Caring for Our Common Home

Pope Francis this summer issued the encyclical Laudato Si’, a letter “On Care for our Common Home.” Although an encyclical letter is defined as a letter from the pope to the bishops of the Catholic Church, he addressed this letter broadly to “every person living on this planet.” Our “sister”—Mother Earth—he writes, “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.” Putting it bluntly: “The earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth.”

Would-be presidents in the United States may debate whether or not climate change is real and use the debate as an excuse for doing nothing. The letter from Pope Francis is a lesson in leadership. He reminds us that “a very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climatic system.” Climate change, he warns, “is a global problem with grave implications: environmental, social, economic, political and for the distribution of goods.” It is, he believes, “one of the principal challenges facing humanity in our day,” and he urges us “to develop policies so that, in the next few years, the emission of carbon dioxide and other highly polluting gases can be drastically reduced.”

Having acknowledged the science of climate change, the Pope’s letter expresses his concern for the poor. These are not separate concerns, he tells us. Care for the environment must be joined with care for humanity:

“The human environment and the natural environment deteriorate together; we cannot adequately combat environmental degradation unless we attend to causes related to human and social degradation.”

Yet our response to “both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor” has been weak. We seem disinclined to address these problems or even to acknowledge the crisis.

“As often occurs in periods of deep crisis which require bold decisions, we are tempted to think that what is happening is not entirely clear. Superficially, apart from a few obvious signs of pollution and deterioration, things do not look that serious, and the planet could continue as it is for some time. Such evasiveness serves as a licence to carrying on with our present lifestyles and models of production and consumption. This is the way human beings contrive to feed their self-destructive vices: trying not to see them, trying not to acknowledge them, delaying the important decisions and pretending that nothing will happen.”

Pope Francis emphasizes that “everything is interconnected.” We cannot regard nature as something separate from ourselves. The environment is not a setting that surrounds us; it is the relationship that exists “between nature and the society which lives in it.”

“We are faced not with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather with one complex crisis which is both social and environmental. Strategies for a solution demand an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature.”

The response that is necessary requires a new way of thinking. It requires a “profound interior conversion.” Laws and regulations alone are insufficient. Francis tells us: “to bring about significant, long-lasting effects, the majority of the members of society must be adequately motivated to accept them, and personally transformed to respond.” Thus, the necessary response to climate change is not a contest of policies but a transformation of hearts that reaches into the spiritual dimension.

“We are speaking of an attitude of the heart, one which approaches life with serene attentiveness, which is capable of being fully present to someone without thinking of what comes next, which accepts each moment as a gift from God to be lived to the full.”

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