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Polluters tending to their own flock

"I urgently appeal, then, for a new dialogue about how we are shaping the future of our planet. We need a conversation which includes everyone, since the environmental challenge we are undergoing, and its human roots, concern and affect us all." - Pope Francis, Laudato Si’, 15

With the publication of his first independent encyclical, "Laudato Si’—On Care for Our Common Home," Pope Francis takes his most important step thus far in guiding the Catholic Church out of the fortress of dogmatic defensiveness into the city square. An encyclical is one of the highest forms of church teaching. It entails an obligation on the part of all Catholic faithful to study and reflect. In choosing this form to speak about “integral ecology” (as he calls it), Francis indicates the importance of the subject.

However, the encyclical is not addressed just to the bishops or the Catholic faithful, but to all peoples of the earth. Laudato Si’ applies scripture and tradition to what Francis sees as perhaps the most crucial issue of our day: environmental exploitation and degradation, and its affects on the poor. It brings the rich heritage of the church into dialogue with scientists, sociologists, humanists and atheists, with other religious traditions and with all who profess the desire to end suffering and protect the planet. Like the Incarnation, this letter determines not to shelter the mystery of God from the problems and passions of humanity, but to see God in the midst of Creation, and to proclaim that God cares intimately about the choices and actions we make as members of creation.

Because of its concern for the realities of human existence, Laudato Si’ has already been accused of lacking a spiritual focus: of sanctifying a partisan political agenda rather than proclaiming the profound truths of the Catholic tradition. Asserting that Francis meddles in areas not consistent with papal authority or expertise—e.g., with economics and global warming, with matter of science and financial policy—some critics have, even before the publication of the document, called for the pope to keep quiet, or have denied the teaching authority of this encyclical. Indeed, tales of intrigue worthy of a Dan Brown novel have surrounded leaks and rumors from within the Vatican itself and reported in the media. Even within the hierarchy, some have sought to mollify critics by smoothing the sharp edges of the pope’s analyses, suggesting that the encyclical offers nothing new, and can be easily ignored.

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Nothing could be further from the truth. The encyclical speaks for itself and will stand or fall to the degree it expresses the faith of the living church and helps that church to come to know the God in whom “we live and move and have our being.”

Though a long document, it covers a wide swath of topics—from addictive consumption to biodiversity, from Genesis to the rights of property versus the right of the common good. It is vital that we engage Laudato Si’ and prayerfully discern its teachings and its call in our lives and in our community. Francis clearly identifies a right to water: "According to Pope Francis, access to safe drinkable water is a basic and universal human right, since it is essential to human survival and, as such, is a condition for the exercise of human rights," a topic which clearly resonates in our own community. Additionally, he laments the exploitation of natural resources. The Missoula-based Blue Skies Campaign and 350 Missoula share these same concerns about climate change, advocating for a move from coal to clean energy.

In beautiful and often passionate prose, Pope Francis summons us to reflect not on abstract moral precepts, but on a dynamic moral vision which will affect how we live our lives, care for our neighbors, renew our earth, and form our government. If taken seriously, this letter will change us as individuals and as a community: change the way we gather and the way we pray; the way we share with the poor and the way we educate our young; the way we reach out to our partners in the church and other faiths; it will change our understanding of the mystery of God, unfolding in the richness of creation.

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Fr. Joseph Carver is a pastor at St. Francis Xavier Church in Missoula. 

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