“Praise be to you, my Lord, through our Sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us, and who produces various fruit with colored flowers and herbs” [said St. Francis of Assisi]. This sister now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her. We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will.
— Pope Francis in Laudato Si
The main point of Pope Francis’s Laudato Si encyclical isn’t man’s despoilation of the environment. Books, films, broadcast programs, conferences, and terabytes of scientific data attest to ecological degradation in far greater detail over decades than the 82-page Vatican document released on May 24.
After all, the Holy Father’s main job isn’t explaining pollution, global warming, loss of biodiversity, and other ills plaguing the planet. His primary mission is not about Earth, but about Heaven: Who God is, what He wills, His saving plan for humankind, and how every soul should regard and respond to His call.
So in Laudato Si — the first words of the Canticle of the Creatures by Saint Francis of Assisi, whose name the Pope took—man’s relationship with God and creation, including his fellowmen is the overarching theme. What ills those age-old ties, and how man should repair it.
Man is not the measure of all
The main failing of man’s regard for both Creator and creation is expounded in the quotation at the start of this article: “We have come to see ourselves as her [the earth’s]lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will.”
Man’s unwarranted and selfish elevation of himself as overlord of a world he never created and does not even fully understand, is the root of his destructive ways. Having cast off the restraints of being steward of creation and student of its deep truths, humankind feels no inhibition from having his way with anything he lays his hands on.
Even in his abuses of the earth, though, man isn’t utterly mindless. He has certain aspirations, wishes, and uses in mind—greater material comforts, economic and financial gains, scientific knowledge and technological know-how, increasing control and capabilities, and other manifestations of what the modern world calls progress.
And that’s the problem: man assesses everything based on his own needs and perspectives, blind to the intrinsic value of each creation. To quote the encyclical:
“The Catechism clearly and forcefully criticizes a distorted anthropocentrism: ‘Each creature possesses its own particular goodness and perfection… Each of the various creatures, willed in its own being, reflects in its own way a ray of God’s infinite wisdom and goodness. Man must therefore respect the particular goodness of every creature, to avoid any disordered use of things’.”
Seeing himself as the measure of all things, with personal fulfilment and rational concepts as the paramount weighing scales, man sees nothing wrong with killing or destroying them for his whims and ambitions. Even to the point of upending the delicate balance of natural habitats, including the whole earth through such planetary distortions as global warming.
Even more than its pernicious impact on the earth, such arrogant disregard for the unfathomable yet undeniable intent and value that the Creator has for each of His creatures, distorts man’s ties with his Maker, and blinds him to the love and wisdom of God in the crafting of the cosmos. As Pope Francis explains, but many no longer see:
“God has written a precious book, ‘whose letters are the multitude of created things present in the universe’. The Canadian bishops rightly pointed out that no creature is excluded from this manifestation of God: ‘From panoramic vistas to the tiniest living form, nature is a constant source of wonder and awe. It is also a continuing revelation of the divine’. The bishops of Japan, for their part, made a thought-provoking observation: ‘To sense each creature singing the hymn of its existence is to live joyfully in God’s love and hope’.”
Now when was the last time one looked upon and felt the world around us in that way?
Creation is for the good of all, not some
No major statement from Francis is complete without mention of the poor. And there’s plenty of it in Laudato Si, to wit:
“God created the world for everyone. Hence every ecological approach needs to incorporate a social perspective which takes into account the fundamental rights of the poor and the underprivileged. The principle of the subordination of private property to the universal destination of goods, and thus the right of everyone to their use, is a golden rule of social conduct and ‘the first principle of the whole ethical and social order’.”
Man may take decades, if not centuries, to regain the spiritual regard for creation so eloquently espoused by St. Francis. But practicing creation stewardship for the good of all humanity cannot wait. Indeed, those who misuse earthly resources for the wealthy and extravagance of a few, are committing the gravest of sins:
“The natural environment is a collective good, the patrimony of all humanity and the responsibility of everyone. If we make something our own, it is only to administer it for the good of all. … That is why the New Zealand bishops asked what the commandment ‘Thou shall not kill’ means when ‘twenty percent of the world’s population consumes resources at a rate that robs the poor nations and future generations of what they need to survive’.”
Speaking at a recent press conference, Pope Francis warned those who would disregard the call of God and nature to rightly husband the earth: “God always forgives; human beings sometimes forgive; but when nature is mistreated, she never forgives.”
Starting with ourselves, let us restore God and His plan for creation at the center of our way of looking at and living in the world. Nature is losing her patience.