HE decries the abuse of the world’s environment that has caused the quality of life to deteriorate, especially for those he calls “the excluded.” They are those who despite living in a modern world where technology has made life more comfortable, more expansive and more progressive, do not in any way participate in its benefits. Rather, their lot is made worse as they are left behind economically, educationally and even environmentally when the world of trees, grass, clean water and clean air, decent housing, adequate transportation and open spaces is taken away for private gain and exclusive use by the haves. The indifference to the existence of fellow human beings who are poor brings Pope Francis to define and defend them. Indeed, he lives and practices the preferential option for the poor who take the brunt of Nature’s despoliation and its consequences. This is a truth we cannot dissemble or excuse. It has to be righted and a balance restored in our form of government, economy, society, education, basic services and the sharing of Nature as we know her goodness and healing power. Everything in the universe is inter-connected and thus what happens in the course of its existence affects all. What is happening to our environment has repercussions for everyone.
The misuse of Nature or the environment comes from the way some of us have abusively, selfishly and unilaterally claimed dominion over it for our own gain or for instant gratification together with the ignorance or indifference of the consequences. Pope Francis seems to put the blame mostly on some particular group of people, the ones who profit from doing so. In reality, it is not just them, it is all of us, rich and poor, educated and ignorant, who have equally participated in Nature’s abuse. He says there is a “throw-away” culture coming from consumer goods that are unnecessary, from fossil fuels that must be phased out, from technology that must be reined in to be less consumerist. True in many ways and for almost everyone except isolated indigenous people, who are still affected by the despoliation that ensues from “throw away.” But how does one vaporize these so-called unwanted elements in our modern life? He says a new kind of education, a change in lifestyle, abandonment of fossil fuels, new ways of understanding how to treat the environment. Perhaps it must commence with a less condemnatory tone toward some and an inclusive attitude for all who share this planet, sinners or non-sinners against the environment. Education must convince if not all, the majority and not just some so as to precipitate the change necessary.
There is truth when Pope Francis says that the way some treat the environment selfishly, egotistically, irresponsibly will more often than not carry this attitude toward their fellows and treat them equally badly. Ownership of land comes with a social mortgage. It is not absolute, it means stewardship so it is protected and passed on to those who come after. Everyone, owner or not, has a right to visual landmarks of his native or any environment. The right to view the horizon, to see the mountains, streams, fields, plants, animals and flowers. The recognition of Nature as a treasure that must not be reduced to “filth” as he puts it is the concern of all privileged and underprivileged. All must be responsible. Maybe that is the new understanding that must filter down through all levels of society.
Pope Francis quotes St. Francis of Assisi who saw Nature with awe and joy beyond economics and mathematics, in appreciation of the “book where God speaks.”
Beyond the environment of which climate change is a major topic in this encyclical, the pontiff bewails the lack of work that technology and capitalist indifference seem to have visited on workers, on people who have to live and have jobs. It is part of Man’s existence to work and the indifference of those who can and should provide it is decried. Lack of work deprives a human being of the means to live as befits him. It robs him of dignity, a loss that is a grave injustice. The availability of jobs must be a priority of governments and those who rule the economy. It must be a given in governance. And these jobs must come with fair salaries, benefits and future pensions to be worthy of being called just and decent, dignified and fulfilling.
Capitalism that lets markets decide everything whether just or unjust, discriminatory or not, anti-poor or indifferent to the poor has to reform itself for the better. Market forces may give profits to some but if they exclude the rest from a decent living, they have to be re-thought.
Pope Francis seems to blame technology for the imbalance between those who can live well and those who cannot. Technology may be a double-edged sword, one must choose the better, the more humanitarian, more sharing edge rather than do away with it altogether. Technology is not evil in itself, it can be, if used selfishly. But it can also give a better life for all when used with justice and fairness.
One thing that resonated was his description of “unruly cities” where the majority live with no order and discipline, no comfort or regard for their welfare from government authorities as in poor housing, no easily available clean water, no equal educational facilities with the best, no protection from criminal elements. When he mentioned the suffering that public transportation entailed for the “excluded,” it brought to mind our own dreadful state of unsafe, inadequate, crowded and inefficient public transport. How did administration after administration in this country ignore, forget or deny that they had to do something about it before it was too late? Here we are, late in the day with all the “suffering” that being late entails which is nothing less than an injustice. Another thing that Pope Francis says is that we should also ‘suffer” with our fellow human beings. Do not use too much air-conditioning, power, food (engendering waste), etc.
Somewhere in the encyclical, he also says “… it is true that an unequal distribution of the population and of available resources creates obstacles to development and a sustainable use of the environment, it must be recognized that demographic growth is fully compatible with an integral and shared development.” But then he goes on to say, “To blame population growth instead of extreme and selective consumerism on the part of some is one way of refusing to face the issues.” He goes on to also say that we must find the right scenario between the two extremes: the myth of progress where everything solves itself with the use of technology with no lookout for ethics and morality or the myth that no intervention by Man must be made and in fact Man is a menace to the planet and must be subtracted from it. From these two unacceptable extremes, a viable future scenario or scenarios must be found and worked at. Importantly, Pope Frances says that in this case of demographics and resources there is not just one path of salvation. We all know here that no matter how our economy progresses, how much education facilities are elevated and expanded, how much our health services are revved up, they cannot keep up with the population growth and therefore the standard of living remains the same, which is dismal and unacceptable for many in this day and age. The poor must be brought to a better level of life. The Catholic Church has to address this problem according to its theology, and the doctrine of the inviolability of the individual conscience. The balance between the extremes Pope Francis mentions must be found. It is an issue to be addressed and to deny it exists is to deny a reality that we all see.
Just as the pontiff says that some of us treat what is going on in our environment with “reckless cheerfulness,” expecting that it will right itself by itself, the Catholic Church stand on population as a problem that will solve itself (unless by that it means by war, famine, plague, breakdown of law and order as in ancient uncivilized times) is “reckless cheerfulness.”
The encyclical is finally a religious homily on God and Man and Creation with emphasis on our “common home,” the meaning of Christianity as well as the theology that is the basis of the Catholic Church. It is after all a document addressed to the church hierarchy (addressed to its bishops) who in turn will be expected to instruct their flock as they interpret it.
In these parts and with the kind of church hierarchy we are saddled with, it will be a matter of interpretation based on the bishops’ mindsets.
I urge all to read “Laudato Si” and think for themselves.