16 min read

Laudato Si Pope-pourri

It’s not everyday that I want to read something a Pope wrote. In fact, today, June 19, 2015 was the only day I have ever wanted that, if memory serves. Today I read Papa Francesca’s second encyclical, entitled “Laudato Si – On Care For Our Common Home”. It was a unique experience to navigate to w2.vatican.va, download an essay the Pope just wrote about environmentalism, and then read it on my computer.

I read it more as a curiosity than anything else, and though I found much to disagree with, I was in strong accord with two of the Pope’s main points as I have understood them: (1) that every living thing is valuable and all of nature is interdependent; and (2) that rampant consumerism/individualism is a soul-sucking trap that perverts nature, prizes inequity, ruins the environment, and leads millions of people to lead ultimately meaningless lives. These ideas are neither new nor original, and so I don’t want to spend too much time on this post. However, I do want to share with you some of the passages I found most interesting in case you never get to read it. The Pope seems like a pretty decent human being!

Adumbrating the issues to be addressed, the Pope tells us:

"I will point to the intimate relationship between the poor and the fragility of the planet, the conviction that everything in the world is connected, the critique of new paradigms and forms of power derived from technology, the call to seek other ways of understanding the economy and progress, the value proper to each creature, the human meaning of ecology, the need for forthright and honest debate, the serious responsibility of international and local policy, the throwaway culture and the proposal of a new lifestyle" (13).

Quoting Patriarch Bartholomew, the Pope urges us “to look for solutions not only in technology but in a change of humanity; otherwise we would be dealing merely with symptoms. [Bartholomew] asks us to replace consumption with sacrifice, greed with generosity, wastefulness with a spirit of sharing…” (2).

The Pope looks at technology with a far more jaundiced eye than I do, but he may have a couple points here worthy of our consideration:

"Furthermore, when media and the digital world become omnipresent, their influence can stop people from learning how to live wisely, to think deeply and to love generously. In this context, the great sages of the past run the risk of going unheard amid the noise and distractions of an information overload. Efforts need to be made to help these media become sources of new cultural progress for humanity and not a threat to our deepest riches. 
True wisdom, as the fruit of self-examination, dialogue and generous encounter between persons, is not acquired by a mere accumulation of data which eventually leads to overload and confusion, a sort of mental pollution. Real relationships with others, with all the challenges they entail, now tend to be replaced by a type of internet communication which enables us to choose or eliminate relationships at whim, thus giving rise to a new type of contrived emotion which has more to do with devices and displays than with other people and with nature. Today’s media do enable us to communicate and to share our knowledge and affections. Yet at times they also shield us from direct contact with the pain, the fears and the joys of others and the complexity of their personal experiences. For this reason, we should be concerned that, alongside the exciting possibilities offered by these media, a deep and melancholic dissatisfaction with interpersonal relations, or a harmful sense of isolation, can also arise." (31-32)

Throughout, he constantly questions the modern conception of “progress” held by many in the developed world:

There is a tendency to believe that every increase in power means an increase of 'progress' itself, an advance in security, usefulness, welfare and vigour, an assimilation of new values into the stream of culture, as if reality, goodness and truth automatically flow from technological and economic power as such. The fact is that 'contemporary man has not been trained to use power well', because our immense technological development has not been accompanied by a development in human responsibility, values and conscience." (76)

Later in the encyclical the Pope expands on this theme more forcefully: “we need to grow in the conviction that a decrease in the pace of production and consumption can at times give rise to another form of progress and development. Put simply, it is a matter of redefining our notion of progress” (139). I’m about to quote the Pope at length, but it is well worth reading:

"Environmental protection cannot be assured solely on the basis of financial calculations of costs and benefits. The environment is one of those goods that cannot be adequately safeguarded or promoted by market forces. Once more, we need to reject a magical conception of the market, which would suggest that problems can be solved simply by an increase in the profits of companies or individuals. Is it realistic to hope that those who are obsessed with maximizing profits will stop to reflect on the environmental damage which they will leave behind for future generations? Where profits alone count, there can be no thinking about the rhythms of nature, its phases of decay and regeneration, or the complexity of ecosystems which may be gravely upset by human intervention. Moreover, biodiversity is considered at most a deposit of economic resources available for exploitation, with no serious thought for the real value of things, their significance for persons and cultures, or the concerns and needs of the poor" (138).
"A technological and economic development which does not leave in its wake a better world and an integrally higher quality of life cannot be considered progress. Frequently, in fact, people’s quality of life actually diminishes – by the deterioration of the environment, the low quality of food or the depletion of resources – in the midst of economic growth. In this context, talk of sustainable growth usually becomes a way of distracting attention and offering excuses. It absorbs the language and values of ecology into the categories of finance and technocracy, and the social and environmental responsibility of businesses often gets reduced to a series of marketing and image-enhancing measures" (141). "The principle of the maximization of profits, frequently isolated from other considerations, reflects a misunderstanding of the very concept of the economy. As long as production is increased, little concern is given to whether it is at the cost of future resources or the health of the environment; as long as the clearing of a forest increases production, no one calculates the losses entailed in the desertification of the land, the harm done to biodiversity or the increased pollution. In a word, businesses profit by calculating and paying only a fraction of the costs involved. Yet only when “the economic and social costs of using up shared environmental resources are recognized with  transparency and fully borne by those who incur them, not by other peoples or future generations”, can those actions be considered ethical" (143). "Many things have to change course, but it is we human beings above all who need to change. We lack an awareness of our common origin, of our mutual belonging, and of a future to be shared with everyone. This basic awareness would enable the development of new convictions, attitudes and forms of life. A great cultural, spiritual and educational challenge stands before us, and it will demand that we set out on the long path of renewal" (144).

I have expressed similar concerns about our ultimately destructive vision of progress myself, though I tend to be far more critical of consumerism and far more hopeful about technological advance. Still, “the economy accepts every advance in technology with a view to profit, without concern for its potentially negative impact on human beings” (76). Further, the Pope argues that

"We have to accept that technological products are not neutral, for they create a framework which ends up conditioning lifestyles and shaping social possibilities along the lines dictated by the interests of certain powerful groups. Decisions which may seem purely instrumental are in reality decisions about the kind of society we want to build. The idea of promoting a different cultural paradigm and employing technology as a mere instrument is nowadays inconceivable. The technological paradigm has become so dominant that it would be difficult to do without its resources and even more difficult to utilize them without being dominated by their internal logic. It has become countercultural to choose a lifestyle whose goals are even partly independent of technology, of its costs and its power to globalize and make us all the same." (pg 76)

 Along these same lines, he continues:

"A science which would offer solutions to the great issues would necessarily have to take into account the data generated by other fields of knowledge, including philosophy and social ethics; but this is a difficult habit to acquire today. Nor are there genuine ethical horizons to which one can appeal. Life gradually becomes a surrender to situations conditioned by technology, itself viewed as the principal key to the meaning of existence. In the concrete situation confronting us, there are a number of symptoms which point to what is wrong, such as environmental degradation, anxiety, a loss of the purpose of life and of community living" (pg 82)

Talking politics, the Pope criticizes the short-sightedness that is built into our systems of governance:

"A politics concerned with immediate results, supported by consumerist sectors of the population, is driven to produce short-term growth. In response to electoral interests, governments are reluctant to upset the public with measures which could affect the level of consumption or create risks for foreign investment. The myopia of power politics delays the inclusion of a far-sighted environmental agenda within the overall agenda of governments" (130). ... A healthy politics is sorely needed, capable of reforming and coordinating institutions, promoting best practices and overcoming undue pressure and bureaucratic inertia. It should be added, though, that even the best mechanisms can break down when there are no worthy goals and values, or a genuine and profound humanism to serve as the basis of a noble and generous society" (132).

Though I am picking and choosing the passages which stood out to me, it should be clear that one common thread running through the Pope’s message is that consumerism is at the heart of all that is wrong with society today:

"This paradigm leads people to believe that they are free as long as they have the supposed freedom to consume. But those really free are the minority who wield economic and financial power. Amid this confusion, postmodern humanity has not yet achieved a new self-awareness capable of offering guidance and direction, and this lack of identity is a source of anxiety. We have too many means and only a few insubstantial ends. ... Obsession with a  consumerist lifestyle, above all when few people are capable of maintaining it, can only lead to violence and mutual destruction." (149-150)

He urges us to be mindful of whom we give our money, and to not give our money to those whose practices we cannot support in good conscience: “[there is a] great need for a sense of social responsibility on the part of consumers. Purchasing is always a moral–and not simply economic–act” (150). He reminds of of “the moral imperative of assessing the impact of our every action and personal decision on the world around us. If we can overcome individualism, we will truly be able to develop a different lifestyle and bring about significant changes in society” (151).
  
The Pope, as you might expect, also does not support measures to control population growth. I disagree with this, but he makes a defensible point:

"To blame population growth instead of extreme and selective consumerism on the part of some, is one way of refusing to face the issues. It is an attempt to legitimize the present model of distribution where a minority believes that it has the right to consume in a way which can never be universalized, since the planet could not even contain the waste products of such consumption" (29).

But he doesn’t just criticize greed, consumption, and individualism without offering ways to address it. He discusses how “ecological education” needs to start at a very young age. The family environment plays a crucial role because

"In the family we first learn how to show love and respect for life; we are taught the proper use of things, order and cleanliness, respect for the local ecosystem and care for all creatures. In the family we receive an integral education, which enables us to grow harmoniously in personal maturity. In the family we learn to ask without demanding, to say “thank you” as an expression of genuine gratitude for what we have been given, to control our aggression and greed, and to ask forgiveness when we have caused harm. These simple gestures of heartfelt courtesy help to create a culture of shared life and respect for our surroundings" (155).

His vision of an alternative lifestyle is as powerful as it is simple, and it still holds together just as well if you cut out all the religious stuff:

"Christian spirituality proposes an alternative understanding of the quality of life, and encourages a prophetic and contemplative lifestyle, one capable of deep enjoyment free of the obsession with consumption. We need to take up an ancient lesson, found in different religious traditions and also in the Bible. It is the conviction that “less is more”. A constant flood of new consumer goods can baffle the heart and prevent us from cherishing each thing and each moment. To be serenely present to each reality, however small it may be, opens us to much greater horizons of understanding and personal fulfilment. Christian spirituality proposes a growth marked by moderation and the capacity to be happy with little. It is a return to that simplicity which allows us to stop and appreciate the small things, to be grateful for the opportunities which life affords us, to be spiritually detached from what we possess, and not to succumb to sadness for what we lack. This implies avoiding the dynamic of dominion and the mere accumulation of pleasures. Such sobriety, when lived freely and consciously, is liberating. It is not a lesser life or one lived with less intensity. On the contrary, it is a way of living life to the full. In reality, those who enjoy more and live better each moment are those who have given up dipping here and there, always on the look-out for what they do not have. They experience what it means to appreciate each person and each thing, learning familiarity with the simplest things and how to enjoy them. So they are able to shed unsatisfied needs, reducing their obsessiveness and weariness. Even living on little, they can live a lot, above all when they cultivate other pleasures and find satisfaction in fraternal encounters, in service, in developing their gifts, in music and art, in contact with nature, in prayer. Happiness means knowing how to limit some needs which only diminish us, and being open to the many different possibilities which life can offer. Sobriety and humility were not favourably regarded in the last century. And yet, when there is a general breakdown in the exercise of a certain virtue in personal and social life, it ends up causing a number of imbalances, including environmental ones. That is why it is no longer enough to speak only of the integrity of ecosystems. We have to dare to speak of the integrity of human life, of the need to promote and unify all the great values. Once we lose our humility, and become enthralled with the possibility of limitless mastery over everything, we inevitably end up harming society and the environment" (159-163).

Another theme that cut through the encyclical was his message of empathy, of how important it is to “see each human being as a subject who can never be reduced to the status of an object” (59), and how “all creatures are connected, each must be cherished with love and respect, for all of us as living creatures are dependent on one another” (29). “All of us are linked by unseen bonds and together form a kind of universal family, a sublime communion which fills us with a sacred, affectionate and humble respect” (64). Every act of cruelty towards any creature is contrary to human dignity. We can hardly consider ourselves to be fully loving if we disregard any aspect of reality” (67). “The earth is essentially a shared inheritance, whose fruits are meant to benefit everyone” (67).

"We fail to see that some [people] are mired in desperate and degrading poverty, with no way out, while others have not the faintest idea of what to do with their possessions, vainly showing off their supposed superiority and leaving behind them so much waste which, if it were the case everywhere, would destroy the planet. In practice, we continue to tolerate that some consider themselves more human than others, as if they had been born with greater rights" (65).

Also resonant with me is his repeated emphasis on ecology and how everything coexists in a delicate web of interrelationships:

"Ecology studies the relationship between living organisms and the environment in which they develop. This necessarily entails reflection and debate about the conditions required for the life and survival of society, and the honesty needed to question certain models of development, production and consumption. It cannot be emphasized enough how everything is interconnected. Time and space are not independent of one another, and not even atoms or subatomic particles can be considered in isolation. Just as the different aspects of the planet – physical, chemical and biological – are interrelated, so too living species are part of a network which we will never fully explore and understand. A good part of our genetic code is shared by many living beings. It follows that the fragmentation of knowledge and the isolation of bits of information can actually become a form of ignorance, unless they are integrated into a broader vision of reality" (95).

The Pope said much, much more in his message; I’ve merely highlighted the stuff I found most compelling. If any of it sounds interesting, you might check it out! He ends with two prayers, one of which I’ve reproduced below. I’m not religious in the slightest, but if I was, this is a prayer I could bow my head to:

A prayer for our earth: All-powerful God, you are present in the whole universe and in the smallest of your creatures. You embrace with your tenderness all that exists. Pour out upon us the power of your love, that we may protect life and beauty. Fill us with peace, that we may live as brothers and sisters, harming no one. O God of the poor, help us to rescue the abandoned and forgotten of this earth, so precious in your eyes. Bring healing to our lives, that we may protect the world and not prey on it, that we may sow beauty, not pollution and destruction. Touch the hearts of those who look only for gain at the expense of the poor and the earth. Teach us to discover the worth of each thing, to be filled with awe and contemplation, to recognize that we are profoundly united with every creature as we journey towards your infinite light. We thank you for being with us each day. Encourage us, we pray, in our struggle for justice, love and peace.