13 December 2016

Pope on a Mission: Climate Change & Creation Care (1)

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Polar bears are losing their habitats across the glacier regions, and many are drowning as a result of the excessive floodwaters. Polar bears are losing their habitats across the glacier regions, and many are drowning as a result of the excessive floodwaters. http://www.climate-change-guide.com/melting-polar-ice-caps.html

*** For the last five months a combination of projects, teaching, and family affairs have forced me to neglect my blog. I hope to get back to at least a monthly post by January, once the first draft of the Ghannouchi book translation is finally completed.


Like many others, I’ve been reeling under the shock of a Trump presidency and its potential impact on a host of issues, and the Paris Agreement in particular – in essence “the first international climate agreement” (see some of the dire consequence should the Trump administration choose to walk away from it in this Atlantic article). World peace is intimately connected to both to healthy trade practices and a global effort to mitigate the environmental crisis already bearing down on us as citizens of this planet Earth. Just today I read that sea and air temperatures in the Arctic portend a dramatic loss of sea ice next year

In this post I turn to a topic high on my “to-write about list.” It concerns Pope Francis’ first encyclical Laudate Si (“Praise be to you”). It is all about what Protestants, and evangelicals in particular, call “creation care.” His own subtitle is similar: “On care for our common home,” but the Latin “laudate si” is part of a prayer/canticle penned by St. Francis, whom this pope has chosen as his “guide and inspiration”:


“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.”


The earth’s condition is in urgent need of repair and we are the culprits. This is a call to all of humanity to repent and change their ways, as the next paragraph makes clear:


“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. The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life. This is why the earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor; she “groans in travail” (Rom 8:22).


I have written on faith and ecology at some length before. This blog post is one of two on this topic. Here I’ll briefly present the encyclical and comment particularly on Pope Francis’ theological framework. The second and last installment will go more in depth on the issue of mission – how this pope sees the missionary role of the Roman Catholic Church in the second decade of this new millennium. I will compare this to the 2010 evangelical document, the “Lausanne Cape Town Commitment,” and show that Christians are more united on these issues than might first appear. Naturally, since this blog is about increasing Muslim-Christian understanding, I will also comment on Muslim da’wa, the qur’anic imperative for Muslims to call others to their faith in much the same way as Christians.


Francis’ theology of planet care

What does Saint Francis have to teach us, the pope asks? “He was a mystic and a pilgrim who lived in simplicity, and in wonderful harmony with God, with others, with nature and with himself. He shows us just how inseparable the bond is between concern for nature, justice for the poor, commitment to society, and interior peace” (9-10). He leads us beyond the categories of mathematics and biology, Pope Francis says, to an integrated, holistic ecology, because it embraces communion with all of creation with an attitude of constant awe and gratitude to the Creator.

This is an embodied theology, a way of being in the world which led him to name every creature, however big or small, “brother” or “sister.” No romanticism was this. Rather, by choosing the posture and discourse of “fraternity and beauty” in our relationship with the world, we too deliberately refuse to be “masters, consumers, ruthless exploiters, unable to set limits on [our] immediate needs” (11). “By contrast,” he adds, “if we feel intimately united with all that exists, then sobriety and care will well up spontaneously.” Yes, Saint Francis lived intentionally as a pauper, but this was more radical than simply choosing asceticism. It was “a refusal to turn reality into an object simply to be used and controlled” (11).

Additionally, the beloved friar saw this through the lens of scripture. “Through the greatness and the beauty of creatures one comes to know by analogy their maker” (Wisdom13:5). And as Saint Paul noted, “[God’s] eternal power and divinity have been made known through his words through the creation of the world” (Rom. 1:20).

Then the pope makes his “appeal” to humanity as a whole:


“The urgent challenge to protect our common home includes a concern to bring the whole human family together to seek a sustainable and integral [a better translation, I think, is “holistic”] development, for we know that things can change. The Creator does not abandon us; he never forsakes his loving plan or repents of having created us. Humanity still has the ability to work together in building our common home … Young people demand change. They wonder how anyone can claim to be building a better future without thinking of the environmental crisis and the sufferings of the excluded” (12).


Pope Francis sees this document as a call for all to engage in a “new dialogue about how we are shaping the future of our planet” (12). He expresses gratitude for the global environmental movement in its many forms. Many groups and organization forge ahead, despite the indifference of many and the opposition of vested interests. All of us everywhere are needed “as instruments of God for the care of creation, each according to his or her culture, experience, involvement and talents” (12).

His first chapter then lists some of the damages we humans are inflicting on our common home: pollution of all kinds and even more alarming, the sudden acceleration of global warming caused to a large extent by human selfishness and unbridled greed. Climate change represents “one of the principal challenges facing humanity in our day,” (20) and its affects the world’s poor disproportionately. Coupled with the disaster caused by wanton deforestation, a changing climate is multiplying refugees whose status is not yet recognized by international conventions. Symptoms can be tackled here and there, but the root cause needs to be squarely addressed: “our current models of production and consumption.” We must substitute renewable energy for that of fossil fuels, and make these new technologies available to those most impoverished.

The other urgent issue of our day is the depletion of the planet’s resources, with water as the forefront, and especially clean drinking water for the poor. Yet with water becoming more and more scarce, in some instances it has been turned into a commodity ruled by the laws of the market. Notice here Pope Francis’ use of the discourse of rights:


“Yet access to safe drinkable water is a basic and universal human right, since it is essential to human survival and, as such, it is a condition for the exercise of other human rights. Our world has a grave debt towards the poor who lack access to drinking water, because they are denied the right to a life consistent with their inalienable dignity” (23, his emphasis).


There is much more in this first chapter (loss of biodiversity, declining quality of life in human society, global inequality, and the weak responses), but allow me to offer a couple of comments on the next chapter, “The Gospel of Creation.”

Starting with a substantial section on “The wisdom of the biblical accounts” (9 pages), Francis develops a theology of creation according to which the Holy Spirit seeks to guide all people in the task of protecting and creatively developing their common heritage (“The mystery of the universe”). Then follows a meditation on God’s love as the force behind all that exists. “Every creature is thus the object of the Father’s tenderness” (56). In that sense too, creation as a whole and each part of it is the receptacle of the divine. Therefore, its very fragility reminds us that as trustees of this awesome gift, we are challenged “to devise intelligent ways of directing, developing, and limiting our power” (57).

From this perspective, then, we cannot view nature “solely as a source of profit and gain”:


“This vision of ‘might is right’ has engendered immense inequality, injustice and acts of violence against the majority of humanity, since resources end up in the hands of the first comer or the most powerful: the winner takes all. Completely at odds with this model are the ideals of harmony, justice, fraternity and peace as proposed by Jesus. As he said of the powers of his own age, ‘You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant’” (Mat. 20: 25-26).


The next section returns to the theme of awe and wonder, but this time in praise of the Creator (“The message of each creature in the harmony of creation”). Every rock, hill, lake, seashore and flower speaks to the boundless love of the Father of all. Special places in our own experience remind us of his meeting us there in the past. But it’s not just about us. This is about our connection to everything that lives and has being, because it was breathed by the God of love, and because each piece depends on the other and the whole forms a breathtaking tapestry in praise of his holy name.

Now for the last two sections of this chapter on the theology of creation and of ecology. The first, “The common destination of goods,” was a central theme of his pastoral letter of 2013, Gaudium Evangelii (“The Joy of the Gospel,” see my own blog on this). In Catholic social doctrine (and certainly in the prophetic stream of the Bible) the “golden rule of social conduct is this: “the subordination of private property to the universal destination of goods” (69). Therefore, “The natural environment is a collective good, the patrimony of all humanity and the responsibility of all” (70). He offers this forceful illustration:


“That is why the New Zealand bishops asked what the commandment ‘Thou shalt 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” (71).


Jesus and a theology of ecology

Pope Francis ends the chapter with “The gaze of Jesus.” Jesus, after all, worked with his hands a good fifteen to twenty years, most likely chiseling wood, cutting stone and laying brick for the booming construction industry in nearby Sepphoris. He obviously loved to admire the beauty of creation, as his Sermon on the Mount attests, “Look at the birds of the air … See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon was dressed like one of these” (Mat. 6:26, 28). His parables too often drew the attention of his listeners to mustard seeds, the farmer sowing his field, the reapers at harvest time, the fig tree and more.

Jesus also was a man in tune with people around him, one who could enjoy with others the pleasant things of life. He said of himself, “The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard!’” (Mat. 11:19). But his connection to nature was also at times a source of wonder and even terror for his disciples, “What sort of man is this, when even the winds and sea obey him?” (Mat. 8:27).

For the Christian, “the destiny of all creation is bound up with the mystery of Christ, present from the beginning: ‘All things were created by him and for him’” (Col. 1:16). He is the eternal Word of God (the logos in John’s prologue), who “became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). And when in the presence of his disciples he had just ascended to heaven after his resurrection, an angel appeared saying to them, “This same Jesus … will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11). Jesus had just risen up to heaven in his human, resurrected body, to rejoin the Father once again. We know from several gospel narratives that this new body had new properties, like going through walls and appearing anywhere at will. Most of all, it is the prototype of the bodies we will inhabit when he returns. As the Apostle Paul wrote,


"For our dying bodies must be tranformed into bodies that will never die, and our mortal bodies must be transformed into immortal bodies" (I Cor. 15:53).


Thus the ascension of Jesus and his resurrection gloriously linked heaven with earth, and the age to come stepped into our present age, guaranteeing that at his second coming he would usher in the New Heavens and the New Earth (Rev. 21:1). This has manifest implications for our natural environment, as Pope Francis concludes,


“Thus, the creatures of this world no longer appear to us under merely natural guise because the Risen One is mysteriously holding them to himself and directing them towards fullness as their end. The very flowers of the field and the birds which his human eyes contemplated and admired are now imbued with his radiant presence” (74).