Adding a Needed Voice to the Conversation on Ecology

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Some of the clearest expressions of the Christian commitment come from the mouths of children. During a visit to one of our Catholic schools, a young student gave me one of the small packages of candy that had been used in class to teach some rather intricate mathematical principles. As I thanked him I told him that I was going to share this with the priest who had accompanied me so that he, the youngster, could keep the other pack for himself. The budding young mathematician looked at me and replied: “You’re supposed to share!”

This experience came to mind when I read Pope Francis’ new encyclical, Laudato Si’ (Praised Be You), which was released yesterday. All of the goodness of God manifest in creation is destined for all people. We are supposed to share this gift from God and help take care of it rather than exploiting the goods of the earth – or one another – for our own selfish purposes.

At the heart of the Pope’s teaching, which is subtitled, “On Care for Our Common Home,” is what it means to be human as part of God’s plan in creation. Our Holy Father highlights the strong connection between our relationship with God and our relationship with the natural world.

Creation is the beginning of the outpouring of God’s love for his creatures. In the opening of the Book of Genesis we read about the act of God that brings all things into existence. The creation accounts “suggest that human life is grounded in three fundamental and closely intertwined relationships: with God, with our neighbor and with the earth itself,” writes Pope Francis. However, “these three vital relationships have been broken, both outwardly and within us” (Laudato Si’, 66). Because everything is interrelated, says the Pope, this breakdown has led to environmental deterioration that we must now address.

He uses in Chapter Four the concept of an “integral ecology” that begins with the way we live our own lives. We are called to cooperate with God’s design in our relationship with one another and with the natural world. When we have an appreciation for integral ecology, when we see the connection between respecting human dignity and care for the natural world, we grow closer to God, who is the Creator.

Teresa of Avila, saint and doctor of the Church, writing in the 16th century, describes Pope Francis’ thought poetically, “It helped me to look at fields, or water, or flowers. In these things, I found a remembrance of the Creator. I mean that they awakened and recollected me and served as a book.” Saint Teresa helps us see that in understanding the created world, we learn something of God’s plan for creatures and creation.

An ‘integral ecology” brings a Catholic worldview to the environmental discussion which helps us see more clearly the moral lesson woven into the story of creation. Men and women are called to live in peace with God and in the natural world.

As you read and reflect on Laudato Si’, it is important to know also the background to Pope Francis’ timely message. Every Pope in the last century has spoken on the need for humanity to take care of God’s gift of creation.

For example, Blessed Pope Paul VI in 1971 called the world’s attention to the menace of pollution, writing, “Man is suddenly becoming aware that by an ill-considered exploitation he risks destroying it and becoming in his turn the victim of this degradation” (Octogesima Adveniens, 21). In 1990, on New Year’s Day, Saint Pope John Paul II identified a lack of peace as a one kind of deprivation, saying, “Many ethical values, fundamental to the development of a peaceful society, are particularly relevant to the ecological question. The fact that many challenges facing the world today are interdependent confirms the need for carefully coordinated solutions based on a morally coherent world view. For Christians, such a world view is grounded in religious convictions drawn from Revelation” (World Day of Peace Message, 1990).

Today in Laudato Si’, Pope Francis picks up Pope Benedict XVI’s link between the respect for human dignity and care for the natural world. Pope Benedict wrote, “The environment is God’s gift to everyone, and in our use of it we have a responsibility toward the poor, towards future generations and towards humanity as a whole” (Caritas in Veritate, 48).

None of us can claim absolute ownership over the goods of the earth – God gave us his creation to share. We are grateful to Pope Francis for giving us this encyclical to further explore our responsibilities toward the common good of our local communities, our country and our global neighbors.

To help guide reflections on the teachings of Laudato Si’, and to discover ways to put those teachings into practice, the Archdiocese of Washington has prepared a series of materials which may be found at adw.org/creation. You are also invited to participate in our social media campaign #CultivatingCreation, which will run over the next five weeks.

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