Laudato Sii: Why This Conservative Looks Forward to the Letter on the Environment by Pope Francis
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I encourage my readers to take the time to actually READ what the Catholic Church teaches before the encyclical letter from pope Francis is released. I assure you, many in the media will not do so. They will not even read the letter. Pray for Francis and the Catholic Church. So much good is being accomplished by this successor of Peter named Francis. His outreach to other Christians and efforts to heal the wounds in the Christian community are particularly vital - and powerful in their implications at this critical moment in the history of both the Christian church and the world. It would be a shame for the reaffirmation of Catholic teaching on a relational approach to stewardship of the gift of creation to be misused in efforts to divide Christians in a new missionary age. Whether this happens depends, to a large degree, on each one of us.
CHESAPEAKE, VA (Catholic online) - The blogo-shere, Twitter-verse and entire virtual communications universe is abuzz with speculation concerning the anticipated mid-June release of a letter by Pope Francis on environmental concerns. As someone called a conservative, because I am theologically orthodox and reject pseudo socialist/stat-ist approaches to governance, I am aware of the fears in the conservative community.
However, I break with the pack on this one. I look forward to this letter.
Reports indicate that the thrust of this upcoming encyclical letter will contain nothing new. It will simply present the beautiful, classically Christian teaching of the Catholic tradition in the fresh and evangelical manner characteristic of this Pope who chose the name Francis to signal his identification with the evangelical simplicity of the little poor man of Assisi named Francis.
The word encyclical simply means circulating. It was the practice in the early centuries to circulate the letters of the Apostles. Reliable sources indicate that the thrust of this letter will be "on the care of our common home." Again, as is an ancient practice in the Latin Rite, the official text will be released in Latin. The title will be taken from the first line of the letter. In this instance, it will be called Laudato Sii - loosely translated "Praise be".
That line is taken from the beautiful hymn of creation composed by Francis of Assisi and most often entitled "The Canticle of the Creatures" or the "Canticle of Brother Sun". This beautiful hymn was composed by St Francis when he was recovering from an illness at San Damiano. He was cared for by St Clare and the sisters. I am sixty years old.I stun some fellow conservatives when I refer to myself, in lighter comedic moments, as an "aging hippie still trying to get to heaven." But, let me explain.
My own return to the classical Christian faith, and back home to the heart of the Catholic Church, happened over forty years ago. I was a teenage hippie who rejected the utilitarian, deterministic, materialistic, hedonistic culture of the age. I knew there had to be another way of living. This quick admission gives my readers some insight into why I find it so ironic that I am now called a "conservative".
I still reject that barren approach to life and empty culture. It rejects the beauty and dignity of the human person, the wonder and beauty of marriage and the family, a true and beautiful approach to human sexuality, the dignity of all human work - and the list goes on. My rejection of that culture as a young man led me to the foot of the Cross, and back into the loving arms of a crucified Savior who offers another way, the Way of Love.
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I re-embraced the Christian Way of life - precisely because I was looking for a "counterculture" or alternative way of living. I found it in Jesus Christ and in His Body, the Church. One of the emissaries of this crucified and resurrected Savior who captured the romantic heart of this formerly young hippie was St. Francis of Assisi.
I loved the beautiful hymn of St Francis entitled the Canticle of the Sun. In fact, I played a musical version of it, made popular back then by the folk artist Donovan, on my acoustic guitar. That version was a part of the Soundtrack of a film from Franco Zefferelli entitled Brother Sun and Sister Moon.
The spirit of the song - and the film - exposes the content of a relational approach to creation. Summarizing, creation is the first gift of a loving God who entrusted it to us - as both his first gift and in stewardship. I believe that this relational approach will be the approach of Pope Francis in his upcoming letter. He will stand on the shoulders of Pope Emeritus Benedict, who has already spoken extensively in this area. I am not concerned about the letter, but eagerly await it.
I also believe that much of the banter about this upcoming papal letter has very little merit. Much of the fear is unfounded. I understand that some are concerned that the letter will be co-opted by some with a left wing political agenda. Sadly, that has already been the case with much of what Pope Francis has said and done. He is misread through a western worldview and political frame, when he is best understood as a simple man from Argentina who speaks out of a very different framework of political and economic experiences.
This misuse of Francis to promote a leftist political agenda finds a home not only in secular media but in some Catholic sources. Sadly, some Catholic media sources long ago tipped their hand on the primacy of their own politically left leaning agendas and lack of real concern for the actual teaching of the magisterium of the Catholic Church.
I know that many people whom I respect are fearful that this letter will be used by the politically left wing and statist coalition which controls much of the media. I cannot prevent that kind of thing from happening. However, I offer below some of the wealth of insights which the Catholic Church offers.
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I do so in an effort to prepare my readers for receiving this upcoming letter from Francis with a framework within which to read it. I sincerely ask you to consider this framework before the avalanche of those with various agendas seek to co-opt it for their own use.
Climate Change or Relational Environmentalism
What is called climate change is one of those areas where the exercise of prudential judgment can find good Catholics and other Christians differing with one another. When we do disagree, we should do so with charity. This is not the first time I have written on this issue. The Catholic Church has been green for a lot longer than any modern environmental movement. That is if we understand the term correctly.
We are called in Catholic teaching to what I prefer to call a relational environmentalism; one of stewardship with the earth which God has made and entrusted to us to care for and to share. For those eager to understand Catholic teaching on this vital topic, we should always begin with scripture and tradition, and not the opinions of ideologues.
We have a deep well of teaching in the Catholic Church addressing our relationship to the gift of God's creation. The concern I have in much of what is now called climate change is that Catholic teaching is misused in a patchwork proof text effort to promote a charged right vs. left political food fight. Sadly, this misuse is often accompanied by conflicting scientific data being thrown back and forth, providing fodder for the fight.
I write as a Christian who has chosen to stand in the full communion of the Catholic Church not simply because I was born into a Catholic family, but because I chose to re-embrace the Christian faith and re-affirm my Catholic convictions as a young man. Catholic Christians are not first political conservatives or liberals, we are first, last and all in between, Catholics.
We are called to inform our political, economic, cultural and social positions based upon the truths and principles offered by the Church as mother and teacher. That requires us to actually read and consider what the Catholic Church actually offers on these areas. Then, to think about the possible implications and application, recognizing there is a hierarchy of truths and principles.
The Catholic Church does not take explicit political or even economic positions. She offers principles for her faithful sons and daughters to use in discharging their obligations as faithful citizens, and in building a truly just and humane social and economic order. That often involves the exercise of prudential judgment and leaves room for debate and differing approaches.
With all of this in mind, let us briefly examine some of the teachings of the Church on the stewardship of creation.
Creation and Catholic teaching
The Catechism of the Catholic Church offers a structure for the study of our obligation to be good stewards of the gift of creation under the theme of Creation in its Index. Every Catholic who writes or speaks on this subject should be familiar with these sections, along with other Church documents.
We are living in a time which is hyper-charged with political debate. Before you presume that any analysis of what the Church teaches, being offered by a political pundit or someone with a political agenda, is even an accurate summary of that teaching, go the source yourself. There is a large body of various summaries of Catholic thought to be found in this area. I will mention only a few.
In 2013, the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops released a helpful document entitled Building a New Culture - Central Themes in Recent Church Teaching on the Environment. The St Kateri Teckawitha Conservation Center provides a clearing house of solid magisterial teaching concerning our obligations as stewards of the gift of creation. The body of Catholic social teaching concerning this topic is also cataloged in the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Catholic Church
In addition to affirming our obligations as stewards of the gift of creation, the Compendium also issues cautions about a misguided approach. For example in paragraph # 463 we read, 'A correct understanding of the environment prevents the utilitarian reduction of nature to a mere object to be manipulated and exploited.'
'At the same time, it must not absolutize nature and place it above the dignity of the human person himself. In this latter case, one can go so far as to divinize nature or the earth, as can readily be seen in certain ecological movements that seek to gain an internationally guaranteed institutional status for their beliefs.'
'The Magisterium finds the motivation for its opposition to a concept of the environment based on ecocentrism and on biocentrism in the fact that "it is being proposed that the ontological and axiological difference between men and other living beings be eliminated, since the biosphere is considered a biotic unity of undifferentiated value. Thus man's superior responsibility can be eliminated in favor of an egalitarian consideration of the 'dignity' of all living beings'.
The Green Movement and Pope Benedict
Some in the current green movement have lost their way. The most obvious example is found in the inherent contradiction of worrying about polluting the atmosphere with toxic chemicals while at the same time supporting the making of toxic chemicals available to be ingested by mothers, including young girls, in order to kill the children in their womb.
On June 9, 2011, Pope Benedict XVI received the credential letters of six new ambassadors to the Holy See. He gave a speech addressing them. In his speech the Pope sounded a theme which is common in his locutions and writings; he spoke of what he called a Human Ecology. This is a rich phrase which demands serious consideration.
He recalled the 'innumerable tragedies that have affected nature, technology, and the peoples" that year and suggested that "the States should reflect together on the short term future of the planet, on our responsibilities regarding our life and technology'.
He said 'Human ecology is an imperative. Adopting a lifestyle that respects our environment and supports the research and use of clean energies that preserve the patrimony of creation and that are safe for human beings should be given political and economic priority'.
He called for a 'change in mentality' in order to 'quickly arrive at a global lifestyle that respects the covenant between humanity and nature, without which the human family risks disappearing.' He said that 'every government must commit themselves to protecting nature and assisting it to carry out its essential role in the survival of humanity.'
Then, he addressed technology saying, 'It is also helpful to ask ourselves about the appropriate role of technology because believing it is the exclusive agent of progress or happiness carries a reification of humanity that leads to blindness and misery. ... Technology that dominates human beings deprives them of their humanity. The pride that it generates has created an impossible economism in our societies as well as a hedonism that subjectively and selfishly regulates behavior. The debilitation of the primacy of the human person provokes a loss of the meaning of life'.
Pope Emeritus further noted 'it is urgent that we match technology with a strong ethical dimension. ... Technology should help nature develop along the lines envisioned by the Creator. In working together, the researcher and the scientist adhere to God's plan that desired humanity as the apex and the administrator of creation. Solutions based on this principle will protect human life and its vulnerability, as well as the rights of the present and future generations'.
There was nothing new in his words. They comported with what he had written and said since he assumed his papal office. However, Press reports focused on his encouragement of clean energy. In some instances the reports implied the Pope had somehow joined the Green movement.
I thought back to 2010 when he had sent a letter to participants in the World Day of Peace entitled If You Want to Cultivate Peace, protect creation. In fact, he referred to that letter in his 2011 address. The Press reported the 2011 address as some kind of papal conversion to a green ideology. This is the kind of silly and unfounded reporting which is now being routinely done with anything that Pope Francis says about environmental stewardship.
One Reuters report on Pope Emeritus Benedict bore the headline Pope Goes Green. Benedict did not have to "go green." He simply reaffirmed the Catholic understanding of our relationship with the goods of the earth and our call to stewardship of the planet which has been given to us by the Creator as a gift.
Here are some more salient excerpts from that 2010 letter:
'Without belief in the true God our efforts are in ultimately fruitless, in fact not only fruitless, but they bear poisonous fruit if the Church's magisterium expresses grave misgivings about notions of the environment inspired by ecocentrism and biocentrism, it is because such notions eliminate the difference of identity and worth between the human person and other living things.'
'In the name of a supposedly egalitarian vision of the dignity of all living creatures, such notions end up abolishing the distinctiveness and superior role of human beings. They also open the way to a new pantheism tinged with neo-paganism, which would see the source of man's salvation in nature alone, understood in purely naturalistic terms.'
The media reports tried to fit the emeritus Pope's letter into their simplistic green template. They demonstrated that the reporters had not even read the actual letter. In that letter and in his address to those ambassadors, Benedict repeated themes which he developed in his Encyclical Letter entitled Caritas in Veritate (Charity in Truth). Those themes are a part of Catholic Social teaching. They are found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. They have their roots in the Bible and the Christian Tradition.
Integral Human Development
Benedict XVI called for an integral human development which recognizes the centrality of the human person and the primacy of our relationships with one another in family and in society. He underscored the truth that creation is a gift, given to human persons by a God of love who entrusts us with responsibility for one another. He reminded us that the goods which promote our human flourishing are gifts to be shared and that we all have a responsibility for one another. In other words, we need to live together as good stewards of creation, recognizing the need first for a human ecology.
Here is another excerpt, a rather lengthy one, from the 2010 letter:
'The Church has a responsibility towards creation, and she considers it her duty to exercise that responsibility in public life, in order to protect earth, water and air as gifts of God the Creator meant for everyone, and above all to save mankind from the danger of self-destruction. The degradation of nature is closely linked to the cultural models shaping human coexistence: consequently, when 'human ecology' is respected within society, environmental ecology also benefits'.
'Young people cannot be asked to respect the environment if they are not helped, within families and society as a whole, to respect themselves. The book of nature is one and indivisible; it includes not only the environment but also individual, family and social ethics. Our duties towards the environment flow from our duties towards the person, considered both individually and in relation to others.'
'Hence I readily encourage efforts to promote a greater sense of ecological responsibility which, as I indicated in my Encyclical Caritas in Veritate,(Charity in Truth) would safeguard an authentic human ecology and thus forcefully reaffirm the inviolability of human life at every stage and in every condition, the dignity of the person and the unique mission of the family, where one is trained in love of neighbor and respect for nature. There is a need to safeguard the human patrimony of society. This patrimony of values originates in and is part of the natural moral law, which is the foundation of respect for the human person and creation.'
Benedict XVI presented a unified Catholic Environmental vision; one which is pro-life, pro-family, pro-poor, pro-peace and fundamentally relational. That is what we should espouse as well. We are to receive one another as gifts. We must never use human persons as objects. We should receive creation as a gift, our common home, to be shared with one another, and not as an object of use and abuse. He articulated a vision for a human ecology which can promote a path to authentic peace, if we make it our own.
He concluded his 2010 letter with these words, 'The Church, for her part, is concerned that the question be approached in a balanced way, with respect for the "grammar" which the Creator has inscribed in his handiwork by giving man the role of a steward and administrator with responsibility over creation, a role which man must certainly not abuse, but also one which he may not abdicate. In the same way, the opposite position, which would absolutize technology and human power, results in a grave assault not only on nature, but also on human dignity itself.
'If you want to cultivate peace, protect creation. The quest for peace by people of good will surely would become easier if all acknowledge the indivisible relationship between God, human beings and the whole of creation. In the light of divine Revelation and in fidelity to the Church's Tradition, Christians have their own contribution to make.'
'They contemplate the cosmos and its marvels in light of the creative work of the Father and the redemptive work of Christ, who by his death and resurrection has reconciled with God "all things, whether on earth or in heaven" (Col 1:20). Christ, crucified and risen, has bestowed his Spirit of holiness upon mankind, to guide the course of history in anticipation of that day when, with the glorious return of the Savior, there will be "new heavens and a new earth" (2 Pet 3:13), in which justice and peace will dwell forever'.
'Protecting the natural environment in order to build a world of peace is thus a duty incumbent upon each and all. It is an urgent challenge, one to be faced with renewed and concerted commitment; it is also a providential opportunity to hand down to coming generations the prospect of a better future for all.'
'May this be clear to world leaders and to those at every level who are concerned for the future of humanity: the protection of creation and peacemaking are profoundly linked! For this reason, I invite all believers to raise a fervent prayer to God, the all-powerful Creator and the Father of mercies, so that all men and women may take to heart the urgent appeal: If you want to cultivate peace, protect creation'
One of the few accurate reports on Benedict's 2010 letter came from Giuliano Ferrara, the director of the Italian daily Il Foglio who wrote, 'The Pope denounces the ecological crisis but does not belong to the church of Al Gore. Benedict XVI in no way denies human abuse of nature. He notes that he does not share the 'the environmentalist religion or environmentalism as a religion'. The Pope has another faith, based on the transcendence of a God that creates man in his image and likeness to entrust nature to him. He has, evidently, no need for replacement beliefs, of ideologies feigned as science.'
Christians should live a way of life which understands and respects our place with one another in the world which God created for all of us to care for, steward and share. We truly need a human ecology, a relational environmentalism, a Christian way of being green. The debate concerning climate change invites us to continue to develop such an approach, together. It also calls for the charity in truth and respect which should characterize healthy debate between Catholics and other Christians.
I encourage my readers to take the time to actually READ what the Catholic Church teaches on this subject. Please do so before the encyclical letter from Pope Francis is released. I assure you, many in the media will not do so. Then, before you read someones opinion on the letter, read the actual letter. Finally, I encourage my readers to pray for Francis and the Catholic Church.
So much good is being accomplished by this successor of Peter named Francis. His outreach to other Christians and efforts to heal the wounds in the Christian community are particularly vital - and powerful in their implications at this critical moment in the history of both the Christian church and the world.
It would be a shame for the reaffirmation of Catholic teaching on a relational approach to stewardship of the gift of creation, which is soon to be offered by Pope Francis in the upcoming letter, would be misused to divide Christians in a new missionary age. Whether this happens depends, to a large degree, on each one of us.
Deacon Keith A. Fournier is Founder and Chairman of Common Good Foundation and Common Good Alliance. A married Roman Catholic Deacon of the Diocese of Richmond, Virginia, he and his wife Laurine have five grown children and seven grandchildren. He is a human rights lawyer and public policy advocate who served as the first and founding Executive Director of the American Center for Law and Justice in the nineteen nineties and has long been active at the intersection of faith and culture. He serves as Special Counsel to Liberty Counsel. He is a senior contributing writer to The Stream.
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