solutions at the tiniest levels (subsidiarity.)
- “Saint Therese of Lisieux invites us to practice the little way of love, not to miss out on a kind word, a smile or any small gesture which sows peace and friendship. An integral ecology is also made up of simple daily gestures which break with the logic of violence, exploitation and selfishness.” [ix]
- “… while the existing world order proves powerless to assume its responsibilities, local individuals and groups can make a real difference.” [x]
- “Social problems must be addressed by community networks.” [xi]
- “Many things have to change course, but it is we human beings above all who need to change.” [xii]
The bulk of his proposals respect subsidiarity and are concentrated at the individual or local levels, but the Pope also notes that these may not be entirely sufficient. To deal with global issues may require solidarity in global solutions.
Say the majority of nations in one region undertake measures to reduce air pollution, incurring some cost to achieve this outcome. One nation, though, does not adopt such measures, and thus can sell its products at a cheaper price and dominate the market. Or say that the majority of nations bounding a body of water adopt waste regulations to protect the water’s purity. One nation does not, and thus the efforts of the majority are rendered useless. For situations like these, it seems that some sort of overriding authority might be justified.
Nevertheless, a mindful and educated public could make some of this overriding authority unnecessary. If the consuming public declined to buy the products of offending corporations or nations, the operation of the market would tend to solve the problem without a global penalizing authority. Pope Francis even mentions the healthy influence of boycotts.[xiii]
I once visited a small town in which an “adult” bookstore had newly opened, to local dismay. Six months later, the store was gone. I assumed there had been protests, letter-writing campaigns and sit-ins to force the closure. As it turned out, none of those things had been necessary; there were simply no customers. It quietly went out of business for lack of sales.
To imagine that we could duplicate that on a global level would be naïve, but it does demonstrate the power we have as consumers. Pope Francis urges us to use it! He asks us to turn down the volume of our own consumption, to be thoughtful about what we consume. Multiplied by many, this force could drive the market to do the very things we would otherwise have to entrust to global governing authorities.
Another case in point. The fishery in Morro Bay, a port in central California, was declared a disaster area in the 1990’s due to overfishing. The whole town suffered economically as its mainstay industry fizzled. Then the Nature Conservancy rode in with a deal: funds for fishermen who would develop better practices and rebuild the collapsed marine habitat. The unlikely collaboration between old adversaries, environmentalists and fishermen, has resulted in greater fishing yields, sustainable industry, a stable local economy and healthy diversity of sea life. This model is now being duplicated in fishing towns all along the Pacific Coast. [xiv]
It’s important to note that, when this all went down in 2006, no one thought it would work!
Just as Pope Francis notes, efforts at the ground level, with an openness to collaboration, can change the game. That’s subsidiarity at work, and I say, more power to us, the little guys! The better we master our own consumption, avarice and complacency with the status quo… the more unnecessary global governance will become.
Indeed, I think it’s our only hope.
– – – – – – –
We will become open and creative in collaborative opportunities only when we ourselves begin to practice environmental care at a very personal level. If we wait for the big institutions to come up with a plan, I can almost guarantee we won’t like it, and furthermore, it won’t advance our own personal conversions. So I offer for your consideration…
My Subsidiarity Action Plan
- Say grace before meals and be mindful of everyone involved in the growth, harvest and cooking of the meal. This practice is specifically recommended by the Pope.[xv]
- Turn up the thermostat a degree or two in summertime; turn it down a few in the winter.
- Try public transportation or biking. Trains are really FUN! So are bicycles.
- Buy fewer highly-processed foods. If it came in a box, it’s highly-processed. Try fresh or even frozen foods. An added bonus: you’ll probably lose weight when you decrease meals-from-a-box.
- Learn one skill that makes you less dependent on mass production (sewing, cooking, carpentry.)
- Walk or just sit in a park or green area. Many parks sit empty most of the time. If they’re not used, they could disappear someday underneath a parking garage. On the other hand, if they’re heavily used, they become places of meeting and community life.
- Decrease drive-thru meals. (Really? “Drive-thru meals”?? It was a sketchy concept to begin with.)
- Trade 30 minutes that you would normally spend online, and read a book instead. This is another practice specifically recommended in the encyclical.[xvi]
- Get a library card if you don’t already have one. Break it in.
- Donate unnecessary items to the local St. Vincent Society or other worthy charity.
- Knock on the door of a neighbor and introduce yourself.
- When you’re outdoors, pick up one piece of trash and carry it away
- If you have anything in your daily life that exerts an addictive pull, spend one day without it (Starbuck’s, Facebook, wine.)
- Buy a week’s worth of produce at a local farmer’s market.
- Find a Mom-n-Pop restaurant or store in your area (not a chain!) and become a customer.
- Pray for 20 minutes. It costs nothing.
- Invite someone to share a meal with you.
- Practice appreciation of the opposite sex.
- Keep the Sabbath holy. Make Sunday about relaxation and festivity.
- Receive the Eucharist with wonder and awe. Try to grasp that God comes to us as food.
Yeah, these suggestion are tiny. And laughably naïve. But if the entire economy of salvation operates one soul at a time, surely renewal of the environment can occur one small act at a time. As Pope Francis says:
“We must not think that these efforts are not going to change the world. 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.” [xvii]
Sheryl Collmer, MTS, lives and writes next door to an urban nature preserve. She is grateful that the City of Plano is one of those farsighted local communities which has set aside green space for its residents.
 Laudato Sí 117, 120, 123, 136
 LS 50
 LS 155
[vi] LS 164
[vii] LS 214
[viii] LS 175
[ix] LS 230
[x] LS 179
[xi] LS 219
[xii] LS 202
[xiii] LS 206
[xv] LS 227
[xvi] LS 47
[xvii] LS 212