Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato si employs the word “nature” 74 times, “environment” 55 times, and the expression “Jesus Christ”, designating the second Person of the Holy Trinity, only once. A non-deified Galilean master, simply called “Jesus,” appears 22 times, the same number as “technology” and less than half as “science”, evoked 55 times. Yet the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, with more than a dozen Nobel prizes, does not seem to have contributed much and goes unmentioned. The word ‘democracy’ is absent from the text.
The encyclical is substantial and deserves to be read, studied, and reflected upon. It addresses the ecological issue not only in its strictly “natural” dimension but also its human, social, political, religious and cultural context, and the text is addressed not only to bishops and Catholics. An extremely rare occurrence, the Pope speaks in the first person singular. He sets aside the majestic plural “We,” characteristic of pontifical pronouncements. He addresses both believers (Jews, Muslims…) and nonbelievers. Speaking to humanity, the Pope evokes everyone’s responsibility to manage the earth as our common home. He advocates economic growth with temperance and sobriety, grounded in behavioral change.
Not once does the encyclical employ the words ‘capitalism’ and ‘socialism’. Only when evoking history does it mention Nazism and Communism. The text largely employs some “isms” of an eminently behavioral nature: consumerism, individualism, relativism, anthropocentrism, realism, conditionalism, and skepticism.
Aware of the complexity of the topic, Pope Francis reiterates, “There are certain environmental issues where it is not easy to achieve a broad consensus.” Here I would state once more that the Church does not presume to settle scientific questions or to replace politics. But I am concerned to encourage an honest and open debate so that particular interests or ideologies will not prejudice the common good” (188). One can ask: Can men and societies be managed by consensus? Is there any nation working by consensus? Which ideologies harm the common good? Who can identify them? What is the difference between needs (term employed by the encyclical) and private interests (employed by the media) in the environmental theme?
Geography of Pollution
As early as the first chapter, the ecological assessment of planetary progress is negative, pessimistic, and unbalanced. It speaks of widespread pollution causing thousands of premature deaths. More widespread, however, has been the increase in life expectancy and education across the globe, accompanying industrial growth and the technological advance of agriculture. One has never lived so much, eaten so much, studied and voted for so much on the planet as today.
Pollution problems did not exist in prehistoric societies. If they are constant and concomitant to development, they have also been, and are solved, by advances in science and technology. In line with this pontifical concern, why did the encyclical not recall the export of polluting industries to peripheral countries as part of the environmental clean-up strategy that developed nations have practiced for many decades?
Talking to the elderly
“In many parts of the planet, the elderly lament that once beautiful landscapes are now covered with rubbish” (21). This statement seems a bit reductionist when one considers the unhealthy conditions in which people lived until the beginning of the twentieth century in Europe, and in which a large part of the world’s population still lives. There is no reason not to invest in more efficient waste management and to reduce waste production, but the old landscapes, even in Europe, without drainage or dams, were marked by floods, epidemics, chronic diseases, periods of famine, and undernourished people in unhealthy habitats without heating or electricity.
The elderly should remember what daily life was in such environments, and especially in winter or in times of drought. Their children are taller and already lose in height to their grandchildren thanks to adequate nutrition, as is now happening in many developing countries.
Progress and Technology
Economically developed societies have the means to care for their biodiversity, to reduce pollution of land and air, to protect and keep their seas and rivers clean. They have universalized basic sanitation with advanced effluent management technologies not comparable to those used in sewage treatment plants in Brazil, for example. In wealthy countries the commodity life cycle is planned; garbage is classified, treated and recycled; many ecosystems are preserved and are enjoyed by a population with broad social guarantees and access to an intense cultural life.
By associating the use of modern supplies in agriculture only with their possibly toxic effects, the encyclical does not do justice to the food security attained with record production levels nor to gains in nutritional and sanitary quality and the drop in the price of food that such supplies, produced by science and technology, have achieved, benefiting mainly the poorest. The unilateral oracles consulted by the Pope lacked the right balance here and elsewhere. “For poor countries, the priorities must be to eliminate extreme poverty and to promote the social development of their people” (172), the Pope writes. How to achieve these goals without economic growth and new techniques and technologies? By consensus?
Pope Paul VI had already mentioned the environmental theme in 1971, quoting Pacem in terris. In 2002, John Paul II was the first to invite to ecological conversion when he signed in Venice, with the Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I, a joint declaration calling for the safeguarding of Creation. Yet, the media presented that call as a novelty brought up by Laudato si.
Benedict XVI addressed ecology throughout his pontificate. In Caritas in Veritate (2009), he said, “The Church has a responsibility towards creation and she must assert this responsibility in the public sphere. In so doing, she must defend not only earth, water and air … She must above all protect mankind from self-destruction.” Under his pontificate, the smallest State on the planet became carbon neutral and adopted ambitious environmental goals. There is no polluting industry in its 44 ha (little wonder!). The popemobile was turned into a flex fuel vehicle. Solar panels provide energy to the audience hall next to St. Peter’s Basilica. Benedict XVI also planted a 7,000 ha forest in Hungary to offset the Vatican’s greenhouse gas emissions. If Pope Francis can ask other countries to take environmental measures, it is because, in a way, the Vatican has done its homework.
(O Estado de S. Paulo – 25 July 2015)
Not all of the ideas in this article necessarily reflect the position of Pan-Amazon Synod Watch.
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