This review of Chapter 4 of Laudato Si’ is combined from several excellent discussion guides, those of the Columbans, the Franciscans, USCCB, Jesuit Fr. Thomas Reese, and other NCR commenters.
The heart of what the Encyclical proposes is integral ecology as a new paradigm of justice; an ecology “which respects our unique place as human beings in this world and our relationship to our surroundings” (15). Ecology is the relationship of living organisms and the environment: “Everything is closely interrelated.” All of creation is a web of life that includes “human and social dimensions.” By “environment,” we mean the relationship existing between nature and society. We ourselves are a part of nature. “Since everything is closely interrelated, and today’s problems call for a vision capable of taking into account every aspect of the global crisis, I suggest that we now consider some elements of an integral ecology, which clearly respects human and social dimensions” (137). The chapter ends with a look at two important principles: the common good, and justice between generations.
Pope Francis emphasizes the dimension of the interconnectedness of all things and “the conditions required for the life and survival of society, and the honesty needed to question certain models of development, production and consumption” (138). He calls for an integrated approach to a complex crisis: “We are faced not with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather with one complex crisis which is both social and environmental. Strategies for a solution demand an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, at the same time protecting nature” (139).
Recognizing the reasons why a given area is polluted requires a study of the workings of society, its economy, its behavior, and the ways it grasps reality. “The analysis of environmental problems cannot be separated from the analysis of human, family, work-related and urban contexts, and of how individuals relate to themselves.”(141) We urgently need a humanism capable of bringing together the different fields of knowledge, including economics, in the service of a more integral and integrating vision. (141). The integral perspective also brings the ecology of institutions into play: “if everything is related, then the health of a society’s institutions affects the environment and the quality of human life. “Every violation of solidarity and civic friendship harms the environment” (142).
The Pope notes that “together with the patrimony of nature, there is also an historic, artistic and cultural patrimony which is likewise under threat” (143), and greater attention to local cultures is needed (rather than leveling or overcoming local cultures through globalization). Also, the problems we have created will take complex solutions, demanding the active participation of all members of the community (144). In the context of culture the Pope expresses the need for special care for indigenous communities and their cultural traditions, noting that they are not merely one minority among others, but should be the principal dialogue partners, especially when large projects affecting their land are proposed. In contrast, indigenous people are still being pressured to abandon their lands to make room for agricultural and mining projects (146), in many places.
In addition the Pope says authentic development presupposes an integral improvement in the quality of human life: public space, housing, transport, etc. (150-154). We need provide for common areas, housing and transportation in a way that promotes “the common good.” He commends those who with generosity and creativity respond to the environmental limitations of their surroundings, but notes that extreme poverty can lead to immense challenges in regard to quality of life. While the Pope is concerned for quality urban development for all in these areas, he says this should not cause us to overlook rural populations which “lack access to essential services and where some workers are reduced to conditions of servitude, without rights or even the hope of a more dignified life” (154). Recognition of the relationship between human life and moral law, inscribed in nature and our communion, can help us create more dignified environments (155). “Acceptance of our bodies as God’s gift is vital for welcoming and accepting the entire world as a gift from the Father and our common home, whereas thinking that we enjoy absolute power over our own bodies turns, often subtly, into thinking that we enjoy absolute power over creation” (155).
“Human ecology is inseparable from the notion of the common good” (156), but is to be understood in a concrete way. In today’s context, in which, “injustices abound and growing numbers of people are deprived of basic human rights and considered expendable” (158), committing oneself to the common good means to make choices in solidarity based on “a preferential option for the poorest of our brothers and sisters” (158). The Pope defines intergenerational solidarity as the notion of the common good extended to future generations. He comments that: “Intergenerational solidarity is not optional, but rather a basic question of justice, since the world we have received also belongs to those who will follow us” (159) This is also the best way to leave a sustainable world for future generations, not just by proclaiming, but by committing to care for the poor of today, as already emphasized by Benedict XVI: “In addition to a fairer sense of inter-generational solidarity there is also an urgent moral need for a renewed sense of intra- generational solidarity” (162).
“What kind of world do we want to leave to those who come after us, to children who are now growing up?” … “We need to see that what is at stake is our own dignity. Leaving an inhabitable planet to future generations is, first and foremost, up to us. The issue is one which dramatically affects us, for it has to do with the ultimate meaning of our earthly sojourn.” (160) “What is the purpose of our life in this world? Why are we here? What is the goal of our work and all our efforts? What need does the earth have of us” (160)?
Pope Francis adds that our very dignity is at stake. He says that: “The pace of consumption, waste and environmental change has so stretched the planet’s capacity that our contemporary lifestyle, unsustainable as it is, can only precipitate catastrophes” (161). , “Doomsday predictions can no longer be met with irony or disdain”(161) The current crisis demands a very concrete response, and Pope Francis says: “The effects of the present imbalance can only be reduced by our decisive action, here and now. We need to reflect on our accountability before those who will have to endure the dire consequences” (162).
Questions for Reflection:
- What would it mean to have “an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature (139)”?
- What responsibilities do I have to creation? What responsibilities do I have to the poor, to future generations? How is poverty an environmental issue?
- The Pope speaks about a consumerist vision of human beings and that the pace of consumption, waste and environmental change has stretched the planet’s capacity, which can only lead to catastrophes. Likewise, research on GHG emissions in our own culture has confirmed a strong linkage between income, consumption (buying new items, going on long trips, increased services and associated products and consumption), and emissions. What do you think our culture could do systematically, to reduce? Where should we start?
- The Pope, bishops, and previous church fathers talk about how the goods of the earth (climate, natural resources, air and water) belong to all. How can this be carried out?
- Pope Francis affirms that “intergenerational solidarity is not optional, but rather a basic question of justice”. What must be done to guarantee a better future for our and other kids?
- What are the consequences of seeing the earth as a gift that we have freely received and must share with others and that also belongs to those who will follow us (159)?
- What does Francis mean when he says, “An ethical and cultural decline … has accompanied the deterioration of the environment” (162)?
Political and economic decision makers and Church leaders hardly appreciate the extent to which the insatiable demands of our global economy are thoroughly tearing apart the web of life, with disastrous consequences for future generations.” – Columban Society Statement on Climate Change, 2014. “The system that denies the poor a livelihood is also the system that is destroying the earth, and therefore denies them the possibility of ever having a livelihood.” – Center for Ecozoic Living and Learning, (CELL) Philippines, founded 1998.