Tag Archives: Laudato Si

Pope Francis: Who is my Neighbor?

New Jersey is my home. I live here, I farm here, and I pay taxes here. And that – those taxes, that is – can sometimes get on my nerves.

It’s not because of how much we pay. Really. It’s just this: we get so little back for the money we send to Washington. For every dollar in Federal taxes we pay in New Jersey, only 48 cents comes back to us. By contrast, our countrymen in famously tax-averse South Carolina receive a whopping $5.38 from the Feds for every dollar they pay. And they’re joined by fellow tax-haters – Mississippi, Alabama, Kentucky, and Florida, all of which get back more than double what they pay out.

At first, this really annoys me. But I’ve decided – after much soul-searching – that my reaction calls for more repentance, and less anger. Men and women in South Carolina are fellow citizens with us New Jersians. Why shouldn’t we give more to them, if we have the ability to meet their needs? They’re our fellow Americans, right?

In fact, our friends from Delaware are compelled to be even more generous, with benefits of only 31 cents on the tax dollar. And New York, Ohio, Illinois, and Nebraska aren’t far behind in subsidizing other states. But they shouldn’t complain either. This is what you do for the greater American family, right?

This issue came into focus last month as Greece teetered on the brink of default and expulsion from the European Union. Greece’s debts had run up to $323 billion Euros, and they just couldn’t keep up. Their European neighbors weren’t the slightest bit happy about it. But if the American states accounted for debt the way Europe has been doing it, then South Carolina and many of its neighboring states would be in a world of hurt. They’d never be able to repay what they’ve received, and the poor would become poorer yet.

Who is my neighbor?

Who is my neighbor?

Europe, it seems, is still grappling with the question of what it means to be one people group, where those who can afford it help out those who can’t. But this raises a deeper question, doesn’t it? Who, in fact, is my neighbor? Where does entitlement to neighborly generosity end? With my family? Or my church? Or my town, state or country? Who should be able to count on my help? Of course, this question lurks just below the surface of many of our national policy debates.

And into this debate last month, Pope Francis jumped with both feet. In a 180-page letter addressed “to all people of goodwill,” the Pope stressed the intimate connectedness of all living things all over the world – to each other, and to God. His letter bears the Latin title “Laudato Si’” (“Praise be to You, My Lord”), but its subtitle is more informative: “On Care for Our Common Home.”

That “common home” language in the title tells us a lot about where the world’s largest Christian church is headed: “We need to strengthen the conviction that we are one single human family,” wrote the Pope. “There are no frontiers or barriers, political or social, behind which we can hide, still less is there room for the globalization of indifference.”

A single human family? Even South Carolinians? Even Greeks? Where does it end?

Well, if you’re like me – prone to fret over your tax money benefiting distant strangers – then the Pope’s teaching may feel like a splash of ice-cold water. Each and every human has a right to the bounty of the earth. Christ-followers, particularly, are bound to recognize this in submission to their Lord: “Whether believers or not, we are agreed today that the earth is essentially a shared inheritance, whose fruits are meant to benefit everyone. For believers, this becomes a question of fidelity to the Creator, since God created the world for everyone.”

Who is my neighbor?

Who is my neighbor?

Consider a few of the Pope’s neighbor principles:

The fruits of the earth belong to the entire human family: “The gift of the earth with its fruits belongs to everyone.”

Each person has sacred, holy value: “We were conceived in the heart of God, and for this reason each of us is the result of a thought of God. Each of us is willed, each of us is loved, each of us is necessary.”

The poor especially deserve our care and attention: “The poor have no other financial activities or resources which can enable them to adapt to climate change or to face natural disasters…. Our lack of response to these tragedies involving our brothers and sisters points to the loss of that sense of responsibility for our fellow men and women upon which all civil society is founded.”

We need something like conversion to embrace our connection to people all over the earth: “Many things have to change course, but it is we human beings above all who need to change. We lack an awareness of our common origin, of our mutual belonging, and of a future to be shared with everyone.”

We in the developed West will have to bear many costs of harms for which others are suffering: “The countries which have benefited from a high degree of industrialization, at the cost of enormous emissions of greenhouse gases, have a greater responsibility for providing a solution to the problems they have caused.”

We must preserve and improve the earth for future generations, not extract and consume it for ourselves: “Intergenerational solidarity is not optional, but rather a basic question of justice, since the world we have received also belongs to those who will follow us.”

Simplicity, not infinite growth, is required to make the world livable for its entire human family: “The pace of consumption, waste and environmental change has so stretched the planet’s capacity that our contemporary lifestyle, unsustainable as it is, can only precipitate catastrophes….”

Our vision for family loyalty must go beyond humanity, to all creatures that God creates and loves: “All creatures are moving forward with us and through us towards a common point of arrival, which is God, in that transcendent fullness where the risen Christ embraces and illumines all things.”

Who is my neighbor?

Who is my neighbor?

Lofty words? Wishful naïveté? Well, maybe. But people can change. Let’s not forget that there was a time when people from my state would never have paid so dearly to benefit those strangers in South Carolina and Kentucky. But now, we think of them as something like family: one nation, under God – Isn’t that what we say?

Can we imagine a day when travelers on this wonderful, injured planet will begin to think that way of all God’s people and creatures?

J. Elwood

Laudato Si: The Cliff-Note Edition

We’ve all heard about the Papal Encyclical issued last month by Pope Francis. It’s titled “On Care for our Common Home,” and bears the common name “Laudato Si,” a Latin phrase taken from St. Francis’ famous prayer, The Canticle of Creation:

20150618cm01905“Be praised, my Lord, (“Laudato si, mi signore“) for all your creation
and especially for our Brother Sun,
who brings us the day and the light….”

St. Francis goes on to praise God for the moon and stars, the wind and air, the water and fire, the earth and for human forgiveness, and even for death, which we all must face.

By invoking the title Laudato Si, Pope Francis is attempting to capture his namesake’s sense of oneness with the whole creation, and God’s love for and presence in all that he has made.

Now, this encyclical is no small thing. It runs for 180 pages, and has some 250 sections, organized into six major chapters.

This isn’t the first authoritative statement on creation care and climate change that has come from the Christian Church in recent years. In 2010, the Reformed Christian Church (CRC) adopted at their general synod a comprehensive 130-page Environmental Stewardship report. At Cape Town, South Africa, the worldwide evangelical Lausanne Movement included creation care, and the threat of climate change, in both their declaration of fatih and their call to action. And these have been preceded by the Evangelical Climate Initiative (ECI), the Evangelical Declaration on Care of Creation, the Micah Declaration on Care of Creation and Climate Change and the Oxford Declaration on Global Warming. And in addition to all of these, there are the many, many statements by the Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the Anglican Communion, and mainline Protestant denominations.

These documents vary in length and scope, from the CRC’s careful approach to science, controversy and mission, to the ECI’s actionable commitments. But I would say that Laudato Si is so much different from these that it will likely be considered apart from them all. Here are a few reasons:

  1. It is addressed to 1.2 billion people, the world’s Roman Catholic faithful. That’s a lot of people.
  2. It is a meditative, quotable, beautiful letter. I fully expect that Hallmark Greeting Cards is setting up a department now, dedicated to the encyclical.
  3. It’s authoritative. No one asked American evangelicals if they planned to obey the Lausanne Cape Town commitment when it called on the global church to “engage in radical action to address climate change and reduce greenhouse gases, the harm from which falls most heavily on the poor.” The evangelical world doesn’t speak that way. But the authority of Laudato Si is already being discussed in the Catholic Church, and it carries enormous weight.
  4. It is riskier than most other declarations. It borrows the language of St. Francis, which some will misread as pantheistic; and it challenges the existing world economic and technocratic orders in ways that others will misread as socialist.
  5. Finally, its scope is very broad, and links the calls to ecological discipleship with virtually every other aspect of social and personal holiness. If I had to choose a few words to summarize the Pope’s message, it would be this: Everything in God’s world is connected to everything else, and to Him. This is not theologically new, but I believe you’ll find that it goes beyond the previous creation-care declarations.

But here’s the thing: You’re not going to read it. Who has time? And who do you know who’s actually read an encyclical (besides me)?

Okay, okay. Some of you probably will. And if you want to read it all, then you can download the PDF for free right here: just click, and read for hours.

Or, if your time is tight just now, you can have the digest I’ve put together for you. Every single section is in there, but in synopsis, with all the most compelling quotes (or so I think). So go ahead, click on the link below, and get to know this wonderful letter.

Laudato Si Digest

J. Elwood

Who Owns the Air?

In 1960, my father stopped in Paris on his way home to Washington, DC, and for less than $1,000, bought himself a shiny new Renault Dauphine compact car. A few weeks later, it rolled onto a dock in New York harbor, on its way to our suburban Virginia driveway.

In an age of tail fins and chrome baubles, the Dauphine must have been the strangest sight in the neighborhood. Never a thing of beauty, the cartoonish little Dauphine was about half the size of everyone else’s car. And by the standards of JFK’s America, this car was about as ugly as they came.

Renault Dauphine 1960: An oddity in my childhood driveway

Renault Dauphine 1960: An oddity in my childhood driveway

But for this American first-grader, the memory of my dad’s Dauphine brings back an entirely different memory. I can still virtually taste it – the suffocating, acrid smell of my father’s cigarette smoke and ash tray. It permeated everything about the car. It coated the vinyl seats, and hung heavy in the air we breathed. Before the advent of seat belts and car seats, I would sometimes ride with my head out the window to escape the nauseating fumes. But it never occurred to either my father or me that something fundamentally wrong was going on.

This was America in 1960. It would be another four years before the Surgeon General would release his report on the health consequences of smoking, and three decades before the EPA would issue its findings on the hazards of second-hand smoke. The tobacco industry had already ramped up its disinformation campaign, which would go on for decades. To me, my dad was the embodiment of integrity and reason, but somehow it never occurred to any of us that he was making us sick.

Today, this would be unthinkable for most families. We recognize this simple truth: the cigarette may be yours, but the air is OURS. We all have to breathe – and the car, or the house, or the restaurant is not big enough to absorb your smoke without harming all of us. A revolution has occurred, whether or not we’ve noticed. We think differently now. The air is not yours or mine; it’s ours.

Last week, the revolution took two more big steps forward. First, the leader of the world’s largest religious group – the 1.3 billion-strong Roman Catholic Church – cast planet-warming greenhouse gases in the same light as my father’s cigarette smoke: harmful to all of us. And second, a sovereign state, the Netherlands, was ordered by one of its highest courts to make deep cuts in emissions of those same gases for the same reason.

This looks to me like the start of something big.

Pope Francis’ Ecological Encyclical

Of course, you haven’t missed Pope Francis’ authoritative encyclical, titled “Laudato Si” after St. Francis’ prayer beginning with the words: “Praise be to you, my Lord.” From the outset, Pope Francis linked his letter to our common reliance on the blessings of the created world. “Whether believers or not, we are agreed today that the earth is essentially a shared inheritance, whose fruits are meant to benefit everyone,” he wrote. “For believers, this becomes a question of fidelity to the Creator, since God created the world for everyone.”

As a child in the backseat of the smoky Dauphine, I would have grasped this truth intuitively – you can’t burn all those cigarettes – or all those fossil fuels – without someone else bearing the cost from pollution – of water, land and atmosphere.

At 180 pages in length, Laudato Si can’t be realistically summarized here. But Pope Francis warned of a global ecological crisis that summons Christians and all people to nothing less than a profound conversion.

“It must be said that some committed and prayerful Christians, with the excuse of realism and pragmatism,” he wrote, “tend to ridicule expressions of concern for the environment. Others are passive; they choose not to change their habits and thus become inconsistent. So what they all need is an ‘ecological conversion’, whereby the effects of their encounter with Jesus Christ become evident in their relationship with the world around them. Living our vocation to be protectors of God’s handiwork is essential to a life of virtue; it is not an optional or a secondary aspect of our Christian experience.”

And because the injured ecological systems were created by God as gifts to us all, the gospel calls us to protect every “common good” – including the earth’s climate system. “The climate is a common good,” Francis wrote, “belonging to all and meant for all. At the global level, it is a complex system linked to many of the essential conditions for human life. A very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climatic system.”150618115850-pope-encyclical-1-exlarge-169

Christianity is by far the largest religion on earth today, and the Roman Catholic Church is by far the largest among us. You’d think that such an appeal would have a meaningful impact on the way our seven billion humans begin to deal with the ecological crisis, wouldn’t you?

(Note: The Pope is not remotely the first Christian to blaze this trail: in 2010, the worldwide evangelical Lausanne Movement declared that care for the creation is “a core element of the gospel,” and warned of the impact of manmade climate change on the poor. And the Christian Reformed Church in 2012 adopted an exhaustive report finding that “human-induced climate change is an ethical, social justice, and religious issue,” and that climate pollution “poses a significant threat to future generations, the poor, and the vulnerable.” Scores of other Christian declarations have echoed these messages; see a partial list here.)

But last week’s news featured something revolutionary in the secular world as well.

Dutch Court Orders Emissions Cuts

With their exposure to rising sea levels and progressive attitudes, I thought that the Netherlands would be a virtual poster child for climate protection, but I was mistaken. On average, the Dutch emit 10.2 tons of CO2 per person every year, a little more than half of the 17.2 tons emitted by Americans, but much worse than fellow Europeans in Germany, France and Britain. Leading up to the global climate negotiations in Paris this December, the Dutch government has announced plans to reduce emissions by 14-17% from 1990 levels by 2020. But last week, a Dutch judicial panel ruled that that wasn’t enough – because of the scale of the global threat from climate change.

Like the Pope, the judges recognized that the global ecosystem belongs to us all, and any state’s actions affect everyone, for better or worse. The Netherlands recognizes principles forbidding states from polluting to the extent that they damage other states, and the EU’s ‘precautionary principle’ which prohibits actions that carry unknown but potentially severe risks.

“The state should not hide behind the argument that the solution to the global climate problem does not depend solely on Dutch efforts,” the judges’ ruling said. “Any reduction of emissions contributes to the prevention of dangerous climate change and as a developed country the Netherlands should take the lead in this.”

Could the Netherlands’ ruling impact other countries as well? I think so. There is a parallel case working its way through Belgian courts right now. So, what if Germany, France or the UK were next? At some point, might jurists in Brazil, India, Australia and Japan begin to mandate action as well? And Canada? And – just imagine! – the US?

The world is changing. Only fifty years ago, a good, loving father may have unquestioningly polluted the air his family breathed with cigarette smoke. Today, we pollute the atmosphere that governs climate systems in Bangladesh, Malawi and the Philippines – as well as here at home. But maybe it’s beginning to dawn on us that the air belongs to everyone.

The world’s largest church has recognized it. Christians all over the world have gone on record. Now, European courts are doing the same. Is it possible that carbon pollution is now headed the way of indoor tobacco smoke?

With hope that this has begun in earnest, we join St. Francis in his prayer Laudato Si – “Praise be to you, my Lord!” Amen!

J. Elwood