I think there must be more than one version of the Pope’s latest encyclical, Laudato Si! I do not have to hand the Communist/Marxist version, although I do have to hand the one that challenges me to rethink some of my assumptions; I do not have to hand the version which confirms what I already thought; although I do have the one which challenges what I think; I do not have to hand the one which agrees with the economic assumptions of Western politics, nor, indeed, the one which agrees with its social liberalism either. I have, instead, a very long document which presents me, and others, with a challenge. I cannot pretend to have digested its detail, especially its economic dimensions, but I see its broad message.
As neither a climate-sceptic, nor a true believer, I take no position on man-made global warming. I know a great many scientists, not one of them believes that it is a good thing for us to continue to generate as much CO2 as we do now. They disagree on various points of detail and on timings, but listening to them, I get no sense that it would be wise to ignore the problem, or that there isn’t a problem. But when Pope Francis says: ‘The Earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth’, it is very hard to disagree – the Hobbits returning to the Shire from their adventures would have recognised what we see now, It is true, as the encyclical admits, that we have, in some areas, cleaned up our act a bit, but the general tenor is true. And this is not simply in ecological terms, it is in moral terms.
The Pope tells conservatives things they don’t want to hear, and liberals things they don’t either; thus far much of the comment I have seen reflects that. Conservatives go on about the climate change parts of the document, demanding in some cases ‘an absolute consensus’ before they will agree anything is wrong; my scientist colleagues ask what that would look like, since, by its nature, most science is about hypotheses; we could, they say, wait around until we have absolute proof – but by then it will be too late to do anything. Liberals don’t like the condemnation of abortion and the transgender scepticism, demanding that the Church agree with their relativism. The Church opposes relativism as it does using the earth as though we were its masters and not its stewards:
An inadequate presentation of Christian anthropology gave rise to a wrong understanding of the relationship between human beings and the world. Often, what was handed on was a Promethean vision of mastery over the world, which gave the impression that the protection of nature was something that only the faint-hearted cared about. Instead, our “dominion” over the universe should be understood more properly in the sense of responsible stewardship
As he goes on to say:
There can be no ecology without an adequate anthropology. When the human person is considered as simply one being among others, the product of chance or physical determinism, then “our overall sense of responsibility wanes”
The same mindset that sees the planet’s resources as just something to be exploited, sees human beings in just the same way;
A misguided anthropocentrism leads to a misguided lifestyle. In the Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, I noted that the practical relativism typical of our age is “even more dangerous than doctrinal relativism”. When human beings place themselves at the centre, they give absolute priority to immediate convenience and all else becomes relative. Hence we should not be surprised to find, in conjunction with the omnipresent technocratic paradigm and the cult of unlimited human power, the rise of a relativism which sees everything as irrelevant unless it serves one’s own immediate interests. There is a logic in all this whereby different attitudes can feed on one another, leading to environmental degradation and social decay.
‘Christian thought’, he reminds us ‘sees human beings as possessing a particular dignity above other creatures; it thus inculcates esteem for each person and respect for others’, and both the baby in the womb and the old person, and the poor and the disabled are all God’s children and to loved and valued – not thrown away when they fail to serve the utilitarian philosophy which dominates our society:
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? “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”
If we believe we have absolute power over nature and our bodies, if we put ourselves in God’s place, then we get the world we have now. What would we get if we tried following what Jesus says about loving God and our neighbour, and about going the extra mile, and about giving to the poor? We might want to find out by giving it a try – it is never too late.