Pope Francis invites all men and women into a conversation about the quality of life on this planet. Weeks before its publication, the encyclical was anticipated with animated discussions, pro and con. It has not abated.
The document is ambitious in scope, detailed in content, and non-political. In it, three thoughts are repeated like refrains: This planet is “our common home.” All things are interrelated, interconnected; and, every human activity because it is human carries with it a moral dimension whether it is technology, global markets, the economy or consumer affairs.
See and Observe
Pope Francis clarifies terms. Ecology studies the relationship between living organisms and the environment in which they develop. The ecology, of which nature is a part, cannot be regarded as something separate from ourselves as a mere setting in which we live. This creation that includes nature is much more than nature.
In the Judeo-Christian tradition, creation connotes “God’s loving plan in which every creature has its own value and significance. While “nature can be studied, understood, and controlled, creation can only be understood as a gift from the outstretched hand of the Father of all; it is reality illumined by the love which calls us together into universal communion.”
The environment is the relationship existing between nature and the society in which we live. We live in relation to nature and not separately from it. The role of nature is not simply to provide an aesthetic backdrop for us to contemplate.
“If everything is related, than the health of a society’s institutions carries consequences for the environment and quality of life.”
“Every organism is a creature of God, good and admirable in itself. The same holds true of the ensemble of organisms existing in a defined space and functioning as a system.”
“We depend on these larger systems for our own existence. These ecosystems interact in dispersing carbon dioxide, purifying water, controlling illnesses and epidemics, forming soil, breaking down waste, and in many other ways which we overlook or simply do not know about.”
In war-torn regions and underdeveloped countries, people drink polluted water, the only kind available to them. They live in garbage fields searching there for food or clothing. What is the quality of their lives? A deeply troubling question, a question with a moral dimension. At the same time, Pope Francis uses important guides at his disposal to help us see the roots of the worst problems affecting mostly the poor and the most vulnerable. To make his point, the Pope enlists ethical and spiritual positions, the Judeo-Christian tradition, Church Fathers, and writings from other faith-traditions.
This planet is the house we live in and “our common home.” The panoramic vistas proclaim the ordered harmony of the universe evoking wonder. They are “charged with the grandeur of God.” Pure gift.
Yet, the Pontiff draws a stark contrast between a world of beauty and a world that is dangerously on the verge of self-destruction. The world “is beginning to look like a pile of filth,” the Pope declares. Moreover, even a cursory observation tells us that we are in an ecological crisis characterized by the word “throwaway.” It is not just our climate that is in crisis. The root cause of this ecological crisis is the overall mentality that men and women can throw away whatever they wish and whenever they wish in order to promote a more efficient culture however disordered and destructive in the process.
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We have become a “throwaway” world with a “throwaway mentality.” See for yourselves. Among the victims of this “throwaway mentality” are the most vulnerable of society, the poor and the homeless, the elderly, the unborn life in the womb, our wounded veterans—these, Francis declares, are the refuse of society. “Our common home” needs to be cleaned up and made whole.
Judge for Yourselves
The Pontiff describes “a relentless exploitation and destruction of the environment for which he blames apathy, the reckless pursuit of profits, excessive faith in technology and political shortsightedness.” This world, driven by technology, global markets, economics, and consumerism, has assumed a power that dictates the principles by which we should live. “A technology severed from ethics will not easily be able to limit its power.” He gives the example of transgressing all boundaries when experimentation is carried out on living human embryos.
What is an integral ecology? It encompasses cultural and moral conversion in such a way that it touches the international community, national and local groups all the way down to educating our young people with a moral ecology. It invites our young adults into an ecological lifestyle. An “integral ecology” is nothing less than a conversion to wholeness.
The Call to Action—Now
Having seen and observed the ecological landscape, the question arises: what have we done to bring about this “throwaway culture?” What must we do to improve the situation in small but practical ways? We have been given the responsibility of caring for “our common home” according to our talents, abilities and limitations. The encyclical conveys a sense of urgency; we must act, and change our ways.