‘Laudato Si’: The Pope and the Court of the Gentiles
By Bishop Arthur Serratelli
Even before the June 18, 2015 publication of Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment (Laudato Si’), the media delighted in reporting voices both approving and disapproving of his speaking on the subject. No doubt the debate will continue. But, this is a good thing. In his 184-page letter, the Holy Father addressed his words to “every person on this planet,” hoping to stir up discussion on an issue that touches every living creature and the world itself.
Any person with common sense realizes that we face threats to the environment from industrial and chemical pollution, water shortage, fossil fuels, fertilizers, pesticides and the destruction of the rainforests. Our misuse of technology harms the environment and others, as well. And, our consumer-centered manner of living, coupled with our throw-away culture, depletes our natural resources and deprives others of their rightful share in God’s gifts, especially the poor.
In choosing to speak out forcibly on the hot button issue of the environment, the Pope stands well within the Church’s tradition. Pope St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, named “the green pope,” did not shy away from this subject. In his first encyclical, Pope John Paul II warned that human beings frequently seem “to see no other meaning in their natural environment than what serves for immediate use and consumption” (Redemptor hominis, n. 15). Pope Benedict XVI, likewise, spoke on the environment. He taught that “the book of nature is one and indivisible: it takes in not only the environment but also life, sexuality, marriage, the family, social relations: in a word, integral human development” (Caritas in Veritate, n. 51). We are called to be good stewards of creation. This is Catholic teaching.
Reading through the particulars of Pope Francis’ encyclical, individuals will invariably find challenges to their way of thinking about climate change, the free market, the privatization of water, carbon tax-credits, the role of government and the international community to regulate the use of the world’s resources, the value of technology and the effects of the digital media. For some, there may even be a vigorous opposition to the Pope’s use of scientific research and conclusions. None of this detracts from the essential and necessary place that this new encyclical will have within the world community.
The Pope calls for individuals and businesses to exercise moral restraint in their consumption of the world’s goods. Many may not like this, but it is a needed admonition. Self-centered activity does not respect the earth’s resources as a common gift to be shared, regardless of their socio-economic status.
In his encyclical, Pope Francis widens our perspective beyond ourselves. He asks us the pressing question, “What kind of world do we want to leave to those who come after us, to children who are now growing up?” (n. 160). Wisely, he states that the way we answer that question has everything to do with our own human dignity and the ultimate purpose of our earthy sojourn.
The Pope writes in accessible prose. With characteristic bluntness, the Pope remarks, “The earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth” (n. 21). With great clarity, he rebukes the cultural trends that contradict the design of the Creator for the human body and connects this with ecology. He says, “The 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” (n. 155).
At times, the Pope’s words are poetic. He states that “The entire material universe speaks of God’s love, his boundless affection for us. Soil, water, mountains: everything is, as it were, a caress of God” (n. 84). He exclaims with awe, “How wonderful is the certainty that each human life is not adrift in the midst of hopeless chaos, in a world ruled by pure chance or endlessly recurring cycles” (n. 65).
While both the accessible prose and the mystical poetry of the Pope help communicate his message, it is his deep moral-theological insight that gives this encyclical its enduring value. He offers to the entire world ecology contextualized within a holistic concept of the human person. Citing Pope Benedict XVI, Pope Francis writes, that “creation is harmed ‘where we ourselves have the final word, where everything is simply our property and we use it for ourselves alone. The misuse of creation begins when we no longer recognize any higher instance than ourselves, when we see nothing else but ourselves’ ” (n. 13). He reminds us of the fundamental truth that “Man does not create himself. He is spirit and will, but also nature” (n. 12).
Pope Francis strongly rebukes the philosophical schizophrenia, common to our age, that divorces ecology and anthropology. All creation is God’s gift and, most especially, human beings. God has placed us as his stewards and guardians of creation. We are not its masters. We cannot be its ruthless exploiters. The Pope rightly insists that “there can be no renewal of our relationship with nature without a renewal of humanity itself” (n. 118). Every creature has a purpose. Not one is superfluous. Each has a specific value in God’s eyes and should be protected and cherished.
Thus, the Pope criticizes those “ecological movements [that] defend the integrity of the environment, rightly demanding that certain limits be imposed on scientific research, [and, then] fail to apply those same principles to human life. There is a tendency to justify transgressing all boundaries when experimentation is carried out on living human embryos” (n. 136). He insists that every human being is of inalienable worth and this transcends his or her stage of development. A needed corrective to a world that discards human life with abandon! He warns that “If personal and social sensitivity towards the acceptance of the new life is lost, then other forms of acceptance that are valuable for society also wither away” (n. 97).
How wisely does the Holy Father frame the right to life in language that is so acceptable to those who clamor to protect the environment, as if it were the only issue. He points out the inconsistency of their logic. He writes, “Since everything is interrelated, concern for the protection of nature is also incompatible with the justification of abortion. How can we genuinely teach the importance of concern for other vulnerable beings, however troublesome or inconvenient they may be, if we fail to protect a human embryo, even when its presence is uncomfortable and creates difficulties?” (n. 120).
With his encyclical Laudato Si,’ Pope Francis has courageously entered into the highly charged discussion of climate change and the environment. But, he has done much more. He has initiated a new moment in the dialogue between faith and reason.
In the time of Jesus, the Court of the Gentiles was the vast open space on the Temple mount in Jerusalem where all those who did not share Israel’s faith could discuss religious matters. Pope Benedict XVI spoke of the dialogue between believers and non-believers, agnostics and atheists, as the modern-day ‘Court of the Gentiles.’ By sharing his masterful insights on ecology and its fundamental relationship with anthropology in his encyclical, Pope Francis has stepped outside of the internal Church issues that must occupy the successor of Peter. He has firmly placed his foot in “the Court of the Gentiles.” Open to dialogue, he offers the world “the seamless garment of creation,” a truth that can unite us as one human family.
Bishop Serratelli is the bishop of Paterson, New Jersey.