Absorbing Chapter One of Laudato Si’

I just completed rereading Chapter One of Pope’s Francis’ Laudato Si’ after a 6 month hiatus from reading when I stopped midstream last fall (2015). Upon review, while my many notes still rang true, I felt more ‘called out’ than ever, and one word hit hard.

~Nuisance~In Paragraph 54, Pope Francis simply states, “… to introduce change is viewed as a nuisance based on romantic illusions.” (p54)

A nuisance… This is what the environmental movement has become for so many. Unless it is trendy or cost-efficient our society has no interest in being environmentally conscious.

And while I was in the midst of considering this word, like the majority of other Americans, I decided to surf the web, check my email, look at the latest on Facebook, and basically fall right into the pit The Pope so eloquently and frequently points to in this encyclical.

But I couldn’t escape this idea of nuisance and that it is a game-changer for the entire world… right now. I so wished it could just be a nuisance. But in that distracted, inane, desperate moment of trying to avoid the nuisance, I stumbled across a beautiful video of students honoring a teacher who was ill with cancer, and then an article about a husband struggling so hard to support his dying wife, loving her and gently supporting her, and then a video of a Holocaust survivor who saved a child during the war. These all pulled at my heartstrings – did it make me feel better to ‘feel’ for someone else, instead of actually facing the real call to do something ‘good’ for others, for all, for our world?

As I contemplated these feel good, but heart-wrenching stories I found online, I thought, “How many more stories will there be because of all the changes global warming will bring?” How many will lose their homes, poor and destitute already, living on the margins of society in the third world near the coastlines, where the only access to free food exists, from the oceans. But even those oceans are changing, and the fish are moving or disappearing, but the people have no means to move with them. What if they have a sick family member? Do we think they can go to a local hospital; and could they easily move to somewhere else, somewhere more hospitable? How will they afford the travel, the housing? How will they work? How will they survive?

It is uncomfortable to think of such things, and in our day and in our society, we are really not even able to imagine such suffering. But why does the article of the man struggling to support his dying wife bring me to tears? Isn’t it because, deep within, we understand the human condition, we recognize grief and struggle, and even more, we know what love is, whether we have much of it in our lives or not?

It is safe to watch heartfelt videos posted on the internet, we are not really exposed – we get the sweet grief and relief in a quick 4 minute snippet. “Contrived emotion” is how it is described by The Pope. But what about those suffering now, unable to farm in Africa due to drought, who can’t feed their children? Remember the sweet moment in the movie about Erin Brockovich when she takes her kids out to a diner to eat, ordering only coffee for herself while her kids ate dinner on the last of the cash she had? What if you couldn’t give your kids anything to eat? Any where to live? What if you couldn’t protect their health? What if you couldn’t send them to school? And all the time you just had to watch them, and love them as they suffered?

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Well, we will soon have to face this ‘nuisance’, no choice but to be conscious of this new environmental reality, or remain unconscious as we slip on the slippery slope that will lead to a very bright, hot and unstable place. Pick your circle of hell, but I suspect this is the very deepest one – the circle of treachery, but it won’t be as cold as ice as Dante describes.

Climate change is a global problem with grave implications: environmental, social, economic, political and for the distribution of goods. It represents one of the principal challenges facing humanity in our day. Its worst impact will probably be felt by developing countries in coming decades. Many of the poor live in areas particularly affected by phenomena related to warming, and their means of subsistence are largely dependent on natural reserves and ecosystemic services such as agriculture, fishing and forestry. They have no other financial activities or resources which can enable them to adapt to climate change or to face natural disasters, and their access to social services and protection is very limited. For example, changes in climate, to which animals and plants cannot adapt, lead them to migrate; this in turn affects the livelihood of the poor, who are then forced to leave their homes, with great uncertainty for their future and that of their children. There has been a tragic rise in the number of migrants seeking to flee from the growing poverty caused by environmental degradation. They are not recognized by international conventions as refugees; they bear the loss of the lives they have left behind, without enjoying any legal protection whatsoever. Sadly, there is widespread indifference to such suffering, which is even now taking place throughout our world. 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. (p25)

Pope Francis tells us straight off that this can all “sound tiresome and abstract, unless [we] are grounded in the fresh analysis of our present situation, which is in many ways unprecedented in the history of humanity.” (p17) In this first chapter, he is challenging us to acknowledge our part in “what is happening to our common home.” He warns us against “rapidification” and that the goal of our society is not necessarily for the common good. (p18) That is a real and hard thing to think about. What is the real good intended by our news agencies, our media reporting, our political leaders or even our local community events? Every one can claim a good intention, but when a local high school holds a male-beauty contest complete with degrading talent demonstrations and humor at the expense of others as a fundraiser, or CNN makes tracking the 2016 Presidential Campaign into a combination ‘matchmaker’ and ‘bookie’, or the headlines are only scandal with a brevity in reporting that no one really knows the real state of world affairs – where is the uplifting common good that results?

When media and the digital world become omnipresent, their influence can stop people from learning how to live wisely, to think deeply and to love generously. In this context, the great sages of the past run the risk of going unheard amid the noise and distractions of an information overload. Efforts need to be made to help these media become sources of new cultural progress for humanity and not a threat to our deepest riches. True wisdom, as the fruit of self-examination, dialogue and generous encounter between persons, is not acquired by a mere accumulation of data which eventually leads to overload and confusion, a sort of mental pollution. Real relationships with others, with all the challenges they entail, now tend to be replaced by a type of internet communication which enables us to choose or eliminate relationships at whim, thus giving rise to a new type of contrived emotion which has more to do with devices and displays than with other people and with nature. Today’s media do enable us to communicate and to share our knowledge and affections. Yet at times they also shield us from direct contact with the pain, the fears and the joys of others and the complexity of their personal experiences. For this reason, we should be concerned that, alongside the exciting possibilities offered by these media, a deep and melancholic dissatisfaction with interpersonal relations, or a harmful sense of isolation, can also arise. (p47)

Pope Francis is very careful to not accuse us as readers, but instead to warn us and to prepare us for what we must do. “[Our] caring for ecosystems demands farsightedness… the cost of the damage caused by [the] selfish lack of concern is much greater than the economic benefits to be obtained… We can and are silent witnesses to terrible injustices if we think that we can obtain significant benefits by making the rest of humanity, present and future, pay the extremely high cost of environmental deterioration.” (p36) The chapter ‘hits home’ and calls us out of our comfort zones by giving us a vision of the current situation that is hard to ignore, whatever you might believe the cause of the warming itself to be.

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Francis makes it clear that efforts are indeed underway for “certain places [that] need greater protection because of their immense importance for the global ecosystem, or because they represent important water reserves and thus safeguard other forms of life.” (p37) Yet, in my opinion, cordoning off doesn’t really work, does it? Think of trying to stem/stop water flowing in and out of a preserved ocean area or river. Very few nations actually take such action and even if they do, the work in one area to save can sometimes have a subsequent consequence for another species or habitat. Remember the food chain, and the ecosystems we all studied in grade school? Francis explains “because of us, thousands of species will no longer give glory to God by their very existence, nor convey their message to us. We have no such right” to take or do away with such a gift. (p33)

No matter how many shades of grey we can try to create to make up for creatures we destroy or allow to be lost, creatures we were called to cherish, love and respect, it could never compare with the beauty of the world’s rainbow of colors God has given us. “Human activity becomes ubiquitous, with all the risk which this entails. Often a vicious circle results, as human intervention to resolve a problem further aggravates the situation.… Their disappearance will have to be compensated by yet other techniques which may well prove harmful.… And is actually making our earth less rich and beautiful, ever more limited and gray… We seem to think that we can substitute an irreplaceable and irretrievable beauty with something which we have created ourselves.” (p34 & 42)

It can assuredly seem hopeless at times.

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If we do not identify with what is happening we will not do anything about it. It is getting more and more difficult to “sweep” the facts under the carpet and Francis calls on us to “become painfully aware, to dare to turn what is happening to the world into our own personal suffering and thus to discover what each of us can do about it.” (p19) Suffering as a concept or as a reality that could result in a positive is something I have often struggled with. I grew up with a father that often reminded me that “suffering builds character” usually in times that, now that I look back, we’re not really sufferings at all. But as a convert to Catholicism, the concept can bring tremendous comfort. And courage. Matthew Kelly, in his Lenten book of reflection, Rediscovering Jesus describes it well:

Suffering is an inevitable part of life, but it doesn’t have to be meaningless. Like so many things in life that we have little or no control over, how we respond to suffering makes all the difference… suffering has value. It is a tool that can transform us into more loving people. It ushers us into higher spiritual realms… And there is a great deal of suffering in this world that you and I can and should do more to relieve… We can try to run from it, or we can accept it and allow it to transform us in unimaginable ways. We can allow it to make us angry, or we can let it teach us how to love more fully. (Rediscovering Jesus, page 74)

Francis instructs us that “the climate is a common good, belonging to all and meant for all.… Humanity is called to recognize the need for changes of lifestyle, production and consumption, in order to combat this warming or at least the human causes which produce or aggravate it.” (p23). Clean water is a ‘good’, as in a natural resource that every living human being needs and has a right to have in order to survive, even thrive. For me, this brought to mind the concept of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, how can we expect anyone to make a good life for themselves if they cannot even get a drink of water. Do we know real thirst? Not here in America, we don’t. (Except perhaps the people of Flint, Michigan.)

Pope Francis calls us “to strengthen the conviction that we are one single human family. There are no frontiers or barriers, political or social, behind which we can hide, still less is there room for the globalization of indifference.” (p52). We are being called to do something, we are called to the task, we are called to be missionaries.climatechange

And we have to think globally in this mission, because we cannot possibly think that our solitary solutions of air conditioning, water conservation, or recycling can comfort or resolve the suffering of all those in the world who we most certainly have a responsibility for. Though they may be far afield, they are our neighbor, our fellow man, they are families with children, fathers out of work unable to provide, mothers working while called to care for elderly parents, the orphan, the widow, the stranger. (Let us recall Matthew 25:31-46 – how can we not “see them” with our televisions and internet connections?) I do not think we can really be as “incapable of seeing the mysterious network of relations between things” as much as we are unwilling. (p20) It is clear that a myriad of holistic and global problem-solvers are needed, in our governments, in our businesses and in our homes. We must intertwine our mission with the goal of relieving human, social and environmental degradations, only then, with that holistic approach, will we be embarking on real solutions.

This chapter warns us to not fall for the “rise of a false or superficial ecology which bolsters complacency and a cheerful recklessness. 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.” (p59)

As written in one of my earlier posts, we need a new kind of globalism, the kind Jesus taught us. This chapter made me realize how much I want to get rid of “stuff”, the desire deep within to live simply and share what I can with those it can benefit. We must work to eliminate our “throwaway culture.” I am more aware, as my husband frequently remarks, that we must be pursuing all sources of energy by many different methods.

While we are this journey we will need a constant connection to the mission. When people lose sight of the mission, all else falls away quickly. As Pope Francis has noted, our society has changed, is digital, is immediate, and the result is chronically short attention spans being more and more interrupted and disjointed. Our mission must be clear, it must be brought to our attention daily or even more often. We cannot expect sound-bytes and platitudes to help solve the world’s woes… We must relearn the ability to focus, to be single minded and to pursue a goal without stopping even if it is not achieved in our lifetime. The Pope says that the “achievements [thus far] do not solve global problems, but they do show that men and women are still capable of intervening positively. For all our limitations, gestures of generosity, solidarity and care cannot but well up within us, since we are made for love.” (p58)

I think this is what activism is all about. And it really is something we should, praise and bolster, not avoid, cow away from or think a nuisance. I think we can achieve great advances if we do not capitulate. I really have great confidence in the ingenuity of humanity, I mean, after all, we are created in God’s image.

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