While many parts of the United States are in the grips of inclement, or perhaps more accurately, horrible, weather, with record-breaking freezing temperatures, we in New Mexico are enjoying mild daytime temperatures, around 50 degrees Fahrenheit, or higher. This is admittedly “warm” for the beginning of February, but no one seems to be complaining. In the past weeks we have had our share of cold mornings and some snowfall, and we hope more moisture will come, to bring us a “green spring,” usually arriving by mid-April.
I grew up with humorous grandparents, both on my father’s and my mother’s side, and I believe all of them used to say, “Everybody talks about the weather, but no one does anything about it.” While there is truth in the joke, we also know that we can in fact do something about the weather, to a certain degree. That was part of the thrust of the 2015 document of Pope Francis, called Laudato si, (translated as, “Praised be to you,” taken from the “Canticle of Creation” of Saint Francis of Assisi), the pope’s second encyclical, which is subtitled: “On care for our common home.” The document criticizes a culture of consumerism and irresponsible development, as well as laments environmental destruction and global warming.
The poem-prayer of Saint Francis of Assisi is a work in praise of God for the creation that surrounds us, including its many different creatures, and really all aspects of what is often called, “Mother Earth.” Pope Francis in Laudato si reminds the Church and all people of good will, that the post-industrial times will likely be remembered as among the most irresponsible in history. At the same time, this is no reason to despair or give up trying to save the planet, the good earth, which God has given to us to be its stewards, and not wanton dominators or destroyers of creation, freely given to humans to cultivate and maintain.
In the mind of Pope Francis, care of our earth is not something “optional,” as if we can give or take at leisure, without responsibility. Rather, the pope sees care of the earth as part of the Church’s duty in her teaching and practice of social justice, where human life and all of creation, are to be cared for, nurtured and promoted. The concept of a “throw-away culture,” so prevalent in America today with regard to the environment, too often and easily gets applied to people as well; that is, the elderly, the unborn, the poor, are also too frequently discarded as “waste.”
One of the basic problems underlying the situation at present is that many today do not recognize God as the Supreme Creator. Instead, living beings, either human or animal, are routinely exploited, ignored or destroyed, without reference to God, and thereby the deeper reality that everything and everyone on earth is interconnected is lost sight of, as is the fact that we should be forming, in Pope Francis’ words: “A kind of universal family” (see Laudato si).
The natural world around us is not to be considered as something apart from us or simply the “land on which we live.” Instead, Pope Francis maintains that the occupation and care of the earth is of paramount importance for preserving and promoting human life, and the life of all God’s creatures, great and small.
Pollution, a lack of clean water, deforestation, and many other realities today are working against the promotion and care of our common home. Pope Francis believes that exploitation and destruction of the environment inevitably brings about changes in the climate that have grave implications, and is one of the principle challenges facing humanity today. Unprecedented destruction of ecosystems has serious consequences for us all, the pope emphasizes in Laudato si.
We certainly seem to be witnessing this reality in the unprecedented climate extremes of recent times. Poorer nations, the pontiff says, are ill-prepared for adapting to the effects of climate change and will suffer most in the wake of such changes. Pope Francis stresses that science and religion need to enter into dialogue that is fruitful for both parties.
For believers, the unity of creation and its Creator must never be lost sight of. This is certainly a Benedictine trait, when our founder, Saint Benedict, calls on his monks to treat all the tools of the monastery, and by extension, all of creation which surrounds the monastery, with the same care that is shown to the sacred vessels of the altar (see the Rule of Saint Benedict, chapter 31).
Pope Francis also points out in Laudato si that the crisis of our environment can be solved only when the immense technological developments of our times are coupled with “a development in human responsibility, values and conscience.” This has huge implications for those who profess to follow Jesus Christ and are members of the Church.
The encyclical Laudato si, as a document in favor of life in all its forms and stages, decidedly opposes abortion, embryonic stem cell research and population control. For Pope Francis and the Catholic Church in general, respect for God’s creation and human dignity, are closely linked. “Since everything is interconnected,” says Pope Francis, “concern for the protection of nature is also incompatible with the justification of abortion” and other life-denying tendencies.
“Respect and protect” are distinctive characteristics of the encyclical Laudato si in its concern for the dignity of human life and the intrinsic value of our natural world. Contrary to “respect and protect” are the all too common inclinations of consumption, greed and wastefulness. The best counterparts to these abuses are sacrifice, generosity and distribution. In the mind of Pope Francis, the ideal is to give, and not simply give up.
Regard for the dignity of all people and stewardship of the earth are of paramount importance today. Cultivating a “climate of life,” not death, makes for the possibility of everyone flourishing and joining with creation in praising our Creator, as Saint Francis expressed it in his Canticle of Creation.
Of course, such concern expressed by Pope Francis in Laudato si is not only “Franciscan,” but “Benedictine to the core,” as well. Saint Francis knew well the Benedictines in Assisi and entrusted Saint Clare’s formation to the Benedictine nuns near Assisi. One writer some decades ago, Rene Dubos, in his 1972 book, A God Within, went so far as to strongly suggest that the more appropriate patron saint of ecology, as the movement was then called, be entrusted to Saint Benedict, whose monks have always interacted with the land and cultivated it, whereas Franciscans tended more toward admiration of creation, but not so much cultivators of the land.
In any case, all of us are called to be caretakers of God’s creation.
Abbot Christian Leisy