Dear Good People of Saint Mary,
Last week about 25 of us gathered for our first of three meetings to discuss and respond to Pope Francis’ encyclical on Care for the Earth, Laudato si’. One of the great things that happens in a large parish like ours is that you discover such diversity of backgrounds and knowledge of people who come together, people who represent such different disciplines as environmental sciences, farming, teaching, economics, conservation and weather. Then there’s people like me who get to learn from all of you.
Somebody corrected me, as previously I had referred to this encyclical as the Pope’s document “on the environment,” and I realize it is such an error that I need to print a correction! It is about the environment, in part, but this simplification has led many to decide they can dismiss it as a document merely about climate change, words that boil up so much political controversy over already-formed alliances. I believe sides have divided our culture over this issue for personal gain, without really looking at it. In our day we have allowed real moral issues to become so aligned with politics that it seems people don’t even consider the objective reality of them without the lens of partisan affiliations. Early in our discussion last week, we decided to leave the words climate change aside and look at what the Pope is really saying. He says so much more.
It came up in our discussion that some say the Pope is a Marxist. Another political label meant to distract attention from the reality of which he speaks. It is true he speaks out of his own experience (how could he not?) of the struggle he knew all his life with South American totalitarian regimes who had no compassion, no mercy for human persons. But he spent his visit to our country not calling us out and condemning us for being a free market society built on hard work and well-earned success, but challenging us to use its fruitfulness for the good, and leave behind the part that can destroy us spiritually and culturally, to avoid what destroys the fragile balance of God’s creation given to us as stewards, meant to be preserved, nurtured, valued.
He does say often that politics and economics so dominate the discussion that what we do today—in all spheres of our lives and the life of our planet—has more to do with the bottom line and cost per unit than it does with the dignity of workers, their right to a fair wage, the promotion of peoples and the care of the earth. Would we not rather get things cheap (especially the things we don’t really need) than pay what it costs to give someone a good paying job? Maybe we wouldn’t do this consciously; Pope Francis is saying that we have gotten to the point that the people who work for $5 a day in different countries in the world aren’t even remembered as a part of the system anymore.
You don’t have to travel very far to witness personally the damage done to fragile ecosystems. The health of our bay is a subject of great concern, much more than just the price of crabs. What about the changes being made in the southwest, where cities along the paths of rivers have dried them up, leaving people further along without any water at all? Some countries are now trying to replant lost hardwood forests with “sustainable” cash crops of fast-growing trees, often “invader” plants that cause the extinction of further species? Some of these forests require six or seven generations to be reestablished, more time than we have or are willing to give.
I think the most compelling point that Pope Francis makes about the earth is that it is the place God designed where the encounter takes place between him and mankind. God created the earth to be a safe place for human beings, not a place where the law would protect a pet more than an unborn child. Not a place where the poor become poorer, where indigenous peoples disappear because of another’s greed. Not a place where we consume, waste, and throw away the fruits of that creation without regard to the impact that we have on others.
When I was looking for a college, my parents said that they wanted us to find a college that actually taught ethics in their curriculum. This was over thirty years ago: ethics was virtually impossible to find. This, I think, is the main point that Pope Francis is trying to make with his encyclical. God’s gifts are given to us with a moral charge included: we must once again look at our lives and the way we are using his gifts from a moral perspective. Ultimately we must understand the Planner behind the plan, if that plan is to succeed. He is returning ethics to the discussion table.
We meet again next week; the week after, we plan our parish’s active response.
God bless you.