In his encyclical, Laudato Si’, Pope Francis speaks of a need for a spirituality which can motivate us all to passionate concern for the protection of our world. He calls Christians in particular to “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.”. (Par217)
What is perhaps most notable in this quote is not the call to ecological conversion, but the assertion that the Christian life of virtue necessarily requires an approach to living which protects the earth. Caring for the environment is now an undoubted Christian responsibility, and a clear tenet of Church teaching.
While this encyclical continues in the vein of previous social justice encyclicals which call for protection of the poor and marginalised, this goes much further, and addresses the Christian virtue of protecting God’s creation for current and future generations. Seen in this light, economic development – that holy grail of politicians and economists – is only authentic if it serves to respect and protect the environment as well as to contribute to human development and dignity.
It will be of great interest to observe how this view is received when Pope Francis presents it to the United Nations General Assembly in New York in September this year. There, leaders are due to commit to new Sustainable Development Goals which are meant to follow on from the Millennium Development Goals. Whilst one might expect the new agreement to be clear on goals related to ending poverty, gaining agreement to how those development goals are to financed will be hard, and likely the agreed language opaque.
Pope Francis’s call for solidarity among nations clearly brings with it the need for those with more to aid those with less to achieve a proper and sustainable standard of living. The failure of most rich countries to meet the target of 0.7% of national budget in aid does not bode well. Indeed, here in Australia, recent budgets have been driving aid levels towards new lows! Our leaders will certainly need a ‘conversion’.
The encyclical seeks a new dialogue about shaping the future of the earth. This dialogue certainly needs to occur between those who shape high policy, such as national governments and the UN. But just as urgently, it needs to occur at the level of individuals and groups. Particularly in a rich country such as Australia, we need to reflect as individuals on how we live, and on what is implied in an authentic style of living, reducing consumption of the earth’s gifts, and improving protection both of the earth and of all who live on it.
Doubtless, the coming months will see many articles and presentations addressing the content of the encyclical, as well as the multifaceted implications of its call. (See especially Professor Joe Camilleri’s article in the Age on 19 June, Climate change: why Pope Francis is a prophet for our times.)
In July’s SPC News, there is an article by Bruce Duncan, Pope Francis on avoiding environmental catastrophe, while Len Puglisi addresses population growth. Social Policy Connections is hosting on 9 July a conversation on the Pope’s encyclical at The Salvation Army Hall, 1 / 69 Bourke Street, Melbourne (see the notice in this month’s SPC News). Readers are invited to attend as part of coming to a full understanding of the call of the encyclical. After all, personal conversion needs not only conviction, it requires an appreciation of the ‘virtue’ of change.
An extract from the Christian prayer given at the end of Laudate Si’ captures well the call to each of us for conversion :
God of love, show us our place in this world
as channels of your love
for all the creatures of this earth,
for not one of them is forgotten in your sight.
Enlighten those who possess power and money
that they may avoid the sin of indifference,
that they may love the common good, advance the weak,
and care for this world in which we live.
The poor and the earth are crying out.